A few years back, I attended a rain-asking ceremony known as mukwerera. For those who do not practice chivanhu, this might just about, be the only ritual festival associated with chivanhu they might have ever heard of. There are others, however. While religious festivals of christianity centre on Christ and redemption, those of chivanhu seem to focus on ancestral spirits, the economy and livelihood. The common ritual festivals of chivanhu include the following:
Because these festivals involve the brewing of beer, there are commonly referred to as hwahwa or doro. So for instance, one might say ‘hwahwa hwemukwerera‘ or ‘hwahwa hwemavhurachando.’ While I have included bira as one of these rituals, it is actually a general reference to a ritual feast. Families hold such feasts with various intentions, hence the specific names given to such feasts will vary.
For this post, I will refer to indigenous religion as chivanhu. This is the term commonly used to refer to the traditional way of life of the indigenous peoples of Zimbabwe. It is more commonly used to refer to beliefs and practices of indigenous religion.
Mukwerera, also known as mukwerere, is a ritual held ahead of the rainy season, in petition for good rains. November marks the beginning of the rainy season, so this festival is usually held in the month of October. For the Shona , a new month is marked by a new moon. This means that the festival should be held in October but before a new moon marking the start of the rainy season. For this festival, beer is brewed and poured on sacred ground as a libation to the ancestors.
In my village in Mhondoro, mukwerera involves pouring the libation over the graves of the ancestors while a petition is made for rain. I spoke to someone who comes from Chirumhanzu, and they were surprised that mukwerera involves going to a gravesite. In his village, the ritual is performed at the top of a sacred hill.
I spoke to Pasi Kawanzaruwa in January 2020. In his account of mukwerera, the libation is performed in the Nharira Hills at 5 different sites they call miti mishanu. At each of these sites is a mubvumira tree (botanical name of mubvumira is kirkia acuminata), where the libation is poured while a petition is made. I also learned that a long time ago our ancestors would ask for food under the mubvumira tree, and it would miraculously appear. Pouring a libation is generally known as kuteura or kupira. For the ritual, a lamb is taken up to the hill, killed and burned as a sacrifice. In addition, a beast is slaughtered for the festival.
These ritual festivals are held for the entire community under a chieftaincy. For mukwerera not just anybody can lead the ritual; there exists a family anointed to do so. Such a family is said to be the ones who inherited the water gourd ladle (vane mukombe wemvura). All members of the community are expected to contribute inputs to be used for the ritual. Such contributions include sorghum or millet and even cash. Pasi told me of how even white commercial farmers provided livestock as a contribution towards the festival.
I gave Pasi an account of the mukwerera festival I had attended in my village a few years back. Interestingly, he told me that the ritual I witnessed is called huruva, and not mukwerera. He however pointed out that it is not unusual for people to refer to the huruva ritual as mukwerera.
Pasi lives in the Nharira Hills situated between Harare and Norton. Pasi’s father Jacob was the medium of the (great) spirit of Mushore; he was a mhondoro. While I always thought the word mhondoro was used only to refer to a great tribal spirit, I learned that it is also used to refer to the spirit medium. I have also heard that lions referred to as mhondoro are hosts of these great tribal spirits.
For the huruva ritual, elders visit the grave sites of the ancestors. They clean up the grave sites, weeding and sweeping the site before pouring the libation of beer over the grave, and making a petition for rain. According to Pasi, others do not brew beer for the huruva ritual, but still petition for rain.
In the month of March, crops in the fields have ripened. A ritual festival is performed to show gratitude, offering the new crops to the ancestors before they are eaten. This is referred to as kurumisa vadzimu zvitsva (giving the ancestors a taste of the new crops).
Pasi described to me how, in preparation for the ritual festival, women fill their baskets (tswanda and tsero) with a few of the crops such as groundnuts, pumpkins, mealies and pumpkin leaves. The crops are taken to a site specially prepared for ritual offerings known as rushanga. Though not built up, the site has trees such as the muhacha. Here the elders present their offering to the ancestors, what is called kupira or kuteura.
According to sekuru Munaku, a spirit medium whom I spoke to in 2019, the ritual is performed to show gratitude to God and the ancestors for successfully cultivating the land. So this festival is celebrated after the field crops have ripened, but well before the harvest.
From my separate conversations with Sekuru Munaku and Pasi, they described similar festivals. However, Pasi called the offering of new crops chipwa, while sekuru Munaku called it Mushashe.
When I visited sekuru Munaku, it was towards the end of the month of May, and I found the family busy preparing for a bira to be held that night. It was referred to as bira rechando meaning ‘the cold season ritual festival.’ May/ June is the beginning of the cold part of the dry season and harvesting is in progress. Sekuru Munaku explained to me that the ritual was to show gratitude to the ancestors for successfully cultivating the land, and now harvesting. The festival would be marked by singing, drumming, and dancing in sekuru Munaku’s banya. Banya is a hut reserved for the rituals of a medium.
Pasi, on the other hand, called this festival bira remavhurachando, meaning ‘a festival to mark the start of the cold season.’ He however didn’t mention a specific agenda for this ritual. It would seem that to others the defining characteristic of this festival is merely the time of the year it has to be performed.
5. Bira (remhuri)
Many families still hold these ritual festivals for various reasons, which include thanking the ancestors, and formally recognising one as the host of a spirit. In indigenous religion, it is believed that the desire of a mudzimu to manifest itself is communicated through a grave unexplained illness. In such a situation a divine healer is consulted to confirm this, after which a ritual is performed to ordain the host and formally accept the mudzimu.
Some people believe that misfortune in life is the result of supernatural forces. In indigenous religion, the remedy becomes an offering to the ancestors. Others, however, do not wait for misfortune to befall them, instead they regularly make offerings to show gratitude to their ancestors.
All ritual festivals in indigenous religion involve honoring ancestors and, more often than not, pouring libations. Most importantly, such festivals relate to the economy and wellbeing of a people.