Unpacking the mysteries of the Njelele shrine: Part One

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NJELELE, also known as Mabweadziva or Matonjeni is a prominent rainmaking shrine located outside the south western fringes of the Matobo National Park in the Khumalo communal area approximately hundred kilometers south of Bulawayo.
It is not clear when Njelele was first established in the Matobo Hills.
Oral traditions are conflictual.
According to the Rozvi oral tradition, the origins of Njelele dates back to about the 14th century when the Mbire ethnic group migrated from around Lake Tanganyika southwards and eventually settled at Great Zimbabwe, a proto Shona settlement occupied between 1250-1450 AD.
It is possible that the Mwari cult 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 cult has essentially remained a Shona institution although the Ndebele later adopted the Mwari cult, invoked and consulted the oracle when rains failed or when personal advice was needed.
Oral tradition recalls that Lobengula housed some of the Mwari cult priests at his 19th century settlement of Bulawayo so that he could seek advice from them in times of crisis.
The cult’s influence also spread as far afield as the country’s southern districts of Chivi in Masvingo and people came as far as Gutu to consult the oracle at Njelele during periods of drought and other problems.
Another version of the oral tradition says that 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 cult in the Matobo Hills.
After the establishment of Njelele in Matobo, several other cult centres such as Dula and Zhilo 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 cult tradition.
The shrine is part of the Matobo Hills, which is found in a granite kopje that looks solid and similar to several others in the same area.
The outcrop is located on a mountain range that runs from east to west.
There are three naturally hidden entrances that wind up and down among overhang granite boulders into the shrine.
However, the main attribute of Njelele is not the cave, but the gallery in the rocks. There are also several small tunnels, which lead to the shrine’s various chambers from the narrow entrance between two tall rocks.
An assortment of skulls and horns of big game, iron hoes, clay pots containing water, cloth and beads, piles of tobacco, hatchets, and spears are kept in one of the caves at Njelele.
It is believed these objects were offerings to the presiding deity.
Mwari, as he is known among the Shona speaking people, is believed to have lived at Njelele.
The personal presence of Mwari at Njelele was indicated by his voice.
The Shona people believed that Mwari was the highest and final authority behind their ancestors (Vadzimu).
The secret behind the respect accorded to sacred areas and their environs lies in the taboos that are associated with them.
The Shona believed that the spirits reside in forests, mountains, caves, hollow trees and pools, closely linking intangible aspects of heritage with these tangible places.
The adherents of the traditional Mwari and the ancestral spirit therefore attach great respect to the environment because they argue, by despoiling it they will be depriving Mwari and the spirits of a home to live in.
Individual groups were and are still not allowed visiting a sacred place or its environs in the absence of the official priest or priestess or his/her appointee. Songs of praise precede the approach to the shrine and an appropriate person leads the visitors to the shrine, this way no mischief is envisaged.
Mwari could be consulted at Njelele through his voice, which was heard when invoked.
During rainmaking ceremonies traditional beer was brought in clay pots by pre-pubescent and post menopausal women and placed outside the shrine.
This was to ensure that the shrine’s purity is maintained and would not be defiled by married women who still experience their menstrual periods.
The priest and messengers would step back a few metres from the shrine and the spokesperson would clap hands, praising and asking Mwari for rain.
After considerable time of clapping hands, praises and requests Mwari’s voice would be heard advising the priest and messengers on procedures and requirements for the requests to be granted.
The voice of Mwari is believed to be heard from the rocks. (The stone at Njelele is believed to have talked until 1914 according to historians).
However, there were also regular visits by priests and messengers from various chiefs throughout the country to appease Mwari by sacrificing and presenting him with cattle and beer.
The cult could also be consulted and Mwari invoked in times of illness and death, domesticated animal diseases, during agricultural seasons of sowing and reaping, succession disputes, personal and ethnic groups, natural phenomenon such as rainfall failure, and even times of politics and war.
It is taboo to cut down a tree in a sacred place.
Failure to observe that would result in individuals or their families or the entire community being punished by the aggrieved spirits.
When an animal fleeing from hunters entered the shrine, the chase was immediately called off.
The animal was regarded as part of the sacred herd.
The year at Njelele commenced in August to September with a thanksgiving after the harvest.
This was started with the priestly dances in various parts of the region, and then followed by pilgrimage of the traditional healers and the few select members of the community who went to Njelele to offer gifts and requests for the ensuing year.
Perhaps the most common and respected ritual was that of the first fruit harvesting which was conducted by the local elderly women and children below puberty who moved from one farm to another harvesting the first fruit, uniting the community and exposing the need to feed first and protect the vulnerable elderly widows and children.
Njelele assumed higher values at when prominent leaders and liberation war soldiers consulted the oracle for guidance and security.
The current failure to elevate and proclaim Njelele a national monument by Government is regrettable and tragic.

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