Unpacking the mysteries of the Njelele shrine: Part Two


THE custodianship and control of Njelele has been confined on individual and family contests for power.
These contests led to serious conflicts between chiefs in Matabeleland South, war veterans and traditional healers.
Chiefs last year barred a delegation of war veterans, traditional and spiritual healers from entering the Njelele shrine citing desecration fears.
This was despite the fact that as a shrine, Njelele predominantly remained a Mwari shrine whose roots are deeply from the Shona and related tribes such as Venda and Kalanga, while chiefs in Matabeleland purely assumed a monitoring role as the shrine falls under their area.
The contest for Njelele started sometime before the 1960s and involved Sitwanyana Ncube and the Ndlovu brothers Sili, and Mayabu.
Sitwanyana claimed and assumed priesthood and custodianship of Njelele.
He led pilgrimages to the shrine from the southern side while Mayabu also led pilgrimages from Khumalo Village on the northern side.
This contest continued during and after the country’s liberation until a third contestant called Ngcathu Mayazane Ncube was recommended by local elders and was brought back to the shrine in 1995 by chiefs as the priestess and custodian.
Ngcathu had left Njelele during the early 1960s after she divorced with Sitwanyana Ncube and is said to have been the priestess and custodian of the shrine.
The bringing in of Ngcathu was an attempt to resolve the long standing dispute between Sitwanyana and Mayabu over Njelele.
From the mid 1990s, all the three contestants claimed to have been legally installed as custodians and each also claimed strong traditional spiritual connections to the shrine.
Before and after the country’s independence, government heritage departments made numerous attempts to take over and control this important rain making shrine.
The departments knew that local communities had since the colonial period and after independence, opposed the idea of protecting Njelele under modern heritage rules and regulations.
This dispute resulted in Njelele not being proclaimed a national monument.
The people had realised that tourism spoils the sacredness of shrines, and did not want Njelele to be ruined like other sites located in the park.
The rejection might also have been based on a realisation that this was a stratagem to proclaim the shrine a national monument to resolve the long standing custodian and priesthood dispute.
Rather, the local people wanted the dispute resolved by the government officials by nominating and appointing a guardian and priest from the three contesting families. However, no appropriate decision was reached about which family should control Njelele.
Soon after the liberation struggle in 1980, the issue of proclamation of Njelele as a national monument resurfaced.
Such a proclamation must have been instigated by fresh political contests over priesthood and control of the rainmaking shrine.
The arrival of Ngcathu Ncube at Njelele ushered in a new era of fresh contests for custodianship and priesthood.
Ngcathu had demanded that before she would accept installation as the custodian and priestess of the shrine, her two rivals, Sitwanyana and David Ndlovu, should be removed from Njelele.
On arrival at Njelele, Ngcathu began to take pilgrims to the shrine while castigating her two rivals.
The issue of proclaiming Njelele a national monument resurfaced again, prompted by fresh contests of priesthood and control of Njelele by the three different family members Sitwanyana Ncube, David Ndlovu (Mayabu’s young brother) and Ngcathu Mazeyane Ncube.
In 1988, Sitwanyana returned to Njelele and his return to the shrine was strongly opposed by his opponents.
In the past, Sitwanyana had on several occasions been evicted from his homestead by groups of people contesting for custodianship and control of the shrine and that he also practices traditional healing which is contrary to the traditions and requirements of Njelele.
In addition, his opponents were seriously opposed to Sitwanyana’s settlement near perennial pools and to the sacred passageway to the shrine.
However, the contest for stewardship and priesthood had intensified to the extent that it seemed the only logical way to resolve the issue was to proclaim it a national monument and have it administered by a neutral and appropriate government heritage department such as the National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe.
It seems that from then, no attempts were made to either resolve the custodianship or priesthood issue or to proclaim Njelele a national monument.
The three contestants were left to fight for their own custodianship and priesthood.
The fight resulted in the flight of Ngcathu to Silawa, located about 50 kilometres away from Njelele after her homestead was struck by a bolt of lightning. Meanwhile, Sitwanyana, who had relocated to another area, returned to Njelele after the flight of his former wife.
A year later in 2000, Ngcathu passed away in circumstances that villagers described as mysterious.
She was buried at Silawa.
After Ngcathu passed away, Sitwanyana took over the Njelele priesthood and custodianship.
In 2006, Sitwanyana also passed away, leaving David Ndlovu in charge of Njelele. The departure from the historical scene of the two powerful contestants of Matonjeni, Ngcathu, and Sithwanyana seemed to have put to an end the contest for custodianship and priesthood of Njelele.
The contests among Sitwanyana Ncube, and the Ndlovu family, and Ngcathu Ncube on the other hand, and politicians on the other over the control of Njelele demonstrate the conflicts that occur over invaluable heritage places.
It also shows that each contestant interfered with the others and pursued conflicting efforts to become an accepted custodian and priest for Njelele.
Scholars argued that conflicts of this nature could be seen as an expressed struggle between interdependent parties who perceive incompatible goals, scarce resources and interference from each other in their efforts to achieve targeted goals.
Njelele presents a different case altogether because traditions and values associated with it are still living and valued by modern day people of Zimbabwe.
They still wish to invoke and consult the shrine in times of crisis such as drought, illness and death.
Similarly, the failure by politicians to proclaim national monument status for the shrine may be due to the realisation that the wartime guidance and protection they required from Njelele was no longer necessary.
They may also have realised that the nomination of the shrine keeper from the three contesting families would politicise a cultural issue, which should otherwise be solved by the people.


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