The BaTonga and the colonial factor


THE BaTonga are generally not a violent people.
They viewed everything with suspicion and wanted to learn more from their visitors.
But some of these visitors including non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have over the years been exploiting the BaTonga.
It emerged during one of the meetings held by the Zimbabwe Heritage Trust (ZHT) in Binga recently that the BaTonga’s identities and way of life which are regarded as primitive were being changed to suit the lifestyles and identities of their neighbours who were deemed more civilised.
While the BaTonga have suffered an identity crisis ever since they were in touch with the colonialists as they were given names associated with the Ndebele in order to eliminate their original status as the first Zimbabweans who were found in Zimbabwe by missionary Dr David Livingstone, they have their own language, customs and traditions.
According to the BaTonga elders although they are trying to correct this imbalance through the educational curriculum the damage has already been done.
Most of their totems and names were changed to Ndebele or other languages, for example, the Munsaka became the Ndlovus, while the Mutale became the Ngwenya among other names.
In Binga today it is common to find names such as Chuma/Tshuma, Moyo, Dube or Ncube which were alien to their tribal groupings.
This, according to elders, was done to create a ‘civilised’ lot among the BaTonga.
The BaTonga elders have appealed to the ZHT to help in the research and documentation of their tribal names, because many NGOs working with the BaTonga have completely misled them about their true identities.
However, despite this so-called transformation, the BaTonga have maintained their good habits and gestures towards visitors.
Today when a visitor arrives at a homestead, he is greeted by the female matriarch who kneels before the visitor facing sideways and claps her hands, other women and children follow in similar fashion.
The father of the homestead is the only one allowed to have a handshake with the visitor.
He removes his hat and asks the stranger the nature of his visit.
Women bring in a calabash full of water or traditional sorghum beer depending on the visitor’s taste.
The visitor is not allowed to sit in the family kitchen or near women and children, but is taken away to the special ‘Nganda’ where a unique array of stools are on display.
The visitor is only given a certain stool that befits his status.
There are about seven types of stools in the BaTonga culture, each with a specific purpose.
There are those reserved for traditional chiefs, headmen, traditional healers, and visitors.
Women greet visitors facing sideways as a sign of subservience.
It is believed facing a male visitor is a sign of aggression or challenge to the visitor, so by kneeling down the women are showing the visitor that he is welcome and is more superior to them as females.
Today even a crowd of rumpled fishermen are there to greet you with forearms tough from years of hauling nets in the Zambezi and the frank gazes of people who believe with certainty that you are a visitor.
The elderly take every opportunity to welcome visitors with broken tooth smiles and wave at strangers with weathered hands.
Women visitors are treated differently.
They are welcomed in the homestead by other women, while the matriarch assumes the role of asking her the nature of her visit.
Unlike the male visitor she is taken to the kitchen hut where she is served food and drink.
The way they greet people and other ways of their lifestyle remain baffling to so many people.
Usually when one talks of the BaTonga people the image that immediately comes to mind is not always a rosy one.
To many, the BaTonga are just one backward community living on the fringes of civilisation, in the backwaters of Binga where they while away their time doing nothing except smoking marijuana and ‘taking more women into polygamous marriages’, as one observer put it.
The BaTonga are often viewed as a community of people, not keen to embrace modernity.
However, the heart of the matter is that the BaTonga people are just one of those rare breeds of people in Zimbabwe, who are remarkable for their desire to safeguard their culture and traditions at whatever cost.
It is also evident that they are content with their traditional lifestyle which is rooted in the dusty and rocky area of the backwaters of Binga, far away from the crowds of city life.
Although a few modern trappings like simple clothes have crept into their lifestyle, the BaTonga still practise some traditions, and have kept them alive and across generations.
The BaTonga people are just one Zimbabwean tribe that still derive livelihood from natural surroundings in a way similar to that of the ‘hunter and gatherer’ system among the ancient African tribes.
Although their daily routine in an effort to put a fulfilling meal ‘on the table’, so to speak, is often painstaking, most of their foods are rich in nutrition, nourishing and to a certain extent, herbal or therapeutic.
Their staple food is mhunga (millet), which they grind with a mortar and pestle and grinding stone until it turns into fine flour, which is then used to cook sadza.
So strong are their beliefs in traditional methods of doing things that to them, modern gadgets such as grinding mills, are unnecessary.
They rely on what Mother Nature provides for them.
Take for instance, a certain bean-like delicacy, which is called busika, which falls from a tree.
The BaTonga elders have been eating busika for a long time.
It boosts one’s manhood.
If one’s libido is low, you can use busika.
Although it is sour, it can be used as a delicacy in porridge or eaten raw.
The BaTonga do not need to go for long distances to find Western medicines to have their ailments treated.
One prominent feature that immediately puts an identity on most BaTonga women of advanced age is the tobacco gourd (inchelwa or ndombona) with its pronounced pipe.
The gourd is filled with water and stuffed with tobacco, and sometimes cannabis, which is popular with the elderly women.
The water traps tar to avoid cancer or harming the lungs.
This makes it easy for one to enjoy the stuff without having to worry about harming the lungs.
To the BaTonga, modern means of transport does not matter much since they are used to trekking long distances when they are hunting or on fishing expeditions as well as attending different traditional ceremonies.
There is no doubt the BaTonga are still wrapped in their culture and traditions.


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