Matobo Hills: The Sound of Silence

by Bryony Rheam

he great Ndebele King, Mzilikazi, is buried within the hills to which he gave the name Matobo, meaning ‘bald

heads’. According with Ndebele custom, Mzilikazi’s embalmed body was ‘buried’ in a sitting position in the rock of a cave, ready for battle even in death. It was Rhodes’ sighting of the body that gave him the idea that he too would like to be buried in the Matopos, a decision which was to cause much consternation amongst the Ndebele. However, Cecil Rhodes is the only white man to have received the Ndebele salute, Bayete, at his funeral, although the local chiefs did ask that no guns were discharged during the ceremony for it would disturb the spirits.

Interestingly, in 1929 the author and spiritualist, Arthur Conan Doyle, tried to contact Rhodes’ spirit by holding a séance next to his grave. His wife, Jean, took down a message from the dead imperialist in ‘automatic writing’ – a method whereby the spirit uses a living person to transcribe their communication. The message was never shared publicly. The spiritual significance of the Matobo hills goes back hundreds of thousands of years to when these hills were the home to the San people. They left their indelible mark on the area through their paintings which we are lucky to still be able to view today. It would be wrong to assume these paintings, mostly of animals, are simple projections of what they hoped to hunt and kill. Kudu, for example, were a symbol of virility, good health and rain which probably accounts

for the fact that they make up at least fifty per cent of the paintings.

Inanke cave contains what are considered some of the best cave paintings in the world. One picture in particular stands out from the rest: it is of the hunched figure of a man with a very small head and arms sprouting from his shoulders. He stands on two large ovals, both of which are filled with dots. The picture is believed to depict a San shaman deep in a trance which would eventually lead into his transformation into a tree or an animal. The dot filled oval shape is repeated many times on the cave wall and is thought to represent potency: they are abstract expressions of spiritual forces of nature. Placed as they are, both in the middle of and across the cave, they suggest the immense spiritual power of the community they represent.

In more recent history, the hills were the headquarters of the spiritualist oracle, the Mlimo. In 1896, Fredrick Russell Burnham assassinated the Mlimo in his cave, thus ending the Second Matabele War. The Mlimo had persuaded his people to rise up against the white settlers, claiming they were responsible for the drought and the rinderpest. His death was so shocking that it played a major part in persuading the Matabele to surrender. Rhodes was able to walk unarmed in to their camp and convince them to lay down their weapons.

Even today, the Matopos retains its significance as a spiritual place. A fall of one of the rocks is considered an omen of ill portent by many. Such occurrence, which is thankfully rare, necessitates that the ihosana or spirit mediums perform rituals to appease the ancestors who are obviously unhappy. Natural phenomena such as droughts are still blamed on the wrong-doing of the people. Legend has it that those who dare to point at Mount Shumba Shava with their index finger risk invoking the curse which will cause bad luck to fall on them. They may also be visited by the Isidwadwa Spirit in their sleep. Mount Shumba Shava, meaning the Red Lion. All the scouts that visit Gordon Park, to the south west of this point, all know about the curse that this mountain has to offer. Do not point at it with your index finger, because bad luck will befall you.

The reason for it’s name is that during the rainy season, on very rare occasions, you get a grey sky to the east of the point, with the sun shining from the south-west. Because of the light that shines through the clouds, this mountain becomes the red lion.

Legend has it that a witch lived in the cave just above this point, in the green area, and clay maize pots can still be found if you visit the cave. A truely unique experience if you like climbing up and exploring. I have personally been able to scale this mountain in approximately 15 minutes, from the bottom to the summit, however you do need to know the path to go up to reach it in time.

Do not point at the mountain because the Isidwadwa Spirit will visit you in your sleep. The Njelele shrine, located one hundred kilometers south of Bulawayo on the south west fringes of the Rhodes Matopos National park, is famous as a place to go to pray for rain in August to September of every year. However this is not its only use, although it has become its predominant one. Traditionally it is a place where the elders go to report all problems within the clan, everything from drought to the death of a clan member. It was also a place where misdemeanours were apologised for. A voice was heard speaking from within a rock which would give, according to the nature of the report, either advice, forgiveness or prophesy. The late Joshua Nkomo claimed to have heard this voice when he visited the shrine in the early 1970s. Interestingly, it has not been heard since 1974.

Today, people continue to visit the shrine, some from as far as Tanzania, Zambia and South Africa. Certain rituals must be performed before entering the cave; if these are not done, there is the risk of getting lost in the hills for months on end or incurring serious illness as a punishment. It is said that unusual happenings take place at the shrine, which is really a series of tunnels between balancing rocks rather than a cave as such. For instance, you may find honey, but no sign of bees. If you do, be careful to eat the honey at the shrine. Do not take it away with you. Whatever your beliefs, it is difficult to resist the powerful magnetism of the balancing rocks. It was once a land populated with warriors and soldiers, tribespeople and wild animals. Now it attracts tourists, picnickers and artists. It was once a place which provided physical refuge from war and disputes. Now its balm is a spiritual one: the call to silence resonates deep within and everyone who has been there will feel the need to return again and again.

Bryony Rheam is an author and freelance writer based in Bulawayo. Her debut novel, This September Sun, is

published by ‘amaBooks (Zimbabwe) and Parthian (UK). Her second novel, “All Come to Dust”, is due to be published this year.

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