In his address to the British Parliament on 2 February 1835, Lord Macaulay said, “I have travelled across the length and breath of Africa and I have not seen one person who is a beggar, who is a thief, such wealth I have seen in this country, such high moral values, people of such calibre, that I do not think we would ever conquer this country, unless we break the very backbone of this nation, which is her spiritual and cultural heritage. Therefore, I propose that we replace her old and ancient education system, her culture. For if the Africans think that all that is foreign and English is good and greater than their own, they will lose their self-esteem, their native culture and they will become what we want them (to be), a truly dominated nation.”
His fascination, like that of many of his folk, about the culture and religion of the indigenous people was what formed the basis of the destabilisation of the roots and fundamentals of African Traditional Religion (ATR).
Regardless of claims that missionaries regarded themselves as opposed to the colonial ideology, they were part of the colonial structure that brought religions, beliefs and practices foreign to Africa in order to control its human and capital resources. To date, their task has been to make the indigenous people accept the Bible and its teachings and to convince the people not to resist white domination, in the process legitimising, sustaining and promoting political tyranny and oppression.
Zimbabwe Heritage Trust (ZHT) CEO, Pritchard Zhou, says throughout the history of Zimbabwe, the whiteman undermined the Mwari religion in order to prop up Christianity but after seeing the threat of the whiteman’s teachings, King Lobengula and his people resisted the whiteman’s teachings.
“The role of religion in colonisation and how it was introduced was simply to destroy the African culture and promote that of the West,” Zhou said.
“It was part of a soft power programme introduced to remove Africans from their culture as a means to control them. The message by Lord Macaulay clearly defined how Britain should implement their colonial strategy in Africa and religion was their entry point. This is why the missionaries came at the beginning of colonialisation and settled in Matabelaland because of the agreement that the governor of the Cape Colony had signed with a senior councillor of Mzilikazi to the effect that missionaries would be allowed to operate in the new country that the king would go to.
“Our interpretation is that their settlement in Matabeleland was to confound the Mwari Religion from its surroundings and make it a special target to change. However, when the King saw the threat in this new teaching, he and his people resisted Christianity to the extent that his Government made sure Ndebeles did not get baptised. Evidence of the Ndebele Government’s resistance is found in Inyathi Mission’s old cemetery where there is a grave marked ‘Makhaza Nkala the first martyr’ who was killed upon the instruction of the King for getting baptised. Further evidence of this resistance is seen in the low number of people who were baptised in the 20 or more years that the missionaries came in up to the time when the administrators came.”
Chengetai M. Zvobgo in, A History of Christian Missions in Zimbabwe, 1890-1939 also writes that: “Lobengula, the king of Matabeleland, did not allow missionaries to teach religion, nor reading nor writing. Nevertheless, he skillfully supported their presence. Missionaries were convinced that under Lobengula’s rule, it would be impossible to evangelise, and consequently they welcomed the fall of Lobengula.
“With the Pioneer Column, Jesuit Catholic missionaries and the Anglican Canon Belfour entered Lobengula’s territory. The Anglo-Ndebele War of 1893 put an end to Ndebele power. Missionaries approved and urged the dismantling of the Ndebele Kingdom. They were happy that the people (Ndebele or Shona) could no longer use the political power of Lobengula as an excuse not to convert to Christianity. With all the facilities offered by Cecil Rhodes, missions increased.”
In their letters, Journey To Gubuluwayo: Letters of Frs H. Depelchin and C. Croonenberghs, S.J. 1879, 1880, 1881, the missionaries explicitly highlight how they found ways of fitting in so as to make sure their ultimate goal was achieved. The Catholic Encyclopedia of the Prefecture Apostolic of the Zambesi Mission recounts that: “The Zambesi mission was founded in 1877, and entrusted to the English Province of the Society of Jesus; its limits were defined by propaganda in 1879.
It was in this latter year that the first party of missionaries under Father Henry Depelchin, the first superior, started from Grahamstown in (the) Cape Colony, with four wagons drawn by oxen, on a journey of five or six months to Bulawayo, a thousand miles in the interior.
Father Henry Depelchin has been succeeded by Fathers Alfred Weld, Alphonsus Daignault, of the Canadian Province, Henry Schomberg-Kerr, Richard Sykes, Ignatius Gartlan, and R. Sykes who has lately returned to the post. There are 32 Jesuits and 22 Jesuit lay brothers, and 3 priests and 6 brothers of the Missionaries of Mariannhill.
The towns of Bulawayo, Salisbury, Gwelo, and Umtali have each a church and a resident priest. At Chishawasha and Driefontein in Mashonaland, Empandeni in Matabeleland, and Monze, north of the Zambesi, there are large mission stations for the natives.”
Since the tensions between the missionaries and the local people had escalated to great heights, the missionaries made sure custodians of the Mwari Religion were killed in order for their mission to be accomplished. Relations between the missionaries and the King had been strained to the extent that when the King asked Charles Helm to explain to him what the Rudd Concession outlined, Charles Helm lied,” Zhou said.
“Helm told the King that the British were asking him for permission to dig holes, close them up and then go back to their country. This was not true. Helm simply wanted the King to give authority to Rhodes to colonise the people. The desperation of the whiteman is also seen during the wars of 1896 and 1897 when the chiefs and mhondoro who were custodians of the Mwari Religion were killed instead of the soldiers like Masvi, who did the actual killing. The attempt to baptise Mbuya Nehanda and the baptism of Sekuru Kaguvi just before their killing also shows that this was an act of burying of the local religion and defiling it.”
Zhou adds that the burial of Rhodes at Matopos and 34 white soldiers who included Allan Wilson at the Acropolis which was at one point the holiest of places was to defile the centre of Mwari Religion. According to Professor Sheunesu Mpepereki, the life of the indigenous people has always been evident of their African Traditional Religion.
“The African Traditional Religion means people believe there is a Creator and people find ways to relate to this Creator. We see him through nature and our environment is in harmony with it. This is where we see Him,” Mpepereki said.
“The ancestral lineage to God gives a material link of that people to the Creator. King Leopold of Belgium talks about the disconnection of the people from their Mwari and people fell for this hook-line-and-sinker. They introduced Christianity in order to alienate people from their indigenous cultures, rituals and traditions of Mwari and other gods.”
Mpepereki adds that if ever there was something wrong with the African Traditional Religion, then it would have died centuries ago. “Nature is notorious for discarding inefficient systems, therefore if this African Traditional Religion, culture and practices were not ideal, they would not have been kept in a good state which is why we have held them for over 1,000 years.”
The encyclopedia of African religion edited by Molefe Kete Asante and Ama Azama dramatises its unity in the universal appeal to the spirits that animate all of nature. “Humans, stones, trees, animals, lakes, rivers and mountains are conjoined in one grand movement toward the continuation of life. At the core of this continuity is the belief that ancestors remain active in the community of the living. Almost all other actions on earth are dependent on the eternal community that encompasses the unborn, the living and the deceased.”
Professor Mpepereki laments how present societies are engrossed in Christianity, which mostly serves the interests of the coloniser. “Those disrupting the African Traditional Religion are doing it to control us as a human resource,” said Mpepereki.
“The global village idea is for those with resources to accept joint ownership of these resources. Religion is the strongest cement which keeps societies together and if you disconnect them from these, you can control them. Religion is the strongest shackle of our time, sanitising our people repeatedly on a daily basis and socialising them out of their environment.”
Zhou adds that the soft power programme is advanced to the extent that systems put up during colonial times can survive perpetually, even in the absence of the whiteman. “If you look around the whole country on the religious front, Zimbabwe is charecterised by Christianity as a dominant religion with massive employment structures that have ensured the perpetual sustenance of Christianity even in the absence of the white man,” Zhou said.
“Even a close count of the mission stations set up by the missionaries, that include Hope Fountain and Dombodema, shows that there is a high number of these mission stations in Matabeleland South particularly around Matopos which is the headquarters of the Mwari Religion.”
As Mufuka, Nemerai and Muzvidzwa argue in their book Dzimbahwe: Life and Politics in the Golden Age 1100-1500, the genius of our ancestors lies in their view that a nation built entirely on an economic foundation would be inadequate and extremely fragile. Power, according to them, is based not entirely on economic enterprise or coercion, but on the more encompassing force of religion. A wise political leader has to fashion his constitution according to the character of his people.
A people’s ‘constitution’ is more in tune with custom and national character than with all written documents purporting to describe what should or should not be done. The Zimbabwean character would be capable of an infinite happiness, even under the most adverse conditions, if the character of his constitution is in tune with the character of his religion and spirituality.
This is the spirit or force that we must celebrate together as a free and sovereign state. Our people have always believed in the spirits and a Supreme Being or Creator. They have always believed in the veneration of the dead. As part of the struggle to restore ourselves as well as our traditional values and practices, we need to document the practices of the Venda, Changani, Shona and Ndebele as well as other indigenous cultures.
Zhou adds: “The content of Christian religion at the moment, from beginning to end, is denouncing the African culture, midzimu nedoro rechikaranga which are the main channels of our culture. What the Christian religion and non-governmental organisations are doing is the same — undermining the African religion and culture and advancing the Western interests. This is why there was so much resistance by the church to the new curriculum because it has an emphasis on going back to our culture and our religion which will be a challenge to the progress they have made,” Zhou said.
“Even though the whiteman has gone, it does not matter because it’s black people promoting it (Christianity). It is the black people represented by deans, evangelists and bishops who are now megaphones of this foreign religion. Even in education, the first schools were built by missionaries because the objective was to inculcate the Western culture because when people are literate, it is easier and faster to spread Christianity. Education was not in the interest of Africans at all.
“It is unfortunate that even in our daily activities, we subconsciously promote foreign practices and look down upon our own traditional ones. Our values are defined by Christianity and not our African Traditional Religion and this is because we were brought up and educated in a Christian manner.”
God, or the Supreme Being, is seen in the Mwari religion as the Creator and sustainer of the universe in much the same manner as within Christianity. Mwari (literally ‘He who is’), or Ndebele uMlimu, is believed to be active in the everyday lives of people. In general, people communicate with Mwari through the vadzimu (Shona), or amadhlozi (Ndebele). These are the deceased ancestors.
The vadzimu are believed to constitute an invisible community within the community of the living; always around their descendants, caring for them and participating in their joys and sorrows. Spirit mediums communicate with the vadzimu on behalf of the people. Real freedom cannot be sustained on the basis of a religion (Christianity) that took part in sending our ancestors to the gallows and deprived us of our heritage.
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