IT is generally accepted that the key integrative factor in the Shona political system was religion.
While the king was the ultimate religious authority in his kingdom, for he alone could communicate with the spirits of his ancestors, there were also other religious functionaries who played the role of advisors on religious matters at court.
These had their own hierarchy; from national to regional, cascading to the lower echelons of power.
According to 16th Century writer Damiao de Gois, writing in Gloriosa Memoria, “…the Shona do not make or worship idols, but believe in God, the creator of all things, whom they adore and to whom they pray.”
The story of Mwari religion in Zimbabwe would be incomplete without tracing the footsteps of the Mbire people who trekked from Tanganyika towards the Zambezi River around 900 A.D.
Chigwedere (1982) argues that the first occupations of the land south of the Zambezi River and north of the Limpopo occurred around 600 A.D. This stage has been termed Ziwa I and Ziwa II. However, some scholars hint that it wouldn’t be stretching the truth to assume this meant Dziva I and Dziwa II.
However, such claims are not really authoritative.
Historians are in agreement that there were three main Bantu families, later referred to as tribes, who eventually settled in the land now called Zimbabwe. The Dzivas (Masters of the Water), Soko (Masters of the Land) and Tonga (Matrilineal segment) form the trinity associated with the original Vanyayi who migrated from Guruuswa.
Many sources are not clear when the Mwari religious practice started, mostly because the earliest recorded accounts of activities date from the Mutapa Empire, when Portuguese merchants waded inland in search of gold, trade and game.
However, the best way to trace the origins of Mwari religion is to follow the footsteps of Mambiri, the godfather of the Soko, whose name Mbire was given to the district east of Lake Tanganyika by his descendants.
“The Mbire Soko Tribe was established in Tanganyika by Murenga Sororenzou (from whom the word Chimurenga was derived). This Murenga was then migrating from Kenya. He had just become an active spirit medium again and for the first time since he caused the revolution of 1896-7 which was given his name. He knows his cousins and the Soko segments which remained north of the Zambezi River. Furthermore, this Mbire Soko Tribe was led out of Tanganyika for the south by Chaminuka, Murenga’s son and the greatest of the Shona mhondoro in Zimbabwe. It was under the leadership of Chaminuka that the Mbire Soko Tribe drove the Tonga people further south and then diverted them to the west and drove them up the Zambezi River along the northern bank. Fortunately, this Chaminuka had taken possession of a medium, the first one since his last medium was killed by the Ndebele in 1883….” (Chigwedere, 1982)
It is to be noted that there has often been a misunderstanding of the names mentioned above, as, first, Chigwedere (1982) noted the political figures who had religious authority because of their position in the genealogy and hierarchy that could communicate with Mwari later resurfaced as their spirits spoke through mediums, instructing the ‘keepers’ of the land to fight invading forces that sought to occupy land that belonged to Mwari.
As mentioned before, scholars’ accounts of the early recordings of the observations of Mwari religion seem to dominate discourse on this often misunderstood and misinterpreted concept. Early writers, mostly the Portuguese, of course, had their shortcomings when recording information. Some early accounts noted by Portuguese traders were so biased as to be preposterous.
To set the record straight, these misconceptions seem to have been perpetuated by non-African writers bent on proving the superiority of their religion such that they exaggerated facts, passed off their warped understanding of African mores as fact, were blinded by their prejudices and conformed to the politics of the time as their agenda was to prove their superiority over the locals, whom some branded derogatory names such as natives, pagans and savages.
One Monclaro, for instance, writing in the 16th Century, put on record his biased assessment of Mwari Religion, asserting that the Shona were “…lacking all manner of worship and knowledge of God.”
However, a stark contradiction can be found later on in his writings when he unwittingly states that “…some give to God the name of Mulungo, but all this in much confusion, darkness and obscurity.”
It is not unusual to come across overtly biased accounts by Westerners from Portugal who first made contact with indigenes. This explains their misconceptions of the religious practices, which many reduced to a cult.
In the 18th Century, the Portuguese recorded their perception of Mwari religion stating: “The Emperor and all the other people of the empire have the knowledge that there is one God to whom they give the name of Muzimu (Mudzimu) but they neither call him by name nor do they call on him in times of need and affliction. They worship all their dead emperors, and it is these who are their gods, some with more reverence than others.”
Mwari worship as monotheist
However, not all accounts viewed the Mwari religion as myopically as Monclaro’s assessment.
Manuel Faria e Sousa, documenting his findings in the 17th Century, claimed that the Shona “…have no religion nor idols, but acknowledge only one God… They believe their kings go to heaven, and call them Muzimos (midzimu), and call upon them in time of need, as we on the Saints.”
Bocarro echoed the same views when he noted that “…they know that there is a God in heaven. They believe that their kings go to heaven, and when they are there they call them muzimos (midzimu), and ask them for whatever they require.”
These accounts are in line with the reality that Mwari religion was monotheistic, and even though the Portuguese decided not to treat it as a religion, their accounts clearly show a firm belief system that had spanned centuries and was religiously followed by the indigenes.
During the Mutapa State in the 15th Century, politics, religion, and foreign diplomacy were interwoven aspects that regulated how the state was ruled. However, what many have missed is the centrality of religion in informing governance matters, a recurring theme that seems to have inspired subsequent Shona political administrations.
Does Mwari religion worship ancestors?
One aspect that stands out from Mwari religion is the recognition of one God, Mwari or Musikavanhu, meaning the Creator, while other sources recognise him as Mlimo (Matabele), Mdimo (Tswana), Mwali (Tonga), Dzivaguru, Tenzi, Ishe, Murenga, depending on the tribe and the context gathered by the capturer as well as the period.
Mwari religion is patrilineal, that is to say that it follows the progeny of the patriarch, Mwari himself, who is closest to his first creation, the first man he created. The followers of Mwari tradition revere the first creation as the closest to God because he had direct contact with the Creator and sired the first generation of human beings. Acknowledging this superiority, a hierarchy of ancestors, those departed relatives whose progeny can be traced to the living, form a pyramid which is chronological and respects the most ancient ancestor as the most senior and worthy to communicate with God.
“The source of all power and all wisdom is the Creator; he who is nearest to the Creator. The source of all power and all wisdom is the Creator and to no other. In the whole hierarchy of human creation, he is the greatest, most powerful and most divine.
The African believes that this is so mainly because only this man, or the first generation of men, knows the Creator… The generations that descended from the first man only know the Creator indirectly through the first man. Those who, in the hierarchy of human creation , are near the source of power, are more powerful than those further away from his source…
…to sever links with the hierarchy above is tantamount to severing links with the source of power, the Creator. This would be unthinkable, hence links with the whole whole chain of creation is maintained. To tap one link of the chain amounts to tapping the whole chain, to break one link amounts to breaking the whole chain.” Chigwedere (1982)
One can tell that from this philosophy, no generation could claim to be independent from the one above it. This philosophy explains why there was no economic life divorced from religion and politics. Chigwedere (1982) posits that the first ancestor was the real ruler of these polities, with the founders of dynasties as the vicars and direct representatives on earth.
Consequently, the king or chief was, and is, the divine ruler because he rules from divine power from the ruler, Mwari, Musikavanhu. It is not an overstatement that the king was more than a human being as he carried the divine power of his ancestors on whose behalf he was ruling. The king was indisputably the central political figure and, at the same time, the most important religious figure.
The Pioneers, quite naturally, never recognised the tremendous religious ties which bound the Shona together and gave them their strength and, even today, these spiritual bonds are not fully appreciated by us all. The Pioneers looked on the Shonas as a cowardly down-trodden race; they didn’t realise that instead they were a very proud people who looked back at their days of Monomotapa Empire with pride and believed in a high god who was the creator of the universe.
They called him Mwari.
We may note that when the Matabele came to this country, they appropriated Mwari as their god too but, of course, they called him ‘Mlimo’. Their high deity was believed by the Shona people to be the creator of the universe, and so detached from them as to be unapproachable. So, to intercede with their god, the Shona peopled their living world with the spirits of their ancestors. Through them, they believed themselves able to intercede with the high god. (The Matabele, on the other hand, propritiated ‘Mlimo’ messengers, who fulfilled the same intercessionary purpose.) These tutelary spirits were very real to the Shona, as indeed they are to this day.
“Very close to Native Commissioner ‘Graham the bully’s administrative camp at Inyati, Mkwati had turned Ntabazikamambo into the dorminant Mwari shrine from which he initiated the Inyati uprisings in close liaison with other spirit mediums, in particular, Siginyamatshe, a prominent Mwari messenger who lived close to Bulawayo. At the end of the war, the judge who tried Siginyamatshe believed that if it had not been for a Mwari messenger (Siginyamatshe), many Ndebele people around Bulawayo would not have risen duringthe First Chimurenga.” (Ranger, 1967: p.157)
Muchemwa (2015) posits that the spirit mediums at Ntabazikamambo shrine, including Tengela, Mkwati’s wife, worked in close collaboration with Mpotshwana and his Nyamandlovu regiment, Mtini and his Ngnoba regiment, Nkomo and his Jingeni forces. Mtini was the overall commander of the northern First Chimurenga forces. The royal family led by Nyamanda also collaborated with Mkwati and the northern forces. (Ranger, 1967: p 229)
Mkwati and his formidable allies exercised a powerful influence on the predominantly Shona people of the north and north-eastern Matabeleland, that is, the Shona tributary states around Amaveni, Lower Gwelo, Gwelo and Selukwe, to contribute to the Chimurenga forces under the overall command of Makumbi. The men who formed Mkwati’s personal bodyguard, largely from the Rozvi of the Inyati area, were remarkable for the fanaticism with which they upheld the cause of the First Chimurenga. (Ranger, 1967: p.154)