Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Nemeso: Telling Our Own Stories in 2014

Nemeso: Telling our own stories in 2014

January 1, 2014 Opinion & Analysis

“Memoirs of an Unsung Legend: Nemeso” and it was written by Munyaradzi Mawere, Cosmas Mukombe and Christopher Mabeza.

Mukombe is a grandson of the “real” Nemeso, probably the same one on whom the Nemeso of legend is based

Mabasa Sasa Deputy Editor
Zimbabwe Herald

It is from the pagan Roman god of the doorway, Janus, that we get the month of January in the Julian and Gregorian calendars. Of course, other countries like China and Ethiopia have their own ways of marking the phases of the moons, as did we before colonialism. Janus is a two-faced (not in the sense of being duplicitous, but in the literal understanding of the phrase: having two faces) deity who looks both forward and backward at the same time. Why January is named after him thus becomes obvious: it is a time to reflect on the year that was and also to look forward to what is ahead.

Several other religions and legends across the world have their own two-faced/two-headed deities. One that immediately comes to mind is the Indian goddess Kali, who represents both life and death.

It is an esoteric — maybe even arcane — area that Christian and non-Christians scholars have assigned differing meaning to for centuries, this whole thing about two-faced, dualistic good-evil, light-dark, life-death deities.

There will never be agreement on these interpretations.

What is interesting though is how pagan deities, festivals, rituals and beliefs have been embraced by Christendom, especially from the time of Constantine, ruler of Rome, back in the Fourth Century AD.

At the same time, the pagan rituals, festivals, deities etc of non-European peoples have been condemned by these very same Christians.

It’s all about the cultural bedrock of conquest.

We were conquered and so were our legends, cultures and belief systems.
That is why I learnt first of a European Janus before I came across a very African character called Nemeso.

For those who know the Shona language, the immediate similarity between Janus and Nemeso is apparent.

Nemeso was so-named because he too had a two faces, one facing forward and the other backward. What’s more, he was not a fictional character but actually lived in this land we call Zimbabwe in the 17th century.

I first came across his story in a book written for children many, many years ago. I have tried to find that little book without any success, but I do remember that after initially being ostracised because of his condition, he was to rise to become a great leader.

Because of the little that has been preserved about Nemeso, his story — in the tradition of legend-keeping — most of what is known about this evidently great man is a blend of fact, fantasy and whatever lies in between the two.

Claude Maredza, that forceful Zimbabwean writer, made an oblique reference to Nemeso in one interview some years ago. He was being interviewed on his engaging book “The Blackness of Black” and he was commenting on the reasons why he had left Christianity and was devoting his energies to rediscovering his roots, the source of his being as an African.

He said, “Why should Christianity be the only way to Heaven if at all there is a Heaven?

Because Christians say so. But Moslems also swear that the only way is through Mohammed. If that is the case, why can’t I go to heaven through Nemeso? Because a Christian or Moslem who imposed his religion on me says Nemeso, my ancestor, is a pagan.”

There is really not much by way of the written word that can be found on Nemeso, and so my search for more information on him continues.

What I have found in my quest to learn more of Nemeso, and pleasantly so at that, is that three Zimbabweans have written a more comprehensive “biography” of this little-known character.

Published in April last year, it is titled “Memoirs of an Unsung Legend: Nemeso” and it was written by Munyaradzi Mawere, Cosmas Mukombe and Christopher Mabeza. Mukombe is a grandson of the “real” Nemeso, probably the same one on whom the Nemeso of legend is based.

Nemeso lived in south-eastern Zimbabwe among the Duma people.

Mawere, Mukombe and Mabeza say one of his lasting, confirmed legacies — is a “delicious dish — of edible stinkbugs locally named harurwa”.

“These insects, believed to be a gift to Nemeso by the ancestors, thrive in a grove (jiri) where no one has been allowed to meddle since the time of Nemeso, the medium through whom the stinkbugs were gifted to the living by the living-dead.

“The insects are a source of livelihood for the Duma people and for people beyond, and serve as a drive for forest conservation in the area.”

The above quotations are not taken from the book itself, but rather from a citation of the book.

Why is that? Quite simply because I do not have the book!

It’s there on online bookshops but not in the bookstores of Zimbabwe.

Kingston’s is dead, the Book Centre is dead and there is not much by way of bookshops in this country that prides itself on being the most literate and best-educated in Africa.

If it wasn’t for the open market at Avondale in Harare, and a thriving subterranean book exchange network encompassing Zimbabweans among themselves and with their colleagues in the Diaspora, only school textbooks would have been left in this country.

This says something about Zimbabweans and how much we value telling our own stories, giving ourselves an identity and preserving, developing and projecting that identity to the rest of the world.

Anyone who has passed through a CNA, Book Den or Exclusive Books shop will know the preponderance of books purportedly detailing the Zimbabwean story, written by non-Zimbabweans or by people with tenuous, NGO-related links to the country.

We are not telling our own stories, and this has massive ramifications on what we think of ourselves and what we think we can — and actually will — achieve going forward.

Other people are telling our stories for us, they are defining us, shaping us and giving us a past, present and future that they want us to have — not that we ourselves want to have.

As we enter 2014, perhaps it is time to take stock of where our story is coming from and where it is going.

Nemeso would not have asked for a more simple task.

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