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African Modes of Transmission of Traditional Knowledge 


(Charles S. Makari)

First, it should be pointed out that foreigners to the African way of living often find difficulties in comprehending the values and beliefs of African culture, and as a result often conclude that the African is primitive, uncivilised, barbaric, unreligious, etc. Yet, when one closely examines the African way of life, one finds that its culture is full of values even richer than the modern world-view which purports to be superior to traditional world-views.

In this paper I shall highlight the traditional African way of imparting knowledge from generation to generation, with special emphasis on the Zimbabwean context. At the very outset, it is important to mention that the people of the Republic of Zimbabwe are made up of several clans or tribal groups which branched from the so-called Bantu people during their immigration from the north to the southern regions of Africa. It is believed that the Zimbabweans finally settled in this central part of Africa around the tenth century. Since then, these clans have practised their traditions inherited from their ancestors. Tradition, which is always understood to reflect both man’s past and present, is transmitted through oral history, folklore dances, drama, etc. In the traditional context, the chief is the custodian of his people’s cultural heritage and owns the land which is distributed to his subjects. The chief is viewed as the head of his clan while men are considered heads of their respective families.

We will also note that culture enables man to comprehend his existence in his perplexing cosmology and total environment. It should as well be observed that the traditional Zimbabwean culture is imbued with myths and beliefs transmitted from generation to generation by the ‘Masvikiro’ spirit mediums who are recognised by society as the African fraternity, believed to be the repository of African history. Indeed, oral history plays an important role in Zimbabwean culture, yet its opponents view it as unreliable and go on to say that it is subject to variations through passage of time, and in the process, loses its essence and reliability. Fortune seems to disagree with these opponents when he stresses that oral history is a means that draws ‘great memories’ of the past from faithful repositories of human knowledge and experience, which he sees as a prerequisite to the study of the culture, art and history of the people.

Indeed, the importance of oral history should not be minimised in any way, as it is equally true that throughout the world, it is known that before the advent of written records, oral traditions were used as source materials, for example by early writers in the Mediterranean, India and China. Jan Vansina concurs with the idea when he says that oral traditions have a crucial role to play in the reconstruction of the past, as it must always be understood as a reflection of both the present and the past in a single breath.

I now want to briefly touch on the traditional Zimbabwean marriage process and discuss how new life enters our world through childbirth and trace its life span through adult life to death, the end of the journey. In the process, we will examine the African man’s beliefs and observe how he interacts with his environment, ritual arts, family and society at large. We shall also analyse the roles he plays towards the living, towards his ancestral spirits as well as towards his creator, Mwari, God.

In the Zimbabwean traditional context, marriage is viewed as something that involves the entire families of the two parties. When a boy and girl fall in love, they follow a certain protocol where each part has to inform family members from the most junior to the nucleus parents. This is done so that every member of each family is fully aware of the engagement and possible marriage. In the process, members give their recommendations or disapprovals. In case the parties meet with disapproval, they give up their plans without contesting their elders. In the traditional way, arguing with elders’ decision is viewed as being impolite since elders are considered to have seen it all throughout their long lives. On the other hand, if elders approve of the engagement, then protocol is again followed and the prospective husband is expected to pay a dowry in form of money and animals. This is considered a token of appreciation, not by any means buying a wife, as it is often interpreted by those who do not fully understand African culture. Apart from paying the dowry, the bridegroom goes through counselling by elders on how to behave as a husband and, in the same vein, the bride also prepares articles to use as a wife, i.e., baskets, pots, cooking sticks, etc. Before the bride finally goes to her new home, she undergoes special training on how to handle her husband and manage a house. This task is administered by the bride’s father’s sisters (aunts). It is also the aunts whose duty it is to accompany the bride to her new home and hand her over to the new family, where she is expected to behave as a trusted dignified wife who sticks to one partner.

When the bride has her first pregnancy, the preparations for delivery include lessons on how to handle the new baby; and certain herbal medicines are administered to facilitate normal delivery (without operation).

When the couple is blessed with the first baby, the wife stays with her parents for a couple of months while the family makes sure that the baby and mother are fit to be taken back to their home. The traditional care of the child is that after weaning, the child is given back to the parents of the wife to be taken care of until the age of six to ten years. The child is taught how to behave with members of the family and the public. S/he also does the chores of the community, i.e., herding goats and cattle, fetching water and firewood, hunting, grinding corn, cooking, rituals, preparing herbal medicines, etc. Indeed, this training makes the child a disciplined and a fully balanced citizen who comprehends his hereditary taboos and the rituals which go with them. When the child finally goes to settle with his parents, s/he would have understood the link between the two families and will eventually transmit this knowledge to his/her own offspring. In this way, knowledge is acquired in various ways, i.e., observation, folk tales, association, instruction, imitation of the peer group, etc. The child gradually adapts and fits in his environment as he becomes aware of his relationship to society at large. In the African tradition, all elders deserve respect and one is expected to behave cordially towards all the members of the community.

It should be pointed out that in the traditional Zimbabwean culture divorces were very rare, but in situations which warranted divorce, this was regarded as a serious matter which went through several protocols even up to the chief of the land. In most cases minor issues were settled at lower levels. All in all, divorces were minimal in our society.

However, going back to how traditional knowledge is transmitted from generation to generation, it should be pointed out that from childhood, the child is made aware of the taboos and his relationship with his family, community and society. He is also taught how to observe certain norms of his tribe. He is made aware of his earthly existence and his connection with his ancestral spirits and of worship of the Almighty God (Mwari), the creator of heaven and earth. As s/he grows up, s/he is expected to participate in performing roles of appeasing ancestral spirits, how to worship Mwari, the creator of the human race and all living and non-living things. He also acquires knowledge on how to use herbal medicines to treat and cure certain diseases or illnesses. In traditional Zimbabwean culture, the transmission of knowledge is carried out orally from generation to generation. This is done through instructions, stories, folklore, drama, poems, praise songs, etc. It should, however, be reiterated that in Zimbabwe there are several ethnic or clan groupings with different languages and dialects, which observe different customs and rituals: for example, while most of the tribes do not circumcise their people, the Fingos and Rembas have for centuries been circumcising their children using traditional methods.

There are also other groups which identify themselves by cutting permanent marks on parts of their bodies. And various tribal groupings have different dances, beliefs, ways of living, etc.

It should be further noted that traditional Zimbabwean people are connected to their tribesmen by their totems (mutupo). They are of the monkey, zebra, fish, lion, elephant, etc., clans. As such, they are expected to treat these totems with unquestionable respect. They are not allowed to eat their totems. According to the tradition, if one eats his totem, something evil will befall him. And people of the same totem cannot marry one another: they are to be treated as relatives even if it means distance relationships. Homosexuality of either sex is unheard of in the traditional Zimbabwean culture. However, if a misdemeanour such as having a sexual relationship with someone’s wife or daughter is discovered, the tribal courts would try the case and make the culprit pay a heavy fine in money or animals. The penalty varies with the gravity of the crime. For instance, if you behave badly towards your parents you would be asked to take a retreat far away from your village after being stripped off almost all your clothes and dressed in tattered rags. Then you would be jeered at by any person who meets you, a process called ‘Kutamba botso’. After a period, the punishment would have served its purpose and you would be accepted back into the community as a reformed person. Such treatment was effective and deterred people from misbehaviour towards their community and society. As a result, misconduct was minimised and peace prevailed.

So far, in our general discussion we have noted various methods of disseminating knowledge in the traditional way in Zimbabwe. It should also be observed that once the African child enters the world he is bound by his tradition from birth to death and even up to life after death. In fact, when he goes sick all herbal medicines are applied with the help of traditional ceremonies administered in order to request his ancestral spirits to intervene. In case s/he dies a certain burial ceremony is administered where the elders request the deceased’s ancestral spirits to guide and present his spirit to God.

If, on the other hand, the sick man gets well, because of the treatment or the intervention of ancestral spirits or both, he is expected to brew some beer, kill some cattle or goats and call friends and family members to come and perform some ceremonies as thanksgiving to the spirits and Mwari. The African person grows knowing the existence of good and bad spirits and God the Almighty.

Ruth Finnegan seems to lament the opponents of oral tradition when she says the current significance of oral tradition is being ‘played down’, if not overlooked completely by those societies whose assumption is that written literature is the highest form of knowledge. After all, no meaningful literature can be produced without inputs from oral history.

All in all, this paper attempts to portray how the traditional Zimbabwean culture is passed from father to son and mother to daughter. It has also demonstrated that generally, traditional African culture is complete in its own context and that by no means should it be viewed as inferior to other cultures of the world.

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