Remba concepts that Zimbos need to know: Part Two…exploring the concept behind nyamafu


THE second aspect of Remba culture that we shall cover in this series is nyamafu

Nyamafu is a Remba term which means unclean meat or food that is not fit for consumption. It is equivalent to the Arabic word haram, which literally means forbidden.

Nyamafu includes meat from an animal with no herbivorous digestive tract.  

It has to be a grazer-browser with divided hoofs that resemble that of goats and cattle. 

It also includes meat from an animal that died from other means besides ritual slaughter. Nyamafu also includes blood.

Effectively, this forbids Remba people from consuming rodents, swine, zebra, carrion, and store- bought meat, among others.

The existence of the Remba word nyamafu has been viewed as evidence that supports the notion that the Remba are descendants of Israel. 

Otherwise why would they have a word for unclean meat, unless they were followers of the Mosaic dietary law?

The nyamafu concept predates the coming of the Bible in this region and is deeply engraved in Remba culture. 

To let a devout Remba eat nyamafu is perhaps one of the worst nonviolent offenses one can commit against him. 

His reputation will be spoiled, his integrity will be questioned and his record will be unclean. His seniority among the Remba will dwindle and even his children who will be born thereafter will be perceived as corrupted. 

The Shona can relate to this if viewed in the light of eating one’s own totem. 

The Shona believe this may have dire consequences including losing teeth, being prone to misfortune, bad omen and bad luck.

The most impactful consequence of eating nyamafu for a Remba is having one’s knife taken away. 

By eating unclean meat, whether purposely or otherwise, one would have forgone the right to slaughter for his fellow tribesman. 

There was a Remba man whose father ate beef from the butchery in his absence. 

This was out of desperation. 

Upon realising that by eating nyamafu, his son would become more senior than him for he had never eaten unclean meat, he came up with a plan. 

He told his son that they had slaughtered a cow in his absence and that the meat was clean as always. 

After his son finished eating, he then confessed and said; “Now you too have eaten nyamafu, it was from the store and I could not let you tower over me in my house.”

This is a true story and in many cases, once one has eaten nyamafu he fails to gather strength to keep observing the dietary law strictly.

On the other hand, there are Remba children who, though born in town or overseas and grew up eating nyamafu, chose later in life to strictly follow the dietary law of their tribesmen. These often abhor nyamafu just as much as those that have never tasted it and in addition, they lack the inevitable element of curiosity that results when a limit is imposed upon a human being. 

They know exactly what they are missing out on when they refuse to eat bacon, polony, ham, pies, hamburgers and meat pizzas. 

If they so choose, they can alter the meat they deem clean to mimic the taste found in those food items.

Often, the Remba become more devout in following their dietary code after being initiated. Beforehand, they may very much resemble any other Zimbabwean in terms of their eating habits. 

That is unless they are in Remba strongholds like Mberengwa, where even some of their non-Remba neighbours do not consume nyamafu

Post-initiation, following the Remba diet becomes a key part of the individual’s identity. 

It becomes a covenant which requires self-restraint and discipline in order to honour it. 

The word nyamafu begins to mean more than just unclean meat, but anything that is unacceptable and could be considered inhumane. 

The life line of the cleanliness that this individual will begin to exhibit in his diet, deeds and life choices will be very much linked to his ability to keep avoiding nyamafu

If he slips, this may have a domino effect that leads him to regress in keeping up other forms of cleanliness like sobriety.

This psychological phenomenon is based on the mandate that the ancestors of the Remba left for their descendants to follow. 

What the brain deems important makes it willing to take great strides, accept limits or make sacrifices to acquire and protect it. 

When this important thing is violated, neurotransmitters like dopamine fall and one has a bad day or episode which could lead to bad decision making and self-punishment. 

So it is imperative for one to be allowed to do what he feels is right and eat what he feels is clean in order for him to live confidently and remain in good spirits.

But what if this individual is surrounded by people that do not know his law and are thus prone to violate it at every turn. 

For instance, a Remba man arrives at his neighbour’s house. He asks for water and drinks his fill. 

Suddenly, he notices that the person who handed him the cup was all the while preparing mice with his bare hands. 

All of a sudden a foul taste enters his mouth and his mind begins to race. Did we shake hands? Did he touch the part of the cup that I used to sip the water? Did he drink from the cup after eating some mouse flesh? Either way, the man becomes disturbed enough to avoid eating or drinking at his neighbour’s house, or to stop going to his house ever again.

This may be viewed by some as an overreaction but this decision will be born out of the logical assumption that his neighbour’s utensils, namely his pots, plates, cups and cutlery are unclean because they would have been in direct or indirect contact with mouse flesh and blood among other things.

The Remba abhor the mouse so much that many people assume that their reluctance to consume them is indicative that they bear the mouse as a totem.

As strict as the Remba dietary law currently is, it was even stricter before they settled in Zimbabwe. 

Upon arriving here, the Remba encountered some food that their ancestors did not know or consider edible and thus had not made outright stipulations as to whether or not they are lawful to consume as food. 

These include the caterpillar (madora), termites (majuru), giant flying ants (ishwa), locust (mhashu), lung fish (muramba), the hare and guinea pigs. 

Some Remba people eat these because they were taught by their Shona mothers and neighbours to do so from olden times. 

The Remba made this compromise to accommodate some of the traditional food of Zimbabwe after identifying clean habits like the exclusive herbivorous diet of the hare, though it lacks divided hoofs.


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