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Exploring ancient African traditional beliefs

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WESTERN education, particularly science, tries to teach us that human beings are equivalent to animals; that we live and die like any other creature and life ends when one physically dies. 

Thus the saying: “You only have one life to live.” 

Western missionaries tried to sell us the idea that one goes to heaven or hell after one dies, depending on the works of one’s hands while still alive. 

This they taught in order to twist the meaning of the scriptures which suggest that worldly wealth is not as good as heavenly wealth as followers would easily misinterpret the message and believe that poverty, while living, will lead to riches in the afterlife. 

This would be used by the colonisers and enslavers to loot the land and wealth of Africa without facing any resistance. 

Most people today now believe in one of the two hypotheses. 

The first one is often coupled with an evolutionary origins myth which claims that humans began as apes while the second one opens with a literal interpretation of the biblical creation of the world being created in six days. 

But what did our ancestors believe in, pertaining to the origins of our species and the reality of our existence? 

Africans never viewed themselves as something even close to animals. 

In Shona, one cannot classify a human (munhu) as an animal (mhuka). 

The two are regarded as creatures (zvisikwa) ,but to call a human an animal is to lower him or her. 

Africans believe they were specially made by a Creator who they call by many names, including ‘Musiki’, ‘Mwari’, ‘Mwali’, ‘Muali’, ‘Mudimu’, ‘Mulungu’ and ‘Nkulunkulu’, among others. 

They believe they were made out of soil but their true existence within the body is in spiritual form. 

Africans believe the body is merely a vessel (homwe) of the soul and other spirits. 

The soul is called ‘mweya’ and the spirits that are in touch with the soul are also called ‘mweya’ or ‘mhepo’ (wind). There are different types of spirits; some good, while others are evil; some empowering, while others are detrimental. 

One’s thoughts and works determine which spirits accompany, guide or haunt an individual. 

The highest spirits are called ‘mhondoro’, which can be translated as archangels. 

One who carries a ‘mhondoro’ or angelic spirit is called ‘gombwe’. 

Gombwe is different from a normal ‘homwe’ in that the spirit therein possesses godly powers and assignments which it has been known to perform for time immemorial. 

When the life and mandate of the gombwe ends, people may recognise the same spirit in another host who carries forth the same attributes and mission, though the times and places of their manifestation may differ. 

A mhondoro can choose which host to possess and when the candidate realises he has been chosen, he has no choice but to obey what the high spirit within him demands lest bad luck, insanity or tragedy may ensue. 

If the host is a king, the consequences of not following the dictates of a mhondoro may lead to war or famine. 

There is also the mudzimu or ancestral spirit. 

Africans believe that the deceased of long ago, who are known as madzitateguru, return and they do so within their descendants. 

Their return is evoked by conducting traditional memorial services such as grave visiting and sweeping, offering and the naming of their descendants after their ancestors. 

When a descendant is seen to carry attributes of an ancestor or starts vibrating at the ancestor’s vibrational frequency in terms of thoughts and deeds, it is said he is possessed by an ancestral spirit. 

Some of these ancestral spirits may decide to come down on a descendant after drum and/or mbira music is played whilst the host-to-be is intoxicated by traditional alcohol, cannabis and/or snuff. 

The host loses control of his motor functions and is overtaken by the spirit which often shows its presence by a change in voice, character and a boost of energy. 

This feat is known as ‘kusvikirwa’, meaning being possessed and the possessed person is called ‘svikiro’ (spirit medium). The other spirits that work within men are ‘mashavi’. Some people call these spirits ‘zvitauri’ because they work through talking within one’s soul. 

They tempt and advise a person, depending on what type of spirits are within him. 

A prostitute or promiscuous wife is not believed to be inherently evil, but is seen as a victim of evil spirits (mashavi or mweya wetsvina), namely demons or devils. 

The Africans of old would attempt to kill or chase off that destructive spirit before victimising the host who is but a sufferer. 

Failure to do so would then result in the host being punished, banished or killed, but only after several attempts have been made to reform and save the individual. 

On the other hand, when one has outstanding skills in activities such as fighting, farming, hunting, craftsmanship and trading, he is believed to have gifted spirits which continually encourage the host to perform admirable and life-sustaining works. 

The last but not least of the spirits known to our ancestors was ngozi or the avenging spirit. 

When one takes a life, he acquires a blood debt. 

The forces see what people may not see and even if one kills in secret, his conscience becomes haunted by that of the person he killed. 

Often murderers were known to voluntarily confess after periods of self-inflicted torment while in hiding. 

Some become insane and unless they present enough livestock or other forms of wealth as a form of fine/restituion in addition to an admission of guilt, the Africans believed from experience that the murderer, his family and descendants would inherit the same blood debt and torment that the ancestor was haunted with. 

One who understood matters of the spirit and body was called a ‘n’anga’ and would use herbs and other things to heal the body and/or soul. 

One who chose to serve the devilish spirits and use his or her knowledge for destructive means was called ‘muroyi’. 

Finally, one who had authority in the spiritual realm and through his understanding could cast off demons, devils and curses was called ‘mushavi’. 

In so many words, this is what the African of old believed was the reality of human existence. 

A blackman or woman’s life was believed to never die. There is actually a saying that goes: “Mushakabvu haarovi,” meaning the deceased does not leave us forever. 

This clashes with Western beliefs of people merely dying like animals or going to heaven or hell after they die. 

The Catholic Church even claims there is a middle point called purgatory which is in-between the two extremes and they exploited Europeans for years by forcing them to pay money while alive in order to be upgraded from the level of purgatory to heaven after they die. 

To the African, peace, serenity, sound mindedness and happiness are signs of one living in good spirits or heaven. 

Strife, torment, guilt and restlessness are signs of one living in bad spirits or hell. 

The Bible, likewise, portrays heaven and hell as places that a living people in the past, present and future experience. 

They are simply levels of spiritual pleasure or displeasure within a human being that are determined by his or her actions. 

This afterlife existence myth is estranged to both African and Hebrew culture. 

Rather, there is a belief in continuity despite the terminal expiry of the body, largely through reproduction and election among latter hosts.

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