Zimbabwe’s sacred forests: Part One

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By Elliott Siamonga

THE mention of the word sacred forest invokes different feelings in an individual.
Imaginations run wild, while in Western African countries like Nigeria, sacred forests are associated with evil, abominations and other vices, but in Zimbabwe forests played a very critical role in the sustenance of the livelihood of indigenous people through the provision of wild fruits, honey and animals.
They are also a source of spiritual guidance.
Forests also played a crucial role in the preservation of taboos and other traditional values of the indigenous people and their subsequent contribution in harbouring the liberation war fighters of the Second Chimurenga.
Alongside mountains that are sacred to individual communities, forests not only played a role in the provision of wild fruits, honey and other forest products, but they entrenched a culture of respect among the indigenous people.
The forests were saved from defilement and deforestation by certain binding taboos that still exist to this day.
Taboos associated with each forest should be observed and the keepers of a sacred forest have the mandate to ensure that these were followed, failure to which the angered spirits punished the offenders, or the whole community suffered the consequences of drought, sickness, or plagues such as the invasion of locusts, worms and birds in their fields.
Certain rituals had to be performed to appease the angered spirits, and the offenders were fined a beast, goat or chicken that would be released in the sacred forest and left to wander around on their own.
No one dared tamper with the animals lest the wrath of the spirits descended on them.
One such sacred forest is Ndambakurimwa Sacred Forest in the Domboshava Hills environs.
The forest was declared a national monument in 1996.
Several myths surround it.
According to elders and villagers who live near the sacred forest in Domboshava, the forest was named Ndambakurimwa, as a result of some strange events that were noted in the forest.
Those who tried to clear the land for agricultural purposes in the sacred forest would get a rude awakening the next morning as the cleared and uprooted trees grew back in their same position they were cut.
Curators from the National Museums and Monuments (NMMZ) confirmed these stories and said such forests were not supposed to be used as arable land.
Although custodians of this sacred forest bemoan desecration of some parts of the forest, they said the taboo system has preserved most of this sacred woodland. They said if one carried an axe in the forest intending to cut firewood or any tree for that matter the axe would suddenly disappear.
There are also explanations where some liberation war fighters used the forest as a hideout while they planned their insurgence against Rhodesian forces.
The proximity of the sacred forest to Harare (then Salisbury) made it easier for the fighters to plan and execute successful operations like the burning of the Salisbury fuel tanks and nearby white owned commercial farms.
The comrades, who were guided by the spirits of Mbuya Nehanda and Sekuru Kaguvi, had no problems staying in such consecrated places as they respected the sacredness of such places and never desecrated them in any way.
Cases of sadza rezviyo or mhunga just appearing under the base of certain trees such as Muhacha are said to have been very common in the forest according to villagers in Domboshava.
Folklore also has it that if one got very hungry passing through the sacred forest, they went down on their knees before the Muhacha or Muchakata tree, clapped their hands and food would suddenly appear wrapped in the Muzhanje tree leaves.
If one said uncalled-for things that angered the spirits of the forest, they would disappear in the forest for some days.
They would re-emerge after some time and were not able to explain what had happened to them or what they had seen in the sacred forest.
The spirits also ensured that those who excreted in the forest had their feaces follow them.
This discouraged people from spoiling the sacred forest, while any form of desecration of the forest warranted the brewing of beer to conciliate the spirits.
Village elders also spoke of some strange animals that are also regarded as the protectors of the forest.
They include the klipspringer (Ngururu), white lions, baboons and some strange birds.
It is these animals and official custodians of the forest that made sure that certain taboos of the forest were adhered to.
For instance, Ndambakurimwa sacred forest has a very large swath of Muzhanje trees called jiri, and during the fruiting season of these trees, several things occurred that discouraged villagers from wantonly harvesting the fruits.
The lion is said to just chomp and spit the fruits, then a strong mist engulfs the forest.
This discouraged villagers from harvesting the fruits therefore making way for other animals and birds to eat.
The spirits of the forest ensured unbiased sharing of the fruits between humans and animals.
There are also special rituals that are carried in the Ndambakurimwa sacred forest.
During these ceremonies, elders say no one is allowed to go in the forest wearing shoes, and they are supposed to clap hands before they enter the forest.
Some of the rituals undertaken in the forest according to elders are rain making ceremonies (mutoro).
Traditional sorghum beer is brewed and villagers gather at a certain spot in the forest where they sing and dance to songs accompanied by traditional drums and mbira.
They only leave the spot after the formation of rain clouds.
The rituals are practised and observed every year although urbanisation is threatening to derail the ceremonies as many people from different tribes have built their homesteads near the sacred forest.
Although the NMMZ has put in place security measures to ensure that the place remains sacred, concern has been raised by the villagers who said some religious groupings are carrying out informal religious services and cleansing ceremonies in the sacred forest, something they said has angered the ancestors and other spirit mediums of the area.
Villagers are still dumbfounded about an incident where an elderly man’s homestead was swept away by a mudslide.
They have touted several theories, some linking the incident to the desecration of the Ndambakurimwa sacred forest.
The custodians said shrines and other sacred places in the landscape, particularly so-called holy homes, where a spirit is believed to dwell, should be approached with caution.
Some places in the sacred forest could not be looked at, except under special circumstances and most required that some offering be left as a sign of respect.
Failure to do so would bring bad luck to one’s family or even death.
In the observance of such sacred forests, trees, grass and animals and other creatures found around such shrines or forest are not interfered with.
An example of such a sacred forest will be addressed in our next article where we focus on examples of community-based management practices in the Bikita district.
This generally leads to the conservation of the entire ecosystem around such places.

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