Christianity and the desecration of Njelele

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By Elliott Siamonga

LAST week I questioned why missionaries were so concerned about educating blacks in their established mission schools and we alluded to the fact that their main reason was to alienate the indigenous people from their Mwari religion.
Recently I visited Matonjeni/Njelele in the Matopo Hills where the Mwari religion was headquartered.
The ‘rain hills’ have fallen silent while the environs around Njelele lie derelict.
The road leading to the rain-making shrine is in a sorry state.
Beer bottles, plastics and other garbage are strewn all over the place.
Elders near the shrine complained that traditional healers and other spirit mediums coming from as far as South Africa, Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania and Democratic Republic of the Congo in their numbers to perform rituals during the night leave the hills in a sorry state.
This is contrary to the fact that White Waters, The Angling Club and Cecil Rhodes’ grave in the same vicinity are kept in a good state.
There is no doubt that Rhodes defiled our Mwari Shrine by being buried there.
Mwari is the Supreme Creator of the Shona as well as Northern and Southern Ndebele people and is worshiped in the traditional religion.
The majority of followers are concentrated in Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe.
Mwari is an omnipotent being, who rules over spirits and is the Supreme God.
Mwari’s reverence dates back to the age of the ancient King Monomotapa, of the Mutapa Kingdom on the Zambezi River.
The name ‘Mwari’ in Shona means ‘God’.
The word itself can also be roughly interpreted as ‘God’, but only in the traditional religious context.
The furthering of this term’s acceptance is when the Christian missionaries were creating a Bible for the locals, in which they used the term ‘Mwari’ instead of ‘God’.
The nomadic Bantu-speaking Kenyans were responsible for bringing the concept of monotheism to the traditional religions of Southern Africa. The first official recognition of Mwari was by the Kingdom of Zimbabwe, whose most notable ruler was Monomotapa of the Mutapa Kingdom.
It is believed this new addition to Shona religion was incorporated into the Great Zimbabwe.
Mwari is seen as a kind and loving God.
Mwari is not only the God of creation, but also of land fertility and blessing rains.
Mwari is the one who controls the forces of earth, from the fortune of journeys to social and political events.
Although the Shona and the Ndebele often pray to Mwari alone, it is also very common for the use of spirit mediums to be employed.
The most significant of these is the oracle.
Njelele, where the Mwari religion is headquartered, can also not be fully understood outside the history of Shona religion.
It is generally accepted that religion is a spiritual expression of a people’s level of civilisation.
Shona civilisation went through material and social complexity at the beginning of the second millennium AD at Zimbabwe (Great Zimbabwe).
These massive architectural and artistic developments were clearly underpinned by an equally complex spiritual existence of the inhabitants.
According to the National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe, the Eastern Enclosure on the Great Zimbabwe hill was a holy place.
According to elders, the Mwari religion flourished at Great Zimbabwe under Mbire priesthood.
The Mbire, of Shoko/Soko totem, trace their origins to Tanganyika.
It is also a known fact that people with close relations to the Mbire, live in the vicinity of Kilimanjaro in Tanzania today and call their God ‘Muali’.
Elders also say that Chaminuka and his siblings Nehanda and Mushavatu were born at Great Zimbabwe with Murenga Sororenzou as their father.
An aspect of the Mwari religion was the mhondoro cult whose principal mhondoro at Great Zimbabwe was Chaminuka.
The Chaminuka medium apparently resided in the Eastern Enclosure.
Elders say Chaminuka used to interpret the squawking of the sacred fish eagle, hungwe, on its annual visits to Great Zimbabwe.
The Mwari religion that flourished at Great Zimbabwe was a unique development among all the southern and eastern African indigenous people.
It was the most elaborate way of worshipping and consulting the Supreme Being prior to colonisation.
According to history, the Mbire worshipped Mwari at Great Zimbabwe until the place became over-populated and Mwari directed them to Matonjeni, now Njelele.
The Mwari religion has been headquartered in Matonjeni/Matopos for the last 500 years.
Matonjeni consisted of several shrines, of which Njelele is the most known and active today.
The Mwari shrines fell, at different times, under the custodianship of the Torwa, Rozvi and to a lesser extent, Ndebele state structures.
Njelele is a Mwari shrine located on a hill known by its Kalanga name Njelele.
Legend has it that the name comes from ancient migratory ‘njerere’ birds that signalled coming of the wet season.
With most of the Matonjeni shrines having become inactive, Njelele has emerged in the last four decades as the principal Mwari shrine.
Other shrines in the Matonjeni landscape include Dula, Zhilo, Wirirani and Manyangwa.
Nguni invasions in the first half of the 19th Century toppled the Rozvi, but left the Mwari religious structure intact.
After occupation of south-western Zimbabwe by the Ndebele, Matonjeni shrines were allowed to continue to operate, but under close surveillance.
King Mzilikazi was dependent on Shona spiritual guardians.
As a result, he honoured Mwari, whom the Ndebele called Mlimo, with annual gifts.
In the post-Lobengula era, the Matonjeni shrines started to exercise political influence in the Ndebele society as well.
There were instances that officials of the Mwari religion were consulted on matters of the state.
According to Ivan Murambiwa of the National Archives of Zimbabwe, during the First Chimurenga, Matonjeni shrines filled the political vacuum created by the defeat of Lobengula by using Mwari vanyai (messengers) network to co-ordinate the anti-colonial struggle that united both the Shona and Ndebele.
This role of Mwari and Matonjeni was not appreciated by whites and their missionary counterparts.
After the First Chimurenga, the Ndebele leadership continued to send messengers to Mlimo for rain while the Shona consultations slowed down, especially after the responsible government in 1923 when colonisation appeared irreversible.
Another contributing factor was the spread of Christianity which resulted in Mwari being appropriated as a Christian God.
From the 1920s to 1950s, the Shona were of the view that Mwari had turned his back on them.
A re-awakening of Mwari religion was experienced with the rise of African nationalism in the late 1950s.
Most nationalist leaders embraced the religion as they rallied people under the spiritual banner of the First Chimurenga.
Matonjeni shrines were manned by Mwari priests (vanyai), male cultists (mahossanah) and female cultists (mbonga).
In the first decade after independence, there were contestations around custodianship of Njelele.
Historically, there have always been conflicts around the shrine custodianship.
Elders had traditional tests they used to administer in order to determine authentic custodianship.
Political considerations now hold more sway.
Christianity has also contributed to the desecration of Njelele.
Most Zimbabweans are nominal Christians who no longer openly associate with the Mwari religion because of the influence of the missionaries around the Mwari religion.

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