A Clash of Religions: Kaguvi Encounters the Christian Conception of an Afterlife

George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University

In the section of Nehanda in which the priest tries to convert Kaguvi, one of the leaders of the Chimurenga, to Christianity, Yvonne Vera brilliantly dramatizes a clash of cultures in which two sincere, believing individuals misconceive each other's positions. Kaguvi, whom Vera presents as the embodiment of oral culture, finds the notion that a printed book could contain divinity intensely problematic, in part because for him, like Socrates, writing separates the words of the speaker from his or her presence. Since he does not come from a print culture, the kind of multiplicity characteristic of a book puzzles him, and as he points out to the Christian, his is a "strange" god who "is inside your book, but he is also in many books." In contrast, to this book-bound divinity, he explains:

My god lives up above. He is a pool of water in the sky. My god is a rain-giver. I approach my god through my ancestors and my mudzimu. I brew beer for my god to praise him, and I dance. My mudzimu is always with me, and I pay tribute to my protective spirit."

Working hard to find some point of agreement, the priest adds that his god also "is in the sky," but he then makes a theological claim that appears completely bizarre and inappropriate from a Shona point of view when he tells the man he wishes to convert that "my God is the true God. He is the way to eternal happiness." Two aspects of Christian belief here puzzle his listener -- first, that happiness could be eternal and, second, that hard work is bad and that any form of happiness might involve freedom from what he takes to be a crucial, pleasurable human activity:

Kaguvi is confused. He has never entertained such an improbable idea as eternal happiness. If a men harvests his crops, that is happiness. If a man marries and has children, that is happiness. If a man talks to his neighbours and they respect him, that too is happiness. "In heaven we shall find happiness. More happiness than in all the earth. In heaven we shall not labour, we shall sing and rejoice."

"We shall not labour?" Kaguvi asks again, baffled. He does not know why a man would long for that kind of happiness. Work is not suffering, even though the priest insists that work has come into the world as a punishment on one man. What kind of god is this that will not be appeased with beer poured on to the ground? It is not punishment for a man to do all he can for a good harvest. For a man not to labour is laziness. "Shall we go to heaven to be lazy? To sit behind our huts and bask in the sun like lizards?" he asks suspiciously.

As Vera makes clear, each man comes from such a distinctly different intellectual and imaginative cosmos that supposedly identical, apparently shared ideas, such as labor and happiness, mean very different things and resonate in very different ways. What other points of Shona belief and Christianity produce similar collisions>

[Passages quoted from Yvonne Vera, Nehanda, Harare: Baobab Books, 1993, 105.]

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Last Modified: 21 March, 2002