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In Shona cosmology, people are understood to be more than the sum of their material or physical parts. The metaphysical and spiritual makeup of people is manifested through totems – revered animals – that expand one’s identity to include milieu, behaviour and way of thinking. Robert Machiri (drawings) and Mike Mavura (words) offer a brief history of the totems of Zimbabwe’s historical heavyweights and their impact in the world of sounds.

In Zimbabwe, there are alternative readings of history and knowledge that exist in the popular everyday lexicon around totems. Totems carry phenomenological values and perceptions, political, cultural and social weight that offer another way to view contemporary Zimbabwean history. In respect of political discourse or theory, the motifs of Mhofu (Eland), Ngwena (Crocodile), Mukanya (Baboon) and Gushungo/Karigamombe (Breaker of Bulls) are some of the more prominent. Whereas most Zimbabweans recognise these totems as part and parcel of their identity, it is the more famous citizens of the country who are of interest when we consider totems as tools for political discourse.

Behind the Mhofu totem, Mbuya Nehanda emerges, behind Gushungo/Karigamombe is Robert Mugabe, Ngwena is synonymous with Emmerson Mnangagwa and, lastly, the Mukanya totem relates to Thomas Mapfumo. All are historical heavyweights in Zimbabwe. A reading of their respective totems will help us to better understand their significance.

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African cosmology dictates that a person is metaphysically conceived as more than just a material or physical object. Totems expand the range of a person’s identity to the metaphysical and spiritual via revered animals. Certain species of natural vegetation and wildlife are revered because they are believed to be hosts of spiritual forces. As such, beyond instrumental value, certain animals have significant value because of their spiritual significance as totems. A totem animal thus forms part of one’s identity milieu and is aligned to behaviour, attitude, and way of thinking.

Zimbabean history tells us that powerful ancestors were represented by the majestic Mhondoro/Lion spirit, which possessed mediums tasked with complex tasks. One such powerful spirit was the spirit of Nehanda, which only possessed female mediums and only those of the Mhofu totem. Her spirit possessed those who were most respected and had leadership skills and qualities. A woman who became Nehanda’s spirit medium remained single and was immediately bestowed the spirit name, Mbuya Nehanda. When Europeans arrived in Zimbabwe, Nehanda’s spirit medium was a woman by the name of Nyakasikana, whose spiritual leadership spanned the entire region of Zimbabwe.

Concurrent with Mbuya Nehanda Nyakasikana’s mediumship, another great regional Shona spirit medium (Mhondoro Huru) Kaguvi, possessed a man by the name of Gumboreshumba (the lion’s foot), who became known as Sekuru Kaguvi. Mbuya Nehanda (Nyakasikana) and Sekuru Kaguvi (Gumboreshumba) formed the epicentre of resistance and uprising, the First Chimurenga against colonialism in Zimbabwe. Here, the spiritual, metaphysical, physical, and symbolic coalesce towards subaltern emancipatory resistance that lays the ground for the narratives related to the other totems under discussion to emerge. Put on death row by the colonialists, Mbuya Nehanda is said to have prophesied that her bones would rise and liberate Zimbabwe. Lyrically, the Harare Mambos Band captured this prophecy in the song “Mbuya Nehanda”, where the core message goes: “Mbuya Nehanda died interrogating how do we get back this country? The one profound message she left us with is pick up the gun and liberate yourselves…”

And pick up the gun is what the next generation did in what is known as the Second Chimurenga, the armed struggle that delivered independence. From this guerrilla warfare emerges Robert Mugabe, Gushungo/Karigamombe (breaker of bulls), to lead Zimbabwe from independence in 1980 until his ousting in 2017. Such was his prominence on the Zimbabwean political scene that we can speak of “Mugabeism” as a constellation of contrasting political discourses around him.

From the year 2000, Mugabe spear-headed the Third Chimurenga, aimed at repossessing and redistributing white-controlled commercial farm land. In Heidi Holland’s biography of Robert Mugabe, Dinner with Mugabe, we are told of Mugabe’s childhood that “if anyone argued with him while herding [cattle], Robert would simply detach himself from the group, selecting his own beasts from the herd and driving them into the hills far away from the other boys. He never sought reconciliation or compromise in an effort to fit in with those around him.”

Indeed, Gushungo/Karigamombe has to do with self-centredness, courage, determination, and fearlessness, but also skill and dexterity. Musicians Bryn Mteki and Ellias Manyika’s hit song “Nora” expresses the Third Chimurenga in sound: “We are tired of living in the bush (give us land)”. But it  also expresses “Gushungoism.” “The struggle needs those with a strong heart,” it says, “it needs those with a strong heart like Mugabe. There are some who gave up, there are some who sold out because of money – take these people and teach them the ways and principles of ZANU–PF”

What readings emerge about Mugabe’s politics from his totem? Breaking away, breaking bulls, unilateralism, anti-West; unrelenting in the face of danger, in the face of imperialism, in the face of opposition. Remember Mugabe pulling Zimbabwe out of the Commonwealth in 2003? As Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni points out, a neoliberal reading of Mugabeism sees it “as a form of racial chauvinism and authoritarianism marked by antipathy towards norms of liberal governance and disdain for human rights and democracy”. In this regard, the Zimbabwe crisis and failed state thesis paints Robert Mugabe as the chief architect. Economic meltdown, sanctions, health crisis, disputed elections, opposition crack-downs, corruption scandals; the sum of all fears, yet Mugabe was unrelenting, unwavering, fighting on all fronts, Karigamombe – breaker of bulls.

In October 2017, Jah Prayzah, arguably the most prominent musician in contemporary Zimbabwe, released an album, Kutonga Kwaro, which became an instant hit. On the title track, he sings of the rule of the hero/soldier (gamba), the hero who has arrived, the one who is going to take us forward, who is asking for the keys to the granary, the one who is going to change the laws. The events that took place in Zimbabwe in November 2017 cemented the song with prophetic status because it pointed towards the man that would dismantle the Gushungo/Karigamombe myth of invincibility. It captured the mood that ended the long reign of Robert Mugabe; and it capped Emmerson Mnangagwa’s inauguration.

Ngwena (Crocodile) have to be strategic to catch prey; they have to be patient, lurking deep, waiting for the right moment to strike. These characteristics are the common associations that you hear when you speak to Zimbabweans about Mnangagwa. Crocodile-like, effective, understated, Mnangagwa’s portfolio on the Zimbabwean political scene is likened to his reptile namesake in corridor and street chats; evasive, secretive, lurking, waiting, decisive, ruthless, and now president. Mention Garwe/ Crocodile to any Zimbabwean and they know who you are talking about. Interestingly, Shumba (Lion), and not Ngwena, is Mnangagwa’s totem, but according to a Sunday newspaper report,  “He was given the nickname Ngwena during his time as minister for state security in the 1980s because people said he has a strong character.” In other words, his totem is Shumba, but his personality and political tactics resemble those of the Ngwena, a powerful combination that proved enough to unseat Robert Mugabe. Now all of Zimbabwe waits to see kutonga kwaro? What will his rule be like?

The personalities that embody these totems often have a presence, a weight around them – in Shona we say vanorema. As such, those who “wear” their totem as part and parcel of their identity milieu, embody qualities of their totem symbolically or otherwise, which has a bearing on their conduct.

The baboon (Soko/Mukanya) is a sacred animal. It is believed that if it is killed, rain does not fall, hence Soko/Mukanyas are called rainmakers. The Soko totem is said to be gifted in foretelling coming events or revealing the truth about past events, akin to what musician Thomas Mapfumo does, bearing witness, lyrically and sonically. Thomas Mapfumo is the Zimbabwean voice of dissonance. He takes the stage in moments of human made catastrophes and speaks truth to power, be it colonial or post-colonial. His music is branded chimurenga music, meaning ‘struggle music’. Suffice to say, this is not the wedding singer and for this the wages of rebellion have been dished out. The Ian Smith colonial regime could not stomach him and banned songs that spoke against the colonial regime, songs that quenched the spirit of the fighters. A biography of Mapfumo by Banning Eyre, Lion Songs: Thomas Mapfumo and the Music that Made Zimbabwe, refers to his music during this period as “food for the souls of guerrilla fighters in the bush.” Living in exile during the Mugabe regime, Mapfumo has not set foot in Zimbabwe since 2004. He will return in April this year. Zimbabwean’s are currently debating whether Emmerson Mnangagwa’s reign is a new era or new error – we wait for Thomas “Mukanya” Mapfumo to lend his sonic voice to this discourse.


 This and other stories available in the new issue of the Chronic, “The Invention of Zimbabwe”, which writes Zimbabwe beyond white fears and the Africa-South conundrum.

The accompanying books magazine, XIBAARU TEERE YI (Chronic Books in Wolof) asks the urgent question: What can African Writers Learn from Cheikh Anta Diop?

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