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A hectic season in rural Zimbabwe

The months of August, September and October are an interesting season in rural Zimbabwe. This period, marked by the end of the cold winter season and the onset of the hot rainy season, is the time when Zimbabweans conduct the traditional rituals of ‘kurova guva’ and ‘mutoro’ in the Shona culture. ‘Mutoro’ is also variously referred to as ‘mukwerere’ or in Manyika, ‘makanzvo.’

Kurova guva’ is a ritual that is conducted at least a year after the passing on of any adult who is survived by offspring. When a grown person dies in the Shona culture, it is believed that his spirit wanders about. It is a homeless spirit. Only until the surviving relatives of the deceased "welcome back" his or her spirit does it become a legitimate ancestral or family spirit. The ritual, which varies in detail between different ethnicities, is also meant to bring back into the home the spirit of the deceased for the purpose of looking after the spiritual welfare of the surviving offspring. It generally involves the brewing of traditional beer and the slaughtering of a goat and, for those who can afford it, a cow.

This season I had the opportunity to attend numerous ‘kurova guva’ rituals and two ‘mutoro’ rituals. I will share what happened at the ritual that I attended at the end of September.

The actual ritual is centred on the traditional beer and the goat. The cow, if slaughtered, will have no relevance to the conduct of the ritual. It will be slaughtered simply for relish to feed the relatives and friends of the deceased.

The ritual commences prior to the brewing of the beer, when a senior blood relative of the deceased performs a ceremony to dedicate the malt to the spirit of the deceased. After the beer has been brewed, the most important aspects of the ritual follow.

First is the sprinkling of water on the goat by blood relatives of the deceased and the goat is expected to wince as a signal that the deceased has approved of the ceremony. If the goat doesn’t wince, the turn goes to the next relative until the goat finally winces. If all the blood relatives take their turn but still the goat doesn’t wince, that would be a signal of disapproval by the deceased, and the ceremony has to be aborted.

After the goat has winced, it is slaughtered, roasted and eaten without salt by the close relatives of the deceased. A calabash or clay pot of beer is set aside specifically for the ritual and as with the malt prior to brewing; another short ceremony is performed to dedicate the beer to the spirit of the deceased.

After these important aspects of the ritual, the cow can be slaughtered and beer is offered to the general public. Drums are beaten and people perform traditional dances throughout the night. The following morning the final part of the ritual is performed, in the event of the deceased being a man. The eldest surviving son, if there is one, is officially given his late father’s name and he assumes the responsibility of head of family. He is handed over his late father’s spear and any other tools that symbolize the assumption of all the responsibilities that go with that name.

At one of the ceremonies that I attended, an elderly uncle whispered to me something that I did not personally witness. The old man spoke softly into my ear that the blood relatives of the deceased man had collected a soil sample from the grave of the deceased and had brought it to the homestead where the ritual was being conducted. This part of the ritual, according to my uncle, symbolizes the act of bringing the spirit of the deceased back from the grave and into the home. But my uncle said this was a version that was peculiar only to certain clan groups.

The year 2012 appeared to be different from previous years in a number of ways. There were an unusually high number of rituals this year. I have already pointed out that the rituals are performed at least a year after the passing on of somebody who left behind offspring.

But this year rituals were performed for people who passed away many years ago. There were also an unusually high number of cows that were slaughtered. The explanation for these phenomena is that there is a high mortality rate in Zimbabwe, mainly due to HIV and AIDS. Also, the modest improvement in the general economic wellbeing of the people is the explanation for the high number of cows slaughtered this year.

The ‘mutoro’ is a ritual that is performed to appease the gods and ask them to bless the planting season with adequate rains.

It is a fairly simple village-based ritual that is conducted by the villagers under the direction of the village head. In my area the chief decreed a two-week period during which all village heads were expected to perform the rituals.

Villagers contribute grain and elderly women who have reached menopause are selected to brew the traditional beer. The beer is then taken to a ‘shrine’ in the bush where the rituals are conducted. The shrine is a small enclosure built with branches under a tree, and the menopaused ladies are the only people allowed into the enclosure, where they will sit with the beer pots and serve all the other villagers sitting outside the enclosure.

The village head opens the ceremony by making an offering of beer to the ancestors, and the day is spent drinking, beating drums and dancing.

Only clay pots and pumpkin-shell calabashes and cups are used. Metal and plastic containers are prohibited. Shoes are not permitted. All the beer should be consumed under the tree shrine, and no takeaways are allowed. Any left-over beer is spilled to the ground just before sunset when the shrine is abandoned.

Unlike in the case of the ‘kurova guva’ ritual, I did not see any goats being slaughtered, and neither was there a means of ascertaining approval of the ancestors.

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