The relationship between ancestors and the living in Shona culture

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THERE are no differences between religion and culture in Shona worldview and everyday practice. There are no mediums between God and Man. Mediums or masvikiro are between the ancestors and the living. There are carriers of messages between the living and the ancestors. The interaction between the living and the ancestors in Shona culture is not worship, but an everyday social and economic communal business. The ancestors are human, not gods. Both the ancestors and the living form the human community. The ancestors need the living. The living need the ancestors. What affects the living affects the Ancestors. What affects the ancestors affects the living. The ancestors cannot do without the living and the living cannot do without the ancestors. The relationship between the living and the ancestors is symbiotic, like a tortoise and its shell. There is no tortoise without a shell and there is no shell that is a tortoise. The tortoise carries its shell wherever it goes. The Shona carry their ancestors wherever they go. When the Shona greet each other, they also greet their Ancestors at the same time. They say “How ‘are’ you,” not “How ‘is’ you.” A Shona does not walk or live alone without his or her Ancestors. The Ancestors are right there in the Shona hut. Their habitat is chikuva or huva. Huva or chikuva are symbols of ancestral habitats in the Shona hut. Chikuva or huva are derived from guva which means the burial place of the ancestors. When one dies in Shona culture, his or her body lies in state at the chikuva or huva. When there is a marriage or long journey to be undertaken, the family kneels at the huva or chikuva to inform the ancestors. The father is the ‘priest’ and the mother is the ‘priestess’, to borrow the terms from our enemies’ religious practices. Members of the family and their friends and relatives are the ‘congregation’. The hut is the ‘church’. Chikuva is the ‘altar’. Although the occasion looks like worship, in the eyes of European religion, it is purely a family communal business between the Shona and their ancestors. There is no need for hired priests from outside. Although the hut looks like a church at such occasions, it is still a hut where people live and everything that happens there is spiritual, social, economic and sacred, including cooking and eating, in which the ancestors also partake. Although invisible, their presence is palpable and real. Yes, the relationship between the ancestors and the living in Shona culture is like a tortoise and its shell. The ancestors need the living and the living need the ancestors. The ancestors are spiritual. They cannot look after their own graves or habitats from being destroyed by Man or Nature. They need the living to do so for them. Yes, the Ancestors are helpless without the living. They cannot look after the monuments they have constructed such as Great Zimbabwe and Njerere Shrines, from being destroyed by man. It is the living who must do so and rehabilitate them and defend and protect and cherish them as their sacred heritage. Again, as a point of emphasis, the ancestors are spiritual. They cannot and could not adorn their physical bodies again to stop the Rhodesians from ravaging the graves where they are buried for armlets, trinkets and gold or from cutting their heads and sending them to museums in Europe as curios for tourists. It is the living who must do so and take Rhodesians and Europeans to task to return all the artefacts and remains they have scavenged and stole from the graves and monuments and shrines of our ancestors, as our invaluable heritage. One more time, the ancestors are spiritual. They cannot rise again from their habitats and adorn human bodies to fight and reclaim their stolen remains displayed in museums all over Europe as curios for tourists. The Rhodesians and Europeans themselves make sure that the graves of their ancestors, Rhodes and Leander Starr Jameson, are well taken care of in the sacred Shona Mountains of Matopo in independent Zimbabwe while we help them to do so and neglect our own. A people who abandon their ancestors to follow the ancestors of the white man as their God, are lost and damned.

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