The African Futures conference held in Johannesburg at the end of October brought a motley array of scholars and artists from the continent and overseas. Their interests ranged from superheroes, Sun Ra and science fiction to technology, knowledge production, feminism and witchcraft.
One of the visitors was Bonaventure Ndikung, a Cameroonian-born scientist and curator, now resident in Germany from where he runs Savvy Contemporary, an art space in Berlin. Explaining his fascination with witchcraft, Ndikung said he had taken part in a project on Afrofuturism in which the usual subjects — spaceships and technologies — came up for interrogation, but he had since lost interest in that.
“For us to imagine the future we have to look at the present. We are saying … the obvious thing is to look at what you can see but what about the other things you can not see that are quite present in our lives?” said Ndikung.
“I was looking for a word to call it. I could call it ngozi [Shona word for avenging spirit] … but I wanted to use a word that is known by everybody.” He was perfectly aware of the heavy load that is attached to witchcraft, especially since the criminalisation of witchcraft that followed colonialism.
As soon as the British South African Company, Cecil John Rhodes’ imperial force, imposed control on the land recently seized from the Shona, Ndebele, Tonga, Nambya, Kalanga and Venda people, the company administration pushed through the Suppression of Witchcraft Act in 1898. They were using the template of the 1895 law passed in the Cape Colony, then ruled by Rhodes. The legislation was adopted for the rest of South Africa- in 1957-when the Witchcraft Act was passed. Even in places where the act was never on the statute books, the pernicious influence of the missionary, his bible, and his church eradicated all forms of African spirituality.
“When you hear of witchcraft you think of the negative. [Yet] 90% that happens under witchcraft is positive,” Ndikung said. Sitting in the audience, I agreed with him. In fact, over the last two years, I have been researching Zimbabwean politics and history, including aspects of Shona spirituality. I shared some of the stories I have come across:
Moses Chokuda, an MDC activist, was killed in March 2009 by Farai Machaya, Abel Maphosa, Edmore Gana and Bothwell Gana, all of them Zanu PF supporters. The crime happened in Gokwe, Zimbabwe’s biggest district, and one of the most multi-cultural places in Zimbabwe. In fact, Machaya is the son of a top Zanu PF official and a top functionary in the provincial government bureaucracy. At the time of the incident, Machaya was the governor of the Midlands province.
Zanu PF thugs killing an MDC supporter? Nothing out of the ordinary there. It’s a script that goes back to the foundation of the nation itself, for Zimbabwe’s history reeks of blood. Blood-letting and electioneering are the norm. It was a tool first tried out in 1980, right at the beginning, against Joshua Nkomo-led Zapu. It was put to use again in 1985, against Zapu, then again in 1990, against Edgar Tekere-led Zimbabwe Unity Movement. Mothballed in 1995, political murders were revived in 2000, when the threat of the MDC surfaced, and repeated in 2002, then again in 2005, reaching its zenith in 2008.
In 1976, when Zanu and its military, Zanla, were fighting Ian Smith, Robert Mugabe had said, with scholarly panache and rhetorical flourish, “Our votes must go together with our guns. After all, any vote we shall have, shall have been the product of the gun. The gun which produces the vote should remain its security officer – its guarantor. The people’s votes and the people’s guns are always inseparable twins.”
It was the duality of the gun and the vote that the MDC sought to compromise. MDC was far ahead of Zanu PF in the popularity polls but, crucially, Zanu PF were the custodians of the national armoury. As such, whenever the vote was going the “wrong” way, the gun was retrieved from the state arsenal to force a certain outcome.
The Chokuda case was instructive.
“The way he was killed was ruthless. He was beaten to death, tied with ropes and dragged like an animal. I think he is now fighting his own war,” Tawengwa Chokuda, the victim’s father, said. He refused to bury his son, demanding an apology, and, as demanded by Shona rites of restitution, a herd of cattle. “Don’t forget you cannot stop an avenging spirit by going to jail or through the courts. Even if you die, the rest of your family that remains behind will suffer from that avenging spirit.”
The police, some accounts suggest, obtained a burial order from a magistrate and forcibly tried to bury him – they failed. Strange assorted incidents occurred at the morgue. Perhaps feeling constrained in his coffin, the deceased was sometimes seen on top of his coffin. Or so some said. Maybe tiring of his own necro-soliloquies, Chokuda began speaking with mortuary attendants. Or so some said.
“The coffin did not move out when about 10 police officers tried to lift it out of the mortuary to bury him against my will and without my consent,” Chokuda’s father explained. And the magistrate who issued the order, it is said, suffered some mental affliction and now wanders the environs of Gokwe in a mad haze.
In the event, the four were convicted of murder and sentenced to 18 years in prison. By this time, many months later, Chokuda remained unburied. Machaya, the father of one of the murderers, expressed his satisfaction with the judgment. “I accept the verdict that came out of the courts. I do not condone any act of violence, worse still that destroys life. It’s natural that punishment must be given to those that acted outside the law of the country, including my son, Farai,” Nehanda Radio reported.
But Chokuda wasn’t satisfied with the judgment and insisted on African restitution. He demanded a virgin, 70 heads of cattle and US$ 15 000. The case was so drawn out, complicated and controversial that the local chief, Ishe Njelele, invited the feuding parties to his kraal for an indaba.
The demand for a virgin, an archaic and chauvinistic practice sometimes practised in these matters, is and was deemed illegal, and was thrown out. The chief managed to negotiate the cattle count down to 35. “It was one of the most challenging cases that I ever handled at my court. On one hand, I wanted Moses to be buried while on the other I wanted the name of the Governor to be cleared as it had been tarnished by the media who were politicising the matter,” NewZimbabwe.com quoted Chief Njelele.
“Eventually, I managed to engage both families. Machaya, who was accompanied by his elder brother, pledged to pay the outstanding beasts. All is now set for the burial on Saturday in Chipere Village.”
The burial took place three years after his death. Where ever Chokuda is, he must be smiling at the turn of events…
Back at the African Futures Conference, Ndikung is fascinated by the idea of the spirit medium, homwe in Shona, when a dead ancestor — or spirit of a person known to have died hundreds of years ago — returns, if only for a moment, to communicate and commune with the living via the living.
“Can we extrapolate a future from this? If communicating with someone in that space isn’t futuristic, then I don’t understand what Afro futurism is?” Ndikung said, “how do you communicate with the ancestors? Is there not some power in that? We don’t have the language, but there is a practice. Maybe this is the time to create a discourse, to theorise this… Whoever had these knowledge systems was persecuted. I want to call it knowledges. You can’t call it knowledges. This shows the hegemony of [what the west considers] knowledge. This knowledge, in the singular, is the same knowledge that was taken away through the slave trade, colonialism and the occupation of the Americas.”
The peripheral space that African rites, traditions, attendant ceremonies, and knowledge systems occupy is a result of colonial assault. “If I understood Achille [Mbembe] properly, he was talking about knowledge systems that have been suppressed by colonialism… If we want to think about African futures, then we have to start looking at our knowledge systems. Research money should go into these knowledge systems,” Ndikung argued.
One such person who straddled western and African knowledge systems was Gordon Chavunduka, now late, a professor of sociology, former vice-chancellor of the University of Zimbabwe (when it was still a proper university and not in the habit of awarding dubious PhDs to powerful elites) and a traditional healer.
In “Witchcraft and the Law,” Chavunduka’s inaugural 1980 lecture at the University of Zimbabwe, he laid out his life project when he said, “my object is to attempt to resolve this conflict between traditional courts and formal courts. In doing this I shall draw together some of the important points about witchcraft that have been made, not only by sociologists and social anthropologists, but also by traditional medical practitioners and the courts of law”.
Chavunduka existed in that void in which he was, alternately, casting his eyes beyond the seas to the West and/but also peering at Africa’s earth to work out life’s conundrums. His task in a Zimbabwe ravaged by colonial jurisprudence, on the one end, and the puritanical missionary and his bible, on the other, was an impossible one. “In the first group are those who say witches do not exist, in the second group are those who say witches exist,” he said. His task was to find the middle ground.
If Chavunduka had read Ndikung’s curatorial statement, he would have recognised a kindred spirit. “In many ways, my curatorial concepts and projects are reminiscent of the synaptein, i.e. clasping together and building bridges, as defined by Sir Charles Scott Sherrington. Bridging the cultural gap. My interest in building bridges is reflected in projects I initiated, such as the art space SAVVY Contemporary, where my exhibitions are always engaged in a critical dialogue between “Western” and “Non-Western” art. By bridging the alleged gaps between the two, I strive at questioning these circular terminologies on the West and Non-West, placing art in a primary position and geography in a secondary position,” Ndikung wrote in a statement.
At the time of writing, the Savvy Contemporary was due to host the launch of the inaugural issue of the Freeman, a literary journal founded by former Granta editor, John Freeman. Writers Michael Salu, Fatin Abbas, Taiye Selasi and Freeman himself were scheduled to attend the launch and do readings.
“We are an art space, and we do art projects and we want to be able to discuss these things [at this space],” Ndikung said of the gallery. It is located in a country that can be “hostile,”but the gallery has become something of a half-way house, “a space for conviviality” and “discourses from the south,” where people from everywhere drop by to have a drink and a conversation. “Nobody can pass through Berlin without passing by,” he added. Ndikung remembered hosting several young interns from Hong Kong last year. Visitors are invited to check out some of the objects, books, artifacts and art in the gallery’s collection.
“[The idea behind the gallery] was to create a space where we can propagate different epistemologies, different knowledges, but not by negating the knowledges of the place we find ourselves in,” Ndikung said.
Perhaps this way, by mixing all our knowledges, we can begin to talk about a future for Africa.
* This piece was originally produced for the African Futures tumblr account, africanfutures.tumblr.com
Main Photograph: A black chicken escapes a ritual slaughtering – by Dean Hutton