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Centre of African Studies: Research


Paper Details

Author: Joost Fontein

Title: "Traditional Connoisseurs" of the Past: The Ambiguity of Spirit Mediums and the Performance of the Past in Southern Zimbabwe

Year: 2004

This paper focuses on the means by which 'traditional leaders' in rural Zimbabwe legitimise their authority among their communities and beyond. It is based on ethnographic research carried out between June 2000 and December 2001 among communities surrounding Great Zimbabwe National Monument in Masvingo province, southern Zimbabwe. Among these communities, specifically the clans of Nemanwa, Charumbira and Mugabe, the past is a site of great contestation as they jostle to justify and legitimise group and individual claims to land, authority and influence. Certain people among these communities are considered 'experts' - often chiefs, elders and spirit mediums - whose versions of the past are seen as more valid and legitimate than those of 'non-experts'. Just as archaeologists, historians and heritage professionals often authorise their narratives through claims to 'objectivity' and 'truth', these 'traditional connoisseurs' also make very specific 'truth' claims, but espousing 'tradition' rather than 'science'. This paper investigates how these 'traditional connoisseurs' legitimise their own narratives, positions, and authority in ways that make appeals to chikaranga [tradition] and the spirit world of the ancestors. Narrowing its focus to spirit mediums, and one in particular, a senior spirit medium of the VaDuma clans of Masvingo called Ambuya VaZarira, the second half of the paper explores the importance of a spirit medium's ability to perform convincingly as a medium in daily life, and as an ancestor during possession ceremonies. Finally it considers the careful juggling act spirit mediums often have to perform to balance their multiplicity of projects, alliances and allegiances within their own clans and beyond.

Freshers 2013