Recurring cycle-based religious festivals
For this story, I will refer to indigenous religion in Zimbabwe as chivanhu. This is a term used to refer to the traditional way of life of the indigenous peoples of Zimbabwe. It is also commonly used in reference to beliefs and practices of indigenous religion.
In indigenous religion, the ordinary rituals or festivals are based on the agricultural cycle and the seasons. A well-known ritual, kurova guva (escorting the spirit from the grave), is not one of these, as it is not routine but depends on certain events.
In this post, I will talk about the ordinary rituals which recur every (agricultural) cycle.
Hwahwa or Doro
Because ritual feasts involve the brewing of beer, they are commonly referred to as hwahwa or doro. So for instance, one might say ‘doro remukwerera‘ or ‘hwahwa hwemavhurachando.’
Kupira or Kuteura
Pouring a libation or sacrificing an animal is generally known as kuteura or kupira. Teura means ‘spill (beer or blood of an animal),’ and pira means ‘offer’ (hence the word bira).
While I have included bira as one of these rituals, it is actually a general reference to a ritual feast. Families hold ritual feasts with various intentions, hence the specific names given to such feasts could vary. One of the more common reasons however is simply to honour the ancestors from time to time.
Key festivals of indigenous religion in Zimbabwe
A few years back, I attended a rain-asking ceremony known as mukwerera. For those who do not practice chivanhu, this might be the only routine festival associated with chivanhu they 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:
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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 a friend who comes from Chirumhanzu, and he was surprised that mukwerera involves going to a gravesite. In his village, the ritual is performed at the top of a sacred hill.
In January 2020, I visited Pasi Kawanzaruwa to learn more about the various ritual festivals. Pasi lives in the Nharira Hills situated between Harare and Norton. Pasi’s father Jacob was a medium of the (great) spirit of Mushore; he was a mhondoro. Mhondoro refers to great tribal spirits. These are spirits of clan founders and kings. It seems, however, that the term is also used to refer to the medium as well.
In Pasi’s account of mukwerera, they perform the libation 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), under which the libation is poured while a petition is made. Pasi also told me that it was a mubvumira (and not muhacha) tree under which our ancestors would ask for food and it miraculously appeared.
For the ritual, a lamb is taken up to the hill, killed, and burned as a sacrifice. In addition, a beast is also slaughtered for the festival.
When mukwerera is held, it is for the entire community under a chieftaincy. However, not just anybody can lead the mukwerera 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). In addition, all members of the community are expected to contribute inputs to be used for the festival. Such contributions include sorghum or millet and even cash. Pasi told me of how back in the day, 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.
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, this is 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, and 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. In addition, it would also be a celebration of the new season. 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 then, that the defining characteristic of this festival is the time of the year it has to be performed. So while the mukwerera festival paves way for the rainy season, mavhurachando marks the start of the dry season.
5. Bira (remhuri)
Many families still hold private ritual feasts for various reasons, which range from thanking their ancestors, to formally recognising a member of the family as the host of an ancestral spirit.
Bira to honour the ancestors
Some families regularly make offerings to show gratitude and honour their ancestors. That way the family can secure ongoing protection. During such a ritual a petition is made asking for protection and good fortunes.
Bira with specific intention
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.
It is also believed that more often than not, misfortune in life is the result of supernatural forces. Where ancestors are neglected and forgotten they withhold their protection. In this case the remedy becomes an offering to the 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.