Priestesses and Environment
In late pre-colonial Zimbabwe – as in the Communal Areas to the present day – women had few rights to land. In the patrilineal system of Shona and Ndebele society, wives moved into their husband’s home area. They were regarded as intrinsically strangers to that environment. The right of the community to land was vested in the spirits of male patrilineal ancestors; the ancestors of wives, whether male or female, did not exercise any influence. Yet women carried out most agricultural tasks. As the Zimbabwean novelist, Chenjerai Hove, expressed it in Bones, ‘most women are just “one big scar” which has blighted the earth which has systematically denied them their rights for ages’.1
This sounds like a classic context for the secret nurturing by women of the beliefs and rites of ‘witchcraft’, maintaining underground an old female fertility religion which had been displaced by the incursions of new peoples and the rise of patriarchy.2 In fact in Zimbabwe witchcraft belief and practice did not work in this way. There were plenty of other positive rites of fertility; both men and women regarded witchcraft as the evil opposite of social religion; the witch damaged the environment by blighting crops or withholding rain. Female participation in positive rituals of the environment did not work in hidden opposition to patriarchy. Instead women occupied public religious roles either within the lineage patriarchal cult system, or in the cult of the High God or Creator God which operated independently of, or ‘above’, patriarchy. These roles profoundly modified the idea of women as ‘a scar’ upon the land.