Syncretic Religion in Zimbabwe -- the Evidence of Sculpture

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

Part 4 of "Religion and the Legacy of Colonialism in Contemporary Zimbabwe"

Since Zimbabwe's independence, the theory has emerged of syncretic religion in Zimbabwe. That is to say that traditional and Western religion now coincide in Africa and in a sense, Christianity has been "indigenised." The theory of syncretic religion assumes the reconciliation of the spiritual ancestral world and Christian beliefs. As opposed to the passage in Nehanda between Kaguvi and the priest, these belief systems can both be incorporated into contemporary Zimbabwean life in a compatible way.

This syncretism is certainly depicted in contemporary Zimbabwean art and sculpture. Tenda Mutasa's Moses Receiving the Ten Commandments could be interpreted as one way in which Christianity reconciles with tradition. The sculpture depicts a man, slightly abstract and exaggerated in form, holding the stones of the Ten Commandments. It is difficult to know for sure what Mutasa intends to imply with this piece, but one interpretation suggests the indigenisation of Christianity. One could assume from the dark color of the skin that Moses is depicted here as an African. The skin is a dark black, in contrast to the whiteness of his robe. Perhaps, this sculpture is a way for Mutasa to accept Christianity, yet in an African framework.

Another sculpture which depicts the role of Christianity in African life is Mother, Daughter and the Cross. While it is hard to tell if this piece is a criticism or an embrace of Christianity, it is clear from the large, central cross placed between the mother and child that the Christian church has come to be an integral part of Zimbawean family life.

Lastly, Sylvester Mubayi's Beer for the Spirits serves as a reminder of the indigenous spirituality. This depiction of pouring beer on the ground for the ancestral spirits harkens back to the ritual of appeasing the spirits in Nehanda . The sculpture stands as a representation of traditional culture and spirituality.

However, while the idea of syncretic religion is a way to recognize the indigenous people's reclaiming control over their religious and cultural identities, it is problematic for several reasons. The first reason encompasses the ways in which the cited literature is used to scrutinize the transition of African religion to Christianity. Secondly, the reality in contemporary Zimbabwe is that many people are extremely devoted to Christian faiths, more so than to their traditional heritage. It is true that spirits play a role in some peoples lives and certain spiritual events, such as the death of someone, do follow a more traditional ritual involving spirit mediums, this spirituality seems to be getting more and more lost as people move to urban areas and churches are playing a large role in social welfare.

M.F.C. Bourdillon suggests a third theory for the neglect of traditional religion. In his book, Where are the Ancestors? Changing Culture in Zimbabwe, Bourdillon explains the psychology associated with people's choices of religion.

Christianity has been associated with wealth and elitism. The missionaries who brought Christianity to Zimbabwe were associated with the conquering colonists, even if they did not always agree with colonial government. Christianity came with the possibility of acquiring wealth through educationÉMany people associate becoming a Christian with being modern and advanced; traditionalists appear conservative, poor and backward." (p.86).

Bourdillon makes an important point that a strong influence of certain religions is the church's and the parish's appearance to the outsider. Many women in Zimbabwe often wear some sort of uniform to church. Churches attract families because they may be able to offer education and a chance of success to their children. There is no doubt that many Christian churches in Zimbabwe do numerous good things for people and their communities. Education, food, shelter, and social support are all very important assets of a developing country. However, it is extremely important to note that the introduction of Christian churches during the colonial period brought with it a particular mentality that has persevered through the independence struggle. This mentality encompasses a belief in the inferiority or the inadequacy of traditional religion. While people may in their own ways incorporate traditional spirituality into their religious identities, Christianity often stands at the center of this identity and traditional religion gets pushed to the margins.

I do not claim to have a complete understanding of Zimbabwean religious systems, nor do I believe that missionary work only brings harm to people. In fact, missionary work and churches have many outstanding effects on a country. Often with missionaries come schools, hospitals, and resources for the community. However, the story of a woman in rural Zimbabwe singing words to a religious song, when she has no knowledge of the significance of those words, leads me to believe that the success of Christian churches is accompanied by a stamp of colonialism. In some ways, the legacy of colonialism and colonialist ideology endure in contemporary Zimbabwean religious identity.


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.

Postcolonial Web Zimbabwe OV [Religion] Sculpture Overview