Makwa’s Forgotten Rainmaking Shrine

by Rutendo Mapfumo

— THE sky is yawningly cloudless and the atmosphere is stuffy. The temperatures are soaring at around 45 degrees Celsius. There is no other sound except the cicadas. At nightfall, lions roar and rumble endlessly within the village but attack neither villagers nor their livestock. Something is about to happen. Nambyan tribesmen in this community northeast of Hwange watch impatiently.

Since the past week or so, rain birds have been extraordinarily busy, securing the new twigs and grass to build new nests.
The birds must have head insight into the old adage that the cleverest of all birds, builds its nest before the onset of the rainy season. Villagers keep their ears to the ground and eyes on the tree of life, a huge leafless baobab tree on a rock promontory.
Suddenly, a huge baobab tree violently shakes the ground around it, as if it wants to uproot itself. Village elders rush to the nearby sacred shrine, remove their shoes, open their tobacco pouches and smear snuff on the ground.

The young and the generality of women are not allowed into the shrine. Only elderly women way into their mendicancy are allowed.
Clapping hands and systematically snuffing their experienced nostrils, the villagers speak to the ancestors in low-toned voices for what is about to happen in a few days. An array of sacred and complex rituals follows, with strict adherence to rules set by long gone ancestors.

A few days later, the mystery unfolds. Lightning stabs the air, immediately followed by the thunderous shaking of the earth’s innards. Women ululate noisily and men clap their hands in appreciation. Panicky herdboys drive the cattle home in a huff, systematically cracking whips and whistling sonorously. The hoofs pound the ground, raising dust as the rains start a steady spatter of heavy raindrops. The smell of the rain is overwhelming. Rain birds circle in mid-air acrobatically flying round, round and round, as if thanking the ancestors for their worthy benevolence. Half-naked children sing, run and play in the cloudy atmosphere celebrating the coming of the rainy season. The freshness and the new lease of life, is charming for the kids.

Welcome to Makwa, the sacred shrine where Nambya rainmaking spirits dwell!
Exceptionally high temperatures, thick thorny bushes where wildlife and domestic animals gallivant in one area, make this place on of its own. On the northern verges of this vast swathe of land the Zambezi River passes from the mighty Victoria Falls heading towards Binga and Kariba.

This is the place where there is a baobab tree, which vibrates when the villagers communicate with ancestors, asking for rain.
Rainmaking ceremonies were one of the activities or rituals respected by the Nambya community but with the advent of new churches, new doctrines and new beliefs, the traditional rituals are slowly fading away. The sacred shrine still stands. So is the Mbuuyu wamande, the baobab tree. Although Makwa communal lands fall under geographical region five where there is low rainfall, the area used to have above average rainfall.

Sekulu Fulukani Shoko, the 83-year-old village head who has seen it all in Makwa, said the little or no rainfall which is now the major characteristic of Makwa is mainly caused by the lack of dignity and respect for ancestral spirits. “The vibration of the baobab tree communicates something to us,’’ says Sekulu Shoko. It is said the tree was used to be a communication centre between the communities and the ancestors. “A spirit medium and chiefs would go to Zambezi River to collect water with calabashes to use in appeasing the ancestors,’’ he narrated.

He said when communicating with ancestors, a big snake emerges from the nearby caves and climbs up the baobab tree, a spirit medium would then snuff it while asking for rains. “After talking to the ancestors who were represented by the snake, we would move away from the place and no one was allowed to look back to the tree or the snake. “A few days later clouds would gather up the sky and a heavy downpour would cool down Makwa community,’’ he said. Sekulu said the snake is still exists around the Mbuuyu Wamande but no one is able to call the snake back like how it used to be done.

Another elder Kenneth Sibanda said there is an island on the Zambezi where drumbeats were heard and lions roared but attacked nothing. ‘’The beating of drums and roaring of lions were a sign of good rains,‘’ he said. He said the cross-rhythm sound of the beating drums came from the Chakakona Banyayi Island. The Nambya chiefs and spirit medium had appropriated the islands on the Zambezi River as shrines for the spirits. Sibanda, the self-proclaimed traditional custodian of the site, said the island had traditionally been used for rain-making ceremonies.

The ceremony was performed every year in September. It began with the beating of drums and the singing of traditional songs on the eve of the ceremony. He said the ceremony itself would take place the following day and involved taking beer and a black goat to the island under the guidance of Mande, the spirit medium. The goat was slaughtered on the island, a hut was built on the island out of wooden poles and water reeds. Ashen clay pots full of beer were taken to the hut.

Traditionally, it was believed the spirits were the key to rainfall, in case the rain failed to come until January, the Vashes the plural name of paramount Nambya chiefs would gather to make the national rain-making ceremony, they would gather  at all the rain-making spots which where the graves of all the three  paramount ancestros, the first spot would be at Chilisa grave site which was located on the Zambian side of Zambezi, the second at Shangano ruins where Chief Sawanga and Chief Chilobanago was buried and lastly at Bumbusi Ruins where Chief Shana lies buried.

However, Victor Tshuma (72) — one of the village head in Makwa —  said it is important to respect these ancestral  shrines, as they still play an important role in Nambya tradition. “Nothing goes right when we do not recognise the existence of our ancestors,’’ he said. “We have told the local authorities to help us in preserving such shrines and they said they are yet to assist because the shrines are important to the Nambya community,’’ said Tshuma.

The shrine today remains a stark reminder of the happenings of the past but gone are the rainmaking ceremonies and gone are the rains, too.

— reprinted from The Herald Online