By Sekai Nzenza – The Herald
The bira ceremony has gone from our village. The new churches continue to kill the kurova guva ceremony. I pray that we bring back the joy of dance, the sound of mbira and the singing that lifts and releases the soul.
A FEW years before independence, the headmaster at St Columbus Anglican School said to us, “Raise your hand if you danced to mbira music last night.”
We were at morning assembly, standing barefoot in rows according to our grades. It was time for hygiene inspection and prayers. We were only allowed to sit on a mat in class if our uniforms, teeth, hair and nails were clean.
“Cleanliness is next to Godliness,” Headmaster Silas Muchando reminded us every morning.
I looked around at my sisters, brothers, cousins and other children who were at the all night bira ceremony to honour our ancestors the previous night. Our red eyes betrayed us because we had hardly slept. It was the dry season, muchirimo.
For months we had waited for the killing of the beast and the all night bira dance ceremony.
Such a ceremony happened once a year. Occasionally, bira was followed by the kurova guva, bringing the spirit of the dead ancestor home one year after his or her death. At both ceremonies, there was plenty of meat, mbira and drum playing, singing and dancing all night.
Headmaster Silas Muchando was a tall man who always wore a black pair of trousers, pointy black shoes, a white shirt and a red or blue tie. He was clean shaven with a small moustache.
His hair was cut short with a line patted on the right side of his head.
People said Headmaster Muchando dressed just like the European Native Commissioner at the district office in Enkeldoorn.
In those days, we had never seen real white men, except on Bible photographs.
Headmaster Muchando walked up and down, inspecting us, menacingly tapping a ruler on the palm of his left hand. How could we confess that the previous night we had sneaked into the big kitchen hut after midnight?
We could never tell anyone that we had watched our aunt, Tete VaMakumbi, speak under the spirit possession of our great grandfather, Mhofu, the fearless Great Eland, he of the hump that carried wasps.
The bira was performed in honour of Mhofu Mbiru, our great grandfather, the one who had escaped the massacre of Chief Chiwashira’s Vahera people during the big fight with the British in the area we now call Chikomba, meaning the pit.
Chiwashira was violently killed by the British for the crime of sleeping with a white woman. That massacre had happened many years before and we were not supposed to talk about Mbiru and his escape. But we could have ceremonies to honour his name and remember him.
The drums and singing had started some time after sunset. It was bright moonlight and we sat around the fire, roasting meat and drinking masvusvu, the warm non alcoholic drink that the elders used to mix with the potent mhanga when preparing the final states of the seven-day village brew. The ceremony was really meant for adults only. But nobody was watching to check where the children were and what they were doing.
The elders probably wanted us to learn something about our ancestors without exactly saying to us, see that lady is possessed by the spirit of our late grandfather. There was no formal way to teach us. This is how we got connected to our past and present, just from seeing and participating.
After midnight, the mbira music began to play seriously. At one stage, there was no singing; just hosho, mbira and drum and the sound of dancing feet. Then we heard the voice of a man, shouting that he had arrived. We sneaked into the house. The “man” shouting was Tete VaMakumbi.
She was sitting with knees up, her dress covering her front and her knees were bare . She wore a black sash across her soldier and a red band around her shaved head. She groaned and lifted her shoulders up high looking to the sky then shaking her head vigorously.
In a deep voice, that sounded so familiar, like that of the uncles, she said she was our great grandfather, Mbiru. She wanted to say all was well with the clan and we must refrain from doing anything evil to one another. This would anger the ancestors.
The mbira music started again, and Tete rose and danced, carrying the tail of an old dead beast. Then there was dancing to mbira for a very long time. We danced to the same tune, from the verandah of Mbuya VaMandirowesa’s kitchen hut. Then late at night, we fell asleep in one hut only to be woken up by my mother telling us to wash quickly, eat last night’s left overs or munya and rush to school.
We did just that. In no time at all, we stood at assembly with uncombed hair, dry skin, unclean teeth and uniforms that looked like they had just been chewed and spat out by a donkey.
Headmaster Silas Muchando knew exactly what we had been doing the night before. He singled every one of us who was at the bira and made us stand in front of the assembly. Then he preached that mbira music was unChristian and all the elders at the bira will burn in hell. He said we should refrain from attending any of the traditional ceremonies because that was sinful. He made us sing “To God be the glory.” Then he hit our knuckles five times with the ruler as punishment for attending native religious ceremonies and for coming to school dirty.
But Mbuya VaMandirowesa said we should not listen to Headmaster Muchando.
She said we should keep dancing to mbira and to the sound of the drum at every opportunity. How else were we going to develop a good natural rhythm unless we exercised our young bones the way our elders had done for centuries? It would be very embarrassing for us to grow up, get married and not impress the in laws with the special rhythmic dances of our village. Mbuya said the way a woman moved was an indication to others that she was talented in other bedroom movements as well.
“Why kill the spirit of creativity and joy at your young age? Dance,” Mbuya said.
Then one year, my father came back from Salisbury on Rhodes and Founders Day. He brought home the Supersonic Stereo with records of long plays.
My father connected the batteries and placed the LP on the player. It started going around. Then he placed the “needle” at the age of the LP and the music started. I recall, “Mahlatini and the Mahotela Queens” from South Africa. This was followed by Rhumba from the Congo and my father danced with my mother in the village courtyard. My mother wore a colourful red and white dress with a petticoat inside that was spread out like a taffeta.
Everyone said they were behaving like a white couple. Mbuya VaMandirowesa sat there, taking her snuff and laughed at their strange ways of dancing.
The battery did not last for more than three days. We placed it in the sun to get more energy and played a few more songs before we gave up and returned to the drum and mbira.
Then independence came and many people started leaving the village.
Some Anglicans converted to the Catholic Church because they could drink and play the rum.
The mbira players stopped playing.
Over the years, various churches have arrived in our village like a whirlwind.
In most churches, the people have stopped singing, dancing or expressing emotion at funerals or even at weddings. They say it is unChristian to do so.
They also say mbira is especially bad because it invokes the bad spirits of the ancestors, causing them to arrive and cause chaos and evil in the village.
When we buried my uncle, brother to my mother, Nyati the Great Buffalo, last week, there was no song as the coffin went down. Sekuru Nyati was my mother’s brother. He died last week, at age 87. During his lifetime, I recall him coming over to our village many times.
He used to dance to the drum, to mbira songs and to the gramophone. And yet, when we bade farewell to him at the anthill last week, there was hardly any singing.
The only sound was that of the funeral company mechanically letting go of the coffin into the grave. It was the sound of rolling rope rubbing against metal, like kiriiiii kirriiii. One of the saddest sounds I ever heard. There were masses of people, standing there, silently in the afternoon heat, many in white, others in Anglican and Roman Catholic uniforms. Some of us were in ordinary clothes. Our emotions were reduced to a forced silence. And yet we wanted so much to feel the emotion; to dance for our elder and celebrate a life well lived. But we said nothing because Sekuru Nyati was a Mupositori. This was the church he had chosen before he died.
The white robbed bearded Bishop from the next village said there will be no nyaradzo, the 40 days after death ceremony. There will be no kurova guva and no early morning visits to the grave to look for witch footprints.
All that was unChristian.
The bira ceremony has gone from our village. The new churches continue to kill the kurova guva ceremony. Surely, Headmaster Muchando of St Columbus Anglican School did not want us to suppress the voice of creativity this far.
What shall be left of the rhythms, the unity we felt in dancing and the connection to the ancestors?
I pray that we bring back the joy of dance, the sound of mbira and the singing that lifts and releases the soul.
Dr Sekai Nzenza is an independent writer and cultural critic