Mugabe and the Shona burial rites; how best should his spirit be appeased

A young boy walks past a digital image of late former Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe as his body lies in state at Murombedzi Growth Point, about 107 km northwest of Harare, Zimbabwe, on September 16, 2019
Mugabe will cast his shadow over Zimbabwe for years.

With no official announcement as to where Mugabe’s body was being kept, many Zimbabweans thought the former president was being kept in a mortuary while others went as far as to speculate that Mr Mugabe – as the heir to the chieftainship of Zvimba, his rural home- had already been buried in a cave in accordance with the rituals of the Gushungo clan.

But to the shock of many, photos of Mugabe’s casket emerging on Monday showed the late former president at his mansion.

The photos were taken when South Africa’s Julius Malema came to pay respects to Grace Mugabe, the former first lady whose ambitions to succeed her husband were thwarted when he was forced out of office in 2017.

“Mr Mugabe was sleeping easy… just resting peacefully. He is resting,” Mrs Mugabe said, during Mr Malema’s visit.

This was followed by the viewing of the body, and a sumptuous lunch of pie and vegetables across the room from the corpse.

Mr Mugabe’s clan, Gushungo which falls under the Shona ethnic group requires many rituals to be performed when death occurs.

Some Zimbabweans are now drawing comparisons with rituals in Indonesia’s Tana Toraja region, where it takes a long time to bury the dead.

The corpse is kept in the house. The bereaved wash and clean it. They bring it food twice a day, as well as coffee and even cigarettes.

It is a way for the living to deal with grief. People believe the dead can hear them, and if they do not take care of the dead, the spirit – hovering above their heads – will haunt them.

Zimbabwean experts in this field also say that Shona funeral rituals tend to revolve around fear of the dead.

The spirit is regarded as being powerful, with human-like emotions. It can also haunt the living, if the corpse is not looked after.

Having ruled Zimbabwe since independence in 1980, Mugabe was not just a towering figure – he was a political institution.

Some Zimbabweans say the 95-year-old spirit may not yet be ready for his interment and this why his body was kept at his mansion for so long.

His family appears to be at ease with this. Some of them have said one of Mugabe’s wishes was that his wife should never leave the corpse until he is buried.

It is unclear why he would make such a wish. Perhaps the family fears his body could be tampered with for ritual purpose.

According to the family, Mugabe had another wish – to be buried at his rural home, close to his late mother, Bona. They further accuse President Emmerson Mnangagwa, Mugabe’s long-time ally, of betraying his former comrade and being behind the military takeover.

Normally the wishes of the dead are respected, but when alive, Mugabe defied the wishes of some of his liberation war colleagues who asked not to be buried at Harare’s Heroes Acre, the shrine for freedom fighters.

It seemed as though Mr Mnangagwa was going to do the same – he announced that a special grave would be built for his predecessor at Heroes Acre.

It was to have been a shrine to symbolise – as Mr Mnangagwa put it – his great works.

After behind-the-scenes talks, Mugabe’s family agreed to the plan.

The government and the chiefs went to the Heroes Acre, showed each other where President Mugabe is going to be buried, and that place would take about 30 days to complete,” said Leo Mugabe, a nephew of the former president who has acted as a spokesman for the family.

But the construction of the mausoleum at the national shrine provoked intense controversy.

To elevate Mugabe above other heroes of the Independence War would create a false narrative – that he invented the country. It also belittles the contribution of others – and suggests that the government is being held to ransom by the ego of a dead man.

Many Zimbabweans could not understand the decision – if you defy the wishes of the dead, you anger their spirit, and it is difficult to then appease it.

The family must have felt the pressure.

It seems that this point has now been taken on board – the government has announced that the former president would be buried in Zvimba in accordance with the “new position” of his family.

The question now is whether the man who tried to treat Zimbabwe’s presidency as a hereditary post will be buried in a cave, like a traditional chief.

About Yusuf Mwesigwa

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