Celts among the Shona
Sylvester McLoughlin, O.Carm. First published – 1956.
I suppose by now you have heard a lot about Sunday morning on the missions. Well, it’s certainly rough going from dawn to noon. But I bet you have heard nothing about Sunday afternoon. The reason is that Sunday afternoon in the bush can be as dead as Ballyseanie cemetery at twelve o’clock on a Saturday night. Now I don’t intend to enlighten you further on our Sunday afternoons out here, except that it is a favourable time for a walk, if you are that way inclined.
Maybe it was because I had finished a good book and couldn’t find another that I decided to find out what the top of the nearest hill or kopje was like. I went alone. Half way up the kopje I had a rest, a smoke and a good look around. Well, Africa is certainly a wild and rugged country in spots. Had Milton been sifting where I was, blind and all as he was, I don’t think he would have to depend over much on his imagination to write about “the dismal situation waste and wild”. Browsing on Milton or smoking never got anyone to the top of a hill, so I had reached for my stick and was about to proceed when I noticed an ominous looking cave about ten yards from me.
Up to that time I had thought that such caves belonged solely to fiction and didn’t feel at all happy at my discovery. I suppose living among curious people makes one a bit curious, so I decided to investigate. At close range the cave looked as sinister as if it had been chiselled out by old Nick and Co. on their way down below. Certainly here was one of Nature’s ugly ducklings. The cave was hemmed in by massive boulders, now dark green from rain and sun. Above there was a huge expanse of rock reaching upwards to a height of some 80 feet. Underneath there was a yawning, gaping sort of tunnel partly covered over with long grass and bamboo canes.
I poked an opening in the dry grass and peered in. The inside was immaculately clean. In the farthest corner there was a long, flat stone. Behind the stone there was a pot, the type local women carry on their heads. I knew such pots were used for carrying water and storing homemade beer. How to associate water or beer with such a place was beyond me. But I was very soon to find out.
The following day I told the locals about my discovery. Had they any explanation? All I got was a series of - “Au, aus”. When a local reacts in this way, you know you have entered forbidden territory. I was now certain that the cave held a secret which no white man could share. I tried another stunt. I asked for volunteers to go with me to burn the grass and bamboos which blocked the entrance to the cave. They were horrified. No, no one would go, so I told them that I would go alone. It was then they spilt the beans. Apparently the cave was the resting place of a famous mudzimu or spirit. About 50 years ago, I don’t really know what 50 years means to a local person, a chief called Rugoyi died. He was buried in that cave. Instead of releasing his spirit it was left with him but with a purpose. According to accounts, Rugoyi was a good chief, so the people decided to bury him in the highest hill in the locality so that his spirit could see and protect the homes around. This meant that Rugoyi’s spirit would send rain in season. That explained the pot in the cave. It was a sacrificial pot in which beer was offered to Rugoyi each October to please his spirit and ask him for rain. What did I think of their explanation? I summed up my reaction in one word, “Punk!” I told them in no uncertain terms what I thought of the whole set-up. All the effect my harangue had on them was an, “Alright, Baba, you’ll see.”
Shortly afterwards I was called to attend a forty-first cousin of the great Rugoyi who was dying in a neighbouring village. I got back to the mission rather late and was covered in perspiration. I awoke next morning with a first class dose of flu which took three days, plus the kindest of medical attention of an Irish Presentation Sister, to shake off. Back teaching again, I noticed the locals were most concerned about my health. They gave me all sorts of queer looks as if I were the ghost of Banquo returned to break up the party. Three boys came to ask if I was sure I was feeling all right. I felt like having a relapse with all this staring and questioning. The suspense was broken by a worried-looking little fellow. “You know, Baba,” he stammered, “the spirits made you sick.” So that was it. I had given off about the spirits and they had visited me with sickness.
I tried to explain to them how I got sick, but I would have been better off had I tried teaching singing to a dummy. Just to show you what they thought of my explanation, one chap said, “Baba, the spirits only warned you by making you sick, the next time they will kill you.” This was getting serious. I tried to make a joke of the whole thing, but failed miserably. No amount of persuasion could convince them that my sickness came from natural causes. To them the spirit of good old Rugoyi had won and I had lost.