Brooms: A sweeping analysis of our material culture

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By Dr Michelina Andreucci

AS the cock crows at dawn, billowing clouds of dust kiss the first rays of the morning sun, the daughters-in-law sweep the environs of the homestead (kumusha, varoora vanofumo bata jongwe muromo, vachitsvaira chivanze).
The symbolism was to sweep away the evil of the night!
From time immemorial, the swishing of brooms in African villages, announced the break of a new dawn.
It is one of the simplest rites of our Zimbabwean belief system that we often take for granted.
My grandmother informed me regarding the strict cleanliness regime inherent in most indigenous communities and how the concept of cleanliness used to cascade from a national socio-religious dictate to a holistic communal activity and practice.
She would often emphasise that to be clean meant ‘kuchena mumweya, pfungwa nemumagariro’ – to be spiritually clean in thought, deed and practice.
Even little girls, not much older than three or four years of age in Zimbabwe emulated their big sisters, mothers, aunts and grandmothers sweeping the household and yard with the judiciousness and expertise of their mentors.
The memory of this process of education, while playing, has remained part of African civic pedagogy.
For us, cleanliness was next to godliness!
In the social politics of the muroora, her affiliation with the broom was an integral part of the Shona woman’s protocol; a symbol of her existence, responsibility, co-operation and desirability; a trait which lingers in the culture, despite all Western feminist propaganda.
African women naturally identify with the broom.
The simple broom (mutsvairo), is an integral part of our Shona heritage.
It is a cleaning instrument consisting of a brush of bristles, twigs, reeds or grasses, bound together; which in Western societies are usually attached to a handle – broomstick, and used for sweeping dirt, clearing cobwebs out of corners, for cleaning chimneys and removing ashes from the fireplace, dusting away dust or sweeping the yard clean of possible nocturnal footprints.
Much like a bundle of twigs tied to a handle and called a ‘beson’ (pronounced bee-zum), that was used in early colonial America; is made reference to in the Bible (Isaiah 14:2) — “I will sweep it with the besom of destruction.”
The besom was not a very efficient implement as it did not remove much rubbish, but usually left tracks in the dirt.
In African traditions, the concept of cleanliness is personified in the broom.
Physical environmental and spiritual cleanliness marked the beginning of every new day.
In my days, the broom was the indication of a well-brought up woman (mukadzi ane hunhu) — the cornerstone of our cultural etiquette.
From time immemorial, the Shona mitsvairo have been designed and created specifically for physical, spiritual and socio-religious purposes and functions.
Traditional healers used brooms to sprinkle, douse and symbolically remove malevolent spirits who were said to visit homesteads or attach themselves to various movable properties in the home.
This process is known as ‘kupumha mweya yetsvina’.
The saying: ‘kutsvaira dandemutande’ (to sweep the cobwebs) implies to reveal a hidden agenda or to sweep a space of deceit or evil.
The words ‘hutsanana, kuchena’ and ‘kutsvaira’ allude to a memory and heritage of cleanliness inherent in traditional environmental management.
Cleanliness and purity are important concepts in Shona agro-belief systems and socio-cultural mores.
While lecturing on tourism and hospitality at various hotel schools in Zimbabwe, Zambia and beyond, on diplomatic protocol in the hotel industry, I always used the indigenous broom and its socio-cultural connotation as the archetype symbol of cleanliness.
In the industrial design world, one of the hallmarks of Italian design cognition is their complete understanding of materials and their uses in the specific products which, like the Shona indigenous brooms, takes into account the various materials’ textures, weights, strengths, flexibility, firmness, tensility and durability in relation to their use and function.
In African diplomacy, the broom is a symbol of cleanliness, respect and conviviality.
Our traditions say that a swept pathway and clean environs are a reflection of one’s respect and cordiality for the visitor, guest, family and dunhu.
The urban township dwellers of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, can recall with fondness the echoes of itinerant women hawkers crying out: ‘mitsvairo!’, ‘Cobra!’ as they travelled from house-to-house and street-to-street.
It was a sound as familiar and iconic to Zimbabwe’s high-density suburbia as the broom and can still be heard in some suburban quarters.
Brooms have been around since ancient times; though they may not have always appeared as they do now.
Prior to the 18th Century, brooms were domestically produced by hand from various evergreen, semi-evergreen and deciduous trees, shrubs, grasses, reeds, branches and twigs.
Roughly fashioned from straw or twigs or whatever plant resources were at hand, it was constructed by tying these materials with bark straps, twine or rope around a wooden stick.
The word ‘broom’ is derived from the plants broom; a group of evergreen, semi-evergreen and deciduous shrubs belonging to the sub-family faboideae of the legume family, from which the implement is made.
Brooms grow into shrubs of about one-to-three metres tall with dense, slender green, seemingly leafless stems
In all societies, people made and used brooms to meet their needs: floor brooms, outdoor brooms, whisk brooms, brushes and pot brooms used in the kitchens and other uses.
Crude brooms were made of reeds, grasses, small twigs, branches, and corn husks, but unlike the indigenous mitsvairo, did not last long and required replacing all too frequently.
In terms of industrial design, the Zimbabwean indigenous brooms, ergonomic shape, flexibility, portability and ability to withstand different terrains and various purposes make it an invaluable domestic tool.
Hence, the traditional Zimbabwean Shona mutsvairo, is a natural and adaptable, indigenous industrial invention.
Dr Michelina Rudo Andreucci is a Zimbabwean-Italian researcher, industrial design consultant lecturer and specialist hospitality interior decorator. She is a published author in her field. For views and comments, email: linamanucci@gmail.com

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