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Explain the nature and function of Alien Spirits in the Shona\Ndebele Traditional Religion

12 May 2019 at 08:29hrs | Views
Advanced Level Family and Religious Studies: Nature and Function of Alien Spirits in the Shona/Ndebele Traditional Religion

The concept of God, divinities and spirits in African traditional religious ontology has been a controversial and misunderstood concept. In African traditional religion, the concept of spirits is well defined.  This is because Africans believe in, recognize and accept the fact of the existence of spirits, who may use material objects as temporary residences and manifestations of their presence and actions through natural objects and phenomena as postulated by Idowu (1973:173)   Spirits are nondescript, immortal and invisible entities. Alien spirits are spirits of people who died far away from home and rituals for bringing back the spirits are not held for them (kurova guva). So, the spirits find hosts to possess. The origin of the term shavi derives from kushava (hunting) which is a traditional practice which occurred in the forest away from home. People who died in the forest then possess people in any family. The hunters shed blood by killing animals through hunting. The blood is shava (red). As a result, shavi mediums use red pieces of cloth. But their association with red also makes them evil. This is because they do not possess material body through which they could be seen but they may incarnate into any material thing in order to make themselves seen for any reason or purpose. Alien spirits are spirits that usually hover and wonder around which were disqualified from the Nyikadzimu and sometimes they are referred to as immature spirits and are believed to be raised by magic. These spirits may manifest in different ways and forms which may include sparks of light, show appears as black objects, creatures and others manifest in dreams. There are different classes of Alien Spirits and these include Revenge Spirit (Ngozi spirit), Animal Spirit (Chikwambo), Njuzu Spirit, Goritoto spirit and Tokoloshi Spirit. It can be noted that an Alien spirit can either destroy or protect.
There are several types of shavi spirits. Shavi dzviti is arguably believed to originate from the Ndebele. Dzviti is a warrior and the spirit is a fighting spirit which recalls the intertribal wars between the Shona and Ndebele. During the wars the spirit would lead the Ndebele people. The host speaks in Ndebele and is associated with divination. Shavi regudo is the spirit of a baboon involved in dancing. The host behaves like a baboon and assumes the animal's behavior of eating raw maize, overturning stones presumably in search of scorpions just as the baboon. Some people also associate baboon spirit with stealing crops in the fields since the baboon is well known for stealing in the fields. The dancing ritual of a baboon spirit is very spectacular. Shavi rechizungu is another example of a spirit which is a white person's spirit whom are believed to have died, for instance there are some white people who are believed to have died in Mberengwa years ago, and their spirits appear as mashavi. The host imitates a European way of life, like speaking in English even though the host is illiterate, drinking tea, smoking cigarettes, nodding and moving hair backwards. The spirit is associated with business ventures. Other foreign shavi are shavi rechisena from Mozambique and shavi romumwenye from the Remba and Arabic culture. The shavi are associated with healing and business. Chipunha is the spirit of a child which is playful. The host cries and laughs like a child, eating mucus and kidding since they are invisible, these spirits are thought to be ubiquitous, so that a person is never sure where they are or are not Mbiti,(1976:79).
Some spirits are hateful for instance the Ngozi spirits of people who died in anger and are often referred to as angry spirits. Some of these spirits cause havoc on humans and so man uses many methods or tools to wade them off as postulated by Awolalu (1979:43) They are greatly feared by the Shona and the spirits include victims of murder as postulated by Mbiti (1969:67) The Shona believe if a person has been murdered his soul does not perish, instead he rises to seek revenge. Either he comes on his own or is raised by the living. If his body is not lost in the bush relatives beat the corpse with a whip in the mortuary or hut inciting the spirit to rise and fight. They utter prayers and apply medicines during the process awakening the spirit and this process can occur at the grave or at the site which the murder occurred. The spirit strikes the family of the murderer through death and the deaths are mysterious and involve lighting which wipes the family and livestock. Usually the culprit is spared temporarily in order to experience the consequences of his deeds. Ngozi may reveal its intention through a spirit medium. The medium can recover the bones of the deceased from where the murder took place hence it can be noted that the mediums play a very important role in the African society. The family consult a n'anga a traditional healer, who mediates between the angry spirit and the family. The ngozi is settled through compensation. Usually a girl child from the family of the murderer is used as compensation in the bid to appease the spirits. The girl child is given or dedicated to the ngozi spirit as symbolic wife. She can marry within the family of the spirit only with the approval of the spirit but without the approval of the spirit she should not marry. Another means of payment is cattle. Some people believe they can stop the angry spirit by cutting off and eating the murdered person's small finger. Others try to stop or neutralize the devastating power of the spirit by protective medicines through the help of a nánga or traditional healer. But the exercise can be dangerous and sometimes the traditional healer nángas are not willing to cooperate.  According to Shoko(2007: 42) the Shona say 'Mushonga wengozi kuripa' (medicine for ngozi is payment) which means that the only way to appease the Ngozi Spirit is by paying however it proves to be problematic on whether the Ngozi spirit can really be appeased so as not to strike again.

Ngozi spirit can also be caused by several reasons and it can be noted that it is the most dangerous one. It may be the spirit of an aggrieved person who is wronged, an ill-treated spouse, someone indebted, failure to comply with the deceased's expectations and witchcraft Bourdillon (1976: 271). In all cases the attack of ngozi is very dangerous since it involves serious illness, death and misfortune. Pacification of the Ngozi spirit requires payment and punishment afflicted on the guilty person. In the case of an ill-treated wife the husband is subjected to 'house arrest' in which he is expected to live and maintain the house used by his wife. Someone who beats his mother is punished by undergoing a ritual of kutanda botso which involves public humiliation where one can move around the community while wearing sacks while begging for food and he is insulted or even beaten by the people. Villagers subject him to harsh punishment like pouring water over his body. The most serious punishment is being made to separate grain and corn that have been mixed in a bag.

Njuzu (mermaid) spirits is another example of an Alien spirit and is associated with water. People describe the mermaid as a weird creature which is half human and half fish. It bears features of a woman with long hair and breasts and is believed to be very beautiful. It grows a reed at the back. Njuzu lives in water but occasionally moves out. The creature can kidnap people who come to the water source where it will be. Victims are people drawing water, fishing or swimming at the river. The mermaid spirit drags the victim underneath the water to a special enclosure where it resides. A strong wind can blow and the victim is taken. The victim's companions and relatives are not allowed to mourn or shed a tear lest the person captured will die. The spirit provides the captive with food comprising mud, water, insects and creatures. After a period of time, the relatives consult a nánga traditional healer about the disappearance of their relative. A spirit medium identifies the mermaid spirit as responsible and a ritual should be organized by senior spirit mediums with drumming, singing and dance at the river side. Njuzu spirit releases the captive alive that is if the relatives did not mourn the person who was captured. Usually those who are captured by this kind of spirit return possessing special power and they become traditional healers. According to Dahlin (2002:54) the Njuzu spirit can transform a person from captivity to a traditional medical practitioner who provides important service to the community so in a way it can be noted that the njuzu spirit helps the community at large by providing scared practitioners that help in the solving of problems in the society and mediating between the ancestors and the people.

Various Alien spirits shavi confer benefits. Shavi roudzimba specialises in hunting. This would make someone rich back then as anyone who was great at hunting would exchange his game meat with other goods or even sell the meat to make a living and provide for the family.  It is the original spirit of hunters. Magoritoto (ghosts) are spirits of people who appear in human form as they were in life. The spirits are non-violent but cause fear. Sometimes the ghosts can escort one when travelling at night and usually at dangerous places so they save the purpose of protecting people from danger. They greet a person as they pass through on the way. But they can be angry if the person misbehaves and they can be angered by smelly things like perfumes.  They grow very tall and produce fire. Zvipoko (spooks) are spirits of people who wander near the homesteads at the grave site. They can emit fire which frightens the people. They may appear as human beings and cause accidents on the road. Some turn into prostitutes but disappear when the lights are switched on in bed. Others pretend to accompany men to their homes and in the morning the man and his clothes are found on a grave.  

Shavi rouroyi is another spirit which has negative attributes and is involved in witchcraft. The Shona people share beliefs in witchcraft called uroyi. The witches are men and women who are prompted by jealousy to inflict harm on their enemies. There are some spirits associated with witchcraft. Zvidhoma (goblins) are the most dreaded. Some call them zvitupwani. They are spirits of dead people manipulated by witchcraft. They are used by witches to kill and harm other people. Chidhoma is a dwarf and stout with a human form. It has an ugly face with a long bead and hairy skin, and a large [bulbous] eye on the forehead. A single clap from the forehead can paralyse the victim. The mouth goes on the side and the voice may be lost. Witches also use them to suck blood from the victims which lead to death. They can appear in form of animals (zvivanda) like a cat or birds (zvishiri). They can enter a kitchen, eat too much sadza, defecate and break pots and plates (Shoko 2007: 42). The Shona say the host. Usually those who are possessed by this type of shavi are said to be awake most of the time at night while others are sleeping. They are invisible and it can be difficult for one to note or identify their presence. This spirit has the ability to kill, bring bad omen and diseases. From time to time they have demands which is human blood and this results in the mysterious death caused by this spirit. This spirit can be inherited from generation to generation be it voluntarily or involuntarily. Shavi rezungura confers stealing. This refers to notorious thief who breaks into people's homes and steals livestock and household property and because someone is possessed by this spirit one fails to control themselves and they sometimes steal just for the sack of stealing. Shavi rechihure is involved in prostitution. Shavi also explain extra ordinary behavior in eating Sadza, drinking tea or beer, smoking mbanje and in athletics.

Jukwa spirits are responsible for rain. The Shona refer to them as manyusa. They are sent by chiefs as messengers to the Mwari cult at Matonjeni to ask for rain. They also carry special gifts to present to the oracle. They are involved in rain rituals at the cult. The manyusa spirit mediums are well respected people. They have rules which they follow which guide their behaviour like avoidance of food our use of modern transport on the way to Matonjeni. The hosanna spirit mediums at the cult are possessed by the spirits. They are responsible for rain making rituals and dance in honour of spirits (Dahlin 2002: 75).
Zvikwambo are spirits of people raised by magic. An alternative term is zvitokorochi (tokolotches). The spirits have an appetite for money, sex and blood. They originate from South Africa and are brought by labour migrants in search of economic survival. The owner sources zvikwambo from a n'anga. A contact is made for the spirits to provide wealth and the owner to supply regular sex and blood. So, they steal money and give to the owner. He dedicates a woman to the spirits for sexual purposes. They appear as frogs which suck women's breasts for milk. They draw blood from people's bodies and cause death. The owner is expected to fulfil the obligations of the spirits. If he fails to comply zvikwambo will demand sex and kill within his own family as argued by Chitando (2005:66)
Spirits manifest in different ways. They produce fire at night, light in the houses and can appear as burning trees. But they also manifest as objects like a moving bus. People take a ride but realise themselves sitting on the ground when the bus moves. In some cases they appear as human figures or voices and whistles. The Shona avoid calls and travels at night. But some believe they can withstand spirits by protective charms and medicines. Others use mbanje or gunpowder as repellent against spirits (Shoko 2007: 43).

 In conclusion, generally the Shona have benevolent spirits in the traditional sense. Some spirits are guardians and protect the living while others are very dangerous and harmful spirits. Other spirits confer skills and benefits to the living. Angry spirits are dreadful but they determine ethical behaviour in society. The administer justice by compensation to the extent of exchanging life for another and payment of cattle. They enforce adherence to traditional norms against murder and due to the fact that people are afraid of angering the spirits people tend to abide by the rules hence making the community a safe place to be.

*Brian Maregedze is an author, Zimbabwean historian and columnist. M. A in African History, B.A Special Honours in History, B.A.A Major in Religious Studies and History- all from the University of Zimbabwe. Some of his authored and co-authored works include; A Guide to Sources of African History: For Advanced Level Examination Candidates (2018); Advanced Level Family and Religious Studies, focus on Christianity and Islam (2018), New Trends in Family and Religious Studies, (Zimbabwean Indigenous Religions and Judaism) Advanced Level (2018) among other publications. Further reading material;, Call/app +263779210440 or Email He can be visited at Valley Crest Academy, located 34/35 Masotsha Ndlovu Way, Parktown-Waterfalls in Harare.

Dahlin, O. Zvinorwadza (2002) Being a Shona Patient in the Religious and Medical Plurality of Mberengwa District, Zimbabwe, Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang.  

Bourdillon, M.  (1976). The Shona People: Ethnography of the Contemporary Shona, with Special Reference to their Religion, Gweru: Mambo Press.

Awolalu, J. Omosade and Dopamu, P. Adelumo.  West African Traditional Religion. Ibadan: Onibonoje.

Shoko, T. (2007) Karanga Indigenous Religion in Zimbabwe: Health and Wellbeing, London: Ashgate

 Mbiti, J.S (1975) An Introduction to African Religion (London: Heinemann,)

Mbiti. J.S (1969). African Religions and Philosophy. New York: Doubleday

 Chitando.E (2005) "High Density Spiritual Worlds and African Pentecostalism:
Interpreting Religion in Africa" in Magnus Lundberg (ed.) in Swedish Missiological

Idowu, E. Bolaji (1973) African Traditional Religion: A Definition.  London: SCM.

Source - Brian Maregedze
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