Zimbabwe’s sacred forests: Part Three

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AS you travel from Masvingo on the Masvingo — Mutare road; about 80 kilometres east of Masvingo, you get to a business centre called Maregere.
At that business centre you branch off, tur­ning right and going in the south-easterly direction on a dirt road.
After 11 kilometres, you get to a Roman Catholic Mission called Silveira. A rise in the physical features of the terrain is experienced because Silveira Mission is built on the foothills of Hanyanya Mountain, the highest peak in Bikita district.
Now you wish you had a four-wheel drive vehicle because you literally go uphill.
What instantly disarms you are the smiling faces and their very genuine unassuming nature.
On reaching the top of the mountain, you are reminded of one of the temptations that Jesus Christ is said to have gone through:
“Behold all this vast land.
“It will be all yours if you just kneel before me.”
True, Satan was overambitious trying to tempt Jesus, but Jesus could have had second thoughts if he was confronted with such beauty as what you are confronted with now.
Because you are on top of the mountain, the view is unlimited.
Twenty kilometres away, the waters of Siya Dam remind you of diamonds.
More than 100 kilometres away if it is at night, the lights of Chiredzi twinkle.
You are south-east of Masvingo at this point.
You watch what is below about two or three kilometres away.
A vast beautiful valley reminds you of volcanic lakes because it is surrounded by mountains.
There are nicely thatched grass huts and a few scattered iron roofed houses.
But all these are surroun­ding a large forest of about 50 square kilometres in size.
You wonder why.
What you are seeing now is the jiri reharurwa — the forest which is the home of the insects harurwa.
The mountain opposite is Rumedzo Mountain.
You are now in Rumedzo Village, the land which was given to Nemeso by his father many years ago.
It was in the valley you are looking at across on the foothills of Rumedzo Mountain that the spirit of Chikukuku, Nemeso’s great-great grandfather spoke to Nemeso and gave Nemeso the mysterious insects called harurwa.
In a previous article, I explored how important harurwa is to the people of Bikita, and the myths surrounding this delicacy among the Karanga people of Bikita in Masvingo province.
This week, a direct descendant of the Nerumedzo people, author and film maker Claude Maredza unpacks some of the intimate issues surrounding the God-given ‘mana’ from Bikita.
Several intimate issues still surround the harvesting and eating of harurwa in Bikita.
At one time according to Maredza, bags full of harurwa meant for research were sent to the University of Zimbabwe, but nothing came to fruition partly because the ‘stink bugs’ were eaten by the would-be researchers.
There were also attempts by Maredza to research on the longevity of the bugs which are believed to have a special chemical that endowed them with longevity.
The chemical components emitted from the bug are used for medicinal purposes, but the efficacy of the medicines or drugs is yet to be proved as there is no scientific basis to back this assertion.
White people are also not allowed to go into the Nerumedzo Forest, an issue that locals said should be thoroughly addressed now that the forest is soon to be declared a national monument.
Maredza has penned the book Harurwa, and produced a film in honour of the ‘stink bugs’, particularly how they have united the people of Bikita.
It was also clear how these bugs are revered in Bikita.
They have become synonymous with sacredness and the legend surrounding their abundance in Bikita has become something like a household tale at every homestead.
According to villagers, the ‘stink bugs’ only appear in the Nerumedzo sacred forest and it still baffles the villagers as the ‘stink bugs’ only appear in winter and they all have the same body size and weight.
There are no known hibernating places, making it a mystery as to where they breed or reproduce.
Surprisingly, they are found with eggs in their abdomens.
The reproductive process of the stink bugs has never been witnessed, and their hibernation has remained a mystery among the people of Bikita.
The ‘stink bugs’ are only seen in winter.
They signal their arrival by making a slow whistling sound known as ‘kuunga’ in the area.
Contrary to beliefs that every insect or bug sometimes eats leaves or other foliage from its host trees, it is surprising that the stink bugs do not eat any leaves or known vegetation in their host trees.
It is believed they survive on the early morning dew, hence their reverence by the ‘Moyo’ totem of Bikita as chimwazando.
Maredza said when this sound is heard, word is spread around the village and the chief summons his Dare where they are informed that muriwo wauya, and every villager is asked to contribute towards the brewing of traditional beer to welcome the ‘stink bugs’.
During the welcoming ceremony, a wooden plate full of the stink bugs is placed before the Dare while a thanksgiving ritual is performed to Nemeso.
A platform is then constructed in the middle of the forest.
This platform (musasa) is exactly the same as was constructed by Nemeso many years ago.
Nemeso is believed to have been the first one to build the musasa hence the tradition to build it still exists today.
At the musasa an administrator is appointed to ensure the systematic and proper harvesting of the harurwa.
He also monitors and demarcates the places where villagers should harvest at a given time.
However, because of the commercialisation of harurwa, some villagers tend to harvest in undesignated areas, and if these are caught they are punished.
Their punishment includes hewing wood for the administrator and his assistants in the case of males, while females cook and fetch water.
As villagers harvest, a full bag of harurwa is sent to chief (Mazungunye) and the district administrator’s office as a token of appreciation
During the harvesting, a certain area that covers more than two hectares in the middle of the forest is not supposed to be tampered with.
There is a special mutoro tree where all the harurwa gather.
These are only harvested on the last day.
Everyone is allowed to go and have a share of the stink bugs in the mutoro tree and its immediate environs.
This type of harvesting is called ‘kurova mutoro’.
To avoid shedding tears when eating the bugs, only those whose abdomens are clear and do not bear black spots should be eaten as those do not have any form of chemical.
Perhaps the most interesting issue surrounding harurwa is when during the liberation war, the forest was just left intact, as there were no known casualties around Nerumedzo and its environs.
Villagers said the forest was used by liberation war fighters as a base where they conducted the pungwes and under the full knowledge of the white Rhodesian forces.
It was the spirit of Nemeso who protected the forest and the descendants of Nemeso from casualties of the war.
However, as mentioned in the previous issue, the people of Bikita capitalise on the presence of ‘stink bugs’ in communal-lands and earn a good income.
The traditionally inspired management system by the Nerumedzo people is applicable in those areas where traditional beliefs and practices are still upheld, and there are many such places where spirit mediums command the respect of the people.

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