We had an opportunity to visit a traditional healer and herbalist named Mpisi Ndlovu at his homestead in the Monde Village. This village is a neighboring village to Jabulani, only 8 kilometers away. The purpose of our visit was to compare some aspects of a neighboring village and to see how they handled some of their challenges in agriculture, and healing common illnesses as they go hand-in-hand by visiting Mpisi. Like many Villages, Monde Village has mixed tribes people, but is known as an Ndebele Village.
Mpisi along with our friend and guide Fletcher taught us and showed us a lot about the history, architecture, Art and agriculture of the Ndebele. Seemingly, we came for specific answers, and instead found a lot more and how linked it all was.
The Ndebele tribe is an extension of the Zulu Peoples who lived in Southern Africa. During the later 1800’s, many Zulu moved North from what is currently South Africa due to political unrest and differing needs of some tribesman. European imperialism was a factor to this migration, but it is said it would have happened regardless of the slow invasion of white colonists. Being a Military Tribe at that time, this specific group of nomadic warriors costumed themselves with Long Shields for defenses against other warring Zulus and other tribes along their migration and new settlement in the bush lands. This lead to the name “Ndebele,” meaning “men with long shields” given by others. It is a Zulu word, and the Ndebele language is actually Zulu. A century later, we may be aware of the long decorated and often colorful shields seen in photographs and fashioned into many types of Art and decor representing some African cultures. The Ndebele are a very Artistic community, and an aesthetic and care for inspiration can be seen in their homesteads, weapons, tools and in all areas of creation in daily life.
A typical home of the Ndebele Tribe. Notice the bright colors and layering in thached roofs.
A traditional village will consist of more than 100 “homesteads” and are under the control of a Chief, Sub-Chief, and many Headmen. The Chief is born and inherits his rights to rule. A Headman and sub-Chief will be elected into that position for several reasons. The more land, livestock and wives a headman has, the more likely he is to be elected as he will be more respected and has the ability to keep everyone at peace and getting along. In Zimbabwe, the villagers bank their money in livestock. So, if one has a lot of cows, it is assumed that they will look after the community and be a reliable sub custodian of cultural traditions and overall well being in the community. Today, it is possible for a woman to become a headman or even a chief if no male heir is able. Currently, there are 2 known women chiefs in Zimbabwe. This also changes the rules as it shifts many traditions and social structures that have appropriately guided these tribes for centuries. The consequences are yet to be determined but are under study by some.
Men pay a dowry of 10 or more large livestock in order to marry a wife of another village as practiced. This can be paid in stages, several before they marry and the balance before they bare children. If the man cannot pay the dowry, baring children is shunned, and the man is disrespected. Families are seen as a “breeding unit,” where having children is not only expected, but a vital requirement for a healthy family and community. Children will be cared for and raised working and learning the family trades. When the parents are too old to produce for themselves, the children care for the parents until death. There will be several generations living closely together at all times. They are codependent throughout all of life. Yet, this is changing due to Western influence and has disrupted the natural flow of their community and family units. Many challenges they face are directly linked to these changes.
Male children will carry on the family name which is called a totem name. The word “totem” means animal name and it is a symbol and connection of the serious importance in uniting harmoniously with nature. As a traditional belief, the totem name has a close kinship and also restricts a villager from ever eating that animal due to the cannibalistic nature of eating your own kind. Villagers are advised not to marry within their own tribe. Polygamy is not practiced as often today as in history, but is still accepted, embraced and practiced among the villagers. Interestingly, the man is not empowered of obtaining his 2nd wife. The 1st wife initiates the 2nd marriage to assist with the chores at the homestead and is usually a friend of the 1st wife. Obtaining more wives is seen as a status symbol among the village as it reflects a man’s ability to keep peace among several women. No matter how many wives become a part of the family, the 1st wife is always in charge.
A brightly colored Ndebele silo used to store corn and crops after harvesting.
There are 3 prominent tribes currently residing in Zimbabwe: Ndebele, Shona, and Nambia. You can visibly see the difference in the architecture of the huts and identify which tribe resides at the homestead. Often today, the villages become of mixed tribes, and inter tribal marriages occur bringing diversity to the individual homesteads. Each may have several structures baring the style, decoration and function of all the tribes represented in a family homestead.
Each building, or hut, consist of much of the same in materials and function, yet have clearly visible differences. The flat thatched roofs are from the Nambia tribe while the ridged thatching comes from the Ndebele tribe indicating a more aesthetic approach. Also, customary of the Ndebele tribe, bright colors are painted on the walls as well as carvings and other details found on posts and in the dung bricks used for construction.
One of the most obvious differences singling out the Ndebele huts from others is that they design them in a round parameter, and for a very interesting reason. Various poisonous snakes, including the feared Cobra and Mamba, are dense in the bush. The round design allows the snakes to enter and follow the wall around back to the single door to exit. If the huts are square, the snakes find corners to hide and are hard to remove, often killing family members before exiting. Creatively living in harmony with nature is the way of life and human survival in Africa, as well as most all the world.
Dr. Wendy and Mpisi, both holistic healers of our time, comparing notes of the herb “Devil’s Claw.”
The peoples of Southern Africa respect the wild they live with. Killing animals or insects for sport or fear is unacceptable by traditional tribesman, like Mpisi. All of life has its purpose and in regards to herbal and natural medicines, which had been more than sufficient until Western Imperialism, must be readily available and is vital. Mpisi uses everything from Wasp larva, fire smoke soot, to oils in the roots of several plants to heal things from Cobra bites, burns, and stomach pains successfully. He has a solid reputation and has performed what some call miracles.
It should be known that in Africa there is a large confusion in medicinal practice as Western Medicine, designed for emergencies, has challenged and placed some doubt and disbelief of the African’s traditional healers. Today in Africa, there is argument and a common “lumping” of the many differing natural healers as Witch Doctors. Witch Doctors are the users of black magic and voodoo found in many stories of early exploration, but most Herbalists and traditional healers use natural and holistic means that now have scientific backing. However, people are getting sick and not seeking the help of traditional natural healers available to them in the villages for fear of the stigma placed on them from the Witch Doctor perspective. Therefore, with the Western alternative commonly unavailable to them, they choose to shun their own healers for fear of voodoo and slowly perish unnecessarily.
Natural and holistic healing has existed since the dawn of time effectively, yet lost in recent decades it has again become a stronger and more commonly accepted way of healing in Western civilizations like the U.S., and is gaining momentum and respect worldwide. Dr. Wendy Norman, of NAP Africa, successfully uses these methods herself as does many of her colleagues in California and elsewhere.
Wasp nests are used for their medicinal properties. They are considered a symbol of prosperity and should never be disturbed.
Visiting the homestead of Mpisi was a surprising privilege and an educational experience. He began by informing us that the word “Zimbabwe” means house of many stones, and the floor of the homes are made from cow dung and clay. Many newer homes, those less than 20 years, may still have sand floors due to lack of resource and/or trained skill of later or missing generations. The homes of Mpisi and his family are ideal and as he said “exemplary” of traditional Ndebele style and function. Very artistic in every detail and I must admit, impressive and comfortable. Complete with corn and grain silos, homestead gardens, kitchen and life center, Chicken run, and Mpisi and his son Khulekani’s Art studio.
Mpisi is a healthy, happy and energetic older man, and krawlhead of his area. He volunteers for the Red Cross of Zimbabwe amongst many other selfless acts to help his society at large. In our discussions with this sly elder, he taught us a few basics we found incredibly interesting. For example, if there are bees in your home, it is a sign of prosperity and they should not be harmed or forced out. The roofs of their homes hold many of the treasures he uses in healings, including the bee and wasp nests easily seen with small mud packs along the stick beams, under the thatching. Likewise, the kitchen hut has soot caked on and hanging from the ceiling. Often viewed as a place of birth, sickness and even death, this kitchen soot is saved then harvested to cure stomach pains and quickly heal open wounds. Mpisi uses long standing traditional herbs and practices.
He is quick to state he is uneducated (formally) in a university, but he had followed the healers before like his grandfather and learned through his lifetime. He now accepts apprentices to come live and work with him. He wants to teach and share his ancient knowledge with the world before his time comes. He has several natural healers come to study with him from places in the UK, Australia and the U.S. for months at a time. We have formally been invited to come study and document with him. Hopefully this will be a reality in the nearer future, but obviously another journey back.
Words of the day: Ndebele (Zulu) Language
Mpisi – Hyena (Birth Name)
Ndlovu – Elephant (Family Totem Name)
Zimbabwe – House of many stones
Ndebele – Men with long shields