Shona Chieftainships (Principles of Succession)
By Aeneas Chigwedere
Published by Mutapa Publishing House (2014)
IN the words of Mahatma Gandhi, the man behind India’s struggle for freedom: “A nation’s culture resides in the hearts and souls of its people… a culture of the mind must be subservient to the heart.”
People are defined by their culture.
Generations have strived to ensure traditions are passed down.
Like history, continuity of traditions helps people understand their past and shape their future.
With this in mind, historian Aeneas Chigwedere penned the book Shona Chieftainships (Principles of Succession) which seeks to ‘give an inkling of the traditional installation of Shona chiefs and its significance’.
Having realised the role and significance of chiefs in the society, as part of colonisation, whites denigrated chiefs.
As indigenes were displaced, chiefdoms were also destroyed.
Chiefs ‘lost’ their right to rule their people.
In some cases, the Ian Smith-led administration removed chiefs who failed to adhere to their conditions, in the process imposing (docile) chiefs on societies.
As such, processes guiding the installation of chiefs were disrupted and in some areas no longer practised.
Given this background, Chigwedere seeks to enlighten readers on how chiefs were installed and how it is now being done.
Writes Chigwedere: “This book is almost entirely on the principles of succession to Shona chieftainships.
But because installation itself has been heavily bastardised by the colonial system, the book affords me the opportunity to give the Zimbabweans an inkling of the traditional installation of Shona chiefs and its significance.”
Chigwedere highlights how sacred installation processes were conducted in pre-colonial Zimbabwe.
“In installing a new traditional chief, probably the most important ritual was the one that made the new chief the incarnation of the founding father,” says Chigwedere.
The processes, as Chigwedere writes, were done under the guidance of family elder members to ensure they were conducted properly.
On the day of installation, the chief-elect was carried to the installation site with mbira players and drummers in tow playing traditional songs.
Attention was paid when preparing the ‘dedication beer’ as it was to be handled by women beyond the child-bearing stages or by girls who had not yet reached the menstruation stage.
Today, the installation of chiefs is done under the guidance of the Ministry of Local Government.
“The Government, through its Local Government machinery, appoints the chief and proceeds to install him,” writes Chigwedere.
The responsible Minister does the installation, Chigwedere writes.
“The family producing the chief-elect brings with it to the installation site a reed mat which is spread out in front of or by the side of the podium from which the Minister or his representative will operate,” he writes.
“An officer of the Ministry of Local Government hands over to the Minister the red gown inherited from the colonial regime, whereupon the latter proceeds to wrap it around the chief-elect.”
The writer argues modern-day installation processes do not fully represent local cultures.
Chigwedere suggests the process has been ‘diluted’ as certain aspects of Western culture have been incorporated.
“The crime committed by our majority rule Government against the institution of chieftainship was the red gown from the colonial regime,” writes Chigwedere.
“The red gown presented to our chiefs as an emblem of royalty is the very opposite of what our chiefs should wear.
In addition, all the items used by our Government as elements of the chiefs’ regalia are not meant to have any divine element around them.
Furthermore, it is not the responsibility of the Ministry of Local Government to dedicate them to any ancestor.”
By reverting to traditional rites on installing chiefs and giving them back their rights to fully execute their duties, social cohesion would be promoted, suggests Chigwedere.
Chigwedere gives an insight on some of the roles and responsibilities of chiefs during the pre-colonial era.
Chiefs were guardians of the land, other natural and mineral resources.
“The chief task of the chief was partly to promote and partly to protect the interests and welfare of his people,” writes Chigwedere.
“The chief did not only initiate the organisation of all community rituals, but such rituals were organised in his name.
It was believed that to maintain the political, economic and social equilibrium, certain rituals had to be organised annually.”
The more locals keep drifting away from their culture, the more they lose their sense and need to defend the country and its resources.
Therefore, the onus is on society elders to educate younger generations on local cultures and practices.