One Night in Zimbabwe

The elders filtered into the hut without speaking. A single candle stood on the floor in the middle of the room, filling the round, earth-scented dwelling with an otherworldly glow.

It was past 3am, and the ceremony was just now beginning.

We had arrived in the village well after dark, driving our car miles through the bush. We drove in a rusty, low-riding sedan that had only recently been resurrected from its grave of cinder blocks and dust. The boulders and contours of the hard dirt path did little to impede the driver, however- a young dreadlocked man of 30- my friend and host in this nearly apocalyptic African country.

Slowly rocking and jostling our way through the tall elephant grass well after sunset, creeping our way further up the deformed dirt track, we finally arrived at a small village at the top of an escarpment, populated by several round huts with conical roofs. The entire village seemed to be asleep, and believing that our trek had all been for nothing, I opted for sleep in the back seat.

I awoke to a familiar voice beckoning me to the hut next to our car. I couldn’t tell how long I had slept, or whether my dreams were simply the sounds of the African night. More than half asleep, I entered the round dwelling, greeted by an old man from the village. On the concrete bench along the side of the hut I saw my friend Forward, a Zimbabwean musician who I had been traveling with as well.

He didn’t speak, only offering a knowing glance over the top of the massive gourd which sat on his lap- his mbira, the sacred instrument used in Zimbabwe to call upon the ancestors.

He slowly plunked out a low, simple tune on his well-loved thumb-piano, delicately weaving a mystical thread through the cavernous, empty hut. Humming gently to himself in time with the meditative music, the celestial tones of the mbira resonated out of the gourd like boulders rumbling deep beneath a river, beneath the very earth itself.

The Shona, Zimbabwe’s largest ethnic group, have used this instrument to call to their ancestors for generations. Its sound is organic and metallic, earthen, and liquid, filling the pensive night air with both a deep sadness and a transcendent joy. It’s a feeling my conscious mind has always fumbled to grasp. Yet something in my heart knew this bittersweet elixir like an old friend the moment I heard it, years ago.

The music began to spin the night together into one primordial blur. My friends, trickling into the room over the next hour, began to pick up their instruments, adding their own polyrhythmic layers into the enchanting miasma.

Others gradually joined the old man from the village, until what seemed like every elder in the village had entered the hut in one formal procession. The candles in the middle of the room illuminated each of their faces, worn and washed by the turbulent times they had seen.

After a brutal civil war with the racist colonial Rhodesian state, the indigenous people of Zimbabwe won their freedom in 1980, yet that was hardly the end of their troubles. Once known as the “breadbasket of Africa,” Zimbabwe’s bright future slowly turned to dust after their longstanding president, Robert Mugabe, enacted a series of controversial “land-reform” policies that effectively ground the country to a halt, resulting in the collapse of their currency, along with any semblance of economic progression, international aid, or growth.

The music was coming from multiple mbiras now, each playing a melody that fit intricately into the next, creating a web of intersecting notes and rhythms with the explicit purpose of being utterly trance inducing. It must have been, because I soon drifted off to sleep.

I woke up to the arresting stench of Zimbabwean snuff tobacco and masese, traditional sorghum and corn beer, being passed under my nose. The sun was coming up, and the hut had filled with what seemed like the entire village. Clay pots of masese were gathered in the center, and the music, which began hours ago as a mysterious lullaby, had blossomed into an ecstatic celebration. The elders danced all around us.

Rattles, singing, and clapping filled the air. A clay bowl of the murky corn beer arrived into my hands once again, as my friend next to me nodded in approval, his face contorted by his white-toothed smile, aided by the drink. The dark tobacco snuff was enthusiastically placed into my hands, and having become accustomed to the stuff after having lived in this country for over a month, I happily obliged. Quickly, my mind adjusted to the level of mild intoxication that pervaded the atmosphere.

And there, in the back of the hut, near the altar, sat a shirtless man, who I knew was not in this world. His massive headdress of black and white ostrich feathers swayed and wafted along with every move of his head, animating the otherworldly essence of this character. Younger villagers sat around him, listening intently as he spoke, a far-off visage inhabiting his leathery face. He was clearly communing with his ancestor spirits.

I clapped along to the sound of the shakers, punctuating the sonically saturated environment with my own polyrhythmic announcements. I looked up, and an old woman was dancing in front of me, moving forward and back, the whites of her eyes shining at me. We locked eyes, and she moved closer.

The old woman put out her hands, as if asking for me to do the same. I did so, and she dumped a pile of the tobacco snuff into them, closing them together. Then she took the tobacco in her hands, and rubbed the fine power all along my arms, onto the skin of my chest, my back, and onto my freshly-dreaded head, dancing all the while.

I did not know what had happened to me. I only saw this old woman dance in front of me in ways that I never thought capable of someone her age. Without another thought, she hopped away, shuffling back towards the entourage surrounding the man in the feathered headdress.    

And there I sat- head spinning from masese, hours of ancient rhythms reverberating in my ears drums, covered in Zimbabwean tobacco powder.

“Brother, that was a very big blessing,” my friend said, leaning low, as if to speak privately. “And let me tell you something else. These people are seriously possessed.”

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