26 Jul 2014

Mwari

Posted by K Chikuse

Mwari (He who is“) is understood to have been the original ancestor of the people, the first person ever to have been created in Guruuswa, the legendary place of origin referred to many times in Shona clan traditions.

As a spirit and a voice speaking from the sky, he led the first groups from Guruuswa to their homes in the country, nyika dzino (these lands), where their descendants live today. This tradition conceives Mwari as a founding father with a care for all the tribes related to him. This universal relation puts him in a different class from that of the founding fathers of clans, making him so ancient, and therefore so exalted, as to place him near the Creator (Chikara) and invest him with divine power.

Another of Mwari’s praise names is Soko (Voice, Word). His voice is heard in the thunder, as his mercy is felt in the rain.

These stones are the same as the mabwe aDziva, the stones that hid Mwari from view in the shrines in the Matopo hills in which his voice was heard

These stones are the same as the mabwe aDziva, the stones that hid Mwari from view in the shrines in the Matopo hills in which his voice was heard

Mwari was also known as ‘Dzivaguru’, ‘Sororenzou’, ‘Nyadenga’, ‘Muvumbapasi’, ‘Musiki’, ‘Musikavanhu’ and ‘Dziva‘.
Associated primarily with the Rozvi, he did not speak to the people through human mediums under possession but freely from all sorts of objects, e.g. children, animals and rocks.

When, like other African deities, Mwari withdrew from the people owing to their intolerable and arrogant behavior, his place was taken by the clan guardian spirits, the mhondoro. A large aspect of the Mwari religion was this mhondoro cult whose principal mhondoro at Zimbabwe was Chaminuka. The Chaminuka medium apparently resided in the Eastern Enclosure. Traditions say Chaminuka used to interpret the squawking of the sacred fish eagle, hungwe, on its annual visits to Great Zimbabwe.

The relation between the Mwari cult, based in the Matopo Hills, and the Rozvi power in the past is uncertain. It seems clear that the cult already existed in the Torwa state, and the Changamire Rozvi came to terms with it in some such way as the Ndebele did after them. According to traditions the Mbire worshipped Mwari at Great Zimbabwe until the place became over-populated and Mwari directed them to Matonjeni.

Evidence indicates that the chiefs in the past sent periodic delegations to the Mabwe aDziva (The Rocks of Dziva). These delegations bore gifts as tribute, and petitions for help, particularly in the matter of rain. Women from each clan were selected to safeguard the clan’s charms and they spent a period of time at the shrines in the entourage of the god. These nuns were called mbonga and their other job was to instruct the marriageable girls in their wifely duties.

The Mwari religion has been headquartered in Matonjeni/Matopos for the last 500 years. Matonjeni consisted of several shrines of which Njelele is the most known and active today. The Mwari shrines fell, at different times, under the lordship of the Torwa, Rozvi and to a lesser extent, Ndebele state structures. Njelele is a Mwari shrine located on a hill known by its Kalanga name Njelele. Legend has it that the name comes from ancient migratory ‘njerere’ birds that signaled coming of wet season.
With most of the Matonjeni shrines having become inactive Njelele has emerged in the last four decades as the principal Mwari shrine.

Other shrines in the Matonjeni landscape include Dula, Zhilo, Wirirani and Manyangwa.

Nguni invasions in the first half of 19th century toppled the Rozvi, but left the Mwari religious structure intact. After occupation of south Western Zimbabwe by the Ndebele, Matonjeni shrines were allowed to continue to operate, but under close surveillance. King Mzilikazi was dependent upon the Shona spiritual guardians and as a result, he honoured Mwari whom the Ndebele called Mlimo, with annual gifts.

Njelele

In the post-Lobengula era the Matonjeni shrines started to exercise political influence in the Ndebele society as well. There were instances that officials of the Mwari religion were consulted on matters of state. During the First Chimurenga, Matonjeni shrines filled the political vacuum created by the defeat of Lobengula by using Mwari vanyai (messengers) networks to coordinate the anti-colonial struggle that united both the Shona and Ndebele people.

After the First Chimurenga, the Ndebele leadership continued to send messengers to Mlimo for rain while the Shona consultations slowed down especially after the responsible Government in 1923 when colonisation appeared irreversible.

Another contributing factor was the spread of Christianity which resulted in Mwari being appropriated as a Christian God.

From 1920s to 50s, the Shona were of the view that Mwari had turned his back on them. A re-awakening of the Mwari religion was experienced with the rise of African nationalism in the late 1950s. Most nationalists’ leaders embraced the religion as they rallied people under the spiritual banner of the First Chimurenga. Matonjeni shrines were manned by Mwari priests (vanyai), male cultists (mahosana) and female cultists (mbonga). Other office holders include second priest (munin’ina, mufambiri), Mamoyo (spirit medium, Voice), high priestess (tete) and vanyai (messengers)

In the first decade after independence there were contestations around custodianship of Njelele. Historically there have always been conflicts around the shrine custodianship. Elders had traditional tests that they used to administer in order to determine authentic custodianship. Political considerations now hold more sway and Christianity has also contributed to the desecration of Njelele. Most Zimbabweans are nominal Christians who no longer openly associate with the Mwari religion.

 

References
Murambiwa, Ivan, Dr., Director National Archives of Zimbabwe.
Hodza, A.C and Fortune, G., Shona Praise Poetry, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979

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2 Responses to “Mwari”

  1. PAUL MWAZHA OF AFRICA IS PREACHING ABOUT RECREATION OF AFRICA & RETURNING PEOPLE TO THE OLD SYSTEM OF WORSHIP WERE PEOPLE SHOULD WORSHIP THE LIVING GOD .,THE GOD AND ONE GOD WHO USED TO SPEAK TO OUR ANCESTORS DIRECT.THEY KEPT THE TEN COMMANDMENTS.THEY KEPT HOLLY AND RESPECTED AND FEARED MWARI.

     

    Stephen Manzunzu Nyandoro Biri

  2. This is very interesting especially regarding the lessening influence of Mwari after independence. Could it be then that’s the cause of most of the challenges the country is going through. If the belief in Mwari and our culture enabled us Africans to win the war of independence why have turned our back to our own. Now we have embraced Christianity and its prophets etc, look where we are now. We may not want it to believe it but I see a connection here. We betrayed Mwari and he turned his back on us. And the Christian God must be happy and rejoicing.

     

    Gore

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