5 death premonitions – spirits, the afterlife and indigenous religion in Zimbabwe


Not so long ago, I got to know about the philosophy of stoicism and learned how it could be practiced to figure out the best way to live. In the article I read, the writer presented ways to make stoicism a daily practice. One of the tactics he presented is called ‘memento mori’ which, simply put, is meditating on one’s own death. I have also heard that, when one is about to die there is a change in energy. That if one is sensitive enough, they will detect this energy shift.

It seems there could be various ways to explain death premonitions. Despite this, the 5 stories below left me questioning this phenomenon.

Tambudzayi was in her late 50’s when she lost her battle with Diabetes in 2009. Her sister Maria is still confused by a remark Tambu made a few days before a scheduled operation that never materialized. “I thought you understood what the elders said? I won’t be around for the operation.”

women crying whilst huddled together
Despite sekuru Makoni’s forewarning to friends and family, nothing prepared them for his death.

Sekuru Makoni’s story is almost similar to that of Tambu. He was a devout Christian in his 70’s. While on his deathbed, he told a visiting group from his church to save their prayers, as a clan court known as ‘dare’, had been held and a ruling passed that it was time for him to join the others.

I still find Abigail’s story to be the strangest of them all. A woman in her 40’s and educated in the U.S, Abigail collapsed and died in her garage. According to her husband, the night before her death, she woke and left the bedroom for a few minutes. On return, she told him she had gone to the garage to have a chat with her grandmother. The only problem is, her grandmother had been long dead. At that time, he assumed she had been sleepwalking.

My friend Simon enquired about the ‘other people’ that kept milling around his hospital bed. At one point when I paid him a visit he chuckled and said, “We’ll see how far they will get trying to send me back.” Sure enough they didn’t get very far. He died a few days later.

My grandmother died in 1981. She had been ill time and again. My father remembers how one day she called him for a candid talk. “I won’t make it this time,” she said. “Don’t you see the man in white seated outside? He has waited for days now and won’t leave without me.” It was a couple of weeks before she would die.

Indigenous religion, spirits and the afterlife

Sekuru Munaku, a 'svikiro'
Sekuru Munaku, a ‘svikiro’

Musikavanhu and Vadzimu

The belief of joining ‘the others’ in the afterlife is a basic tenet of indigenous religion in Zimbabwe. I paid a visit to Sekuru Munaku, a spirit medium (‘svikiro’), and he gave me some insight into the basics of his belief system.

He explained that they, just like Christians, believe in a Supreme Being known as ‘Mwari’ (God) or ‘Musikavanhu’ (the Creator).

priest and alter servers kneeling during a church service
Just like Christianity, Shona indigenous religion recognises the existence of ‘Mwari’.

Because they revere Him so much, they cannot address Him directly hence the regard for ancestral spirits known as ‘vadzimu.’ These are spirits of the patrilineal and matrilineal ancestors, who communicate with ‘Mwari’ on behalf of the living. The belief is that one’s spirit has gone back to Him. Shona custom dictates that when a ‘dare’ is held, matters are presented hierarchically from the youngest to the eldest and vice versa. It is in the same vein that ‘vadzimu’ are an integral part of the Shona indigenous religion, as they are considered closer to God.

 Escorting the spirit from the grave, known as ‘kurova guva’

A belief held is that ancestral spirits follow after their descendants or the clan known as ‘dzinza’. Sekuru Munaku explained how when a person dies his spirit wanders about until it is given permission to come back and protect its children and descendants. This is marked by a libation ritual known as ‘kurova guva.’

grave site
After some time has lapsed following the death of an adult, a libation ritual known as ‘kurova guva’ is performed.

That ‘vadzimu’ are called upon to protect their descendants reminds me of a common remark made by many Shona people today. When faced with unbearable hardships they remark, ‘vadzimu vangu vandirasa’ (my ancestors have forsaken me).

‘Kurova guva’ does not necessarily mean the spirit will show itself through a medium. It is possible that a spirit not escorted from the grave may show itself to air its grievances of not being formally incorporated into the ancestral line.

Vadzimu and spirit mediums

A medium known as ‘svikiro’ is someone through whom the ‘mudzimu’ can show itself. This manifestation of the spirit is known as ‘kusvikirwa’ or  ‘kubudirwa nemudzimu.’ Someone can be controlled by the spirit of their father, grandfather or great grandfather. Rarely however does one become a medium of their father’s spirit.  More common is the manifestation of the spirit of one’s grandfather (‘sekuru’). This is because traditionally, ‘sekuru’ and ‘muzukuru’ (grandson) have always been known to have a very close relationship; one of friendship and trust. Sekuru Munaku described how long ago when he was a boy, it was common that the ‘sekuru’  would spend his pastime with his ‘vazukuru,’ who would, in turn, learn various essential manly skills from him. This alone highlights the importance of ‘muzukuru’ in the traditional Shona family setup. From the matrilineal ancestors, the ‘mudzimu’  of a grandmother can manifest itself. It is however not expected that the spirits of those far back in the ancestral line show themselves. It becomes difficult to establish their legitimacy.

elderly men seated in semi-circle
When a ‘dare’ is held, matters are presented hierarchically from the youngest to the eldest and vice versa. This is the same concept used in dialogue with Mwari.

The role of spirit mediums

Sekuru Munaku described how he would sometimes have dreams pointing him to herbs or plants for use in treating various ailments. He also highlighted how the ancestral spirits play an important role in passing down the clan’s history and its preservation. To ensure genuineness, when the ‘mudzimu’ manifests itself, it is questioned of its identity. This is known as ‘kukonyesa mudzimu.’

 Other forms of spirits 

Sekuru Munaku also spoke of other spirits that could manifest themselves.

Mudzimu we mhepo’ is a spirit that is not of the clan, as it identifies with various clans.

Kubuda ushavi’ is when one inherits a remarkable trait from an ancestor. Sekuru Munaku pointed out that any such traits that are bad and unwanted in society such as witchcraft, thieving or prostitution, will ideally not be accepted.

Father B. Mukumba
Fr Mukumba, a local Roman Catholic priest, is an exorcist known to help families get rid of ngozi.

 ‘Ngozi’ – Our discussion wandered off into the aspect of ‘ngozi.’ As explained by Sekuru Munaku, this is when revenge is inflicted by an aggrieved spirit. This revenge could be in the form of unexplainable hardships, misfortune or illness. In the past, where there was a suspicion that spirits were the cause of misfortune or illness, the elders would visit a divine healer for answers. In the event that it was indeed ‘ngozi’, the family of the offender would be required to compensate (‘kuripa’) the family of the aggrieved. The compensation could be in the form of cattle. Sadly, I have heard of cases where an aggrieved spirit demands a wife, resulting in young girls being given away as brides to pay for wrongdoing, not of their own. Today, Christians seek out the intervention of their religious leaders in resolving such matters.

As I reflect on the conversations I had with Sekuru Munaku, I am reminded of a Zimbabwean traditional healer, Charles Ndunge. He made headlines in April this year when he passed away at the age of 87. He also, as reported, spoke of his death a couple of weeks prior. The hype that ensued after his death provides a sense of the level of stigma around indigenous religion. Ironically, he is said to have assisted countless people from all walks of life the world over; wealthy, poor, prominent, Christians, prophets, you name it.

So what does all this mean for you and me? Well, in the words of Martin Luther,

“Every man must do two things alone; he must do his own believing and his own dying.” – Martin Luther

I am grateful to those who agreed to share their stories with me. I have tried to recreate events, settings, and conversations from my memories of them. In order to maintain anonymity, I have in some instances changed the names of individuals, places and some other identifying characteristics and details.

To sekuru Munaku who is recovering from a stroke, I am grateful to you for taking the time to talk to me despite your condition. Here’s to a speedy recovery.