Talking oracle mystery at the Njelele Shrine: Part One…understanding the Mwari religion


SOME four years ago, I wrote on why the Njelele Shrine should be proclaimed a national monument, but there were varying opinions from some elders around the Matobo area who felt if the sacred shrine was proclaimed a monument, it was bound to be defiled and commercialised as it would be opened up to tourists and some unscrupulous traditional healers who would perform unsanctioned rites.
Last week, I had the opportunity to visit the shrine just to check on how the place was, I was saddened to find this place, central to our African religion, lying derelict.
Maybe we should revisit why it should be a national monument.
The Mwari of Njelele story is an unexplored intangible heritage of Zimbabwe.
Unless the rain-asking ceremony of Njelele is understood, a greater chunk of the history of Zimbabwe will remain in oblivion.
History authors have, unknowingly or deliberately, avoided telling the story of the rightful custodians of this shrine which would unlock deeper understanding of the history and what exactly is happening at Njelele.
The voices at Njelele have gone quiet.
Can they be redeemed?
Probably not!
Perhaps no one can answer with certainty.
But by telling the true history of the custodians of the sacred place, we can, nationally, make a difference and make the Mabweadziva talk again.
Mwari was not always on a specific mountain of Njelele in Matopos. This is simply the last known place of national significance where Mwari’s voice was heard.
Just like the Ark of the Covenant in times of the biblical Moses, this power was moving with the chosen house of priests.
The voice and power of the ‘oracle’ was where ever the priests pitched their worship ‘tent’ of Mwari.
The Mwari worship system had been in place probably during the Mapungubwe Empire as well as the Dzimbabwe and Khami empires.
Rain-asking shrines were later decentralised under the guiding spirit of Njenjema, the founding priest of the present Njelele shrine.
It is, therefore, possible to find other shines regarded as Njelele or the claim that other shrines such as Manyang’wa were established by Njenjema.
Njenjema was a custodian of such shrines.
There are also stories alleging that Njenjema sparked the colonial war in 1893 and was later shot dead during the Cullen Raid.
This can only be the second or third priest after the real Njenjema.
The Njelele Mwari was a god of peace and not war.
Therefore, the Dzimbabwe or stone builders had always been a peaceful people who were accommodative of tribes that were immigrating from the whole of southern Africa.
Some were coming voluntarily while others were victims of natural disasters and wars.
Njelele, as a regional shrine, attracted different tribes who made pilgrimage to it.
Njelele is a prominent rain-asking shrine located outside the south-western fringes of the Matobo National Park in the Khumalo communal area, approximately a 100km south of Bulawayo.
According to the Rozvi tradition, the origins of Njelele dates back to circa 14th Century when the Mbire ethnic group migrated from around Lake Tanganyika southwards and eventually settled at Great Zimbabwe, a prototype Shona settlement occupied between 1250-1450 AD.
It is possible that the Mwari religion was established at Great Zimbabwe even though some scholars thought the establishment of the Mwari shrine at Njelele could have been associated or coincided with a shift of the Rozvi administrative power from Great Zimbabwe to the Matobo Hills.
The religion has essentially remained a Shona and Venda institution although the Ndebele later adopted the Mwari religion; invoking and consulting the oracle when rains failed or when communal advice was needed.
Another version of the oral tradition says the shrine was established in the hills after the Great Zimbabwe was involved in a religious dispute, during which a splinter group of traditional priests moved away from Great Zimbabwe and eventually established the Mwari religion in the Matopo Hills.
After the establishment of Njelele in Matobo, several other religious centres such as Dula, Zhilo and Bumbusi in the Hwange National Park were also established in the same locality, spreading their influence far and wide, while other similar traditional institutions existed in the south-west of Zimbabwe among the Kalanga and Venda people.
In the 19th Century, traditional priests were therefore drawn from Venda and Kalanga families, which were said to have been deeply entrenched in the Mwari religious tradition. The Ndebele, who settled near the Matopo Hills in the early 19th Century, also adopted the Mwari religion, giving it a new name Mlimo.
The worship system never looked at individual’s problem but community or regional problems.
The Njelele shrine was peaceful prior to the arrival of the Ndebele and during the reign of Mzilikazi.
Mzilikazi was careful to treat the shrines of Mwari with respect, and that explains why he was buried in the Matopo Hills, in other words Mzilikazi paid tribute to the Mwari priests.
A history of Zimbabwe that fails to understand and recognise the role of Njelele and other ruins found in Zimbabwe, southern Africa in particular, is a fallacy and trickery by the colonisers who seek simplified languages and history for their convenience.
The voice of Mwari is believed to be heard from the rocks.
According to historians, the stone cave at Njelele is believed to have talked until 1914.
However, there were also regular visits by priests and messengers from various chiefs throughout the country to appease Mwari by making sacrifices. Like various religious denominations, the followers of Mwari in the country hold the Njelele shrine in high esteem and used to congregate annually for supplication, just as the Moslems do in Mecca.


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