by Tendai Huchu

This summer, Islamist fighters attacked and destroyed centuries-old mausoleums and tombs in Mali’s Timbuktu with pick axes. Whatever their doctrinal rationale for doing this, they were not only destroying their own heritage, but a vital inheritance for the whole world. Iconoclasm is nothing new and has been happening all around the world within and between religions for hundreds of years, more often than not fuelled by fundamentalism and blind hatred.

At least in Mali the actions of the Islamists were visible for the whole world to see and condemn. But there is a parallel between this attitude by religious factions in Mali and the relationship between come Christian churches in Zimbabwe and the traditional Shona religion.

The conversion of the Shona people to Christianity demanded a degree of self-negation the logic of which was that — if Christianity was true — the Shona religion was false. For the proselytizing missionaries, it made perfect sense to attack a religion they had no understanding of. They were seeking converts. And so the ancestors who are central to Shona religious tradition were mislabelled as the demons of the Christian faith. Although, paradoxically, Mwari, the monotheistic God of the Shona, was co-opted into the Christian faith.

What is stranger still is that a hundred years later these myths about Shona religion persist in Zimbabwean society and are even championed by the Shona people themselves, most of who have converted to Christianity.

It is important to have an understanding of any religion before subscribing to it or attacking it. But Christians in Zimbabwe blindly attack a faith they know little about, relying on ‘authority’ from the Bible.

In Shona cosmology there is one God – Mwari, known by other titles like Musikavanhu (the Creator of Man) and Nyadenga(he of the heavens). Beneath him, is a chain of Vadzimu – ancestors starting from the first man to the youngest, the most recently deceased ancestor who provides the link between the material world and the spiritual world. Some ancestors of royal lineage – Mhondoro – may have wider influence such as that of Nehanda or Chaminuka.

The ancestors take an active interest in mankind’s affairs, influencing events on the material plane by helping their families or even punishing them for wrong-doing. The ancestors are the link between mankind and Mwari. The clergy of the Shona religion are the Masvikiro who through possession are the channel by which the two worlds intersect. Thus they were very important in traditional Shona States. Great Zimbabwe was one centre of Shona religion and had an oracle who spoke with the voice of Mwari. And so did Matonjeni in the Matopos, which came after the fall of the Great Zimbabwe Empire.

This of course is a very brief overview of Shona religion, which is very complex. But compare this cosmology to that of the Christian faith. The Christians are monotheistic, having one God. Below this God is a network of angels who take messages to and from God, Gabriel being a prominent example in the Bible. Some branches of Christianity believe in saints, human beings who died in the faith and can intercede on man’s behalf in front of God. Central to this faith is the figure of Jesus, who depending on the Christian variant, may have been God himself or may have just been his son. Below this, you have the clergy: priests, pastors, prophets and so forth who lead Christians in prayer.

Through these deeply simplified versions of both faiths, one can find many similarities, agents playing the same role albeit under a different name. Yet the Christians persist in the slander of traditional African religion. The ancestors are labelled demons and Masvikiro are labelled agents of the devil. This fundamentalism claims that the religion of their own forefathers was satanic by its very nature. And so their own ancestors were, at the very least, misguided and, at the very worst, satanists. Some Evangelical churches even forbid the use of drums (ngoma) and rattles (hosho) claiming that, because these musical instruments were used in Shona religion, they are satanic. 

There is a litany of these absurdities which go on and on, but the last laugh surely must lie with the atheists. Richard Dawkins in his book The God Delusion tells the story of Pascal Boyer, an anthropologist who did research on the Fang people in Cameroon who believe:

. . . that witches have an extra internal animal-like organ

that flies away at night and ruins other people’s crops or

poisons their blood. It is also said that these witches sometimes assemble for huge banquets, where they devour

their victims and plan future attacks. Many will tell you

that a friend of a friend actually saw witches flying over

the village at night, sitting on a banana leaf and throwing

magical darts at various unsuspecting victims.

Boyer continues with a personal anecdote:

I was mentioning these and other exotica over dinner in a

Cambridge college when one of our guests, a prominent

Cambridge theologian, turned to me and said: ‘That is

what makes anthropology so fascinating and so difficult

too. You have to explain how people can believe such

nonsense.” Which left me dumbfounded. The conversation

had moved on before I could find a pertinent response –

to do with kettles and pots.

Assuming that the Cambridge theologian was a mainstream Christian, he probably believed some combination of the following:

• In the time of the ancestors, a man was born to a virgin mother with no biological father being involved.

• The same fatherless man called out to a friend called Lazarus, who had been dead long enough to stink, and Lazarus promptly came back to life.

• The fatherless man himself came alive after being dead and buried three days.

• Forty days later, the fatherless man went up to the top of a hill and then disappeared bodily into the sky.

• If you murmur thoughts privately in your head, the fatherless man, and his ‘father’ (who is also himself) will hear your thoughts and may act upon them. He is simultaneously able to hear the thoughts of everybody else in the world.

• If you do something bad, or something good, the same fatherless man sees all, even if nobody else does. You may be rewarded or punished accordingly, including after your death.

• The fatherless man’s virgin mother never died but ‘ascended’ bodily into heaven.

• Bread and wine, if blessed by a priest (who must have testicles), ‘become’ the body and blood of the fatherless man.


What would an objective anthropologist, coming fresh to this set of beliefs while on fieldwork in Cambridge, make of them?

For anyone outside of the faith, the continued slandering of traditional Shona religion by practitioners of the Christian faith is nothing less than an absurdity. Perhaps it makes Christians feel more Christian when they do this and may even win them more converts, but that doesn’t change the fact that at a fundamental level it is utterly ridiculous. 

Tendai Huchu is a Scotland-based Zimbabwean author. His novel The Hairdresser of Harare brought him international acclaim.