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» » Beyond our understanding: Myths and taboos to safeguard cultural heritage

Elizabeth Duve Dziva
Many a times, we have heard or read about mysterious stories surrounding cultural heritage property which usually send shivers down our spines or rather cause goose bumps.
Gustav Mahler once said tradition is not the worship of ashes but the preservation of the fire.
Discussing such topics stir up various feelings in many as the topic evokes different imaginations in people. Most of the stories are usually dismissed as ‘superstitions’ but funny as it may sound, such things really happen just like extraordinary Biblical stories like that of Moses and the burning bush in Exodus and many others.
In our context, these are called myths and taboos which are very vital in the conservation and preservation of cultural property and they are a source of spiritual guidance.
A myth is folklore or unusual narrative or story which usually involves some supernatural figures and a taboo is an unspecified prohibition on something, usually against speech or behavior based on a cultural intellect that is too sacred for ordinary people. Taboos and myths are basically meant to protect humans and their environment.
In Zimbabwe, there is cultural and natural heritage like forests, mountains, rivers, caves, tunnels, trees are safeguarded by myths and taboos. The heritage also includes manmade ruins and property left behind by our predecessors.
One such sacred natural heritage is the Ndambakurimwa forest in Domboshava. As the name suggests, the forest could not be cleared for agricultural purposes. The commonly accepted myth is that if one tried to clear the land, they would wake up tomorrow to find all the cleared trees back in their original place and if one went with an axe intending to cut the trees, the axe would suddenly disappear.
Almost the same myth is also about the Rambakurimwa forest in Mberengwa and the Rambakutemwa forest in Chivi.  An unexplainable myth is told about the zoomorphic pot (pfuko yaNevanji) whose replica is presently housed at the Great Zimbabwe Museum in Masvingo.
It is generally believed that it was a moving pot in which the king’s gold was kept. If other people tried to put their hands into the pot, they would find their hand cut, go insane or suddenly find their heads clear shaven.

There is also Mount Nyanga, the highest mountain in Zimbabwe which is generally believed that careless talk or environmental pollution like relieving oneself on the mountain would see the offender vanishing without a trace. History has it that a number of people have disappeared without trace in that mountain, the latest being a tourist in Jnauary 2014.
According to the oral history of locals in the area, two white girls (tourists) once vanished in the mountains and a helicopter search party was engaged. They could see the girls from the helicopter but upon getting down to the ground, all they could hear was their playful laughter indicating that they were really enjoying themselves.
Almost a similar story is told about the Chinhoyi cave where negative comments and environmental pollution resulted in disappearance. It is generally believed that an attempt to throw a stone past the sunlit pool will result in the stone being thrown back to the sender.
There is also the legend of the Nyaminyami river god at Kariba which, when angered by the people’s misbehavior, would cause severe flooding in the basin. Others attribute the flooding which happened in the 1950 and the loss of lives during construction of the Kariba Dam to the river god who apparently had been angered at being separated by the dam wall from ‘his wife’ who lived down stream. Disasters attributed to the river god happened on February 15, 1950 and December 25, 1955, January 1958.
There is also the Nemeso myth which accounts for the origins of Harurwa in Masvingo. The myth has it that abuse of the nutritious insects provoked the spirit of Nemeso resulting in natural disasters. There are some forests in which misbehavior resulted in loss of memory (chadzimira) whereby one immediately loses their sense of direction and time resulting in endless walks around the area. When in that condition, one does not get tired nor feel any physical pain to an extent that an individual can walk for as many kilometers as can be imagined without realising it.
Due to cultural diversity and dynamics of time, tradition can be questioned and it is very important to break the traditions that serve as restraints to the happiness, freedom and development of the human race.
Over and above, safeguarding our culture, heritage and traditions is priceless. Our heritage is a link to our past and a bridge to the future. We are bound to them those who went before us as our successors are bound to us, though we cannot look into their eyes nor hear their voices; we should honour their history which is also ours. We should cherish the tradition they left behind and pass it over, we should tell their story as it was told through generations immemorial. Above all we should remember them as we wish to be remembered and that is only possible if we avoid carrying the everlasting blame and curse of bringing to extinction what we never invented.
Elizabeth Duve Dziva is an Archaeological and cultural heritage practitioner, the views in this article are solely those of the author in her own capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of any organization. Email:

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