Before the white man came to this country, before Cecil John Rhodes chose Matopos as his burial place, prayers for rain were held at Njelele shrine in Matopos, near Bulawayo. People travelled with zviyo, the red millet, from all over the territory. They walked from as far as Buhera, Gutu, Mutare and from up north in Muzarabani. Beer was brewed by the older women who no longer slept with men.
Sekai Nzenza on Wednesday
Last week, we stood in the red earth of the maize field looking for rain up at the sky. This field first belonged to Mbuya VaMandirowesa. Now it belongs to me. For many years, the field and others with various soils around here provided us with food. It used to rain a lot around here.
With me was my friend Bhiya, my cousin Piri and brother Sidney. In my hand, I held the shrivelled remains of maize seed that we planted before the first rains came early three weeks ago.
We had done dry planting, meaning we sowed maize seeds in the deep red soil before the rains came. We were hopeful that it would rain. And why would it not rain? Our elders and the departed ancestors always expected rain before the end of November.
So, when the first rains came two weeks ago, we celebrated. It rained on and off for two days. Then it left.
These seeds that had germinated were wilting and dying. We looked to the east and saw dark grey clouds circling and partially covering the sun. Will the clouds bring us rain? How long will the moisture in the soil remain if it didn’t rain, I speculated, gently kicking the drying, crumbling sods?
And then the sun broke through, the wind dropped away and the merciless baking heat resumed. We stood there, in the blistering sun, feeling a teasing wind bringing clouds from the east, casting shadows that moved fast over the rows of turned red earth.
We had no choice but to discuss the best time to replant the maize and how much it was going to cost.
When I was growing up here, people waited for rain with hope and anticipation. But they did not just wait, as we do now. No.
The elders observed mukwerera, the ceremony to ask for rain from the ancestors. For seven days, my grandmother, Mbuya VaMandirowesa and all the female elders who no longer slept with men, prepared beer for the mukwerera.
At dawn, people from our compound and surrounding villages, led by Mbuya, gathered around the sacred muchakata tree. A fence made of poles and bark was erected around the tree and pots of beer were placed at its base.
I recall memories of VaMakumbi, the village spirit medium or svikiro, wearing a black cloth around her and a headdress made of bird feathers.
On her ankles, she wore trinkets that made noise as she danced. This was not a place for children, but we were tolerated because Mbuya could not carry all the pots of beer on her own. Her back was bent. Besides, she must have wanted us to understand how our relationship to the sky, the earth and the very food we ate was part of a dialogue with the ancestors.
After the ceremony, the people left a pot of beer for the ancestors to drink. For as long as I recall, it always rained, when mukwerera was done.
In those days, the value of land was not measured in monetary terms.
We didn’t own it, in fact it was the exact opposite, and the land owned us. We were its custodians for future generations. It was a living thing, not a possession.
Mbuya said the land became angry when it was abused or treated badly.
The elders gave names like Pasiratsamwa; the earth is upset or angry. Pasipanodya, the earth devours or eats us. Pasipamire, the earth stands or has come to a halt.
We were related to animals and there were plenty of them too. I am of the Eland totem, my mother was the buffalo and my maternal grandmother was the monkey, Soko Mbire.
You did not marry someone of the same totem nor did you eat the animal of your totem.
That was taboo, zvaiyera.
There were so many taboos and we simply obeyed them without asking because that was just the way it was.
We did not eat the owl, the hyena, jackals and snakes because these were emissaries of witches.
Some animals were not to be eaten, like the lion, leopard, zebra, monkey and baboon. Zvaiyera. There were trees that had to be treated with respect.
And there were sacred trees we did not cut, like the muchakata tree.
Occasionally, we were hungry, but not the kind of hunger we see now. We did go begging from other countries to feed us.
The word “donor” was not part of our vocabulary.
That is why there is no Shona word for it today.
Most times, we harvested more than we could eat. Mbuya, my mother and all the women shared seeds during the planting season.
There was no fertiliser bought from shops and we used cow manure and collected mulch, murakwani, from the hills. We made compost from the household biodegradable pit.
We did not have rubbish like plastics or cans to throw away.
As the years have gone by and technology continues to arrive promising to make our lives better, some of us begin to think we know more about the earth around us.
We have forgotten and denigrated many traditional methods used for a thousand years to manage our land in a sustainable way. Because of that and many other abuses of the land, it does not rain like it used to do.
Many of us have also forgotten or do not want to know about mukwerera, the ceremony to ask for rain from God, Mwari Musiki, Nyadenga, God in the Highest. Mukwerera was a ritual that bound us together as a people.
Before the white man came to this country, before Cecil John Rhodes chose Matopos as his burial place, prayers for rain were held at Njelele shrine in Matopos, near Bulawayo.
People travelled with zviyo, the red millet, from all over the territory.
They walked from as far as Buhera, Gutu, Mutare and from up north in Muzarabani.
Beer was brewed by the older women who no longer slept with men.
It was a ceremony not only to call upon the ancestors for rain, but to ask for forgiveness if the people had defiled the environment they lived in.
Near Matopos, there is a perennial spring where the people took calabashes of sacred water and travelled back to their homes, full of hope that God, Mwari, had listened to them.
When November arrived, the month of the Goat, they prepared seeds to plant with the hope that God will bring them rain.
By the middle or end of November, the sky looked angry. Thunderstorms and lightning arrived. The whole of this territory was covered with rain. It did not matter whether someone was a witch, a murderer, rapist or simply a very bad person, rain fell on his field as well. God did not discriminate.
Back here in our village and, we have not completely forgotten about mukwerera.
Last Friday, they held mukwerera at Sabhuku, the kraal head’s house.
The week before, we had all contributed a small basket of red millet.
I was not there, but my cousin Piri attended because she is spending more time in the village during planting season.
When I asked her how the ceremony went, she scoffed.
“I think we should just abandon the mukwerera altogether and simply go to church.”
“Why is that?” I asked her, shocked.
“Mukwerera is no longer as sacred as it used to be,” she declared.
“Sis, back in the day, after one ceremony around the muchakata tree, the ancestors actually listened and sent the rain by late evening,” Piri said.
Last week’s mukwerera ceremony had been staged so badly, she complained.
Nobody seemed to know exactly what to do.
“The women who brewed the beer were not old enough nor had they stopped sleeping with men. Imagine!” she fumed.
She said almost everyone at the ceremony was putting Christian faith before the ancestors. Many went to the new Pentecostal churches run by the self-appointed prophets who were popping up everyday claiming to speak for God.
Piri had already made plans.
She said that next year she would become a svikiro, the spirit medium who spoke directly with the ancestral spirits.
If people could wake up one day and announce that the Christian God had visited them, she saw no reason why she could not be visited by the ancestral spirits.
In preparation for her role as the spirit medium of our people, Piri plans to cease attending church altogether because one person must stay close to our God, Mwari Musiki.
‘Sis, you must support my campaign to become the Svikiro. Next year, under my spiritual leadership, we will hold a real mukwerera and the ancestors will give us rain at the right time.”
My brother Sydney then pointed out to Piri that those spiritual figures in our society cannot not ask to be chosen but are simply visited by the ancestors. But Piri was adamant that she could not wait to be chosen, the custodians of mukwerera were dying.
In our spiritual confusion, we no longer know how to ask God for rain during a mukwerera ceremony.
The keepers of these traditions, the old ladies are mostly long dead. Those who remain are scattered all over the new resettlement areas, sitting alone under the shade of a tree waiting for someone to cook for them. Others have been whisked away by children in the Diaspora and they sit in front of television watching CNN or praying with television evangelists on the screen.
For all our past knowledge, skills, dedication, and the modern science available to us, we have no definitive answer of when the rain will pour on our fields.
We shall look to the sky and wait for rain, hoping God and the ancestors will not forget us.
Dr Sekai Nzenza is an independent writer and cultural critic.