Spiritual World And Society In Zimbabwe Cultural Studies Essay

Published: Last Edited:

This essay has been submitted by a student. This is not an example of the work written by our professional essay writers.

Each paper, in some way, addresses the issue of modernity and tradition. In Zimbabwe, both with the case of the Ambuya Juliana cult in the Mazvihwa chiefdom and the conflicted land reform in Dande, tensions arise between a modernizing government and a rural desire to maintain its traditional way of life. In Anbanja in northwest Madagascar and Dande, there is also tension between the young and old in terms of spiritual representation. In Dande, this tension manifests itself in part in a break between Christianity and traditional religion, and In Anbanja, this tension is explicated by a new class of tromba spirit possessions. Finally, in Mazvihwa, Anbanja, and Dande, there arise conflicts over spiritual identity according to who traditionally owns the land and what can be done with the land in the changing post-colonial global world. In each of these cases, the spiritual world heavily influences this divide between tradition and modernization. Without a clear understanding of the spiritual world, understanding these issues and conflicts would be impossible.

Marja Spierenburg's paper on land conflicts is Dande is written concerning the 1980s-1990s land reforms in Zimbabwe and the ensuing conflict between the modernizing government and rural tradition and ideology. In Dande, project staff for the Mid-Zambezi Project had incredible difficulty enforcing land distribution because "arable plots and residential areas were pegged and allocated without consultation of the inhabitants" (Spierenburg 201). Thus, until the project managers actually consulted the rural community through local leaders, they faced great difficulty implanting the land reform (Spierenburg 202). When the government approached the "traditional leadership" (Spierenburg 202) the chief "told the manager to consult the 'real owners of the land' the Mhondoro"( Spierenburg 202). In Dande, the Mhondoro temporarily in charge of the land was Chidyamauyu. Thus, there is a clear distinction between the government's objective to make small-scale farms "more efficient" (Spierenburg 198) and the spiritual reality and desires of those who actually live on the land. The government was met with protests against the land reforms, and these protests were largely grounded in the spiritual world. As Spierenburg writes, "spirit mediums and church leaders alike stated that the government had betrayed the ideals and struggles of independence" (213), which were, according to the counter-project resistance, primarily 'to return 'to the old ways'"(211). This demonstrates a resistance to the government's plan to modernize Dande through the land reforms and establishes a rallying point around maintaining traditional values. Most of the mediums also saw the land reforms as the cause of the 1991/1992 drought (Spierenburg 212), thus providing a foundation for the resistance against the government in the spiritual world. This demonstrates the importance of recognizing how the spiritual world and spiritual power can directly influence politics.

This notion of spiritual power and its influence in politics is also quite apparent in the rise of the Ambuya Juliana cult in Mazvihwa. As Mawere and Wilson write "by 1992 nearly half of those interviewed stated badly that the government had caused the drought not just by its exclusion of local 'traditional' authorities from formal power, but by its systematic failure to relate to the regional mwari cult rain shrines" (266). By not acknowledging the regional rain shrines, the government, perhaps inadvertently, distances itself from rural culture and ideologies. Juliana takes full advantage of this sentiment, trying to unite the people of Mazivihwa by denouncing the government's neglect of spiritual tradition and the Mwari cult. She also promises to speak directly with the government and to make taboo certain governmental policies, such as price increases to make the government more accountable to rural ideology and tradition (Mawere and Wilson 267).

Juliana also addresses the environmental concerns of the community through certain taboos and accusations. Deforestation and other environmental concerns were seen as a cause of the drought (Mawere and Wilson 265). These environmental concerns were coupled with the introduction of cash crops which were reported as "very bad […] [they] glisten to the extent that they frighten away the ancestral spirits, who therefore stop the rain" (Mawere and Wilson 255). The government was also critiqued for environmentally damaging improvements such as boreholes and dams (Mawere and Wilson 255). In these cases, the government is critiqued for modernizing developments that adversely affect the spirits of the land in the Mazivihwa community. In both the case of the Juliana cult and the land conflicts in Dande, it is clear that tradition and the governments separation from the 'old ways' is an important rallying point in the rural communities, highlighting the tension between tradition and modernization.

Another conflict involving tradition and modernity is the relationship between the old and young. This conflict is manifested in possessions in Madagascar. The tromba spirits of Madagascar are "the spirits of dead Sakalava royality" (Sharp 76). The tromba spirits represent Bemazava history in three epochs: the pre-colonial (Grandparents), colonial (Children), and post-colonial (Grandchildren) (Sharp 77). It is important to note that these spirits speak from their relative epochs, addressing the present with remarks to the past (Lambek 111). It is the tromba spirits from the post-colonial epoch that represent the greatest tension between the young and old generations. These younger tromba spirits clearly represent the post-colonial life, dealing with issues of "economic success and romance" (issues that face contemporary urban youth) (Sharp 81), and perishing in modern and reckless ways, such as the spirit Mampiary dying in an automobile collision (Sharp 82).

As Sharp writes in "Playboy Princely Spirits of Madagascar," "popular (post-colonial) spirits generally first appear in young women who range from their late teens to early twenties […]Mediums who are forty or older are rarely possessed by such spirits" (78). It is clear, therefore, that the Grandchildren spirits belong to the young, post-colonial generation. The older generations of tromba spirits no longer address the specific concerns of the post-colonial youth such as "inter-ethnic marriage and the exploitative nature of wage labor" (Sharp 84), given the diminished influence of the Bemazava during the French occupation (Sharp 79) and the lessened hold of royalty on everyday life (Sharp 83). This, of course, creates conflict with the older generations and royalty, who see these new spirits as representative of the "breakdown of assumed local social order" (Sharp 81) and see the youth as "wayward" and unknowledgeable or unwilling to follow the customs (Sharp 81). Thus, the older generation occasionally denies the validity of the playboy spirits, calling them "false tromba" because of their loose ties to royalty and their predominance in young mediums (81).

It seems that the Bemazava elders and royalty are concerned with the modern post-colonial world erasing their tradition following a colonial policy that greatly affected Sakalava tradition. These new tromba spirits, however, still function within the Sakalava tradition of possession (Sharp 84). Just as the Children spirits represent a different epoch from the royal Grandparent spirits, the Grandchildren spirits represent a new page in history. These new spirits for the young represent a modern take on Sakalava tromba possession tradition, "which still involves a respect for tromba spirits whose lives reflect the local daily conflicts that characterize the contemporary world" (Sharp 84).

Though not explicitly discussed, Sharp's paper on the playboy spirits can be seen as both a critique and a commentary on the inability of older generations of spirits to satisfy the concerns of the post-colonial generation as well as a form of feminist rebellion amongst young women. According to Sharp, 50 percent of all women in Ambanja are possessed and the largest proportion of these possessions happen amongst young women (Sharp 77). These women, however, are possessed by predominantly male spirits or prostitutes who "are the life of the party, smoking, consuming beer (the preferred drink of men living in urban towns), and dancing with any woman within reach)" (Sharp 80). These young women's lives may also reflect the tragic stories of the spirit, which reflects and makes sense their contemporary suffering "in a society that normally dictates circumspect behavior" (Sharp 84). This was expressed through one story of a woman "who previously, like her spirit, had been a prostitute in the city of Mahajanga (Sharp 84). Thus, it could be argued that, through possession, these women can break out of their gender roles by taking on male spirits, enforce their identity as young individuals within the Sakalava spirit possession tradition, and make sense of their contemporary urban suffering and challenges by relating to the tragic stories of their spirit.

Another conflict between the younger and older generation arose in Dande, Zimbabwe. In light of the great resistance the project manages for the land reforms met from the spirit Chidyamauyu and the older generations, the managers started holding 'awareness meetings' to discuss "the services and infrastructural development the project would bring" (Spierenburg 210). While the older generation desired to return "to the old ways" (Spierenburg 211), part of the younger generation wanted to bring the developments promised by the project managers to Dande (Spierenburg 216). Thus, at least part of the younger generation supported the land reforms to bring development. The young also saw the land reforms as an opportunity to reduce their dependence on "the elders for obtaining land" (Spierenburg 216). Unlike the case with the Sakalava in Madagascar, however, these young people broke away from their traditionl base, "emphasizing their affiliation with Christian churches, rejecting 'the old people's backward traditions'" (Spierenburg 217). Whereas the playboy tromba spirits acted as a melding of modernization and traditional spirit possession practices, this development in the younger generation in Dande represents a break from tradition in favor of modernization.

The conflict of land reforms raises another prominent issue: spiritual relationship with the land. In several of the papers, the land and its connection to spirits is discussed. In the case of the Juliana cult, the land of the sacred Jechete mountain ("the most sacred mountain in the Mazvihwa chiefdom"( Mawere and Wilson 259), where Juliana planned to hold her mutoro ceremony, was clearly contested by the "ancestral spirits of the local ruling lineage" (Mawere and Wilson 259). The mediums of these spirits encouraged Juliana not to build the mutoro ceremony on Jechete because of the sacredness of the place and the taboo of cutting down trees in the area (Mawere and Wilson 259). By denying the legitimacy of these ancestral spirits of the land, Juliana was able to strip the local ruling lineage of some of its spiritual power and increase her own spiritual power (Mawere and Wilson 275). For Juliana, the specific location for the ceremony proved to be a method for her spiritual power and legitimacy.

In the case of the Bemazava in Madagascar, the land of the Sambirano valley acts as "a defining principle of cultural identity" (Sharp 78). The land is a means of economic survival and is "associated with the placement of (in this case royal tombs) within the boundaries of a common territory" (Sharp 78). Thus when the French colonialists took over this valley for their plantations and brought in migrant labor, this was a serious threat to Bemazava spiritual and royal identity (Sharp78). The Mhondoro spirits in Dande "are believed to continue to look after the territories they ruled when they were alive […] The land and all other natural resources in a spirit province belong to the Mhondoro of that province" (Spierenburg 202). The mediums for the Mhondoro spirits are thus directly concerned for the well being of the people in their spirit province (203). For both the Dande and Bemazava, the governments that tried to change the orientation and control of land (the Zimbabwean and French government respectively) did not have a clear understanding of the relation between the land and the spiritual world.

It is important to remember that, when studying each of these societies, certain aspects of society that may not normally be considered 'cultural,' such as the perception of history, are culturally created and understood differently in different societies. In his paper "The Sakalava Poiesis of History," Michael Lambek addresses how history for the Sakalava in Madagascar "has a dimension of poiesis (productive creation)" (106) through tromba possession. Through this possession, the Sakalava create a historical tableau in which the past is directly connected to yet separate from the present (Lambek 109). Western history is predominantly linear, where the past may be called upon by historians as a group of facts that have already occurred. Each generation of Sakalava spirits (pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial), however, speak from their own times but comment upon the present, and, when they are unfamiliar with certain present changes, are taught about the present and bring it back to the past (Lambek 109-111). \

A Western researcher may distinguish her research from possession by declaring the former to be the pursuit of facts and the latter to be reactualization of myth. Lambek is quick to point out, however, that "the commonsense 'real' world itself is culturally constituted […] Any representation must be selective" (Lambek 114). That is to say, while the Western approach to history constructs a "real" world within its cultural framework, its representation is only one representation of the "real" world; the Sakalavan approach to history is another representation of that "real" world.

Because each spirit must recite the names of their parents and children, almost the entire geology is expressed and preserved (Lambek 114). At gatherings, the spirits from different times interact with one another, and some tensions among spirits are revealed (Lambek117). These tensions tell stories of historical attitudes and conflicts such as "past attitudes to slavery and the racial expressions of the colonial-period elite (Lambek 116). The spirits also only embody certain elements of their past, such as death and genealogy that are carried to the present (Lambek116). Thus, if one were to compare the Western and Sakalava approach to history, the spirits stories tell of great moral concerns and issues that are relevant in the present, such as that which is found in Western literature (Lambek 118). The spirits also bring to the present important information about the past that is relevant to the present, like a creative archive. For the Sakalava, "history is not simply past, but continuous in the present" (Lambek 119). Thus, comparison between Western and Sakalava history cannot be reduced to a question of myth and fact; they are both two conceptions of the "real" world.

In conclusion, understanding the spiritual world and the intricacies of spirit possession is essential to understanding these societies in Zimbabwe and Madagascar. Often, it seems far too easy to impose an ethnocentric viewpoint on something as vastly different from mainstream 'Western culture' as spirit possession and explain away the validity of the invisible spiritual world in terms of our Western sense of "fact" and "reason." What this viewpoint fails to realize, as was addressed in Lambek's article, is that the idea of "fact" and "reason" in a selective, culturally created notion. Spirit possession is very much a part of the reality in these societies, and must therefore, be it by Western scholars or the governments of these societies, be recognized and understood as a political reality.