Njelele and Mwari religion

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Dr Ivan Murambiwa

NJELELE Mwari shrine in the Matopos, cannot be fully understood outside Shona history.
However, in the public history space Shona is much contested territory.
Firstly Shona is a recently coined term for groups of people with a long history in Zimbabwe.
Secondly, the term Shona has been used as an umbrella term for recent, mainly 19th and 20th centuries ethnic/tribal creations.
The tragedy of all this has been to reduce Shona history to recent history of the umbrella or that of its ‘tribal’ creations.
That is why you will find that at Great Zimbabwe, Mutapa was Karanga and today his descendants are Korekore.
It is for this reason that Chief Gutu is Karanga in Masvingo, but Korekore in Musana.
Shona history is much older than the limits of oral traditions.
It is safe to appreciate that nothing materially separates the ancestry of today’s Shona from the Bantu people that populated this country in the later centuries of the first millennium AD.
These people include VaZezuru, VaKaranga, VaManyika, VaNdau, VaKorekore, VaNambiya, VaVenda, and VaKalanga.
Njelele 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 analysis of material remains the Eastern Enclosure on the Great Zimbabwe hill was a holy of holies.
According to oral traditions the Mwari religion flourished at Zimbabwe under Mbire priesthood.
The Mbire, of Shoko/Soko totem, trace their origins to Tanganyika.
We also know for a fact that a people with close affinities to the Mbire, live in the vicinity of Kilimanjaro today, in Tanzania and call their God ‘Muali’.
In both cases theirs was a God of Fertility.
Traditions also tell us 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 Zimbabwe was Chaminuka.
The Chaminuka medium apparently resided in the Eastern Enclosure.
Traditions 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 indigenes.
It was the most elaborate way of worshipping and consulting the Supreme Being prior to colonisation.
The God of the Shona, Mwari, gave rain in times of drought and advice in times of national crisis.
Mwari was also known as ‘Dzivaguru’, ‘Sororenzou’, ‘Nyadenga’, ‘Muvumbapasi’, ‘Musiki’, ‘Musikavanhu’.
According to traditions the Mbire worshipped Mwari at Great Zimbabwe until the place became over-populated and Mwari directed them to Matonjeni.
Around the same time, we are aware of major population movements from Great Zimbabwe to the north east.
By the time the Portuguese produced written accounts on the Mutapa, this movement had already taken place.
Matonjeni, also known as ‘Mabweadziva’, is roughly the landscape we call Matobo/Matopos today.
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 large number of shrines in Matonjeni prompted one 19th century writer to remark, “Most Matopo hills are rain dance hills.”
The Mwari shrines fell, at different times, under the lordship 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 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 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 upon 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.
During the First Chimurenga, Matonjeni shrines filled the political vacuum created by the defeat of Lobengula by using Mwari vanyai (messengers) network to coordinate the anti-colonial struggle that united both the Shona and Ndebele.
This role of Mwari and Matonjeni had not been appreciated by whites.
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 1920s to 50s, the Shona were of the view that Mwari had turned his back on them.
A reawakening of Mwari religion was experienced with the rise of African nationalism in the late 1950s.
Most nationalists’ 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).
Documentation of the Chokoto villages around Wirirani shrine, in the 1960s, are illustrative of lineage relationships in management of Matonjeni shrines; The heads of the four villages were, Simon Chokoto (Shoko, shrine head, high priest, mupinzi webasa), Usingaperi Peura (muzukuru, Venda and shrine keeper), Machonda (Simon’s mukuwasha, hossanah) and a Maternal sekuru(jukwa dancer).
Other office holders include second priest (munin’ina, mufambiri), Mamoyo (spirit medium, Voice), high priestess (tete) and vanyai (messengers)
Matonjeni shrines are in the province of Matabeleland South and have over the last century gone through transformation to become part of Ndebele cultural heritage. Language has been a key component of this transformation.
Today narratives on the religion only have occasional mention of Mwari (now Mwali or Mlimo) and never mention the Matonjeni or Shona.
For example, Kombo Shoko, a Mwari priestess in the 1960s later became Nkumbo Ncube whilst Chokoto became Matshokodo and Tandaudze became Tengani.
Praise names like Dziva!
Tovera!
Mbedzi!
Shoko! have changed to Thobela!
Mbedzi! nkuluDziba levula!
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 that 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.
Pilgrims also struggle with observance of the Mwari religion prescriptions.
Dr Ivan Murambiwa is the Director of National Archives of Zimbabwe. He is writing in his own capacity.

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