28th May 2000
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The world of ancestors' spirits

African diary

By Fr. Paul Caspersz 
Continued from lastweek

April 4: Brother Bvukumbgwe

He was the first Afri-can who greeted me as Brian showed me to my room in the Jesuit wing of Silveria House. He was dressed in a woollen jersey which he wore over a blue shirt with a high collar and black trousers. "Welcome. I heard that you have come to spend some time with us." I thought he was the janitor. Only in the evening at what they called the sundown at 6, half-an-hour before dinner, where the other Jesuits drank cola and Brian and I drank beer, did I learn that my janitor was Brother Bvukumbgwe. From then he was to play - unconsciously - a key role in helping me to understand the joy and the pain of Africa and the joy and the pain of being black African. 

He was named Ladislaus at his christening some 65 years ago. "But I don't like that name. It was the name given to me by the missionaries. I must carry my father's name, which God gave him and me. To me he will always be living so long as I bear his name." From that day he was Bvukum to me, or just Vukum (for I couldn't get the B and the V easily together). 

His grandfather was polygamous. With Vukum I went one day serveral hundred kilometres to his birthplace, called Mutunduru. Around Mutunduru live his numerous sisters and brothers, really cousins, some related only by marriage. Among them was his father's youngest brother whom he called uncle and also sometimes my 'father', a fairly prosperous planter called in Zimbabwe a commercial farmer. 

Whenever he goes to Mutunduru, Vukum told me that he makes it a point to visit each of his three 'mothers' who are the wives of his uncle. 

The uncle told me that he married his 'senior wife' in church. For each wife he has built a comfortable house where each lives with her own children. The uncle invited us to lunch in the house of his senior wife, in the presence of his two other wives and all their children. As usual, the lunch was preceded by a long session of prayers. Everyone was very devout and sang the hymns beautifully. 

Vukum is also a composer of religious songs in the Shona language, the most common of the Bantu languages spoken in Zimbabwe, at least in the part of the country called Mashonaland. I have two cassettes of his songs. When I play them upon rising in the morning, I hear the call of Africa again, see the shining ebony faces, hear their drums and the rhythmic clapping of their hands, their bodies swinging to the music as they sing in parts with beautiful voices that sound from their whole being and resonate in the hearts of all who hear them. 

Many of his tunes come to Vukum, he told me, in his dreams at night. He then rises from bed, sings or hums them into a cassette and goes back to sleep. In the morning he plays the cassette to his singers who then produce the song. While driving me to his village (100 kms an hour or even more is quite ordinary in Zimbabwe's first-world inter-city roads, built by the colonialists, but well maintained and even expanded after independence, and there isn't much vehicular traffic on the roads), Vukum would be lost in his own musical thoughts and his fingers and hands on the steering wheel would sometimes keep time with his thoughts. African music of this type is, like ancient Indian music, not written. 

The rhythm in the African's blood improvises on the theme, carrying it to new depths of meaning and experience. At the improvisation, each at the right moment, come in the sopranos, the altos, the contraltos, the basses and the baritones, and at intervals some men blow the rousing African horn. 

Vukum lives in a world of his ancestors' spirits. 'I must visit my grandfather's grave,' he told me in Mutunduru as the evening was turning to dusk. 'Come with me, if you like.' I remained thoughtfully a few steps behind. 'Magati, how are you, grandfather?' he asked with the usual greeting clap of his hands. 'Look after us,' he prayed, 'and do not let the evil spirits have any power over us.' 

June 6 - 12: Nyanga and the spirits

The Africans believe in spirits. Our ancestors, they say, live on as spirits, either good or evil. They are not really dead, but live on as 'mzimu' or the living dead. They really and finally die only when there is no longer anyone on earth who remembers them. 

With John U and his invalid wife I went towards the end of May some 250 kms away to Mutare, east of Harare. Mutare is the birthplace of his wife. She was the eldest in the family and had to be present and preside at the meeting of the family to decide on the disposal of the property of a parent who had died. Only when the things left behind are distributed fairly and peacefully will the spirit of the deceased person be at rest and not return to disturb, but only to bless, those who are still living on earth. 

Cecil Rhodes
Cecil Rhodes, the man behind the Rhodes scholarships, passed, towards the end of the 19th century, the way John and I were driving. Two of his companions rode in a separate carriage some yards ahead of him. As they stopped looking at the vast stretches of fertile green land, Rhodes came up to them and said, "I think I know what the two of you are thinking about?" "Yes," they answered, "we are thinking how fine it would be if we could have farms of our own in this part of the country." "Why not?" said Rhodes, called the surveyor-general who was riding with them, and carved out several thousand acres for each of the two men. It was like cutting up a huge roast turkey, only that the turkey in the case of Rhodes belonged to the African people. 

Nyangani is the highest peak in Zimbabwe in the eastern highlands. It takes only two hours or less to climb from the foot of the mountain to its crest but can be extremely treacherous when thick mist covers the crest. The wisest thing to do when the mist hides where you have to place your next foot is to sit down wherever you are, even in the bitter cold, till morning when the rising sun will drive away the mist. Not so long before I went there three children of a government minister decided to do otherwise and were never heard of again. Even a helicopter was sent to scour the mountaintop but the children were never found. When dark ugly clouds cover the crest, the spirit of Nyangani is angry and no one should draw near. When white clouds envelop it, the spirit has something to say, and one must go to a spirit medium to get to know what. 

Only when there are no clouds does the spirit say, "Now you may come and roam over the land where I dwell." When I went there with Fr. Dieter, a German Jesuit, and Stanley, Dieter's African Secretary, there were the dark, ugly clouds. So we didn't venture far from the foot of the mountain!

Spirit mediums, traditional healers and diviners

The spirits of the departed make their intentions known through the spirit mediums, maybe anybody, grown-up child or adult, woman or man, through whom the spirit speaks. The traditional healers in some instances practise their art much in the same way as our ayurvedic physicians do; traditional remedies, mostly herbal, handed down from father to son, their secrets jealously guarded, are prescribed and cure patients both physically and psychologically. It is more holistic than allopathic medicine. It is not a particular chemical drug aimed at a particular state of illness, but a decoction of many herbs to 'purify the blood' or a plaster of soft rice mixed with oil to cure the eczema on the legs. 

One of the best known, even internationally, of the African healers in contemporary times was Milingo, Archbishop of Lusaka, from 1969 to 1982. 

He spoke with the spirits who troubled his clients, pacified both, laid his hands on persons and restored hundreds to peace with themselves and with others. Many foreign missionaries did not understand Milingo, because they had never tried to understand the traditional religions of the African and thought that the only way forward for African Christians were the tried and tested paths of the western church. Milingo was called to Rome, allowed to continue his healing ministry, but resigned from the Archbishopric of Lusaka. 

More next week

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