5 uncommon death and funerary customs of the Shona

The Shona have a number of beliefs and practices that relate to remembering and respecting the dead. These may differ in one way or another among the different groups of the Shona which include the Karanga, Zezuru, Korekore, and Manyika. It is also possible that distortions in the customs occur as the knowledge is passed on orally. Some of these many customs, however, seem less common.

Kusengudza (preparing for death)

In the past, a person who was gravely ill would be removed from their home and taken to a place elsewhere. This place to which they were relocated could be the home of a relative or a diviner, or just a temporary shelter built outside the normal home. This practice of relocating a sick person is called kusengudza. Reasons for this included removing them from the vicinity of witches, or taking them closer to a healer. Where a person had been taken further from his home and his health continued to get worse, his relatives would bring him back to a temporary shelter closer to his home to die there. Once the person died, family and the rest of the villagers had to be notified immediately. The wailing of women would serve this purpose. Relatives who lived far away from the home of the deceased were notified by word of mouth.

For some groups of the Shona, kusengudza was always a must for chiefs. The place to which he was taken, and details of his illness were kept secret. Only the elders of the tribe/ clan would know about this secret place. And when he finally died, the death and burial would be kept secret for almost a month. Some say this was done to keep members of rival houses from knowing, as they could steal parts of his flesh and use the flesh to create an avenging spirit to torment his nuclear family. Others say the flesh of a chief was special because it would have been treated with special medicines so that he could command respect from his subjects, so witches would want to mix it with their own medicines. The new chief would be powerless against these witches. For some Shona groups, a certain type of drum-beat was used to notify people of the chief’s death. Among the Manyika people, this type of drum-beat is called chima. In some places an audible horn was blown.

Gata (investigating cause of death)

In olden days, dying before old age was a matter of grave concern. Following such a death, the family’s elders would go to a diviner (n’anga), seeking revelation of the cause of death. The n’anga would perform a divining ritual, known as gata. This ritual would establish the cause of death, which in some cases could be punishment from vadzimu (ancestral spirits) or witchcraft. While vadzimu are known to protect the needs of their descendants, when they feel their own needs have been neglected, they can inflict such punishment. In ancestral worship, the family must honour the vadzimu by holding ceremonies to appease them. So, following consultations by the elders, the divine healer would prescribe the appropriate ritual to be performed.

Burial following death by suicide

Death by suicide has always been associated with so much stigma among Shona communities. In olden days, someone who took their own life was practically ‘thrown away,’ by being buried far away from where everyone else lay buried. In addition, the burial would be done on the day the death occurred, or on which it was discovered, as opposed to the body being laid in the home for at least one night with the family performing all necessary burial rituals. The reason the family would avoid bringing the body into the home was so that the unwanted spirit believed to have taken hold of the deceased, driving him to take his own life, would not try and find another victim.

Interestingly, however, it is believed that long back, some Shona rulers would take their lives to preserve their honour. The explanation is that Shona rulers had to be perfect, so if they fell ill or became disfigured say during a war, they would take their own lives. It is said that this happened with some Manyika rulers who died in civil wars. There are also stories about rulers’ wives who took their own lives on the deaths of their husbands.

Burial of a grown up unmarried and childless person

When a grown up unmarried man or woman died, the belief was that the deceased would be disgruntled in the afterlife because of never having been married, and then their spirit would later come and torment the living. To avoid this, a man would be buried with a female rat, an expended maize cob, or the handle of an axe. It was believed that the deceased would get the satisfaction that they had gone with their wife. In the case of a woman, she would be buried with a male rat, a sadza cooking stick, or an expended cob of maize.

coffin in hearse

Burial of a non-relative (mutorwa)

Sometimes people die far from their families or relatives. If in a hospital, the hospital authorities end up organising what is known as a pauper’s burial, if a body is unclaimed for too long. Unclaimed bodies are commonly those of people coming from charity homes, unidentified victims of accidents, the destitute, street people, and also babies abandoned by parents.

People dying away from their homes sometimes happened in olden days too. I imagine that this could have been the case with people who died while living in a village because they worked there, and nobody knew their village of origin.

When villagers were faced with the death of a non-relative, without knowledge of his relatives, they were left with no option but to proceed and bury him. The family that had accommodated this person would provide a black goat that had to be slaughtered by a young man who had not yet been with a woman. A n’anga would be consulted to help with the burial. He would be responsible for marking the site of the grave (kutema rukarwa), where he would sprinkle blood from the slaughtered goat. He would also enter the grave to lay the body, with the assistance of others. The body would be buried together with the head of the slaughtered goat. This ritual was done so that the spirit of the deceased would not return to the ‘strangers’ who had buried him/ her, but it would instead go to his/ her family.

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While the practices described above might be uncommon today, there are still a few who practice them. The changing social landscape seems to be a large contributor, not only to the decline in knowledge on death and funerary customs, but also to the disregard for them. However, there is no doubt that these customs will remain highly relevant to a large number of Zimbabweans, even if just for history’s sake.

Reference was made to Gombe J. M. (1998). Tsika DzaVaShona. College Press Publishers.

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