/ 6 February 2020

Chasing mermaids in Zimbabwe

(Klavs Bo Christensen/Getty Images)


One morning in June 2000, villagers in Mhondoro woke up to the news that two men had drowned in a local dam, mashambanzou, in the early morning when elephants drink and wash themselves. What was really shocking wasn’t the drowning – death by drowning, after all, happens often enough, especially during the rainy season. What shook the villagers was the fact that the two men drowned while trying to chase or catch a mermaid.

The word “mhondoro” has a dual usage: when you put the stress on the syllable “ndo”, it refers to one of the most important myths of Shona metaphysics, that of a supra national spirit whose symbol is a maneless lion. In the mythology, when a departed royal or hunter dies, before they find a suitable receptacle or spirit medium, they might find refuge in a maneless lion.

In this pantheon of gods, spirits and sprites, there are mhondorodzimudzangara (an extremely tall, spectral figure found near rock formations), masvikiro, spirit mediums and njuzu, mermaids.

When you apply the stress on the “ro” when pronouncing the word, it refers to the area where my father and grandfather were born. It is a vast district, comprising farmland, scrubland and sandveld that stretches from the Manyame River, just south of Harare, to the Muzvezve River, about 200km away.

The dam is part of the agricultural infrastructure built by former president Robert Mugabe’s government in the optimistic mid-1990s. It was built in a shrub-filled, undulating vlei in the early part of the course of the Nyamakondo, a river that begins on a wetland a few kilometres upstream. Nyamakondo pours into the Mupfure River, which itself feeds into the Sanyati River, a tributary of the Zambezi. The choice of the setting of the dam at the boulder-strewn edges of the river was unusual, not least because of long-held beliefs, indeed dread, that the koppies and their environs are the abode of spirits, ancestors and mythical creatures. Pythons, considered sacred – the snake of the gods and therefore not to be killed – are sometimes seen in the area.

Of all the places in the vicinity, it makes sense that a python would seek shelter here at Chengevana, a place through which the river runs that is marked by striking geological formations, ancient granite domes and rocks sitting gracefully on top of and rubbing against each other, at times precariously. (In the early 2000s, one of these rocks, a big boulder measuring many tons, got tired of this balancing act, slipped and fell to the ground below, making an earthshaking sound heard for some distance around it.) The silent rocks, which have stood here since the beginning of time, stand nonchalantly, as if in a secret pact with the forces – rain, sun and wind – that shaped them.

Of all the places in the vicinity, it makes sense that a python would seek shelter here, taking advantage of the mysterious underground cave system that begins among the rocky crags and goes underneath the dam.

Of all the places here and about, it makes sense that a python has its base here, where there is an eternal spring known by locals as kadziva kembiti, the otter’s pool, a water source frequented by animals on which pythons prey.

My aunt told me that in the 1960s, when she was growing up, it was said that sometimes you could hear the sound of the mbira, the departed ancestors’ favourite music, mysteriously playing from the rocks.

The mermaid descends

“Paiyera. Paive nechivanhu (The place was sacred),” the headman of the area, who is in his 70s, told me. So spooky does he find the area that even during the day, he avoids walking near the dam. Some of the flat, lichen-eaten rock surfaces are inscribed with images by the San, the former inhabitants of the area. Whenever I am near the dam, I am always seized with the thought that, more than anywhere else in this expanse of land, it is at Chengevana that the equilibrium between human and landscape will forever be tilted in favour of the land.

According to the headman’s wife, the mermaid wasn’t always an inhabitant of the dam. One day after the construction of the dam, as she walked on the earthen wall that holds the water, she saw a whirlwind in the distance. The whirlwind was narrow and towering, seeming to reach into the lower stratosphere, but always moving towards the lake. She stopped to look at the approaching whirlwind, at first with interest and, increasingly, trepidation. When the column of air reached the middle of the pool, she heard the sound of splashing water, as if a huge boulder had been deposited into the dam, creating a ripple of waves. An older woman doing her laundry at the dam was watching the spectacle and thought it ominous: it’s a mermaid come to live in the pool, she sagely concluded.

The pool had become like other rivers that don’t quite set the mind at ease; alive, the crocodile-made lakes, rivers and pools are a danger to the human and his or her livestock; dead, the crocodile’s bile is the source of one of the most potent poisons known in nature. Now the mermaid, the fantastical half-woman half-fish thought to cause people to disappear, drive some into madness and make healers of others, had become a denizen of the pool. (Sangomas with water or riverain guardian spirits are thought to be powerful. Someone who has disappeared at a river, when they emerge after a period of apprenticeship in the aqua-subterranean world they are fully fledged healers.)

Strange happenings started to occur at the lake. Sometimes in the morning, women would rise together with the sun and head to the dam to do their laundry, only to find the water muddied, in a gyre. “Ndofunga vakuru vafamba (I think the elders have been wondering throughout the pool),” is their resigned verdict as they ascend from the valley of mermaids, laundry undone.

In another instance, one day as dusk approached, the headman’s son came home and found his mother preparing sadza, pap. When he asked what they would eat with the pap, his mother told him it would be muriwo, vegetables. Baulking at what he considered unappetising fare, he collected his fishing rod and trotted off to the dam, his dog in pursuit. He sat on a rock that jutted into the pool and started to fish. His dog was sitting near him, perhaps watching his master. Then he heard his dog suddenly shriek, convulse and disappear into the water. That was the last time he saw him. He stood up in fright and fled, leaving the fish he had caught on the rock, never to go near the dam again. “It was a warning,” intoned his father. Mermaids are said to hate dogs.

The church arrives

Around this time, members of a sect of the Mapostorichurch started to use the site as a place of prayer. The Mapostori is a Zimbabwean Christian movement that broadly falls into the Zionist Christian Church (ZCC) tradition, mixing traditional African religious tropes and practices with Christianity. It rose in the early decades of the 20th century, when the black nation began to question the central place of the Roman Catholic, Methodist, Anglican and other Western churches in the spiritual life of the “native” in the colony.

The founder of the movement was John Masowe, a man born into the Anglican church in Makoni, in the east of Southern Rhodesia in 1914, as Shoniwa Masedza Tandi Moyo. Sometime in the 1930s, he fell ill and had a dream in which he died. While in this trance, he heard a voice telling him to pray, that his new name would be John. Soon after his calling, he went about the country preaching, like his namesake John the Baptist in the Bible, who wailed, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

Members of the Africanist church movement Masowe founded eschewed formal employment and lived in self-sufficient collectives. Pointing to the “staleness” of the white man’s Bible, they advocated a spirit-filled Babelian ecstasy. “Burn [the] Bible and take up the religion of [your] forefathers,” was Masowe’s message in the 1930s.

When he started relaying this message, the colonial authorities, realising the anti-colonial import of his homily, were naturally rattled and his movement was persecuted. On his death in 1973, by which time the church had grown and spread as far east as Kenya, it broke into many sects and franchises. Each sect has its own head, a prophet, known in Shona as madzibaba. Today, the church is spread throughout central, eastern and much of southern Africa and has hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, of adherents.

Soon after the Mapostori’s occupation of the shrine, alocalspirit medium sent word: tell those people who pray at the shrine to stop because the ancestors are not happy about their presence. The head of the sectis said to have explored the underground caves and on one of these encounters is said to have met the mermaid. As a kind of a compromise for their continued use of the shrine, the prophet was told that he could use the shrine if he stuck to one side of the pool. He was also instructed to maintain a strict ethical code, which forbade those who frequented the shrine from philandering, consulting the occult and handling “bad” (harmful) medicine.

It is said, however, that the prophet couldn’t keep to the code and was reputed to be a philanderer. In what was interpreted by villagers as the revenge of the spirits, disaster struck one day as he was in the middle of a sermon to his congregants. His flock were surprised as, while holding forth, he suddenly took off his flowing white garment and underpants and wandered off naked. He walked to a tavern at a nearby commercial farm, where he bought some beer and meat for a braai. Perplexed patrons looked on, surprised to see the prophet drinking, and even more surprised to see him in the nude. From that day, his mind was spoilt and never recovered. A few years later, he died. It was then that his precentor took over the church.

Power-hungry prophet?

It was this cleric, a fully fledged prophet, who led his congregants on the wild mermaid chase early one morning that resulted in the deaths of two people. The headman’s wife told me that the prophet and his church had gathered at around 4am, that ambiguous time that is neither night nor morning, leading them in song and prayer. He allegedly told his flock, “We are going to chase the mermaids who are stopping us from praying. We want them to leave, so that it is only us occupying the area.” Some accounts suggest the prophet wanted to get the mermaid’s power to perform miracles, so he could get followers and wealth. (Today, people from throughout Zimbabwe and beyond, come on pilgrimages to the shrine. On an average weekend, there are scores of buses and mini bus taxis bringing the faithful to collect water from the dam).

Together with his younger brother and another member of the church, the prophet led the threesome into the pool from the dam wall. In his hands, the prophet held shards of clay pots to which pieces of red cloth were tied (mermaids are said to hate the colour red). The shards were to be placed in the part of the pool where the mermaid was thought to live.

As they made their way into the lake, so it is said, they came face to face with the mermaid. At the time of the incident, the prophet is reported to have said, “I was standing face to face with the mermaid, but my legs were weak. It felt like I was getting electrical charges running through my legs.” The mythical creature is said to have pinched the prophet’s legs and, after he regained his composure, he told the two men trailing him, “Vakomana kuno kwaipa, dzokerai (Guys, there is danger here, go back).” But the people behind him either didn’t hear the warning or were perhaps immobilised. The prophet came out of the pool and asked the congregants to sing and pray some more.

Around noon, about eight hours after the men had gone into the water, the headman got out of a taxi from Harare. He started walking home. As he approached the dam, he met villagers who told him some men had gone into the pool early in the morning but had still not come out. “They must be dead by now,” he exclaimed. “There is no way people can stay in a pool for that long without diving equipment.”

When he got to the dam wall, he saw a funereal crowd of people. He chatted to them for a while, then proceeded home. Before long, a delegation knocked on his door. His clan are the guardians of the shrine and he is the clan’s chief representative. The crowd had come to ask him to accompany them back to the pool, so that he could chant prayers and undertake rituals to facilitate the return of those who had disappeared.

At this point, a woman known in the area as AmuNdevere, reputed to have a mermaid spirit, had been called to help with saving and retrieving the two men (AmuNdevere means Ndebele-speaking; the Shona have a quirky habit of calling a person by the area or tribe from which they come or a place where they once lived. Mzambiya is a common moniker for people who lived in Zambia for a long time).

AmuNdevere waded into the water. But when she was well into the pool, she suddenly returned, having found the task daunting. “Kwakaipa uko,” she said, “Things are bad there.” Having reached this cul de sac, they called the police’s aqua unit, which duly arrived after a number of hours.

One dived where he had been told the man had entered the pool and after a while came up to say, “Kunoku hakuna (There is no one here).” Try the other side, the man who was their leader said. He went in and came up holding a prostrate man. He swam to the banks with the lifeless man and laid him on a blanket spread out at the dam wall. After a short while, blood started oozing from his ears, eyes and mouth. Not long afterwards, the other diver retrieved the second man, who was also dead.

Ethical code

I told the headman and his wife, to whom I am related through marriage as my cousin is married to their son, that I found this mermaid story fascinating and asked if it would be possible to interview someone who was there when the drowning occurred. Of course, they said, their neighbor Mrs C was there and to this day remains a member of the church. Someone was dispatched to call her and, after waiting for an hour or so, she arrived, after which the headman broached the subject.

Initially, she was cautious. For one, because she was speaking to a stranger, but also because the deaths were linked to her religion. As the conversation continued, she told me the two had drowned because they transgressed the covenant the church had with the shrine’s guardian spirits about which part of the lake was for their use. “I said to them, ‘Don’t go where you are going. The holy spirit told us that we can’t go there. That’s where the mermaids are.’ But they didn’t heed my warning.”

You don’t venture into the water when you are not right with your God, she went on, suggesting that they had died because one or both of them flouted the ethical code imposed by the shrine’s guardians or their gods.

When I asked why they wanted to catch or chase the mermaids, she demurred and said they didn’t want to catch the water creatures, they just wanted to engage in prayer. Returning to the “unclean” thesis, she confided that the real reason for the deaths was uncleanliness. What exactly was the nature of this “uncleanliness”, I asked. Some time prior to their deaths, one of the two drowned men told the church elders that the holy spirit was asking him to confess a heinous crime he had committed.

When they quizzed him on the sin, he was initially reluctant to say what it was, only offering up that it was a bad deed the holy spirit insisted he confess pajekerere, before the congregation. The church elders continued to press him about the nature of his sin until he opened up to them, but not to the congregation. “He had raped a woman. He told them, ‘I followed someone and raped her.’ This is what he was supposed to confess. This is why he died.”

According to Mrs C, he had even foretold his impending death months before. “Ngirozi yati ndikasazvitaura ndinofa muna March (An angel told me that if I don’t confess, I will die in March).” But he wasn’t the only one who died, I pointed out. Yes, the other one who drowned almost came back, but died while trying to save his friend.

A bit afraid

Once Mrs C was comfortable with me, I found her to be a fascinating interlocutor who spoke on and on with various digressive yarns. But it was dusk and getting late. Already birds were calling out, staking claims on the boughs of the trees nearby. And in the distance, frogs were a querulous, croaking choir, while cattle, back in their pens after a long day out, were contemplating the night.

To get back to my aunt’s home, I needed to pass by the dam and, to be honest, I was a bit afraid. What if the mermaid accosted me by the pool and said, “You are so curious about me, here I am.” But the headman, perhaps sensing my fear, said, “We will accompany you past the dam.” Summoning the young man who helped the family with household work, he said, “Let’s walk with him.”

I headed home as dusk became night. A few weeks later, thinking about that day, I wondered about Doris Lessing’s short story in the collection This Was the Old Chief’s Country, in which she writes about the “bigness and silence of Africa”. I thought of that night and many other nights when I had walked in the old country and felt, together with Lessing and many others, the dread that comes when “even the birds seem to call menacingly, and a deadly spirit comes out of the trees and the rocks”.

But all this was much later, when I was safe and far away from the pool of mermaids.