Last week, as Zimbabweans celebrated the military backed process which set in motion the end of  Robert Mugabe’s rule,  a cautionary statement came from Everjoice Win, an astute Zimbabwean feminist and activist; in a pithy distillation of Shona folklore, the feminist wrote on Twitter, “musapururudzire shavi muchiti mudzimu,”  which the rough translation of this proverbial saying is, “do not acclaim and welcome an alien spirit as you would a guardian ancestral spirit.”


The term “alien spirit”, as far as I know, was made popular in Zimbabwe by Michael Gelfand, a Cape Town-born medical doctor and anthropologist of Lithunian Jewish ancestry who moved to Southern Rhodesia, from where he wrote extensively on Shona spirituality and religion.


Gelfand wrote that the alien spirit’s origins are chiefly because of migration: when adventurous men and women died and were buried in strange lands their restless spirits would roam looking for suitable hosts. There are various “shaves,” including mazungu shave (spirits of traders and hunters from East Africa who died in present day Zimbabwe while looking for slaves or ivory); masivinda mashave, a hunting spirit which gives its host uncanny hunting capabilities and, at times, even healing powers. In every day Shona, the word is routinely used when a strange trait is noticed in, say, a naughty child and an older relative might be heard saying, “kasi une shave here iwe” (have you been possessed by an alien spirit?)


But why would someone welcome an alien spirit when it is better to stick to one’s own guardian spirits, one whose ways and traits you know very well? In response to this question, Gelfand wrote, “it would seem that the indigenous population was impressed with the special virtues of the foreigner, such as hunters, traders and military men”. So recognizing a deficit in their own beings, they courted the spirit of the enterprising foreigner who brought vitality and extraordinary abilities. The alien spirit, sometimes, could become a naturalised family spirit if it passed from one generation to the next.


This preamble over, let’s come back to the coup in Zimbabwe (yes, it was a coup) which took place last week and culminated with Mugabe leaving the presidency he believed was his for life. The takeover by the army brought forward a cathartic moment which most Zimbabweans naturally assumed would happen only in the event of Mugabe’s death. We all saw the throngs which gathered at State House chanting down the dictatorship; the videos and pictures (ordinarily, the same soldiers who chaperoned the people to this site, are known to have a nasty streak and don’t allow anyone to even take pictures or even to stop in the vicinity of this state property on Chancellor Avenue); people riding on tanks and; some even handing over their adolescent children to soldiers for photo opportunities.


All the demonstrations, the sit-ins at landmark sites (including Mugabe’s blue roof mansion) and placards carrying caustic messages which would have attracted,  just a few weeks ago, the attention of the law-and-order police, happened because the very security elites that had hitherto shielded Mugabe willed and organised them. The military elites realised that Robert Mugabe had become a danger to Mugabeism and that it was time for Emmerson Mnangagwa, the chief Mugabeist, to take over as president of Zimbabwe. It’s not an empty honorific that long before he was popularly known as Garwe/ Ngwena (Shona for crocodile) or his faction as Lacoste, so critical to Mugabe and Mugabeism was Mnangagwa that he was routinely called the “Son of God” ( in the parlance, Mugabe was god and, perhaps not coincidentally, the former president himself is of the crocodile totem).


On the eve of the presidential elections in  2002, when it appeared  Morgan Tsvangirai and the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party might win the elections,  the then head of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces, General Vitalis Zvinavashe, now late, released a statement which shook Zimbabwe and all but made the election an academic exercise.  “We wish to make it very clear to all Zimbabwean citizens that the security organisations will only stand in support of those political leaders that will pursue Zimbabwean values, traditions and beliefs for which thousands of lives were lost in the pursuit of Zimbabwe’s hard won independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity and national interests. To this end, let it be known that the highest office in the land is a straitjacket whose occupant is expected to observe the objectivities of the liberation struggle. We will therefore not accept, let alone support, or support anyone (sic) with a different agenda that threatens the very existence of our sovereignty.”


It was a statement subsequently repeated before other elections and acted upon, especially in 2008, when the MDC did win the elections but whose results were not released for weeks while, presumably, the electoral body together with the same military people who took over last week manipulated the outcome. When the results were eventually released, Tsvangirai had won but not with an outright majority, necessitating a run off, which Mnangagwa and others in the army worked to achieve only one outcome: a Mugabe victory. So people were brutalized, scores others were killed and other untold horrors were inflicted on Zimbabweans,  resulting in Tsvangirai pulling out of the election which Zanu-PF then “won”.


These very people who “won” Mugabe that election have, suddenly, found their inner democratic impulses and are now on the side of Zimbabweans?


Hatisi kupururidzira shavi tichiti mudzimu?


Are we not welcoming the alien spirit as we would a friendly guardian ancestral spirit?


Let me end with the personal: sometimes I walk to Harare Sports Club, Zimbabwe’s main cricket venue and a few blocks from where I live, to have a beer and watch football on television. Harare Sports Club is near State House, Mugabe’s former official residence, a high security area guarded by members of the presidential guard brigade who, maybe out of boredom, spite or martial hubris, terrorise civilians who are walking on that street. People  innocently going about their business have been made to roll in the red earth during the rain season, have had water poured over them and other assorted humiliations.


That has never been my experience until one late afternoon as I walked home when  dusk was setting and soft light lingered on, seemingly trapped by the trees planted on either side of Harare’s roads. A barking voice from across the street disrupted me from my from football reverie. Rasta, come here, one of the soldiers called. (I have long, unkempt hair and am respectfully acknowledged as ‘Rasta’ on Harare’s streets.)


I breathed in hard, so today was my day of misfortune.


I crossed Sandringham avenue to where the gun toting soldiers stood and noticed that one of the two sentries on patrol was rolling a joint. Even though they had the hard, menacing features you expect to see on soldiers, there was no mistaking their soft youthfulness; they were young, perhaps born in the late 1980s or 1990s, long after the end of the war of independence.

“Let’s have a smoke, rasta.”

“I don’t smoke,” I said.

“No, man, what kind of rasta are you who doesn’t smoke ganja?”

I laughed. They laughed back.

“Maybe you have better marijuana, in which case you should share,” he said, laughing some more.

The laughter set me at ease, and my nervousness subsided.

“Seriously, if you do want to smoke, we can smoke this joint, rasta,” he persisted. As the good-natured, marijuana-rastafarian banter continued,  I politely declined their offer and turned to walk home.


It’s possible that the generality of the army doesn’t have the same authoritarian impulses that animate the top brass of the military but, at the end of the day, when it came to choosing which way they will sway, it’s likely the ordinary soldier will obey the orders of his bosses.


Hatisi kupururidzira shavi tichiti mudzimu?


Are we not welcoming the alien spirit as we would a friendly guardian ancestral spirit?


It’s too early to tell, but the history of the military in Zimbabwe thus far doesn’t give one reason to hope.


Main Photograph: November 22, 2017: Zimbabwean citizens living in Hillbrow in the Johannesburg’s inner city take to the streets in a wave of euphoria following the news of Robert Mugabe’s resignation – Supplied by a friend of The Con






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