11 December 2012

Zimbabwe: This Christmas, the Ancestors Are Listening


On Christmas eve my mother told us to watch out for the Anglican priest, Baba Mutemarari. Once we spotted him coming, my mother quickly instructed us to cover everything that was unChristian around

the village compound. We covered two big pots of the highly potent mhanga beer under sacks and blankets then closed the kitchen hut. My brother Charles dragged our famous drum called "Zino irema" and hid that in the granary. My father reluctantly switched off his Mahlatini and the Mahotela Queens music and hid the gramophone in the bedroom.

Baba Mutemarari had known both my parents long before they married. My mother was a fully bloused Anglican belonging to the African Mother's Union. She had been baptised at Daramombe Christ the King Mission in 1942, and married to my father in the church in 1947. Baba Mutemarari preached that beer, singing and dancing the way we did was unChristian and against civilised European behaviour.

It was Baba Mutemarari who would help us get into Anglican boarding schools. Only children from good Anglican families with good grades were going to be accepted into those schools. Christianity at work within the household was very important.

Like an old family friend, Baba Mutemarari always stopped in our village compound on his way from St Peters Mutoredzanwa to conduct communion at St Columbus School on Christmas day. He wheeled his bicycle into the village compound, looking tired, hot, fat and sweating. He wore a suit, jacket and tie. On the bicycle carrier was a bag with his priestly robes, candles, communion cloth, white wafer bread and non alcoholic wine. Upon arrival, Baba Mutemarari was always thirsty for tea and hungry for fresh bread with Stork margarine and Sun jam.

We all sat down near him and spoke in low voices like good civilised Anglicans. But we were not. Mbuya VaMandirowesa did not go to church at all. She sat there taking her snuff even when Baba Mutemarari was around. My grandfather Sekuru Dickson proudly talked about his own African Zionist church that allowed him to have as many wives as he wanted.

As they drank tea, Baba Mutemarari and my father talked about the Anglican church and how the British were helping to bring education and civilisation to us. Inside the kitchen hut the mhanga beer was frothing under sacks and blankets while "Zino irema" drum waited patiently for the evening.

After drinking plenty of sweet tea and eating several slices of white bread with Sun jam, Baba Mutemarari was ready to climb the hill to the school. My mother instructed my brothers Charles and Sydney to wheel Baba Mutemarari's bicycle up the hill to the headmaster's house.

The following morning we all walked in single file going to church with my mother wearing her Anglican women's uniform. She wore a black skirt, white blouse with blue collar and a starched white hat. My mother looked beautiful, wearing black flat shoes and pulling socks. There was a rule about the uniforms. Without the shoes and petticoat, a member of the Mother's Union was not allowed in church. You could be forgiven for not wearing tights. But you had to wear a petticoat. What if the wind came along and lifted your skirts up? That would be unChristian. Baba Mutemarari would not know where to look with shame.

Baba Mutemarari was all dressed up in his white robes with gold or purple sash. The women helped him lay the table in the Grade 2 class since we did not have a church building. White table cloths, napkins and wine for communion. The communion took a very long time and we repeated many prayers after him. Some women whispered to ask my mother how the beer tasted this morning. She whispered that the beer was nice and frothy. "Ririkututuma zvekuenda," she said. Then there were secret smiles between them and promises to meet later.

Later in the afternoon, when church was over and Baba Mutemarari was gone, my father , my uncles and their friends got busy drinking both village beer, Castle and Lion lagers from Salisbury. When they were all relaxed and my mother was not calling out names to do errands, we dressed up in our best clothes and headed off kuma records, to play records kwaMuzorori & Sons store. I went there with my cousin Piri and best friend Bhiya, or Beatrice. Young men all dressed up in platform shoes, bell bottoms with Afro combs sticking out of their hair leaned on the counter scanning the crowd for a beautiful light skinned girl.

If you were not seen on the dance floor at Muzorori & Sons then you did not see Christmas. Pretty Primrose, the daughter of Muzorori , her brother Temba and their cousins from Bulawayo were there.

We took turns to get on to the dance floor tichitamba marecords. Temba was the only one allowed to operate the Supersonic stereo system, placing one LP after the other. He was in Form 5 or Form 6 at St Ignatius College in Chishawasha near Salisbury. Although he saw us, he actually did not see us.

We were not of his class. Besides, we were too skinny and dark skinned for him. Bhiya was brown like the colour of a ripe mango but Temba would not look at her because she had only gone as far as Grade 7. Form 6 and Grade 7 did not mix. That was clear.

So we just stood back and admired Temba Muzororori from afar. I remember him playing many new songs. Those from the city who knew the songs immediately went straight to the dance floor. The first time Temba put Rod Stewart's song, "The First Cut is the Deepest," nobody among us moved.

Not even Bhiya, Piri or my brother Charles who claimed to know all the new songs. Then Temba's cousin Sibongile from Bulawayo pulled Temba's hand and the two of them held each other around the shoulders. Then he placed his hand around her waistline and they started dancing together.

Primrose sat on the store counter in the corner, sucking a lolly. We said cousins should not hold each other like that. Prim said they were simply practicing how to waltz, the way white romantic people do.

But these were cousins. We said it was not right. You do not hold your cousins that close. What if your body gets warm? We walked out. Prim and some boys mocked and laughed at us. They said we were "mabharanzi", meaning we were so rural and not at all in tune with progress and new ways of dancing.

For quite a while Temba played other songs by Jim Reeves, Dolly Parton and her friend Ken Rogers, Neil Diamond and Clarence Carter. We came back when he played some songs by Abba and Fleetwood Mac's "Second hand news". Temba finally decided to do what we wanted, zvido zvevanhu.

He played Zex Manatsa's "Chipo Chiroorwa tidye", and other songs by Oliver Mtukudzi, Thomas Mapfumo, Lovemore Majaivana and Paul Matavire. We could easily switch dancing songs from Shona, Ndebele, and Zulu to English, just like that. There were no drums or mbira at Muzorori & Sons store. This was the place where we met chirungu chese, everything to do with new ways of dancing the Western way. In those days we had never seen a television set and you could count houses with radios.

Towards sunset, we started the journey home because we were not allowed to be out after dark. Besides, in December, the river Chinyika could easily get flooded then we would not be able to cross.

Over the years, when that happened, people stayed the night on the verandah of Muzorori & Sons store waiting for the river to subside.

The following morning was Boxing day and my father rode his red Honda motorbike and distributed coins throughout the village. This was his way of offering thanks to the ancestors. When my father returned, people moved into Mbuya VaMandirowesa's kitchen hut for the ceremony to thank the ancestors and also for her to announce that once again, she was offering her beast of choice, mombe yavo yemadiro to be killed. By late morning, the beast was dead and there was smell of roast meat everywhere.

Mbuya did not allow any gramophone or stereo. She did not want to hear any Western music on Boxing day. To Mbuya, Jesus and everything Western was the same, Jesu nechirungurira chechirungu chake belonged to Christmas day yesterday. Not to day or the days to come.

When we look back to the way we worshipped in the village, we see that it was no different to the way most Westerners worship now. My friends William and Evelyn Summerfield in England for example, take turns to go to church on Christmas Eve once a year. When William is at church, Evelyn stays home to prepare tomorrow's big Christmas lunch with turkey, ham, cranberry sauce and salad.

Meanwhile William sings his school boy church choruses and feels close to God. Once a year. That is how much some British people are worshipping the Lord. Then William goes back home to drink wine and beer. The following Christmas Eve, Evelyn goes to church and does what William did last year.

In America, some of them will pray once at end of November during Thanksgiving when they remember the day their forebears were fed turkey by the Native Americans. This way, the Red Indians, as they were called, saved the new arrivals from starving to death. In return, the settlers shot the Native Americans. Today Americans pray quite strongly and celebrate their conquest during Thanksgiving.

Before independence and we were happily balancing our cultural life with religion. In those days, the two were separate. Back in the village, we knew who the ancestors were. Who could forget them? In the village they all gathered at Chishanga along the Save river and offered beer and libations to the ancestors asking for rain. They also talked about Mwari vari kumusorosoro, Zame, Musiki wedenga nepasi. We heard that some of the elders used to go all the way to the Mwari shrine at Matonjeni in Matopos to worship Mwari and talk to the ancestors over there. Both Ndebele and Shona, we worshipped there. That was before Cecil John Rhodes asked to be buried there. And we worship Mwari, Umkulumkulu, together over there today. It was and still is the same Mwari who we worshipped long before the missionaries came.

The missionaries, through the assistance of Baba Mutemarari, tried very hard to change our way of life. They wanted us look down upon our relationship with the ancestors. It was a hard battle for them. We were happily believing in both the ancestors and Christianity. And we did not feel bad about hiding the beer and the music. We were a community spiritually connected to the ancestors and to each other.

Not anymore. The village is fast disappearing and growing anthills. There are too many churches sprouting everywhere with confusing messages. Some of us have died before we had children. Others have died before they had grand children. It is just the way it is. Ndiho hupenyu hwacho.

Kungogashira. And yet, for those who remain, the village is not dead. Nor is the village church. It is still a centre of life, song and dance. This Christmas, I am going back kumusha to work in my little field, to the village kunorima kamunda kangu. My cousin Piri and I shall go up to the Catholic church our family built on the hill. In there, we will play the fifth generation "Zino irema" drum and hosho.

Then we shall bring the same drum down the hill to the village compound. We will pray to God and then offer beer in libation to the ancestors before we eat. The meat will be roasted, with some chili on the side, ne kamhiripiri.

I know for sure that on Christmas day, the beer will be warm; the wine will be old, smooth, full bodied and pleasant to the palate. We shall sing and dance to the drum, because the ancestors are listening.

Dr Sekai Nzenza is a writer and cultural critic. She holds a PhD in International Relations and works as a development consultant.

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