noun: mysterious occurrence/ bad omen (and less often a good one)
verb: symbolise or warn of bad luck (and less often good luck)
The lives of many Zimbabweans are influenced and affected by beliefs and superstition which some refer to as chivanhu. While this Shona word (chivanhu) generally refers to our indigenous way of life, it tends to be associated with indigenous religion and related practices such as witchcraft and ancestral worship. Some Zimbabweans have even abandoned traditional practices, customs and cultural acts due to the superstitious belief that these have connotations of witchcraft and ancestral worship; despite this not being the case. As a result, there are two groups of superstitious Zimbabweans; those who are superstitious because of what they believe and, those who are superstitious because of what they do not believe.
Below I explore some of the most common omens and mysterious occurrences that are considered warnings, signs or manifestations; known in Shona as mashura.
Death and messages from the dead
1. Death before old age
Up until the mid to late-20th century, it was common for dying before old age to be considered a mystery. Following such a death, the family’s elders would go on a mission (kufamba), seeking divine revelation to establish the cause of death (kubvunzira). Possible causes of such death included punishment from vadzimu (ancestors) 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.
2. A mysterious illness
When a person is critically ill, and the nature of illness cannot be established even by the most progressive modern means, witchcraft or an act of vadzimu is suspected. As described earlier, divine intervention is sought. In indigenous religion, the desire by a mudzimu to manifest itself is communicated through such illness. After consulting a divine healer, a ritual is performed to ordain the host and formally accept the mudzimu.
3. A dead person’s shadow
When someone dies aggrieved, his shadow will return to torment those responsible. The mumvuri of a dead person is literally a human shadow that is occasionally seen. Alternatively, it could be the feeling of a heavy presence, as if someone else was among those physically present. If this happens before the burial, the family will try to calm the dead person by literally talking to, and pleading with him. Usually, however, compensation has to be paid to the dead person’s family in the form of cattle, to avoid further torment.
4. A ballooning corpse
Stories are told of how corpses have ballooned and failed to fit into coffins. This is a variation to the dead man’s shadow as it is known to occur when someone dies aggrieved.
5. Sighting of a file snake around the home
A file snake, mhunzamusha or ndara, is considered a bad omen that foretells death. According to africansnakebiteinstitute.com, this is a docile, inoffensive snake and is active at night when it hunts for prey, especially snakes. It is completely harmless and, ironically, in some cultures, it is called the witch-doctor’s snake and supposedly brings good luck.
6. A baby crying uncontrollably
The Shona word for witch is muroyi and almost always refers to a woman. When a baby cries uncontrollably, this is a sign that a witch is in the vicinity. However, it could also signify the presence of someone who has procured magical charms, an act known as kuromba. Examples of those who would desire charms include thieves who intend to make their victims sleep; entertainers who benefit from attracting huge crowds, or those in positions of authority who wish to ensure popularity.
7. An owl
I am terribly prejudiced against the owl and find its quiet demeanor rather creepy. It is generally believed that this nocturnal large-eyed creature is a bad omen, that heralds illness or death. Others consider it a witch’s pet, or rather, a witch in disguise. After someone dies and an owl perches on a tree near the grave during the burial, this is a sign that the death is a result of witchcraft.
Sleep and dream interpretations
The world of the traditional indigenous people of Zimbabwe had very little material things, hence the ability to attach symbolism to the somewhat simple things of life. The belief is that some dreams are a way of the ancestors communicating or conveying certain messages, while others are merely a manifestation of thoughts and feelings experienced in one’s waking life. For important dreams, a divine healer could be visited for an interpretation. There are however known interpretations for certain dream content. I have dreamt of white men, I have dreamt of food and, many times I have woken up still so exhausted that I would wish I could spend the whole day in bed.
8. Dreams of eating
A friend came to the office one morning and shared her dream from the previous night. She had dreamt that she was eating, and at about the same time awoke to realise that the was actually chewing. For someone who was raised in traditional Shona society, this would be a worrying dream. It is believed that such dreams are a sign that the dreamer is being bewitched. A less common interpretation is that eating symbolises sexual intercourse.
9. Feeling unusually tired when you wake up
It is believed that a witch (muroyi) rides a hyena (bere) at night, as a means to get to places and homes of her intended victims. Others believe that sometimes one can, as a victim, become a substitute for the hyena, transporting the muroyi during her witching spree. I heard of a case where a woman woke up to the horror of finding thorns in her hands, supposedly having been used to piggyback a witch while she slept. A friend also told me of how as a little girl, she would sometimes wake up with scratch marks. This made her uncomfortable because, coincidentally another girl in her class claimed to be a witch and would mock her, narrating how she had tossed her around all night.
10. Dreams of a white person
A white man in a dream is believed to symbolise a witch. This is a widely known dream interpretation which, I would assume, made sense in an environment where people of other races made up just a handful of the entire population. Under such circumstances, the majority would only hear of these others through tales told by a few. The foreigner, someone never encountered in one’s waking life, was therefore symbolic of a witch.
Beliefs associated with pregnancy
11. Delayed labour
It is not uncommon for a woman to experience delayed labour, yet some consider this a sign of having committed adultery. Until the woman confesses her wrongdoing, she will not be able to give birth to the child. Recently, I was very disturbed by a case in which a woman eventually died while giving birth to a child at home. It was purported that the baby was long overdue and while in labour, complications arose. The midwife demanded a confession, but the young woman could not get herself to confess to something she had not done. Given the risks involved, it is not surprising that some women end up admitting wrongdoing simply to ensure that they safely give birth to their babies.
12. Miscarriage or stillbirth
A miscarriage is believed to be the result of witchcraft. Witches are known to feed on human flesh. Unsuspecting and helpless unborn babies are an easy target. More often, such witchcraft is considered to be the work of jealous individuals, who find no joy in seeing a happily married counterpart. Other times, it is a means of inflicting revenge.
Another interpretation relates to adultery. It is believed that during pregnancy, the cervical mucus which closes the uterus at the cervix is a wax (namo), which consists mainly of the husband’s semen. This barrier allows for only the husband’s semen to pass through. If a wife commits adultery, the namo will melt and cause a miscarriage.
The Shona word for ringworm infection is chisasa. It is believed that you get ringworm when someone close to you is pregnant, regardless of you being unaware, or the two of you living separately. This could be a relative or even a friend. To cause (by a pregnant woman) someone to get ringworm is known as kusasadzira.
14. When rock pigeons never return
The Shona name for the domestic rock pigeon is hangaiwa. These pigeons are known to almost always find their way back home no matter the distance they fly away. It is believed that if the birds never return, it is a symbol that the home lacks peace, and is characterised by constant conflict, violence or bickering.
The list does not end here!
1. Zimbabwe’s law on the suppression of witchcraft was amended in 2006 to recognise the existence of witchcraft and make it a criminal offence to use witchcraft to harm others. It however, deters malicious people from groundlessly accusing others of witchcraft and hurting them by trials and ordeals.
2. Other sources: Aschwanden H, Karanga Mythology, 1989, Mambo Press, 2nd edition