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Music Can Keep a Family Together... Even After Death

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Thomas Mapfumo

How would you feel, knowing that not only your big brother, sister and parents are looking out for you, but that your grandparents, great-grandparents, and all of their ancestors before them continue to watch over you, protect you and care for your well-being? Well, aside from making you a bit paranoid, you'd hardly ever feel alone and you would probably feel a lot safer wherever you'd go in your life. The Shona believe that death is a passage of the body from one physical form to another, and when the spirit leaves the body, it becomes part of a higher world of living spirits. Although the majority of Shona believe in God, they more widely believe that it is their ancestral spirits that act as their supernatural protectors. This is one of the principal beliefs within the Shona religion, whose customs, like mbira music have all been orally passed down for generations.

Map of Zimbabwe
When someone dies in the Shona culture, a series of steps are taken according to tradition, all for the purpose of eventually "welcoming back" the spirit of the deceased which is believed to roam around without a home. The deceased family member is thought to possess two shadows. The first is a black shadow representing his flesh and the second is a white shadow representing his soul or spirit. The spirit must be given a means to escape once the person is buried. To accomplish this, a long stick (the length of which is equal to the grave's depth) is rested against the body so that its top end will still be visible after the burial. After the passing of several months, when the soil around the grave has settled, the stick is removed leaving a thin hole down into the grave. Periodically, a family member will come by the grave to see if a worm or a caterpillar has come out of the hole because it is believed that an escaping caterpillar will become the soul of the deceased. When the little guy does eventually come out, the word is quickly passed among members of the family that the spirit, known as Mudzimu, has come out and is now wandering around without a home.

After a year has gone by, the family holds a special ceremony to welcome the wandering spirit back to the family. The spirit will speak to the family by entering the body of a person in the family and taking control of the person for a while. This person, called the "spirit medium," is usually the oldest son but sometimes the spirit will choose someone else. The spirit lets people know who it has chosen by causing an illness that seems incurable in the person it chooses, one that can only be diagnosed and treated by a n'anga (African doctor).

Sadza is the generic term describing a thickened porridge made of any number of grains. The most common is made with white maize meal. It is the staple diet for most of the indigenous people of Zimbabwe. Actually, maize was first brought here from the Americas by the Portuguese in the late 1800s, but is today one of the primary sources of starch and carbohydrates as well as being the most popular meal. Sadza ne Nyama is sadza with meat stew, which is often beef but can also be chicken or goat. But meat is a treat accompanying sadza that is only enjoyed occasionally. More likely, however, sadza is served with vegetables. The word sadza when combined with the word for afternoon in the Shona language simply means lunch, for example "sadza re masikati". Likewise, "sadza re manheru" (dinner) literally means, "sadza of the evening."

Before the ceremony the family gathers and sacrifices an animal in honor of the incoming spirit. The day of the ceremony itself, the family carries to the grave three things they have prepared: a beer brewed from corn, the traditional Shona dish Sadza neNyama, and a wooden plate of snuff (ground tobacco). At the site, they pour the beer over the grave and then place the other two items on top of it. One of the family's elders or perhaps the deceased's son kneels and says a prayer of welcome. "We are calling you back home to be with us. Please guide and protect your family. If there is anything you need please let us know. Be kind to us." The wandering spirit has now been incorporated back into the family.

Into that same night, festivities will be held at which point the mbira will be used as the primary vehicle of communication with the spirit, to please it and welcome it home. The mbira instrument has all of the necessary elements to "call" the ancestral spirit to participate in the ceremony. The player uses Shona prayers, poetry, and words of praise to further persuade the spirit to come. This ceremonial performance is the most important religious and spiritual function of the instrument in the traditions of the Shona culture. Throughout the ceremony the spirit is also said to possess the spirit medium. The following morning, the relatives carry pots of beer and approach one of their bulls. After pouring the beer on the bull's head it is expected that the bull will shake its head signifying that the spirit is happy. If not, the next person will pour their pot of beer on the bull's head, and then the next person, until the bull finally shakes his head. Once he does, the family will again celebrate the security of a new ancestral spirit.


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