Veneration of ancestors vis-a-vis Christianity


THE ancestors are respected, remembered and – when they have something important to communicate to their descendants — they come through masvikiro after a special ritual is carried out.
The rituals are in the form of a bira where traditional beer is brewed and the family or community gather around to hear what the ancestors have to say about their problems.
My Grade Three daughter came from school one day and asked me about the importance of ancestor veneration. She had learned that from school, thanks to the new educational curriculum that introduced Heritage Studies. I told her our ancestors were very important and should be respected, for if we do not respect them we will have problems in our lives.
In traditional ancestral veneration, the spirit of a deceased person returns to the community and the deceased heads of extended families (the ancestors) have a powerful influence on family life.
The spirit ancestors are usually only two or three generations back from the living and pass on the custom of honouring their ancestors and the traditions of the community.
They are honoured in ceremonies to celebrate a good harvest and in appeals that deal with misfortune.
When a spirit becomes angry, it communicates through a medium, or a diviner diagnoses the anger and cause, and appeasement follows.
However, there is need for educators to strike a balance when they are teaching religious education and heritage studies because there is a conflict of interest. Christianity demonises ancestral worship while heritage studies recognises the veneration of our ancestors and to impart such complex issues to young minds needs some special interpretation.
Another subject is of totems and their link to ancestral worship. The whiteman, through missionaries, did not regard our sacred animals as important to us in African traditional worship and children see their totem animals and birds being denigrated.
Lions, elephants, buffaloes, crocodiles, eagles and many other totem animals are displayed in zoos and used to entertain Western audiences. Some of our totem animals are used as cartoon characters, especially in the cartoons like The Lion King where they are given African names but they don’t appeal to African audiences.
This has confused our children more and they grow up disregarding ancestral veneration.
The common misconception created by the whiteman is that ancestral veneration is evil and has been the cause of the long-standing conflict between Christian missionaries and most African communities.
The refusal to allow converts to take communion unless they disavow all links to ancestors is one example.
However, over the years, other moderate churches started to question the missionary churches’ policy of accepting other African traditional practices while demonising others.
Before colonisation, communities in Zimbabwe had their own language, customs and traditions.
They were proud and fiercely independent, but their efforts to protect themselves from colonialists who labelled them as an inferior lot hit a brickwall as they were given names associated with the whiteman.
According to traditionalists, although most communities are trying to correct this imbalance through the educational curriculum, the damage has already been done as most of their totems and names were changed.
However, despite this so-called transformation, some indigenous communities, such as the BaTonga and the Doma people of Kanyemba, have maintained their ancestral worship as well as good traditional habits of welcoming visitors, among others.
Ancestral veneration among the Doma community was displayed recently when the First Lady Mai Auxillia Mnangagwa visited the area.
The lifestyle of the Doma people is still dictated by ancestral veneration while their nomadic lifestyle is influenced by their belief in their ancestors.
Similarly, the BaTonga have maintained their traditional way of life. 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 while other women and children follow suit.
The male or father of the homestead is the only one allowed to handshake the visitor; he removes his hat and asks the stranger the reason for his visit.
The matriarch is one of the most respected females among the BaTonga and she is the ancestor to the family when she passes on. Most traditional healers and masvikiro get possessed by the spirit of the matriarch.
Women bring in a calabash 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; he is taken away to the special nganda where a unique array of stools are on display.
The visitor is given a stool that befits his status.
There are several types of stools and each one has a specific purpose — there are those reserved for traditional chiefs, headmen, traditional healers or ancestors.
Female visitors are treated differently; they are welcomed in the homestead by other women while the matriarch assumes the role of asking the nature of the visit. Unlike the male visitor, she is taken to the kitchen hut where she is served food and drink.
With the new curriculum now in place, it is important for educators to strike a balance and link ancestral worship to Christianity as well as respect traditional values and way of life of different children from different communities and tribes.


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