Mediums are individuals, most often females, who become possessed with powerful spirits that give them the ability to cleanse the land, make rain, cure illnesses, and eliminate incest from a community. They may function as priests or priestesses who are the caretakers of the spirit. Men or women might be chosen, often by divine intervention, to be mediums for either male or female spirits. There is no firm gender rule as to how mediums are selected in a society.
Although this practice reaches back to ancient Kernet, it is still found in numerous communities in contemporary Africa. Many mediums become famous for their ability to channel the spirit's energy and power for the absolute protection of their communities. This has been demonstrated in the lives of mediums who lived in southern Africa during the past two centuries. Among the Shona of Zimbabwe, for instance, the great spirit is mbondoro, and the mediums who serve mbondoro are able to resolve issues that are the results of a failure to obey the ancestors, incest, or evil deeds.
Some of the women mediums are referred to as spirit wives of the High God, and, as such, they hold a special place of privilege and respect within the society. In Malawai, among the Chewa people, the women who are mediums are also mbona, that is, spirit wives, who are the principal rainmakers. In ancient Kernet, women with special abilities and skills were called the “god's wife” in much the same way. They were the ones who possessed the most intimate knowledge of the spirits and could convey that knowledge and wisdom to the community.
The medium functions as one who is able to hear and understand the word of the Supreme God and then translate that message to the people. In most instances, the medium arrives at her or his state of receptivity through music. Once ecstasy is reached, the medium is capable of speaking the words of the Supreme God to the masses. In some cases, the medium priestess might be in charge of political decisions and actions as well. This is usually the case where the people believe that the medium is in direct contact with the Supreme God. For example, among the Chewa, the Supreme God is Chauta, but this name could also be used by the priestess rainmaker, who is directly responsible for the productivity of the community. If there is a problem of incest, evil, famine, sickness, or drought, then it is Chauta, the priestess, who is the physical, on-Earth representative of Chauta, the Supreme God.
According to Shona history, during the 16th century in northeastern Zimbabwe, the main rain-making shrine was a lake surrounded by beautiful cypress trees managed by priestesses. Dzivaguru, the Great Pool, was venerated by the spirit wives of the Supreme God. They were appealed to for sacred seeds that would grow despite the drought in the territory. Later, the priestess Chapo was named as the great keeper of the rain charms in much the same way as the priestesses among the Chewa in Malawi had held the power of rain. In effect, the priestesses or mediums were really the protectors of the social, physical, and moral life of the people. They were not rhetorical analysts or theologians, but rather defenders of the true faith of the people in the power of the Supreme God to bring about order and harmony in the midst of chaos. The pattern of medium intervention in society is a religious one because the aim is to reorient the society toward balance.
Zimbabwe grew out of the Mutapa Empire, which was steeped in the traditions of mediums. Indeed, in its history, there is the story of a great king, Matope, who found his army cut off by the forces of the priestess Chikara. He had to discover the source of her genius and strategy. Once he was able to detect the source of what was considered her magical powers, Matope was able to protect his soldiers, and the priestess Chikara vanished in the Great Pool.
No medium has ever reached the significance or importance of Nehanda, who was the daughter of the founding king of the Mutapa Empire. Her ritual marriage to Matope gave supernatural powers to the Mutapa Empire. After her death, she became a mhondoro spirit who could be appealed to by mediums, masvikiro. When the svikiro was possessed by the spirit of Nehanda, she was said to be the personality and voice of Nehanda, and thus she was able to sanction the actions of the traditional state.
In the 19th century, the greatest of these mediums was Charwe, who led the battle against the British colonial settlers in the First Chimurenga in 1897. She refused to convert to Christianity and struggled against her enemies even as she was being hanged by the British. This established a long line of Nehandas in the country, making it universally understood by the traditional Shona that the people are never without their medium.



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Further Reading

  • Asante, M. K., and Nwadiora, E. (2006). Spearmasters: Introduction to African Religion. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.
  • Mbiti, J. (1997). African Religion. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
  • Parrinder, G. (1954). African Traditional Religion. London: Hutchinson House.