Most superstitious beliefs and practices are rooted in uroyi (witchcraft). Uroyi involves the infliction of harm upon others because of jealousy, greed, revenge, or simply because one can.
A competence which one inherits from their ancestors is known as shavi. It is common to hear people say of a witch, ‘she possesses shavi reuroyi,’ as witchcraft is known to be passed down from generation to generation. It is, however, possible for one to procure through the use of charms, the ability to practice witchcraft.
The use of charms to procure powers is known as kuromba. In Shona society, certain negative stereotypes and stigmas that are commonly held tend to be associated with spells and witchcraft.
1. Dying wives
A married couple hopes to be separated only by death after having spent a lifetime together. So if the wife dies shortly into the marriage, it is rather unfortunate. If however the man remarries and again the woman dies shortly into the marriage, it is more than unfortunate. How many times could one possibly lose a spouse in their lifetime, right?
When a man marries a woman and loses her to death, and this happens up to three times, it is believed that he has the curse of mapfihwa. Pfihwa is a hearthstone. Before the advent of iron cooking stands, the standard was to use three stones (mapfihwa) to support a pot over a fire. (See this post’s featured image).
The curse of mapfihwa is generally believed to be caused by a spirit. Perhaps one that seeks to avenge the failure to honor a pact, by the forefathers of the afflicted.
Some, however, believe that the death of subsequent wives is a result of the first wife having been buried with a grindstone – guyo. Stones are used inside a grave to close off a pocket in which the coffin or body is placed. This pocket is called hweda or ngwevo. The belief is that grinding goes on within the grave causing any woman who gets married by the deceased’s husband to die.
It is interesting how both beliefs are associated with stones.
According to Shona burial customs, the graves of adults are dug such that a pocket that fits the coffin (or body) is created. In ancient times, after digging vertically the pocket was created by deflecting to the side when they reached the bottom.
Nowadays, this pocket is created at the bottom by simply digging a narrower trench, rather than digging against the wall of the grave. This is done so that the body is shielded and not directly buried under the soil.
This pocket is called hweda. Others call it tonera or mugwavava or ngwevo. The hweda is then sealed off with large rocks or tree logs. These days people use concrete slabs and zinc sheets as alternatives to rocks and logs.
2. Failure to get married
We live in a society where marriage is considered the essence of life, with the expectation that everyone is bound to get married at some point in their lives. That is unless of course they formally commit otherwise, by say joining the priesthood.
When a young man or woman is still single after the expected age of marriage, it becomes a cause for concern among family and friends. Just as in the case of dying wives, there is a belief that this is caused by a spirit.
This inability to get married because of a spirit is called chitsinha. It is believed that this is the spirit of a great aunt or uncle who died without ever having had a family. In the absence of any children to be remembered by, the chitsinha ensures their spirit lives on.
Others believe that this could be a result of kuromba by a member of the family, either immediate or extended. Here covenants would have been made resulting in the spirit, known as chikwambo, being given a wife or husband in return.
3. Mentally ill, homeless and wandering
The second chimurenga is a war that was fought from the 1960s and culminated in the independence of Zimbabwe in 1980. Many stories are told of how soldiers, both black and white, ruthlessly killed people during the war and ended up being haunted by the avenging spirits of those they murdered.
When a spirit seeks to avenge its death, this is known as ngozi. The afflicted is said to be paying for his misdeeds. In some cases, this has resulted in people with mental illness being stigmatized, shunned and excluded from mainstream society.
It is not unusual for people living with severe mental illness – conditions such as schizophrenia, to be left to roam the streets under the mistaken belief that mental illness cannot be cured.
4. Superstition relating to giving money
I know people who could never give money to someone else as a form of assistance. They would rather make payment directly for whatever it is that needs to be done.
The belief is that the money you offer to someone else can be used as a weapon against you. For instance, a n’anga (divine healer) is consulted and the money is used for payment and inoteketerwa (ritually dedicated) so that harm comes your way.
5. Salt and obstruction of spells
The use of salt for ritual purposes is not confined to the beliefs of Zimbabwean people alone. It has a long history of use across many cultures for any of the following in relation to spells: banishment, protection, and cleansing.
I know people who believe so much in the power of salt that they have it all around them. More commonly, it is sprinkled all over the place of dwelling or used in bathwater.
The belief in the healing power of salt does not come from indigenous beliefs alone. Some Zimbabweans who practice Christianity believe in the use of salt, quoting from the bible’s old testament book of Kings.
2 Kings 2:19-22 New International Version (NIV)
19 The people of the city said to Elisha, “Look, our lord, this town is well situated, as you can see, but the water is bad and the land is unproductive.”
20 “Bring me a new bowl,” he said, “and put salt in it.” So they brought it to him.
21 Then he went out to the spring and threw the salt into it, saying, “This is what the Lord says: ‘I have healed this water. Never again will it cause death or make the land unproductive.’”
22 And the water has remained pure to this day, according to the word Elisha had spoken.
6. Capturing death
In some communities, people perform a death avoiding ritual known as kuteya riva. Literally, kuteya riva is the rigging of a deadfall trap for catching mice. For ritualistic purposes, however, this is a spiritual trap that is kept hidden in a mountain. As long as it is not disturbed, the person lives on.
To provide for the possibility that one could become too old to personally trigger the trap, they share details of the trap with a trusted relative such as a muzukuru.
Some scholars have argued that this triggering of the riva by someone else is equivalent to euthanasia. And if they personally triggered it – a suicide?
7. Separating the fates of twins
Twins, although being two identifiable individuals, are believed to be spiritually connected as if they were one being. A ritual is performed to separate them otherwise any misfortune that might befall one will inevitably come upon the other.
The separation ritual is sometimes called kukamura. The word kamura means ‘to remove a part from something.’
After the children are born, they are cleansed with medicine to separate them. For others, the separation ritual involves tying the twins together with a string – one on one end, and the other at the other end. The two then walk in opposite directions and the string cut off.
8. A mother and burial of her child
When a woman loses her firstborn child she is forbidden from looking into the grave. Others go as far as staying away from the grave-site during the burial. The belief is that looking into the grave will result in her not outliving any of her children.
In some communities, a mother who has lost a baby beats the grave with a mbereko (fabric baby carrier for carrying a child on the back) after the burial is completed.
Following this, she ties one part of the mbereko around her waist while the other drags behind her on the ground as she leaves the grave-site. She is forbidden from looking back.
There are also specifications relating to how the child should be buried, otherwise, the mother will keep losing children.
9. Animals and crossroads that harbor evil
Some rituals to cleanse or banish evil spirits involve the use of animals. The spirit is transferred into the animal which is then loosed. This ritual is called kurasirira. A fowl, goat, cow or even money is offered by the afflicted and a divine healer performs the ritual.
It is believed that the animal will carry the afflictions and whatever it is that comes with the spirit. Anyone who picks up the animal becomes the host to the spirit. In olden days it was not unusual to see roaming domestic animals that would go unclaimed.
Crossroads (mharadzano) are associated with the ritual of kurasirira. Presumably, that is where it is carried out. Growing up I was taught to avoid walking through a crossroads as it is believed that doing so could result in one picking up spirits or afflictions that have been disposed of there.
10. Lightning and witchcraft
A widely held belief is that witches are capable of controlling lighting; a form of witchcraft that is known to coincide with the rainy season. Here witches deploy lighting to kill people and livestock, or to destroy property such as houses.
There are some however who claim to use lighting to protect themselves rather than cause harm to others. For instance, lighting could be used to strike wild animals that raid fields and homesteads.
11. Neurological disorders and witchcraft
Witches are known to attack their victims with spirits that take a near-human form. These spirits are known as zvishiri, zvidhoma or zvitokwani.
An attack by such spirits, commonly known as kurohwa nezvishiri, is typically characterized by sudden convulsions, jerking and frothing. This is no different from an epileptic seizure, a stroke or some form of neurological disorder.
In some cases, the victim’s body is taken over by the spirit. That way the spirit will make its identity, intentions or demands known. The family of a victim has to consult a divine healer to perform rituals to banish the attacking spirit.
12. Charm-wearing by babies
Although less common today, a plant known as chifumuro (botanical name is Dicoma anomala) is tied on a string and worn around the neck, waist or wrist of a child to protect against spiritually induced illnesses. The charm is worn at all times and especially when traveling among strangers.
It is believed that a baby who does not wear such a charm could contract illnesses (such as a sunken fontanelle which is commonly called nhova) if exposed to one wearing a charm. Nhova is the word for fontanelle.
Ironically, it seems mothers worry more about protecting their children from protected babies, rather than protecting them from disease-inducing spirits.
13. Generational curses
A generational curse is an unwanted quality, lack of ability or disease that runs in the family resulting from mweya yemadzinza (clan spirits). Sometimes beliefs held about generational curses become a curse in themselves when people attribute problems to a curse rather than try to find solutions.
With the changing social landscape, the regard for witchcraft and related beliefs seems to be waning. However, there is no doubt that these beliefs will remain highly relevant to a large number of Zimbabweans, even if just for conversation’s sake.