It is said that a long time ago in Masvingo, there was a terrible drought. People, livestock, crops were all dying from thirst. Every day, the women would go to the dry riverbed and dig deep trying to hit the water table and every day, they returned with nothing. There was no water left in the region. So the Rozwi king challenged his male subjects to find water for the people. The reward would be his beautiful daughter’s hand in marriage. As you can imagine, every man was eager. It would be an honor to be the King’s son-in-law. So they all set out and searched for days and days with no luck at all. Then legendary Ngara ancestor shot the face of rock. Those around him must have thought the heat was getting to him, but he shot the rock two more times, but nothing happened. He released a fourth arrow, and again nothing. But as he pulled back his bow to let loose a fifth arrow, water gushed out of the rock and the village was saved.
And now, when the men in my family are thanked, they are recognized as the descendants of the great Ngara Ancestor.
Maita Chirasha, maita Nungu
Weshanu uri pauta
Zvaonekwa mukwasha wamambo
Wamambo as in mukwasha wamambo, the king’s son-in-law.
Chikandamina, the one who shot four arrows at solid rock to get water.
Chirasha as in chirashamihwa, like the porcupine, that loses some of its quills when attacked.
Ever since my sister-in-law told me she was pregnant, I’ve been trying to turn this story into a fairytale for my niece. She’s almost 3 now and I’m still not done. I think a part of me doesn’t want to finish the story because it pains me that all this story will ever be to her is a fairytale, a story told by her grandpa back in Africa. But that’s my precious sweet, American niece. What of the Zimbabwean niece? Is this story going to be anything other than a story to her? Will she take pride in knowing the roots of her family, take pride in being called Maposa?
I’m not sure. I think like me, she’ll doubt the veracity of the story of Wamambo. Who could believe that a man could really hit a rock with arrows and water would gush out? But it is a myth and that’s why it’s important. Great empires have been built on myths. When you read epic poems like the Aeneid, the Iliad, or Beowulf, they all have an aspect of the supernatural, the extraordinary. Rome was founded by the twins Romulus and Remus who were supposedly suckled by a wolf as babies. Virgil extended that myth by connecting Rome to the Ancient city of Troy in the Aeneid. He validated the Roman Empire through a myth.
At the heart of every great empire is a myth, a story the people rally around that spurs them on to greater things. At the heart of my family is the myth of Wamambo. I know it because my father is a storyteller and because I was that curious child who always asked why. “Why are you sometimes called Wamambo?” But how many Zimbabwean youths nowadays know where their totem came from? How many of their parents know? It’s a part of our culture that we seem to take for granted. I find for a lot of people my age, it’s just something their parents say is theirs, but they don’t truly own. I can imagine in a couple of generations this tradition disappearing because it no longer seems relevant.
I remember when I was nine, sitting in my maternal grandmother’s smoky kitchen as she thanked my uncles. We sat on the floor, clapping our cupped hands rhythmically as she recited her thanks. It was pure poetry, a heartfelt thanksgiving. But you could tell that most of the people in the room felt it was an unnecessary ceremony and they only tolerated it because it made my grandmother happy. It was pretty but it didn’t seem necessary.
I get why kudetembwa kwemutupo is receding into the background. It’s clunky and tedious and doesn’t really apply to the modern man. Thanking my brother with his professional job by comparing him to a porcupine doesn’t quite seem right. I get why people find it so easy to let go of this tradition. The trouble with just throwing out a tradition wholesale is you lose the lesson, and in this case, you lose the art. We made such a ceremony of saying thank you to emphasise the importance of showing gratitude. After all the saying goes “Kusatenda huroyi.” To fail to be thankful is akin to witchcraft.
We’ve found new ways of thanking but the old ways need to be preserved somehow. These are our stories and we need to take ownership of them and take pride in them. We cannot let these myths disappear into the past as our grandparents pass on. Myths spur us on. They remind us that we are building on a rich history. Culture is changing so fast in Zimbabwe that traditions do not always have time to evolve, so they get left behind. I worry that the values will get left behind as well until Shona culture no longer looks like itself, but rather a hotchpotch of things we’ve adopted from other places. It bothers me that my niece will never feel the same pride I feel when someone calls me Maposa, the comfort in knowing I come from a long line of strong Maposas who refuse to back down. As a writer, it really bothers me that we’re allowing our stories to quietly pass away.