Project Canterbury

Memories of Mashonaland

By G. W. H. Knight-Bruce
Sometime Bishop of Mashonaland

London and New York: Edward Arnold, 1895.

Chapter III. The Religion of the Mashona.

To go to something more important--what is the religion of the Mashona? It is very hard to say that they have any. I have talked to them about God, and His sending them their crops and food, and they will agree and say He lives in heaven; and then they will tell you soon afterwards that they had a god once, but the Matabele drove him away. This last was in reference to a curious custom in some villages of keeping a man they called their god. He seemed to be consulted by the people, and had presents given to him. There was one at a village belonging to a chief called Magondi, in the old days. We were asked not to fire off any guns near the village, or we should frighten him away. It was curious that in the village where there was a 'god,' the [43/44] chief, and not the 'god,' seemed to be their authority on religion, though in no other place did I hear the chief so spoken of. When I asked a head-man at Magondi's what he thought would become of him after he was dead, he said 'Magondi knew,' which seemed to satisfy him. When I told him that God was in heaven, and that good people went there, he said: 'It might be so--he had never seen a teacher before.' Poor Magondi was, I believe, killed some years afterwards by the Matabele.

But to return to the god at Magondi's village. I was travelling northward, and he said that I must give him a present before I could take any carriers from there. I explained that I had given a present to the chief, but that I could not give a present to a 'god,' because I had a God myself, and it would be an insult to my God to treat anyone else as a god. I don't think he paid much attention to this, but said he must have a present, or the carriers could not go, and they also seemed inclined not to go. However, by giving them rather larger payment they started, but, if I remember right, were some of the very few carriers I ever had to do with who did not keep their contract.

[45] That the Mashona have a clear idea of a life hereafter, the following extract from a letter of one of our missionaries shows:

'Catechist Jacob came in on Monday, after having made an expedition to Maponderas (of whom there is an excellent picture in Mr. Selous' book). He first went to Samtero's kraal, where they seemed glad to see him, next to Swesha, some fifty-three people coming to listen. Next to a small village--eighteen people were present--then to others. Jacob told me that one day at Chidamba's there was a great function, all the people going to the graves of those who were buried last autumn, and after opening them, they killed goats, and put some of their flesh and Kaffir beer into the graves, closed them again, and then fired guns and danced. Jacob asked what they did that for; they answered: "To ask the spirits of these people, who were in heaven, to keep them from sickness, and to give them good luck in their gardens and hunting." Another time they went to the top of a hill to pray for rain, again killing goats and fowls.'

During harvest time they do, in some parts, keep one day in six (not seven) apart, and call it Mwali's day. Mwali means God. A man [45/46] goes to the top of a hill and shouts that it is Mwali's day, and no one works. It does not seem at all hard for them to accept the idea of one day out of seven as a day of rest. At one of our mission stations the catechist put up a flag on Sunday, and the chief forbade anyone to work. This was the same chief about whom an Englishman, who went to live near him, said that he was a wild kind of creature before, but since our catechist had come he had become much better, and given less trouble to the authorities than he had done.

But against my opinion that the Mashona had little or no religion, I have the opinion of our leading catechist, that, though they may have no definite form of worship, they have more of the religious instinct than any of the tribes with which he was associated, i.e., those with Zulu blood in them. I should have to allow that, of all the interviews that I have had with different chiefs, in which I explained my mission, and made arrangements for them to receive a catechist when I could send one, I hardly ever received a rebuff. One chief, however, was very annoying. The man who went to tell him that I was coming said he was nearly being killed. When I arrived I could [46/47] do nothing with him. I had had to walk through a long village and between rocks to a place where he was drinking with his men. I talked, but for the time being I failed hopelessly. I told him I wanted to teach his children. He said that if I wanted them I must buy them; and he would not have any teacher near him. Our interview ended more or less in confusion. So we put a teacher some four miles away, and he began his work. The catechist, by degrees, got on excellent terms with the chief; about seventy people used to come to his service on Sunday, and the last time that I was there the chief was asking for another catechist to come and live with him in his town. He was the only chief who ever gave me a young bullock as a present.

I remember another rebuff. I was stopping at the village of a very small head-man. The day was, as usual, terribly hot; I had been walking for some time with the carriers, and was resting under a rock. He came up to me, and I began telling him about God. He listened for some time in silence, and then, with an expression as much as to say, 'Do you expect me to listen to that rubbish?' went back to the village, and I saw him no more.

But then, again, another chief was so delighted that he brought out his head-wife to hear the news, and we all sat on rocks and arranged about the teacher coining, after which I chose the place for his house, and surveyed the ground; and the last time I was there the boys of the tribe were being taught, and he was full of what his teacher had done for him and his people. So, perhaps, after all, our catechist was not so far wrong in saying the Mashona had a strong religious instinct.

I know nothing about the religious instincts of the Matabele as a nation, but I should say that they were much stronger in the Mashona than in the Zulu. A Matabele had a way of despising everything that he did not agree with. I remember once, while my men were reading their Bible in Sechuana on a Sunday morning, a Matabele servant of mine was sitting near. He could probably understand a good deal of it. and I said that I was glad to see him listening. He put on a face of absolute indifference, and said, in Zulu: 'Lies!' To him it was all lies. This phase of perfect indifference was much less common with the Mashona.

Among a tribe bordering on Mashonaland I [48/49] once found a tree, enclosed by a fence, that the people called their 'praying tree,' but I could get no further information about it. Generally I found them particularly reverent when they knew our prayers were going on. While walking, it was our custom to have prayers round our camp-fire every morning before we started, and at night before going to sleep. The new relays of carriers seemed always interested, and usually, I think, came and stood with us. Sometimes we found an exceptional man, who wished to hear more. I remember a Sunday when we had one such. He sat through our church service in our camp, and afterwards I asked him about his religion. He gave the most contradictory answers, but was evidently in earnest. He said that his people had no god; but then, again, that God took them when they died, and he pointed to heaven. When asked where the god lived, he said he lived in our country, and he did not know whether he was good or bad. I then told him about God--that He gave them the cattle, and made the corn to grow; that He had once come down to earth, and sent teachers to teach the people; and that if anyone came to teach them they must be kind to him. He said that 'they [49/50] would thank' if he came (this was the first time that I had heard the idea of thanking expressed, though I had been then some time in the country), and that they would give him cattle and goats, and that then they would have clothes. So both his ideas and his motives were mixed; but his intentions were probably no worse than those of many who have had greater advantages.

That the Mashona can show strength of character is seen by an extract from a letter of one of our missionaries; but then I must allow that Kapuiya was not an ordinary specimen of his race. He was a very superior boy, and seemed to be attracted by Christianity almost from his first hearing about it.

'A short extract from a letter of Mr. Walker's about Kapuiya may be interesting. He was ill lately, and his mother sent for the witch-doctor, who declared that a goat must be sacrificed to his dead father, who was causing this illness. Kapuiya stoutly refused to have a goat killed, saying simply that it was God who made him ill, and would make him well again, and that his father had nothing to do with it. His mother was very angry, and Kapuiya grew worse, until Bernard carried him [50/51] to the mission-hut and nursed him well again. The doctor came, thinking that the goat had been sacrificed, and boasted of his successful advice, and demanded payment. You may imagine the boy's glee when he told the enraged Muroyi (doctor) that his advice had neither been believed nor followed, for God had made him better. He told Bernard what a relief it was coming from his hut to the mission.'

I do not know whether this next extract relates to Kapuiya or to someone else:

'I have had an interesting talk with a young farmer who lives close to our catechist Bernard, and who thinks highly of him. He tells me the people seem coming to be taught in larger numbers than they have before, that they seem to take an interest in being taught, and that a fellow has come to live with Bernard who will not eat meal offered in sacrifice, or join in any of the heathen rites. These "Daniels"--for only such can I call them--are the finer spirits, common, I suppose, to every race, who stand out above all, and one looks forward to them being teachers, by precept and example, of their fellow-countrymen.'

There is a simplicity about a native that is very attractive. In the south-east of [51/52] Mashonaland I once lost my way, and came to a solitary chief on a mountain. He insisted on giving me a present. It was the iron head of one of their heavy hoes, and much too heavy for me to carry. I did not wish to hurt his feelings, so I accepted it. I then gave him my present in return--the hoe he had given me; I had nothing else with me. He did not quite like taking it back: 'What will my father Parpedo say to my having given you no present?' But he scraped his feet to thank me for it. And so we parted: he very pleased at not losing his hoe, and satisfied that he had performed all his duties of hospitality to a stranger.

Their simplicity will at times take unfortunate directions. In one journey, knowing that there was a long stretch of country before us where no food could be got for my men, I gave one or two men meal to carry with their load. They delayed on the road, and when at night we wanted the meal they were asked for it. They had found it heavier than they liked, and had eaten it all to save the weight; so for some twenty-four hours their friends had to go short of food, and were very hungry and remarkably sulky.

The scraping of the feet for thanking is a [52/53] custom that is found chiefly in the south of Mashonaland, or, rather, in the Gaza country; in the north clapping the hands answers the same purpose. Once a chief saluted me by coming forward with his hands stretched out, not to shake hands, but in a kind of supplicating attitude, as though he were giving himself to me. The women near the same place had a combined system of salutation by making a weird kind of howl, at the same time patting their mouths very quickly with their hands, so that they made a vibrating sound, which represented great courtesy.

It may be in a rough and quaint way, but they usually wish to do the most polite thing possible. One chief wanted to send a message to our Queen--the Queen of England. He said 'he was very sorry, but he was too old to see the great Queen. He would like to send the great Queen an ox or a cow.' And when I was leaving he asked again when he should send the ox to the great Queen. I had to explain to him the difficulties that there would be in doing this. It was at this chief's that I learnt why the natives in one part preferred blue calico to white as payment. Blue calico was supposed to keep away devils.

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