Monday, July 01, 2013

(HERALD ZW) Saving the sacred land of our ancestors
Tuesday, 25 June 2013 22:36

THERE was a time when we did not talk about saving the environment, climate change, cutting down trees or the drought. In those days, the rivers, the land, the trees and the animals were all part of us. This whole area, from Save River, over to the mountains from Hwedza to Buhera and as far as Bimha and Gandachibvuva, belonged mostly to the various totems including the Vahera, Vanjanja, VaMbire and Nyati people.

There were stories behind the names of the rivers, valleys, mountains, cliffs, rocks, trees and big deep water holes with mermaids, madziva makuru ane njuzu. Stories about respecting the land and what it carried. Surrounding us were the names of mountains where our ancestors were buried. Some of their bones lie today in the caves of Shavandinzwe, Chishanga, Mudzimundiringe, Mhari, Nhangambwe, Mutiusinazita, Chinyamungororo and many others across Zimbabwe.

The land was intertwined to our relationship with the ancestors during a time when this land was not measured in monetary terms. We were taught that the land got angry when it was abused or treated badly. The elders gave names like Pasiratsamwa, the earth is upset or angry. Pasipanodya, the earth devours 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. It was taboo to kill a frog or a crab when we went fishing. As punishment, the ancestors made sure that we did not catch any fish.

The pangolin belonged to the king only. We did not eat the owl, the hyena, jackals and snakes because these were emissaries of the witches. Some animals were not to be eaten, like the lion, leopard, zebra, monkeys and baboons. Zvaiyera. That was taboo. There were so many taboos and we simply obeyed them without asking because that was just the way it was.

We did not cut fruit trees like muzhanje, mutsvanzva, mutunduru, mudzambiringa, mutohwe, mutsubvu, mushamba, mutamba, mukute and many others that we treated with care. We regarded the muchakata tree with respect. Not only did this tree give us fruit but it was the sacred tree where the elders gathered to do the rain-making ceremony, mukwerera.

Each season had its own food. The wild jungle belonged to everybody and it was treated with respect. Fruit trees were so plentiful that each season, we knew where to collect fruits. When you came across a fruit tree, you only ate what was enough and took some ripe ones home, leaving the rest for tomorrow and for someone else who might pass by.

We developed special skills to catch delicious seasonal insects like zvikundyu, ishwa, tsambarafuta, makurwe, masinini, madora, majuru and many others. The ancestors and Mwari, our God in the highest, were generous.

Occasionally, we were hungry, but not the kind of hunger we suffer now. We did not go begging other countries to feed us, like what some of us do now. Most times, we harvested more than we could eat. Our grandmothers 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.

That was before genetically modified foods, GMO, arrived. We also made compost from the household biodegradable rubbish pit. We did not have rubbish like plastics, bottles or cans to throw away. Now we have plenty and we do not have enough knowledge or places to get rid of this Westernised new rubbish.

So, a couple of weeks ago, on the way to the village from Harare, my cousin Piri and I stopped at Mushandirapamwe Growth point, as we always do. I bought a couple of canned beers for her, Fanta and buns for myself. It’s just as well, Piri does not drive, because she would have struggled to stop drinking and driving. Two cold cans will last her till we get to Hwedza and we would restock the cooler box because there is no other bar for the next 100 kilometres along the road to our village.

Just after the Lushington farm turn-off, Piri threw the empty can of beer outside, burped and started drinking another one. I stopped the car. This was not the first time I had told her that she cannot litter like that. “Mamirirei? Handisati ndoda recess ini,” Piri said, telling me that I was stopping way too early before she required the use of the bush for a toilet.

I got out of the car and picked the can she had thrown away. I told her that it was unacceptable to throw away rubbish out of the windows like that. Last time she did that along the road from Mereki’s I could not stop and pick the can. And now she was doing it again despite my last lecture on these matters to do with our planet. If everyone throws rubbish outside cars, kombis and buses like that, what sort of country are we going to have? Piri gave a soft coughing laugh. I could sense the sarcasm or perhaps embarrassment in her voice.

She said: “Haa, sorry Sis to defile your beautiful country.” That was an apology. I took it in good faith, the way it came. She finished her second can and threw the can in the back seat and burped again.

We drove along quietly for a while because sometimes, it is just nice to enjoy the landscape. Zimbabwe is that beautiful, especially the different colours of the day. Right in the middle of winter like this, you can spot purple flowers gracing the valley or the remnants of the old poinsettia and frangipani on an old farm house, bearing the days of post-Second World War British settler tobacco farming around here. The English name signs like Lushington, Bristol and Surrey are still here.

In those old days, before independence, we used to go to Salisbury on the bus along this road. On the left side, there was Imire Game Park and sometimes we saw giraffes, rhinos and elephants. On the right side there were thick jungles, totally untouched virgin land. Past the trees, there used to be tobacco farms, maize, fat cattle grazing and a dam way beyond.

The bus did not stop here because there were no villages along this road. Nobody, other than the farmer and his workers lived around here. There were signs saying: “Trespassers will be prosecuted.”

I looked beyond the Hwedza mountains, along the Save River, all the way to Dorowa where we still find one of the most scenic places in this country. Totally untouched, pristine and serene. The hippos and crocodiles swim in the river alongside the big fishes, muramba. Hyenas, jackals, leopards, big snakes like black mamba, rovambira dwell here.

Late at night, they say, you can still hear the singing of the ancestors and drums being played around the sacred big water holes where njuzu, the mermaids, still dwell.
Today some people related to us still live down that Save River valley. This place is too far from any form of civilisation. The young people leave for the farms or the city and they do not come back. Last time I was down there looking for wild game meat and fresh fish, one 15-year-old girl said she longed to go to town, eat ice cream and smell petrol.

Kumbonhuhwidzawo peturu. As we drive along, I keep thinking about the young girl in that pristine valley and how long that wildlife along the Save River will stay like that.
Just before we stopped at an old farm they used to call Fair Adventure, corrupted to Vherevenja, Piri, who had been quiet all along, mumbled something along the lines of an unhealthy obsession with trees and the landscape.

“Chakatobaya chikatyokera,” she said. I said, “Ha?” She sat up and, composed like she was giving me a lecture, she said, “This business of copying white people’s habits all the time must have limits. Why do you want to keep empty cans in a car? When we get to the village, what do you do with the cans? Already, the rubbish pit is full of cans from five years ago.

Even plastics. They do not rot and make manure. Why bring them home?” Piri asked, with a genuine tone of exasperation.
So I went into this long explanation about the environment and climate change and how we should now adjust to these changes because the world is no longer what it used to be.

“You see, it does not rain as it used to do. Each time we drive along this road, I notice how much it’s becoming a desert. This cutting down of trees has to stop,” I said. I sounded like the way I used to talk when I worked for an NGO and we gave workshops to communities about sustainable ways to protect the environment. The people listened but I do not know whether they actually went home and stopped cutting down the trees for garden fences, firewood, cattle pens and big logs for new brick furnaces.

“So, when we are in town and there is no electricity, do you want us to sit there hungry, waiting for magetsi to come?” Piri asked. I gave her this meaningless academic look, thinking of an answer.

Sometimes I have seen Piri lighting the fire when we do not have electricity, back in Harare and I say, the village has come to town. How shall we return the village and its fires back to the village where it belongs? How shall we preserve the trees from coming to cities as firewood?

We have a conservation dilemma. Our indigenous knowledge systems used to promote harmony between the people and nature. But now, our traditional environment conservation strategies have been eroded and forgotten due to social and political and economic changes. The law and the police tell us not to cut down trees. Western donor agencies preach the same gospel telling us to save the forests.

Because there is a huge gap between our traditional knowledge systems with the Western scientific knowledge systems, Piri and others only hear the environment noises but cannot make sense of the messages unless they are given substitutes for survival. They need to know more.

The mountains and rivers, deeply rooted in the memory of our past history long before the white man came, invoked a spiritual sense of who we were and where we came from.

Many years later, we begin to see how much of what we took for granted is disappearing. We cannot go back to the time of our ancestors nor can some of us surround the muchakata tree to ask the ancestors for rain. The muchakata shrine is deserted. The tree has been cut. The fear that cutting the tree might stop the rain from coming is no longer there, because we have replaced our spiritual connection to the land with new ways of worship.

Rather than continue to despise the totemic use of taboos, zvinhu zvinoyera, our conservation practices should now integrate the spiritual reverence we had in the past with today’s scientific conservation practices. These zviera, the sacred, should help promote conformity and certain ways of behaviour. The starting point is very simple: to stop throwing away litter and killing the wildlife.

The challenge lies in how we approach issues to do with serving the environment while being sensitive to our past experiences. We still have plenty of land to protect so future generations can enjoy the mysteries of the Save, Limpopo and Zambezi rivers and all the ancient wildlife bestowed upon us, in saving this beautiful land we call Zimbabwe, our heritage. A dialogue between Western scientific forms of knowledge and our indigenous knowledge systems is overdue.

l 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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