Colonization and Christianity in Zimbabwe

Maureen Grundy, Class of 2000, English 119, Brown University, 1999


Part 2 of "Religion and the Legacy of Colonialism in Contemporary Zimbabwe"


Colonization of a land, of a people, brings with it many losses that are difficult, perhaps impossible, to rediscover when the nation finds freedom again. The colonization of certain countries, particularly African countries, has proved to be a disruption of traditional culture and an imposition of Western beliefs and values on longstanding indigenous customs and rituals. When cultures are disrupted, altered, and redefined, people lose a sense of the way life used to be. The longer an oppressive force succeeds at dislocating traditional culture from the people, the further away people feel from their history and ancestry. As more and more generations are taught the new ways brought by the colonizers rather than their traditional roots, they fail to question their education and beliefs. Western ways which become so effectively integrated into indigenous cultures eventually become social and cultural norms, surviving the freedom struggle and persevering even after the colonizing forces have left.

Colonization leaves many cultural legacies, changes in the indigenous lifestyle that perpetuate after a nation's liberation. In post-colonial Africa, the greatest, most overt legacy left by white settlers is religion. While Christian missionaries have been traveling and preaching their faith throughout the millennium, the upsurge of colonialism throughout Africa during the nineteenth century expanded Christian missionary work across the continent. With white domination of the African continent, the Christian faith took hold as the governing and superior theology. While countries have gained freedom from their oppressors, Christianity often remains as a central principle of African faith with any traditional spirituality existing peripherally.

Based on Zimbabwean literature and art, as well as on my own personal experience living in the country, I will argue that the incorporation of Christian missionary work into colonization and the widespread success of converting African people to Christianity has significant, long-term implications for post-colonial countries. The shift from traditional religion to Western religions is a way in which the colonial mentality perpetuates despite the nation's independence. The survival of Christianity in post-colonial countries signifies a loss of tradition and culture and a recognition and acceptance by native people of the superiority of Western faith. Here, I will explore the way in which religion and spirituality are depicted in post-colonial art and literature. I will assess the similarities and differences between missionary work and colonization. Lastly, I will evaluate contemporary theories on the role of Christianity in post-colonial Africa and its future function in African culture.

One of the important roles of post-colonial literature is to depict such legacies and to evaluate its essential function in post-colonial culture. In contemporary Zimbabwean literature, two novels stand out in their commentaries about the influences of Western religions on African spirituality, culture, and tradition. Yvonne Vera's Nehanda and TsiTsi Dangarembga's Nervous Conditions exemplify the way in which missionary work and Western religion factor into colonization as an integral part of establishing superiority over another people. Vera's novel, set during the first Chimurenga war in the late nineteenth century, recreates the story of Nehanda, a warrior woman whose strong connection to the ancestral spirits helps her to lead her village people in a revolt against the oppressive colonial forces. These attempts for revolution, fail, however, as the white strangers ultimately suppress the native people and capture Nehanda and Kaguvi, their links to the spiritual world. While the novel does not explicitly portray the indigenous people's adoption of Christianity, it does allude to several important consequences of missionary work and colonization.

Before, however, one can assess these consequences, it is necessary to notice the way in which Vera depicts traditional religion and spirituality in Zimbabwe. Throughout this book, the ancestral spirits and the spirit mediums possess very real and significant influence over the people. The entire novel is characterized by Nehanda's messages from the spirits, rituals performed to appease the spirits, and the power the spirits hold in the life of the individual and the village.

"The dead are not dead. They are always around us, protecting us. There is no living person who is stronger than the departed. When the whole village prays together, they pray to the ancestral mudzimu of their clan. When we pray to mhondoro for rain, we are praying to the guardian that unites the whole clan. This is one of the strongest spirits of the land" (Vera, Nehanda, p.27).

As illustrated by this passage, Vera emphasizes the strength that traditional religion once held over the Zimbabwean people. Faith, here, implies a belief that the ancestors control fate and that praying to the ancestral spirits represents a way to look for guidance, knowledge, and the answers to life's questions.

As the story unfolds, Vera depicts the struggle of the people and the spirits against a more powerful colonial force. The struggle for freedom from these strangers is not only illustrated by the scenes of war and destruction, but also by the invasion of Christian missionary work into traditional African life. In one of the final scenes of the novel, a missionary priest approaches Kaguvi with a bible and the word of a Christian God. Throughout their exchange, Kaguvi grows increasingly confused by the strange God of whom the priest speaks and the eternal word of the bible. The priest attempts to assert his superiority and convince Kaguvi of a Christian God by claiming,

"Your god is an evil godÉI am here to save you from the eternal flames."

The arrogance of the priest is shocking. He has painted some pictures of suffering and of hell, but to Kaguvi it all sounds unconvincing. The priest does not bear the aspect of a man who would lie. For Kaguvi, the evidence of a man's worth is also in his face. A man can lie with words, but his body will betray him. It is hard for him to believe that the priest is entirely foolish. There is certainly a tenderness in his smile, and real concern in his voice.

"I know that there is life after deathÉBut that life is as a spirit, to help protect those who are living." But the priest insists on an afterlife in which men will rise from their graves in their former bodies." (Vera, Nehanda , p. 106)

This passage is extremely telling of missionary work and its interaction with native Zimbabwean people. Foremost, through this exchange, Vera illustrates the incompatibility of traditional religion and the new Christian religion. An inherent difference between the two faiths lies in their beliefs about the afterlife, the role of the deceased spirit, the existence of heaven, and how many gods exist. One sees here that the two approaches to spirituality are fundamentally different. Hence this exchange becomes symbolic of the struggle between the two in Zimbabwe.

Furthermore, the exchange between Kaguvi and the priest represents very early successes in converting indigenous people to Christianity. While, on one hand, Vera points out Kaguvi's confusion of this new religion, as well as the incompatibility of both belief systems, she also illustrates the loss of traditional faith Kaguvi suffers in his dialogue with the priest. The strong conviction and concern of the priest appeals to Kaguvi and in this time of desperation, when the villages have been burned and their attempt to fight off the colonists has failed, he finds his faith shifting away from his traditional system.

The prophetic cloud in the sky has burst for Kaguvi, and there is nothing strong enough left to shelter his dreams. His ancient spirit, which he now sees as something separate from himself, weighs sorrowfully on him. It is as though they bow live in separate ages of time, himself in the present, his spirit descending further into the past. They move, in both directions of time, and they will not find each other. Before today, Kaguvi has ridden of the back of the spirit. Now, he can only see short distances to his right and to his left, backwards and forwards. (Vera, Nehanda, p.107)

In this scene, Vera very vividly portrays Kaguvi's separation from his "ancient spirit" and, while not directly asserting any sort of religious conversion of Kaguvi's part, she implies a gradual disassociation from the traditional spirituality. The fact that this separation directly follows the priest's attempts to convince Kaguvi of a Western God, as well as the various indications of Kaguvi's willingness to believe the priest, implies that the subsequent disconnection from the ancestral spirit is very interconnected with the missionary work.

What could Vera be trying to say through these passages? For a story which is so centered on ancestral spirits and traditional religion to end by depicting a widening gap between the person and the spirit insinuates that Vera is trying to make a statement about the shift from indigenous religion to a foreign, Western religion. Vera could be making two points. One possibility is that through her story, she is demonstrating the combined role that colonization and missionary work play. Although missionaries are often depicted in literature as having more concern than the colonizers for the indigenous people, their role during the colonial era nonetheless encompassed the control of a people, their education, and their ability to resist political and cultural domination.

Vera may also be alluding here to the future of traditional religion in Zimbabwe. With Kaguvi's separation from his spirit as he moves into the future and the spirit's descent further into the past, Vera foreshadows an eventual departure of the ancestral spirits from contemporary Zimbabwean religion. The fact that this book, written more than a decade after the nation's independence, comments so strongly on both traditional and Western religion implies that the book also has contemporary significance. The story of Nehanda seems to mark the beginning of a religious transition in Zimbabwe.

References

Bourdillon, M.F.C. Where Are the Ancestors? Changing Culture in Zimbabwe . (Harare: University of Zimbabwe Publications) 1993.

Dangarembga, TsiTsi. Nervous Conditions (Seattle: Seal Press) 1988.

Vera, Yvonne. Nehanda (Toronto: TSAR Publications) 1994.


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