17 May 2011

Death in Shona Culture

Posted by K Chikuse

When a grown person dies in the Shona culture, it is believed that his spirit wanders about. It is a homeless spirit. Only until the surviving relatives of the deceased “welcome back” his or her spirit does it become a legitimate ancestral or family spirit.

At the burial of a grown person, one who has left a wife or husband and children, special arrangements are made to enable the living to welcome back the spirit of the deceased. The deceased is believed to have two 2 shadows – a black shadow representing his flesh and a white shadow representing his soul or spirit. During the burial, a long stick, the height of the grave is rested again the body of the deceased. Its top end will be visible on the edge of the grave after burial. After the soil around the grave has settled, the stick is removed leaving a thin hole down into the grave. The stick is normally removed after several months. It is believed that the spirit will come out through the hole and manifest itself as a worm or caterpillar which will turn into the deceased’s spirit and wander about. As soon a the stick is removed, one of the surviving relatives periodically visits the grave to see if they can find the caterpillar or gonye. When the spirit caterpillar comes out, it will soon turn into the deceased’s spirit. As soon as the caterpillar is found, word is passed among family members that the spirit has come out and is therefore wandering about without a home.

The family will wait approximately a year after the deceased’s death to hold a special ceremony to accept and welcome his or her wandering spirit (or mudzimu) back to the family. This ceremony is called kurova guva. In other parts of Zimbabwe this is called bira. By the time this ceremony occurs, a descendant of the deceased will have been chosen as the svikiro or spirit medium. In some families the oldest son is normally the spirit medium. However in other situations the spirit may choose its own spirit medium. The spirit chooses its own medium by causing an incurable illness to the medium-to-be which can only be diagnosed and treated by an African doctor or n’anga. The n’anga simply tells the family to complete a ceremony that designate the sick as the spirit medium of the deceased, and he or she will no longer be ill.

Before the bira ceremony is conducted, beer is brewed from zviyo (rapoko). The family gathers and a beast is slaughtered in honor of the incoming spirit. On the day of the ceremony, very early in the morning, the family prepares sadza nenyama, the Shona staple food made of ground corn and meat. They travel to the grave with a pot of beer, a wooden plate of snuff (ground tobacco) and sadza nenyama. At the grave site, they will pour the beer over the grave and place the other items on it. An elder person, maybe the deceased’s son will kneel and say a prayer of welcome to the deceased name,

We are calling you back home to be with us. Please guide and protect your family. If there is anything you need please let us know. Be kind to us

These words mark the incorporation of the wandering spirit back into the family circle.

The family leaves the grave site and heads back to their home where festivities continue into the middle of the might. It is during this time that the mbira is played to please and welcome the spirit home. It is during this ceremony that the deceased’s spirit will actually possess its spirit medium.

On the next morning, the relatives take several small pots of beer to the cattle kraal. They pour the beer on a bull’s head. If the bull shakes its head, then it is believed the spirits are happy otherwise the next person pours their pot of beer until the bull shakes its head. As soon as the bull shakes its head, the family will celebrate and women in attendance will ululate (kupururudza) to signal the grand finale of the ceremony. The family now has a new ancestral spirit.

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