Cultural taboos and the liberation war: Part One


NATION building and interpretation of history have been linked in the Zimbabwe liberation war from the conquest and colonisation of the area by the British South Africa Company in 1890, and the naming of it as Rhodesia in 1895, to the attempts to consolidate African national independence in Zimbabwe after 1980.
The mobilisation of historical mythology has played a prominent part both in relation to the endeavours of white colonisers to appropriate and legitimise power and to the battle of liberation war fighters to take it away from them and install themselves as rightful rulers.
The liberation war fighters knew that emotional upsets and disappointments occurred during their time in the struggle for independence, but they believed that apart from spirits from mediums such as Mbuya Nehanda and Sekuru Kaguvi, certain medicines, animals, insects, birds and reptiles as well as the observance of certain taboos guarded against well defined emotional contingencies and safeguarding their welfare during their time in the bush.
While some people believe that taboos are superstitious and pagan beliefs, the freedom fighters used them as a control measure in the management of their war.
This system has also been used not only in the Zimbabwean liberation war but in other African states that waged liberation war against colonialism as well as other societies far away from Africa such as in North and South America where the indigenous people have their own taboo system to manage their surroundings.
Among some of the wild animals and birds that played a role in assisting and guiding the fighter are monkeys, lions, eland, pangolins, sicada (Nyenze), bees, honey birds, hawks, hippos and elephants.
Freedom fighters desisted from eating certain foodstuffs, especially okra (which earned them the gandanga haridye derere mukoma jibe), which was said to weaken the knees or would make one lazy during battle, fish species such as the eel or hunga and muramba barbel could also not be consumed due to their slippery state.
Wild fruits that contained high energy content could be consumed during the fighters’ long journeys in the rugged terrains such as mountains, valleys and crossing rivers, fruits such as matamba,tsvubvu, nhengeni and other seasonal fruits sustained the wellbeing of the comrades.
According to some war veterans, places such as hot-springs, certain wildlife animal species, shrine forests and sacred pools were not used for any purpose other than those specified by traditional chiefs and village spirit mediums.
Defying instructions often resulted in losing the battle, while pools would dry up or the forests not bearing wild fruits for both animals and liberation war fighters themselves.
Shrines and other sacred places in the landscape, particularly so-called holy homes, where a spirit is believed to dwell, were approached with all caution. General taboos that applied to such places included fasting, thirsting and praying.
For the sexually active it meant a few days without indulging so as to appear ‘pure’ to the supernatural being inhabiting such places.
Some places could not be looked at, except under special circumstances and most required that some offering be left as a gesture of respect.
Failure to do so would bring bad luck to one’s comrades.
In the observance of such places, trees, grass and animals and other creatures found around such shrines or mountains were not plucked, this generally led to the creation of a harmonious relationship between the freedom fighters and nature.
Often Rhodesian forces thought the comrades possessed special powers to “disappear”. However, it was this harmony with nature that made them somehow “invisible”.
The war veterans believed that, the killing of wild animals and certain bird species was taboo, and goes against mother nature.
Wild animals were only killed for food, or for ritual purposes. Indiscriminate killing of wild animals for pleasure, they believed displeased the ancestors.
According to the war liberators, penalties for transgressing these rules included, diseases, losing the battle and even a more direct form of ‘revenge’ when wild animals themselves would attack the offenders.
The taboo system in the liberation struggle extended into totems, and most totems have animal, reptile and amphibian names attached to them.
Those with such totems were forbidden to eat the flesh of their totem animal, as this was sacrilegious.
For example, the Ndlovu (elephant) clan should not eat meat from the elephant; the same was true for the Dube, who were not supposed to eat zebra meat.
Other clans such as snake, fish, frog, birds should not consume flesh from their clan species. However, according to the war liberators in circumstances where food was scarce and the only available food or meat was from one‘s clan species, certain rituals or prayers to the ancestors were made so that there could be no trouble.
These cultural and spiritual values observed by our liberation war fighters have been responsible for regulating the use of wildlife and other natural resource in rural Zimbabwe where the war was waged.
The belief in taboos is strongly held among the rural populace who strongly believe that balance and harmony should pervade their relationships with the environment, from the sky to the underworld and all beings in between.
In general taboos served to temper such intensities of connection among the liberation war fighters.
For example, the great warriors blessed with the power of the fighting spirit, were inspired by the roaring and thunderous sound of the lion in the bush.
The sound could cause the fighter to be overwhelmed by the spirit of the lion and fight the war.
However, not all taboo relationships last a lifetime.
In certain cases, for example, when hunting, fishing or gardening special injunctions lasted only for a few days.
Similarly at life-cycle events like birth, puberty, marriage and death taboos apply to the person directly affected along with relatives considered close enough to be equally involved in the process for only a set time.
In areas where the wilderness was often fenced off in National Parks, or even conservancies, some places in rural Zimbabwe where the liberation war was waged still stand as bastions of wildness and spirituality.
This is refreshingly evident when one looks at the Great Zimbabwe, Inyangani Mountains, the Chinhoyi Caves, Tembwe Chimoio, the National Heroes Acre, provincial heroes shrines dotted in all provinces of the country silhouettes of present and past heroes in schools institutions of higher learning, national buildings and museums.
Ultimately it is these scenes, personalities and peculiarities that remind us that there are deeper beliefs that make this country a sovereign state.
It is the observance of certain taboos during the liberation war that made us conquer the colonialists who had no clue and respect for our medium spirits and Svikiros.


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