HomeOpinion & AnalysisChurch an accomplice in demonising local traditions

Church an accomplice in demonising local traditions

The religious landscape in Zimbabwe is littered with various shades of beliefs and practices that range from the mild to the bizarre in both traditional and Christian beliefs.
In local traditions, there are healers and diviners represented by Zimbabwe National Traditional Healers’ Association (Zinatha). There are also vana tsikamutanda (witch-hunters) who stride the length and breadth of the country causing havoc in many a family.  On the Christian terrain, we have the mainline churches on one hand and on the other the pentecostal ones, which preach the gospel of prosperity, siphoning millions of dollars from unsuspecting followers.

Rev Dr Levee Kadenge

When will the religious Zimbabweans have a break and get treated like people who are godly and deserve respect as regards their beliefs? Desperate situations often demand desperate solutions.  The economy has forced many to seek spiritual solutions to personal problems.

African Traditional Religion got its full independence in 1980 when the country got its freedom.  Previously, there were so many restrictions which came as a result of the misconception of things traditional. The church became a major accomplice in demonising local practices. Understandably so, because the idea of doing away with everything African was at the core of both the missionary and white colonial administrators’ agendas.

The Europeans did not give their hosts due respect.  Conversely, when whites arrived, the locals were at pains as to how to accommodate them.  History says elders from various parts of the country travelled to Matonjeni in Matabeleland to ask for advice as to how to deal with the newcomers.  The shrine was the religious centre for the entire country. 
The Oracle/Voice at the shrine was quick to come up with a solution on how to treat the white invaders.

When the elders reported that some parts of the country had been invaded by “people without knees”, for whites came wearing trousers and thereby hiding their knees, local wisdom invoked its sense of inclusivity.  The voice responded by telling a story that a long, long time ago one of their sisters migrated to the North and probably had children there. 
Because of the weather, the myth had it they turned white.  So these were their aunt’s children coming back.  In short, they had to be accommodated as nieces and nephews.

In the Shona tradition, muzukuru (nephew/niece) or in Ndebele culture umzukulu have a loose relationship with sekuru (uncle).  Whatever muzukuru does should be at the behest of his uncle. So whites were accepted as vazukuru.  They were accorded freedom, but these vazukuru abused the hospitality by taking over the land.  Such was the relationship which progressed from acceptance to questions being raised as to the conduct of the newcomers.

As documented, these vazukuru used all sorts of methods to take over land which ranged from dishonesty to the use of force.  The indigenous eventually found themselves in sandy soils while vazukuru took the best in strategic places which would be serviced by both rail and road systems. 

Because vazukuru had their own agenda, they proceeded to treat their hosts with disdain.  Everything African was suspect — from religion to culture to the extent that the missionary and colonial authorities worked together to achieve their purposes.  Even though on the surface their agendas seemed different, in reality, they both wanted to control the locals so that they would be of use to their aims and objectives.

A system that was complete in terms of how it approached health issues was destroyed. Gradually, locals were encouraged to seek treatment from clinics and hospitals established across the nation.  Indeed, missionaries established their own clinics while government did the same in various parts of the country.  The teachings from both systems discouraged people from seeking help from the tried and tested local system in preference of hospitals and clinics.

The missionaries preached against local herbs because they were associated with evil simply because they were different from the modern medicine. 

The education system was such that it promoted both the culture and the religion of the newcomers. The most dangerous thing was the mental shift that was being instilled in the locals to hate themselves and their practices.

While western medicine gained the upper hand, locals found ways of secretly seeking help from own medicine men. But with time and because of the sinking in of the teachings the local healers who were given names like witch doctors and diviners/herbalists, they became suspect because their medicines were not refined or tested in laboratories.

That was to change at independence. Things could never be the same. The new government was amenable to local practices to the extent that Zinatha was established. To buttress its importance, the organisation was led by an educationist of repute, the late professor Gordon Chavunduka — a sociologist at the University of Zimbabwe who eventually became the vice-chancellor in the early 1990s. He worked with other firebrand doctors in the mould of Herbert Ushewokunze and Simon Mazorodze who headed and deputised the Health ministry respectively.

In spite of the positive stance of the government toward Zinatha, the growing Christian community was torn between acceptance of local medicines and shunning them. The government encouraged traditional practitioners to be registered and to work together with western-trained medical personnel.  While the healers were excited to work in hospitals and with the Ministry of Health, the formally-trained health personnel never fully accommodated their counterparts.

Because of the inclusive approach by the government, the traditionalists felt vindicated and went about doing their trade with gusto. Little did they know that among them would arise all sorts of practitioners who would tarnish their image among locals.  There arose individuals who went across the nation claiming to sniff witches and flashing them out.  They call themselves tsikamutandas. The nation is divided.  Being Christian, most communities do not take the practices positively.

Communities and families are torn apart. The government has not taken drastic measures against these practitioners who impose themselves on unsuspecting villagers. They group people and sniff out witches and those alleged to have dangerous medicines in their homes. They force everyone to participate. If someone refuses to take part, they are accused of hiding something.

To make matters worse, clients are asked to pay through livestock. These witch-hunters are sometimes invited but in most cases they impose themselves, claiming to have come to cleanse the villages.

Those with ears, let them hear.

Levee Kadenge is a theologian based at United Theological College in Harare.  He can be contacted on leveekadenge@gmail.com

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