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Mystic Fortunes of Great Zimbabwe

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Hurry up and take the picture.  I'm freezing!
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The drizzle runs down my nose, dripping into my beard and a cold wind blows down off the stony hillsides sending chills through my body. It is a reminder that it is winter here in southern Africa. Although it never gets cold enough to actually snow in central Zimbabwe, I check the sky for falling snow flakes, because it seems as if it just might today.

Winter is the dry season and since it hasn't rained in weeks, I neglected to heed the ominous clouds that were accumulating on the horizon this morning and did not bring my rain parka. Now I am at the pre-European ruins at Great Zimbabwe, learning about ancient Africa while I learn how to stay warm by moving around a lot.

Map of Zimbabwe
These rare stone ruins date back to the 13th century, and their mysterious and controversial origins are still a matter of debate and speculation. Stone building was not favored by the tribes of sub-Saharan Africa, due to their transient, hunter-gatherer lifestyle, and because clay and straw huts were sufficient dwellings for the temperate climate of this region. (Although on days like today, I'll bet more than one Shona prince was wishing for a stone castle with a warm fireplace to sit by.) Since stone building was not common in ancient southern Africa, the stone work is a bit crude compared to Inca or Mayan standards (be sure to check out our Latin America trek, One of the most noticeable aspects of the stone walls is there are absolutely no corners. All the walls and corridors are rounded and meandering. It is fairly obvious that this city was built with little advanced planning.

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Designed for tourists?
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The huge stone walls of the main enclosure can be up to 25 feet tall and the steep cliffs of the hilltop enclosure make this site perfect for a military fortress. But it is believed that it was used as the royal palace and cattle corral for the ruling families of this region.

When it was first discovered by European settlers, researchers refused to believe that it was built by Africans because they had never seen anything like it in all of southern Africa. Originally it was believed that this strange city must have been built by Greek or North African settlers whose cultures had been acquainted with this type of building for thousands of years. But modern researchers believe that it was in fact built by the Shona people of the region. They probably learned these techniques while trading in distant lands. It is well established that the Swahili people of Mozambique were trading with people as far away as China. Pot fragments from the Ming Dynasty, and beads from India have also been found in the Great Zimbabwe ruins.

Abeja and I wander through the ruins of the hilltop complex, marveling at the ingenuity of these people. While the ruins are not as impressive as Machu Picchu, they have a distinct character and from the top of the hill I can see the entire valley. When this city was in its prime in the 14th and 15th centuries it is believed that as many as 20,000 people lived here. Standing at the top of the highest point of the city, I look out over the rest of the ruins and try to imagine what it must have been like to be a Shona king standing guard over his kingdom. I imagine how proud these people must have been to have built such a city in a land where nothing like it had ever existed.

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These dancers knew the best way to stay warm was to keep moving
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As we work our way down the steep path, the sound of singing and drumming echoes from a small village of round clay and straw huts below us. Curious, we head towards the village which is built on top of a flat rock. We enter the gates of the village and walk towards the music. A small band of musicians and dancers are playing strange gourd instruments that sound like marimbas. They kick and stomp in the mud, oblivious to the rain. Although the village is reconstructed and maintained for tourists, there are actually people living here. Chickens roam about freely and some of the huts are sparsely decorated with personal belongings.

We enter one of the larger huts to find a medicine man and a female fortune teller inside. They are both wearing traditional headdresses of black feathers and beaded necklaces which indicate their special status in society. Both use the spirit world in their work to help them heal and guide their patients. The healer tells us he contacts the spirits through his dreams and they tell him how to heal and which medicines to use. The fortune teller's method is unusual, and well... a little more dramatic. Both Abeja and I are curious to find out what our futures hold so we ask for a reading. I get mine first. Without looking at me she snorts some snuff out of a horn and faces a small alter. The snuff seems to have a very powerful effect on her and she starts shaking and moaning as if in a great deal of pain. Her eyes roll back in her head and she waves her arms wildly as if battling with some force that we cannot see.

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Need advice about your future? Have a bad case of dysentery?
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She begins to converse with the spirits, telling my fortune to the healer in the Shona language and he translates for me. "From here you will travel to your home and you will have a safe journey. You have a great and strong spirit and will live long and be blessed with as many children as you choose," he says. "She thanks you for your spirit and sees that you too are a spirit medium who will heal the people in the future. You must not lose hope and you must continue on your healing path. She sees that you are a very good person with a strong spirit that helps and protects you. She says that your wife will never leave you because if she does she will never find another man as good as you." Well all this sounds pretty good to me and I am really beginning to believe in this Shona magic; who would argue with a fortune like that?

Then Abeja receives her fortune. Another snuff of black powder, more convulsive movements, guttural sounds and her fortune: "From here you will travel to your home and you will have a safe journey. You have a great and strong spirit and will live long and be blessed with as many children as you choose. She thanks you for your spirit and sees that you too are a spirit medium who will heal the people in the future. You must not lose hope and you must continue on your healing path... etc. ". Strangely enough, Abeja and I have the same fortune. Well, we are good friends and we work together so I guess it's not too unbelievable... is it?

After our fortune telling adventure we bravely go back out into the cold and rain. We make our way to what is known as the Great Enclosure, which is a huge circular wall surrounding what was once the royal village. The Great Enclosure is the largest ancient structure in sub-Saharan Africa. It is quite impressive to stand inside and consider how difficult it must have been to build with only crude metal tools and muscle power. Inside is another labyrinth of smaller walls and a large conical tower. Its purpose remains a mystery, although it may have been used to store the King's grain. The site is in relatively good condition with most of the structures still intact. Although when I get too close to the towering walls, I feel a bit apprehensive, as if the loosely fitting stones may come crumbling down at any moment.

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Inside the ancient enclosure
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We wander around the enclosure for a while pondering these ancient mysteries, then it occurs to me that I am soaking wet and freezing cold. It is beginning to get dark and the rain is picking up so we decide to call it a day. On the long walk back to the bus we hardly talk to each other, both of us lost in thought trying to recreate in our minds what life must have been like hundreds of years ago for the people of Great Zimbabwe. They must have been very proud of their civilization. Despite the deterioration of it's walls and towers, it is still a great source of pride for the people of this country. Images of the ruin adorn the money and official seals. When I tell people that I have been there, their eyes and smiles widen - itís a look that says "now maybe you understand my people better, our history and culture is as old as the stones themselves."

Shawn
 

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