The sacred burial of a spirit medium

Isdore Guvamombe Reflections
Journalism and old age have one thing in common, they give you a chance to sit on the ringside of events otherwise viewed taboo to ordinary people.

I found myself at the ringside seat of a sacred ritual; that of the burial of spirit medium Nyamasoka, of the Nzou Samanga totem in, Dande, Mbire District. I doubt I will ever get another vantage ringside seat like this.

I arrived in Masoka communal lands at nightfall in search of my father’s old friend to unlock a complicated family puzzle.

The road was bad and my car could not make it right into the centre of the village, my intended destination so I parked as far as I could go.

The most senior spirit medium Nyamasoka graduated from this world to join the ancestors in pre-dawn and it was announced that hour among elders, only. The village mood changed.

Young girls, boys, men and women were not told but they suspected. Only old men and women past their mendicancy were allowed into the sacred shrine or Dendemaro, where funeral rights were performed. I tried my luck and was allowed in based on my father’s good relations when he taught there many years ago and, besides, I had a few whisky bottles. But they said “No” to my camera and phone.

The oldest woman in the village made quick brew for the occasion. The burial of the oracle could not be done on dry throats.

All night gigs were cancelled, through proclamation by the main officiant, the spirit medium Chimhawu. A funeral silence hung over the village. Even the evergreen foliage of the huge trees dotting the village remained motionless. The footpaths criss-crossing the grass-thatched stockade huts lay dark and deserted.

No life stirred!

The night before, the leafy branches had danced and swayed as they were caressed by the gentle breeze and the footpaths had been awash with boys and girls going to different gigs were cross rhythms of the African drum called them. Today, it was taboo to gig. On such occasions the spirit medium uses his cats, the lions, to eat who ever broke ranks with the proclamation.

Most villagers retreated to their homes, save for a few chosen ones, who lay guarding the body. I joined a group of elders led by two the mediums of Chimhawu and Goredema clad in all black regalia who left the village for the river side, for a secret conversation with the ancestors long gone.

A strong breeze blowing across the River Hangwa (misspelt Angwa by the Europeans) sent ripples on the water surface as they stood by the river bank with their backs to the afternoon sun. Their wobbling shadows lay long, lean and formless on the water in the sacred pool in front of them.

Suddenly they stood still and silent, each one’s thoughts trying to penetrate the fog surrounding the future of the village. Slowly but imperceptibly, their shadows became hazy and finally disappeared, leaving in front of them only the muddy waters of Hangwa flowing relentlessly on its certain course. A small silhouette sunset cloud blotted out the sun and lit. After a lengthy clap and talk communication with the ancestors we returned to the village shrine for the night ritual.

Spirit medium Goredema (left) poses for a photo shoot with Herald Assistant Editor Isdore Guvamombe

Inside the sacred shrine, men sat on reed mats on one side, while women sat on the other side, their legs stretched before them and exposing the cracks under their feet. No one minded the cracks. I thought it was normal to be known by your foot cracks imprinted on the ground on your spoor, for a community where shoes are a luxury. The foot cracks were a trademark and some form of identity. You would easily know who has gone to the river, by merely looking at the spoor. Yes, the spoor. The spoor!

As the night wore on, the drum grew louder and louder, the singing blending melodiously with the sacredness of the event. Suddenly the medium of Chimhawu went into a trance. A high-pitched voice called everyone to order. The spirit spoke softly but in measured tones, amid clapping and ululating. The voice was male, deep and vibrant.

“Our elders say if the cockroach wants to rule over the chicken, then it must hire the fox as a bodyguard. Do you hear me?”

The villagers answered in unison, “We hear you ancestor!” clapping in respect.

“I said without a leader, black ants are confused. Are we not confused, now that our spiritual leader is gone? Does anyone disagree with me?”

Everyone answered “No!” but clapping, still. No one looked the medium straight in the face. They all cast their eyes downwards.

When the spirit possessed, this villager saw the medium’s eyes narrow into slits, his nose dilate and the once mobile and cheerful face this villager had dealt with the previous day, contorting and turning into a hideous mask. This villager was stunned.

The spirit was thirsty and an elderly woman went on her knees with a calabash on her head. Slowly, carefully and tentatively she placed the calabash in front of the medium. Men clapped, women ululated.

The calabash was full of village quick brew, an alcoholic ceremonial drink brewed from fermenting maize meal and wild fruit (masau). Still in a trance, the medium bent slightly forward, took the calabash and tipped it, pouring some on the ground as a libation, an offering of drink to God and the ancestors and a prayer for the community. There was clapping. Silence! Rhythmic clapping . . . clapping and clapping. Silence! Ululating, silence . . . silence and ululation.

When he had finished the praying, he tipped the calabash over, pouring the rest of the wine on the ground. Ululation, rhythmic clapping, ululation and clapping. Silence, silence, silence! Silence.

There was singing all night long and the medium danced until the wee hours of the morning, the time elephants normally bath, when he gave his parting note. He directed that the deceased be buried in the prohibited Chiwore National Parks and assured the crowd that National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority, that normally strictly deny entrance into the park, would have sense knocked into their heads by the spirits and will not deny the burial in the wildlife-infested park.

“I assure you, by the powers vested in me and those ancestors who went before me, those children will allow you access to be burial site. Do you hear me?” The villagers agreed in unison and ululation.

At day break, it was a miracle how parks rangers at Mukanga Camp allowed the villagers, for the first time in decades, to carry the body 10km into the park and bury according to tradition. The logic was that before the parks was proclaimed in 1975, the community used to live there and had chosen that particular place as the shrine of their fallen mediums.

Ten kilometres into the park, a huge grave – the size of a hut – was dug. Inside it, a protruding rack like the one village women dry their plates outside the hut, was built. There the body was placed, wrapped only in a piece of white cloth. No coffin. Nothing.

The medium was left exposed to the weather but extremely ring-fenced with thorny bushes to deter predators and scavengers.

I asked in a whisper from the old man next to me whether that was good enough but he hushed me. Suddenly they turned their backs to the rack and sang; “Sarawoga, wegani, wegani, wegani . . . rawogaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!” them moved a distance and started talking about other issues as if nothing had happened.

Below the rack was another dug out tunnel. Later the old man who hushed me explained. “This is the first burial. There will be a second one. When the body eventually decomposes and the maggots drop into the pit and die also, we will come back for the second burial,’’ he explained as we walked back.

“During the second burial, only villagers with cotton tuft hair will make a beeline to the shrine for the final burial. The body will have decomposed. The maggots also died. The will remove from the decomposed body, the nails, the teeth and the hair and put them in a gourd. They will bury the other remains but take the gourd back to the village and the main officiant will mark it and place it into the shrine alongside the gourds of other foregone members of the ancestral lineage.

“When the next person is possessed by the spirit, his main test is to identify which gourd possesses the nails, the teeth and the hair of the preceding medium. This process is called authenticating the spirit or kubata masuwo. It is a must test, done in full view of village elders.

source:the herald

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