The Herald (Harare)

Zimbabwe: Chiefs Not Ordinary Beings

Harare — FOR centuries, it has been common practice among a number of tribes in Zimbabwe that when a traditional chief dies, the news of his passing on is delayed for as long as three or more months.

During this period, selected members of the inner circle are busy mummifying the paramount leader's corpse before eventually laying him to rest in a secluded place reserved for the chiefdom.

Usually, this will be in a cave or ninga, which is sacred and known just to a chosen few elderly persons of the clan.

Even the burial itself is done at night, with the departed chief being laid to rest in a sitting position among the lineage of his ancestry.

In the dead of night before daybreak -- the time when elephants take their pre-dawn baths -- elderly men and women past their mendicancy carry the preserved body on a homemade pole-and-reed-mat stretcher bed, amid low humming and drumbeat to his eternal rest in the sacred cave.

No one is allowed to cry for that would upset the spirits that would have decided to take way the chief to yet another assignment, beyond this world.

It would also alert his enemies who would start a war before a new leader is anointed.

In the other world, the departed chief would mix and mingle with those who departed ahead of him and answer for his deeds or misdeeds and that should be managed.

And so closely kept among the top hierarchy of the throne is the death and subsequent burial that whoever questions his whereabouts is told: "The chief is not around. He is away on a long, long journey."

At the moment, the Government of Zimbabwe has empowered chiefs through a vehicle scheme, salaries, allowances, farm mechanisation, rural electrification, food security projects such as Zunde Ramamambo and then the political seats in Parliament and Senate, making chieftainships more attractive.

The chiefs also preside over powerful village courts and have jurisdiction to convict and fine errant villagers.

This means being a chief improves one's livelihood, which is why many people aspire to be chiefs.

Since it has become so lucrative to be a chief, it is therefore necessary to manage succession and announce the death of the substantive, when the situation is conducive and manageable.

The same applies to some presidents of countries.

According to sociologists, the origins of this delaying tactic are twofold.

Firstly, there has always been a general fear among tribes, especially in conflict areas, that the moment a warring faction or nation learns that the supreme leader of the other is no more, an offensive is launched and a battle or war lost on the part of the latter.

This is when the bereaved chieftaincy is at its most vulnerable and could easily be penetrated militarily, while the generals among the rank and file are still trying to find who becomes the next chief.

This was a succession management strategy that kept everyone calm; thinking the chief would return one day and continue ruling.

The second reason is that there has to be a unique, different and yet very dignified way -- shrouded in ambiguity, of course -- by which to rest someone of the stature of a chief.

"A chief or King is no ordinary being . . . that is why he is chosen or anointed by the spirit mediums and not by those of the flesh.

"For this reason, therefore, his demise and eventual send-off needs not be ordinary as well," says Ben Mutampuka, a Zambian sociology graduate of Africa University in Mutare.

But, is it not the right of a tribe or nation to be informed as soon as possible that they are now without a head or leader?

What about members of his family from whom, the news is also kept secret?

Police require a report from close relatives once they (relatives) are not sure of the whereabouts of their kin or kith.

"As law-enforcement agents, we urge people to report anyone they assume is lost by any means under the Missing Persons Act. And relatives have a right to be shown where that late person is buried if they are not satisfied with any given explanations," the source said.

Take the case of Sekuru Botemupote Mushore, a pioneer of the land reform programme back in the early '90s who resided in the Nharira Mountains near Norton.

Ten months down the line today, the whereabouts of this svikiro (spirit medium) remain a mystery although those close by confirm that some rituals performed at his homestead pointed to death and burial ceremonies.

Also take the case of the late Chief Makoni (Naboth Gandanzara) who passed away on September 6, 2008 but whose death remained unreported and unannounced for a whole year.

Close sources to the chieftainship allege that the body of the late chief could not dry (be mummified) because he had ascended to the throne by fraudulent means.

And when they attempted to take his body for burial at Matotwe Caves, the vachuru (pall bearers) found that the stone to the entrance of the cave could not open up as is expected, compelling them to eventually bury him at St Faith's Mission besides the grave of his late wife.

But before that could be done, it is further alleged, the ritual of killing someone who would act as the chief's pillow or mutsago had to be undertaken.

This is an age-old norm whereupon the consenting family of the slain person is given a piece of land or the late chief's daughter in marriage.

Long before the announcement of his burial, school authorities in the Makoni area were on record as advising pupils to move in groups for fear they would fall prey to the appeasing act.

"Whether that is done by consent or not, the laws of this country regard it as murder and whoever is responsible for taking away another person's life faces the wrath of the law.

"It is unfortunate though that in areas where such practices continue to be carried out, no one gets to hear about them and so they die a natural death," says Wilson Chipokoteke, a retired magistrate.

And unlike in modern-day democracies, where leaders are chosen by way of the ballot, chieftainships are known to revolve around certain selected households and in the case of the Makoni throne, for instance, only members from the Mukahanana, Dangirwa, Makurumidze and Nyamande families are eligible to assume the throne.

"This culture has to be reviewed as it boarders on denying a people the right to choose those they want to be led by.

"What if the successor is of ill-mind?" questions Michael Mukosi, a villager from Nyabadza Village in Rusape.

There are also a number of practices around chieftainship, which some people think are either outdated or repressive and should therefore be reviewed.

At the moment, for instance, Zimbabwe has two women chiefs owing to the deeply rooted cultural beliefs that only men can lead.

Chief Chimukoko of Mutoko, Mashonaland East Province -- who is one of the two -- is of the opinion that the practice should be changed in line with the changing times which have seen the crusade for gender reforms realised.

"I was supposed to sit on my deserved throne at the age of 12 because that is when my turn arrived.

"But my uncle sat on my behalf until such time I was deemed ripe to take over what is mine.

"I believe that I am a capable leader just like any male chief and this is evident in the lack of grumbling on the part of my people," Chief Chimukoko says.

There is no doubt that Zimbabwean culture has come a long way as to be able to manage the death of any influential members of society in a manner that does not cause alarm and despondency.

The delay in announcing the death, is therefore, an integral part of succession management that keeps the chiefdom united, at least during bereavement, when emotions and ambition are still running high.

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