Shona and Ndebele Religions

Hilde Arntsen, Lecturer, Department of Media and Communication, University of Oslo

In Shona and Ndebele religions, God, or the Supreme Being, is seen as the creator and sustainer of the universe in much the same manner as within Christianity. Shona Mwari (literally "He who is"), or Ndebele uMlimu are both believed to be active in the everyday lives of people, and even in politics. The more widely encompassing realm of the religious sphere compared to Western societies, as indicated by the central governing principle of traditional beliefs and practices, indicate that Pat Robertson's inclusion of politics into religious practices, or religious practices for political purposes is by no means unknown in this area. In general, people communicate with Mwari through the vadzimu (Shona), or amadhlozi (Ndebele). These are the deceased ancestors. The vadzimu are believed to constitute an invisible community within the community of the living, always around their descendants, caring for them and participating in their joys and sorrows (Moyo, 1988: 199). Spirit mediums communicate with the vadzimu on behalf of the people.

In Shona religion, in addition to the guarding characteristics of the vadzimu, there are also avenging or evil spirits, ngozi, and witches who communicate with them. The ngozi are, briefly, the spirits of deceased individuals who were greatly wronged, neglected by a spouse, murdered, or otherwise neglected, and they attack through sudden death of several members of the same family, or through ill people who fail to respond to treatment. Bucher (1980) and others stress the fear with which the ngozi are surrounded, in opposition to the guarding role of the vadzimu.

Communication between the living and the dead is taken care of by the spirit mediums who are vital parts of Shona culture and religion. The role of the spirit mediums and their communication with and appeasement of the ancestors were considered by many, missionaries and colonialists in particular, to be ancestor worship. However, the spirit mediums were instead acting as intermediaries between Mwari/uMlimu and the living, carrying messages, prayers and thanks from the human being to God. Where ancestors are subject to appeasement by human beings, it is believed that God is appeased as well. It must be noted, however, that it is not the ancestors themselves, the vadzimu, who are worshipped, but rather God through them. In the words of one of my sources, the sprit mediums "intercede between you and the ancestral spirits. The ancestral spirits will intercede who will carry it forward to God, because we also believe in God."

African traditional religions have a strong foothold in contemporary Zimbabwe as an integral part of the everyday lives of many Zimbabweans. Religion, in this view, constitutes an element within culture, as religion is seen as a way of life. The religious influence goes beyond what can be termed religious in a narrow (or Western) sense: it is seen to be evident in cultures, the literature, politics, medicine and so on. In practice, Christianity is being mixed with traditional religious beliefs and practices.


Moyo, A. 1988: "Religion and Political Thought in Independent Zimbabwe", in C. Hallencreutz and A. Moyo. Church and State in Zimbabwe. Gweru: Mambo Press, 1988.

[From Hilde Antsen, The Battle of the Mind: International New Media Elements of the New Religious Political Right in Zimbabwe. Oslo:University of Oslo, 1997, pages 49-50. Available from Department of Media and Communications [[email protected]].

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