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The living’s mission to save the ancestors

It is about 30 years since Mark Dery coined the term ‘Afro futurism’, a loose literary and cultural movement that connects science fiction, fantasy, history, science and the destiny of Afro-Americans and Africans. Percy Zvomuya has just finished reading Octavia Butler’s novel Kindred and wonders if there is something that Afro-American science fiction shares with Shona spirituality.


In Shona mythology, a mhondoro is a departed royal, hero, fighter or hunter who becomes a great supra  territorial spirit after crossing over to the next world. When the spirit doesn’t have a human being to host it, it doesn’t roam around in arid places or settle in random receptacles like the spirits Jesus  talks about in the Bible. (Remember when the Nazarene cast ‘evil spirits’ into a herd of swine?) Instead, the spirit goes into a maneless lion until a suitable human vessel is found.

This explanatory preamble is important before I recount a story passed on to me by an uncle of mine. Also, it is essential to note that the word mhondoro can be used in two ways: It can refer to the lion spirit but it is also the name of a place. The area known as Mhondoro is a huge expanse of rural and farm land sandwiched between the Harare-Beitbridge highway to the east; Harare-Bulawayo highway to the west; the heavily polluted Manyame River to the north and Muzvezve to the south.

Photo: Valentin Delaye
Photo: Valentin Delaye

Look uncle, there’s a lion!

Some time  in the 1940s, my uncle was walking from Mhondoro to Hartley, a journey of about 80km, to get an ID or some such form of identification. (Hartley, now known as Chegutu, is a decrepit mining and farming town 100km south of Harare named for British hunter Henry Hartley, scourge of the elephants).

In the days before mechanised transport, these journeys were done on foot. People rose early and left home long before daybreak so that by the time the sun’s rays streaked the eastern skies, they were already waiting for massa  and his minions to shout at them and grudgingly serve them. My uncle was still young, perhaps not even a teenager. He was in the company of two of his half-brothers (his father was a chief and had many wives) or relatives,  and an older man who had been ordered by the chief to accompany the youngsters. They had been walking for a while on the road flanked by trees and long grass when an animal crossed just ahead of them. There was no mistaking what it was. It was a lion.

The old man, as if on cue, knelt on the dew dew-kissed soil and started clapping his hands in that the respectful way reserved for in-laws or the ancestors:

Those who have gone before us,

Please watch over me.

And these boys.

Look, they are the sons of strangers

Nothing should happen to them.

Those in the ancestral nether worlds,

Please watch over me and these saplings…

Or so the chant went.

When the lion had wandered into the adjoining bush, they resumed their journey. When they reached the area near Mupfure River, another lion crossed their path. Again, the old man repeated the incantatory rituals.

They eventually arrived in Hartley, did what they had travelled for, and went back home without further incident.

‘In African spirituality, it is the dead who protect and look out for the living, not the other way round, as in this instance’

In the presence of the dead-living

Months later, people assembled for a bira, a sacred gathering of the Shona, in which the living commune with the ancestor-gone, when a voice began to speak through one of the people present. ‘Did you see me when you were going to see the white man?’

People mumbled in response.

‘That wasn’t a lion the other morning,’ the medium continued, ‘it was a mhondoro protecting you from the beasts of the wild…”

…It was this story that was on my mind as I finished reading Kindred, by the American fantasy writer Octavia Butler. Kindred is a novel about Dana,  a black woman who travels between California of 1976 and a slave-holding farm in Maryland of 1815. Whenever Rufus Weylin, the son of a slave-holding white man in the ante-bellum South, is in trouble, Dana loses consciousness and is transferred to the past/netherworld to save him. She saves him from drowning, a fire, a beating and several other mishaps because Rufus is destined to have a child with Alice, Dana’s foremother. Dana reflects: ‘My travels crossed time as well as distance. Another fact: the boy was the focus of my travels – perhaps the cause of them.’

In African spirituality, it is the dead who protect and look out for the living, and not the other way round, as in this instance. Also, I always thought that vadzimu/amadlozi/the ancestors looked out only for their own, those of their bloodline or race, until recently, when I read an incantatory poem by Aaron C Hodza in which he invokes his ancestors to help J  Haasbroek, a white scholar of Shona culture, in his research.

“You are something different. I don’t know what, witch, devil, I don’t care…You come out of nowhere and go back into nowhere. Years ago, I would have sworn there couldn’t even be anybody like you. You are not natural!”

On slave narratives

But to concentrate on these transferences is to miss a fundamental point: the book is really a slave narrative; a close-up, personalised examination of what it must have been like to live as a slave in the 19th century. There are beatings so vicious even the Saudis would be shocked (the farm overseer ‘carried his whip around with him. It was like part of his arm’); the calculated assault on the black family by the selling of children and partners to districts far away; and the quotidian humiliation. As the narrator notes at one point, the institution of slavery ‘was a long process of dulling, the desensitising of the black person, the systematic stripping away of his humanity.

One of the most arresting moments in the novel is when, after saving Rufus once again, Dana is steered into the library by his father, who makes her stand up close to a lamp and stares at her for what seemed an eternity. ‘Who are you?’ he demanded. ‘What are you?’ Later, still confounded by this airy woman, Weylin says, ‘You are something different. I don’t know what – witch, devil, I don’t care…You come out of nowhere and go back into nowhere. Years ago, I would have sworn there couldn’t even be anybody like you. You are not natural!’

A book about race and oppression set in America in 1976 surely has to mention South Africa. It was the year the school children rose against apartheid. ‘South African whites had always struck me as people who would have been happier living in the 19th century, or the 18th. In fact, they were living in the past as far as their race relations were concerned. They lived in ease and comfort, supported by huge numbers of blacks whom they kept in poverty and held in contempt. Tom Weylin would have felt right at home.’

The more connections we make between the lives and fates of black people in the west and those on the continent, between western fantasy and African belief systems, the better for Afro-futurism.


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