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May 22, 2013

 I would like to introduce this article as a document that presents the oral traditions of  a Lemba history as noted by pre-colonial early contacts with European exploration and their chronicles into Lemba origin and historiography. The significance of this study is how it compares to the modern transformation of Lemba history that has been impacted by the subsequent religious colonial discourse occasioned by the introduction of the Bible and  the recent genetic studies that have facilitated linking the Lemba to Jewish identity.  This paper demonstrates the absence any such references as having a place historically in Lemba oral tradition from its pre-colonial context.

 First Steps in The Oral Historiography of The Midlands: A Review of The Work of Harald von Sicard



Gerald Chikozho Mazarire

(Department of History; University of Zimbabwe)

Paper Presented to the Historical Dimensions of Development in the Midlands Seminar, Fairmile Hotel, Gweru, 2001





For over 25 years Harald von Sicard made a sterling contribution to the history of Mberengwa and adjoining areas. By1971 he had well over 23 articles on several aspects of this area published in various languages and journals. He has been associated by many with the antiquarian school that graced Zimbabwean historiography in the period before the emergence of nationalist history. It has been alleged that this school of thought was much wedded to the colonial pre-occupation with mobilization of labour, yet so far as von Sicard works are concerned they border on the informative to the innovative at a scale so far unsurpassed. This paper argues that there is so much to learn from this school and indeed from von Sicard’s work on the Midlands and that apart from the problem of scale, which rendered his work rather too confined, it is indeed this case-study orientation, which makes his works important sources on the early history of the Midlands. It is also the root of its weakness which happens to be a common problem with ethnographic studies of this nature and their contribution to knowledge in general.





This paper attempts to critique von Sicard’s work on the Midlands region in general and that, which focuses on Mberengwa in particular. Although treating this material in the wider context of von Sicard’s work on other areas and topics, it does not pretend to be exhaustive since it is very much preliminary thoughts based on work in progress. The paper does not only concentrate on the significance of his works but on the didactic elements that can be derived from it and their implications on future historical research in the Midlands.


Over the years, it has been largely difficult to accord such prolific writers their fitting role other than to simply refer to them as antiquarians that is; inexperienced enthusiasts or non-professionals who study local cultures. To be more precise, these could be seen as eccentrics with a passion for writing, an intimate inclination to know if not to understand the cultures of their subjects of study[1]. In more recent pan-Africanist scholarship it has become increasingly difficult to sustain both the definition and to defend these studies, with some scholars advocating that all such anthropological pretensions were in themselves a branch of the colonialist body politic. Then of what value can their findings be to our own studies of pre-colonial Zimbabwe?


This paper will first seek to define the role of this tradition of scholarship in the political economy of colonial Rhodesia and the production of knowledge on and about the autochthonous people, how this fitted in the discourse of the period as well as the intended audience for this work. It shall then attempt to place von Sicard’s work in the wider context of the genre of oral tradition taking note of the fact that he remained largely isolated from its historiographical developments. For von Sicard the task is a little murky for he was neither a trained historian nor was he an integral part of the colonial establishment, yet he contributed and read rather too much into Native Affairs Department Annual the Rhodesian colonial journal hereafter referred to as NADA. One would say he was coming onto the scene from a very compromised standpoint being German at a time of the Nazist scourge in Europe and a missionary of the Swedish based Lutheran Church. It would have been tempting to consider him right wing, with the possibility of such ideology simmering into his work. It is interesting however that with so much material to his credit, he seems to have had less influence on successive scholars in his research area.[2] Whether this is a sign of the irrelevance of his work is yet to be established.


On Anthropological Approaches to African History.


History as a discipline in Africa is a latecomer, whose contribution to knowledge in general in the early colonial period was less important than that of ethnography or anthropology the two disciplines that had been institutionalized by the colonial establishment as administrative tools in its quest to understand the African mind. Thus even as there were official colonial historians such as Hugh Marshall Hole, their jobs were far less crucial to the colonial establishment than that of government anthropologists who on their part had become an integral part of the infamous Native Department.[3] In academic circles it was not until the sixties that sources from Africa itself were considered useful to the study of its past, indeed it was not until Vansina that oral traditions came to be seen as legitimate sources of African history. This condemned first generation historians of Africa to rely much on these pioneering anthropological excursions into the ‘Dark Continent’, consequently, most historians in Zimbabwe as elsewhere in Africa pay tribute to this by the sheer bulk of such sources in their references while also frankly acknowledging that key aspects of their craft have been borrowed from anthropology[4]. This is especially true of fieldwork, which has come to be an important component of both disciplines.


At times due to the absence of oral material relating to the remote past, it is in this material that pre-colonial historians have often sought refuge or even authenticity, thus putting paid their pretensions towards source criticism. It is not the idea of this paper to view the institution of anthropology as a bygone in African studies although I deal with the debate regarding its fate below; rather it is the fact that it has undergone various forms of transformation that is of interest. These transformations have not only complicated the overlaps between anthropology and history, but have actually brought some of the methodological aspects of both disciplines into the spotlight. In this context the uninitiated may fail to make a distinction between anthropology and history for they are both concerned with the past and its peoples. In broad terms historians study a local society for its own sake in order to obtain data about its past; which is an inside-out approach. Anthropologists on the other hand study a society as a case in order to obtain data pertinent to general theories; an outside-inward approach. It is precisely this theoretical orientation that has put to question the value of anthropological conclusions on Africa viewing them largely as externalist. But why this focus on anthropology? Is there any visible relationship between antiquarianism and anthropology? V.Y. Mudimbe for instance finds that it is the work of amateurs, who are mainly missionaries, which fills the Central African anthropological bibliography[5]. Speaking of missionaries he argues that, not only were they well educated, but also a great number of them were also well read in the social sciences including scholastic anthropology. They in contrast to modern anthropologists spent almost their whole lives amongst Africans. In Mudimbe ‘s view there is essentially no difference in their interpretations except in the intellectual particularity of their respective missions. Whereas the missionary preaches salvation defined in a Western theology, the anthropologist’s methodology falls within the same Western historical experience. The missionary seeks to reduce the primitives to his faith and its cultural presuppositions while for the anthropologist the primitives constitute an ‘object topic’, which might or might not fit into a scientific framework and must be accounted for. Fundamentally there are two main problems: one, of comprehending cultures, the other concerning the significance of the interpretation offered. [6] He adds, at a basic level missionaries as well as anthropologists when they return from the ‘primitive context’, refer to the same context. They cannot translate the local languages, which they do not know. In principle the concept of a missionary as anthropologist is not unthinkable, there is nothing to prevent a missionary from acquiring the necessary skills of a good fieldworker. He could then practice anthropology, like any other specialist; that is build bridges between two cultures, two ‘texts’, his own and the local one and thus produce a clear representation of his own creative experience.[7] By his training and mission, the missionary is and must be an ‘unbelieving’ interpreter. The anthropologist in principle should be ‘believing’; otherwise his scientific project no longer makes sense. The missionary is concerned with the complete conversion of the text, the anthropologist with the understanding of its internal rationality. It is because the missionary has been generally a non-believer that the anthropologist tends to reject his interpretations as approximations. In passing this judgement, the anthropologist often forgets what the missionary or worse still, the ‘native’ might remind him-that he is not perfectly bilingual and therefore despite his scientific background, his intellectual construction may well be just a questionable ‘invention’.[8] It is my conviction that the antiquarian school was born out of this anthropological euphoria distinguishable in the nature of contributions found in government-funded periodicals. Secondly and as has been outlined above, with special reference to pre-colonial studies in Zimbabwe in general, these sources have had a tremendous influence

Anthropology was shaped by theories of evolutionism and the comparative method. The latter method involved comparing a range of presumably similar items in an attempt to establish connections and relationships within the set. (Vail and White p.4) In their evolutionist perspective, ‘savages’ and primitives were ‘living fossils’, the ‘living ancestors’ of Western gentlemen, and therefore studies of contemporary ‘savages’ based on the application of the comparative method had a special fascination to the educated westerners interested in learning about the roots of their own mental processes and psychology. (Ibid. p. 6)

In an intriguing article Archie Mafeje made a vitriolic attack on anthropology that was more of a response-cum-review article to Sally Moore’s book Anthropology And Africa, which raised a number of salient questions than it answered[9]. Among them:


Who are the makers of anthropology in the 1990s and for whom? Who are the objects of anthropology and why? Why Anthropology and Africa and not anthropology and Europe or America?[10]


It is Mafeje’s contention that the first generation of anthropologists in Africa, particularly those coming from Britain, enjoyed as much power as the colonial administrators whom they collaborated with in developing what became known as applied anthropology. They were thus able to command the attention and the services of the “natives” at will. In more ways than one, Anthropology got associated with colonialism because it was introduced by people whose professional interests were similar to those of the colonial administrators.[11] This raises questions as to how much of this was indeed historical as compared to that, which could simply have been imported to suit particular narratives concomitant with the worldview of the researcher. It is here that Mafeje has problems with the structural-functionalist basis of anthropological approaches to the study of African societies. In another monograph he contends that Anthropology as a discipline was founded on studying the “other” as a thing of the past and thus he doubted also its capability in dealing with the present. More to his concern however was the role of the African anthropologist in post independent Africa, which he saw largely as highly deficient, for in his view, they had not anticipated independence in their professional representations. In many ways therefore, the passing of colonialism heralded the death of anthropology and many African anthropologists sought “refuge in the departments of sociology and engaged in micro or thematic studies away from the canons of the original anthropological tradition.”[12] However this was not so much of Mafeje’s discovery as it had been a feeling shared by many established anthropologists since the late sixties. It was also a time when the opposite was occurring in the historical arena when historians of Africa were discovering new methodology that was short of guaranteeing the future of their discipline in independent Africa.


In spite of its borrowings from anthropology historical methodology has largely failed to conform to the field practices of the latter. Jan Vansina the pioneer of oral methodology in African academic history was forced to abandon the then recommended pattern of participatory observation because;

…the pursuit of oral traditions meant that I was granting much more weight to what people said than was then usual. Moreover, participant observation was clearly inadequate for the goal I was pursuing. It would not do to study one or a few places in depth and generalize from this to the whole of Kuba lands. For historical research one had to gather all the relevant oral traditions, not just some representative specimens. One could not apply sampling procedures to this subject matter because traditions were not similar and interchangeable units.[13]


It is this understanding that human nature is dynamic and in constant change that has transformed historical thinking in the post-colonial era. As such it is more the production of this knowledge that should inform its understanding more than anything else, especially as the academic tradition continues to undergo various forms of paradigmatic shifts. In fact in this production of knowledge the interests and perceptions of the members of the society being studied should dominate the resulting description, and as Bourdillon puts it; this concern against imposing external interests and categories on others is relevant to any scholar interested in studying people[14] He even goes further to say, the scholar’s academic training itself makes him subjective in the sense that it produces different perspectives and a different experience from those of the people he or she meets. Thus he or she becomes part of the society and part of the story being told. As a result the observer must be observed so that the insider’s perspectives are placed in a much broader context i.e. that of their production and representation by the observer, who in this case may either be the anthropologist or the historian. It is precisely in the light of these considerations that we wish to look at von Sicard’s works in the wider context not only of their content but the way in which they were produced.


A Day In The Life of an Antiquarian in Colonial Rhodesia

David Beach defines an antiquarian as an isolated, untrained, part-time researcher of aspects of African society, although he re cognized that such a definition may be rather too limited to cover most of the contributors to this body of knowledge in Rhodesia that often found expression in NADA.[15] He notes that although these individuals did dominate the discourse of the time enough to influence their contemporaries and successors, by creating an informal school of history, none of them did actually succeed in doing a country history for various reasons. First, because many of them were obsessed with the idea of a grand history of the Africans which, they however never seemed to find. Secondly the antiquarian was not necessarily a trained historian and was more often confined to a localized area from where he had to relate his findings to the greater part of what he found being written by colleagues elsewhere as well as to his imagination. Lastly they never thought of the African as being indigenous and thus never resisted the temptation of linking them to other large-scale narratives. Very few had mastered the art of referencing or even source criticism for those who cared to cite their sources, but apparently a small fraction turned out to be quasi-historians although the many things they dealt with concerned the African past. In several respects the antiquarian tradition had much to do with the African as the ‘other’ race.


Ranger associates this group of scholars with the colonial preoccupation with the mobilization for labour recruitment, which was the primary concern of the Native Affairs Department. This was because, it was these “men who administered the Africans, mobilized them for employment and kept them working who produced the authorized versions of the African past, customs and of African personality”.[16] However, although this may be true of many employed within the field directly related to labour recruitment or health such as J. Blake-Thompson whom Ranger reviews, the antiquarian net could be cast far much wider to include other independent researchers, who were not part of the government establishment. It is from this branch that the more ambitious ideas came from, especially at such a time when suspicion ran high that “of all the areas in Africa, Southern Rhodesia was the most backward in anthropological knowledge of its own indigenous peoples”[17] All the same Ranger’s thesis correctly reflects the thinking at the time. In the process of establishing political control and trying to compel African peoples to work to produce goods for the world market, a profound shift in attitude regarding non-Westerners’ capabilities occurred turning towards ever-more negative stereotypes of primitives and their presumed mentality. This was much reflected in the work of Dudley Kidd whose; The Essential Kaffir (1904) sought to explain the Africans of Southeast Africa using the evolutionist paradigm and the comparative method. His notional African could not be trusted to be truthful, not out of malice but simply because, ‘childlike’, he could not grasp the importance of truth. His mental abilities were undeveloped. He had no sense of logic and was capable of ‘entertaining contradictory ideas at the same time’. All this was prompted by Kidd’s recognition of the needs of a rapidly industrializing South Africa for cheap unskilled black labour for whom western education would be wholly inappropriate. (Vail and White pp. 6-8)


There was apart from the government anthropologists a far more distinct group of antiquarians composed of white academic missionaries who according to Platvoet’s classification of academic traditions on religion in Africa, were abandoning the orthodox, exclusivist views of liberal theology for the new inclusivist views of liberal theology because of the influence of Protestant academic theology which had been gaining ground in Universities in Europe and North America. This development he argues had provided the basis for the historical critical study of the Bible as a literary document and for the historical and comparative study of other religions of mankind. As a result early products of this new missionary approach were the descriptions of specific traditional religions of Africa by missionaries living among certain ethnic groups and endowed, not only with liberal views, but a gift for languages, a passion for ethnography, a deep respect for African cultures and religions and an equally deep concern for their adaptation to and integration in, the new contexts.[18] These western missionaries strongly westernized and christianized African thought patterns and religions after the model of the European philosophies and theologies and thus shaped the indigenous cultures of Africa after the ‘Judaeo-Christian template’ of their own religion by representing them with the help of categories and structures derived from the Biblical religions.[19]


In addition to this there was also an emergent class of German and Austrian ethnologists mostly the disciples of Wilhelm Schmidt, among them Schebester and more for our purposes Leo Frobenius, who were championing the “culture history” approach in the late 19th and early decades of the 20th centuries. This approach like the ‘culture area’ approach developed by American anthropologists led by Melville Herskovits singled out for study a geographical region with a number of socially separate societies that shared common features especially in their mode of food production.[20] Both approaches served mainly museological purposes because they had been developed in areas which had needed historical reconstruction, for instance in the Americas after the decimation of the indigenous Indian race. In this way they proved largely inapplicable to Africa whose cultures were largely intact by the end of the 19th century. Frobenius, who was then the president of the Frankfurt Institute For the Study of Culture Morphology, was brought into the country in 1929 to produce evidence of the influences of foreign ‘culture complexes’ on Southern Africa’s remote past. He and others such as B. Ankermann had put together available material in favour of succeeding waves of foreign influence bringing in a series of different cultural elements to Africa.[21] This was also based on the ‘Kukturkreis’ theory which Frobenius had suggested in his youth. This was the theory of culture areas, according to which culture spreads out from various centres more or less in concentric circles-the geographical diffusion of culture.[22]In the field of rock art for instance, Garlake identified in his works an obsession with such concepts as the sacrifice of divine kings and maidens to bring rain, and the moon cult among others, which he claimed were found in Shona folklore. Frobenius strongly believed that these were pointers to the fact that the Shona belonged to the Erythraa culture complex which included such ancient civilizations as those of Southeast Asia, Egypt and Crete[23] Although it remains true that the main reason why Frobenius’ work was dismissed in this field was mainly because of these and other ludicrous claims, it also followed that the language barrier-for most such works were published in German- and the eventual loss by Germany of her overseas colonies in the First World War severely handicapped the spread of ideas from this school. In this way as Sally Falk Moore has put it, German anthropological work in Africa flowered early and terminated early leaving France and Britain to dominate the Africanist ethnographic project for decades.[24] There is no doubt however that most of the controversies and debates in modern Zimbabwean historiography emanated from the works by scholars from this school. Meanwhile it was mainly in the missionary arena that such ideas were to continue influencing the perceptions of the African culture and past even up to this day, and it is in precisely this context that this paper will analyze the contributions of Harald von Sicard to Midlands history. In addition it is also pertinent to this discussion to show how von Sicard himself came to be influenced over time by ideas from the British schools of thinking to which he was largely exposed.


Harald von Sicard and the ‘Culture History’ of the Midlands


Harald von Sicard was born in Germany and he studied at Dorpat, Greifswald, and Berlin Universities. He ordained as a minister of the Church of Sweden Mission and rose through its ranks to become its Dean. He worked in the then Belingwe reserve and on the Limpopo since 1926 until his retirement to Sweden in the 1960s. Between 1941 and 1973 he published a total of 51 articles, pamphlets and books in various languages including Shona. In honour of his sterling effort he was awarded The Order of The Northern Star by the king of Sweden in 1961. Although by then he was an ailing man he still had the energy to publish fourteen more articles between then and 1972.[25] According to Beach von Sicard was heavily influenced by the aforementioned Leo Frobenius and the Kulturkreise school and all its fascination with the Judaeo-Christian template which manifested itself in local jargon as migrations of the Bantu from the Middle east Diaspora.[26]


There is no doubt however that von Sicard had carved out the Mberengwa area as niche a for applying the culture history approach alluded to earlier on. Quite unlike other antiquarians of his time, he had apparently attempted his hand at a national thematic history at the beginning of his career but never again. This is true of such works as those on aspects like the Bantu drum the significance of the bird in Zimbabwe culture[27] Here he tried by all means to demonstrate the influence of external culture on that of the indigenous people, he saw and even treated the Zimbabwean culture as a province of a larger international religion, with the drum being ‘directly related to the fertility rites of the ancient Negro and West African cultures, but was at later date also combined with the cult of a divine king’. The bird on the other hand demonstrated that ‘in Africa particularly in the Zimbabwe culture the bird is connected, just as in Europe and Asia, with the idea of procreation, with the ancestors and with the sky. (My italics)[28]


For a start this could have given him enough confidence to pursue and locate the various migrating groups in the traditions he gathered who nevertheless turned out to be the Shona who eventually settled south after the fragmentation of confederacies such as Mbire and Buhera. For von Sicard this fitted in well with his idea of diffusion of ideas from the north through ‘hordes of Bantu invaders’. In this way a time frame for this had to be identified resulting his construction of the tentative chronological tables which, despite their ambitious beginnings do somehow give reasonable approximation that have guided most southern Shona historians as we shall show below, the fact remains however that they were at least meant to be  tentative..[29] This paper shall however leave out the material he wrote that does not relate to the Midlands for now as this is still work in progress. Suffice it here to say that in so far as he had begun the hyper-diffusionist theories seemed to guide his conclusions and even then he had successfully wedded these to a reasonable chronological framework-reasonable at least in the last years-within the realms of the memories of his informants in Mberengwa from where he was to begin his influential work. Thus his productions were a direct result of the fading memory of his informants and figments of his imaginations blended with diffusionist ideas.


His foremost and key contribution to the history of Mberengwa was the identification of the ‘tribes’ within this culture history case study area. This was published in a series of articles from 1948 to 1955 in NADA [30] This was a carefully done delineation of the Mberengwa communities explaining in detail his sources especially his informants, their location, position in society etc. Societies were identified by their clan names totems and laudatory names and each was painstakingly related to a specific culture group that was in almost all the cases foreign. There is every evidence to show that von Sicard was well abreast with the developments in the ethnographic world, being able at all times to refer to the latest editions of periodicals such as NADA, Ethnos, Paideuma, Anthropos among others and thus he was by no means isolated if we are to revert to Beach’s definition. Rather he was one representing the cultural zeitgeist of his time. He was in fact the first among them to systematically and accurately reference his material. This Mberengwa material had one thing in common, the circumstantial representation of a complex peculiar to the area, which was supposed to represent its links with the outside world. The coincidence was that most of the people in Mberengwa had totems in some way related to the pool hence his identification of the so called “Dziva Complex”[31] This seemed the easiest way in which Sicard wove the interlink between the Romwe under Chief Chingoma at Imbahuru, the Pfumbi under chief Matibi at Marungudze as well as other groups in Inyanga, Umtali, Melsetter, and Chipinga sharing the same totem. He wrote:


We have every reason to believe that this totem (dziva-the pool) connects some of the oldest groups of Bantu immigrants to the south east of our continent, and in the following we shall try to demonstrate that their culture was fundamentally influenced by the dziva outlook. As a matter of fact the dziva conception is in many respects the substratum of the Zimbabwe culture. It is therefore, of paramount importance for a better understanding of the African mentality in our country[32](my emphasis)


More importantly however and with special reference to this Dziva complex is the manner in which von Sicard attempts to link it with the legends collected by Frobenius of dziva and the Imbahuru cave, the so called zimbabwe princesses and the sacred regicide carried out at Zimbabwe. He takes this further and relates it to van Warmelo’s assertion that in Venda Dzimbahe meant Mabwe a Dzivha, further still relates this to Carl Mauch’s identification of the ruin in the Great Zimbabwe plain which he claimed to be the house of the king’s chief wife mumba huru. Thus to him Imbahuru was evidently the same as Dzivaguru, in this way he comes up with the following conclusions for the people of Chingoma in search for a universalistic application of the dziva complex:


As a matter of fact, from a certain aspect the Imbahuru cult seems to supersede the Mwari rain cult in the Matopo, for in cases of persisting drought, when all supplications in the Matopos give no result, Chief Mahlabadza is advised to go to Chingoma to ask for rain just as his neighbour Mutevhaidze in such a case would send his messengers to chief Matipe Mbedzi’s Pfumbi rain priests at Marungudze hill in the south. Indeed the rain god at Marungudzi is the same as the one whom Chingoma’s people invoke at Imbahuru.[33]


There are even more allusions to Frobenius’s legends of child sacrifice which Sicard is at pains to explain:

I have also been assured that the sacrifice of children has been a part of the Imbahuru cult at least in the past, the child being skinned and the skin pegged. The mother was then called some days latter to see the dry skin. With her tears rain would come.[34]


It is also evident at this stage in his career the museological inclination to collect material culture relating to the area for safe keeping at the Bulawayo Museum through collaborative visits to the Imbahuru site with the N.C for Belingwe and the archaeologist Roger Summers. The result was a scientific confirmation by Summers that ‘…it is almost impossible to doubt the correctness of Sicard’s interpretation that it (i.e. Imbahuru) is a symbol of the mutupo dziva (the pool)’.[35] These collaborative efforts produced the elaborate descriptions and identification of archaeological sites in Chief Negove’ country at Vuhxwa hill.[36]. He used the former discoveries to authenticate his assumptions about the Lemba communities of Mberengwa whose burials he likened to those of ‘their kin’ the Abyssinian Falasha, who laid their men on the right and their women on the left.[37] He pursues this theme in a further assessment of the sites of the Mzingwane and Beitbridge areas[38]culminating in a complete survey of the Lemba clans of Mberengwa. Here he was attempting to demonstrate the Arabic origin of the Lemba testing his hypothesis against the evidence provided by Stayt[39] He was simply pursuing a position he had made in 1953 when he had identified the Lemba ancestor Baramina, presumed to be so because the Lemba close the prayers with the word Amen which is supposed to be the second part of his name, who with his association with the chameleon he seemed to represent the link between the Lemba and South, East and West African mythology.[40] Although he was by no means a trained archaeologist, and most of these sources seem to rely on encyclopediac informants, we shall demonstrate below how this foreign origin of the Lemba has dominated the debate about their identity in modern scholarship. And once again the ‘hidden hand’ of Leo Frobenius is forever present in such conclusions.


Once again in the description of the Pfumbi under chief Machetu and Mketi he used the Berlin Missionary archives of the expeditions by Schwellenus and Knothe, the maps published by the likes of E.W. Smith [41] and various other publications including the lessons of Jason Machiwenyika to conjure up all the images that might relate to their external links. He produced the very first thorough genealogy of the Matibi with approximate dates based on his tentative chronological tables. He did not skip his biblical allusions but this time by implication accepting the possible contamination of Matibi traditions by the Biblical teachings of the Berlin Missionary Society and Paris Evangelists who had ventured there in the late 1880s. A clear testimony to his ever-improving critical skills with time, but by no means the abandonment of the hyper-diffusionist stereotype. In one typical case, he stated:


This account reminds me of some Old Testament stories, especially that of Abraham and partly even that of crossing the Red Sea. It may be explained by the fact that, before Nyangadzamene’s departure from Lassa, the Berlin Evangelists had taught ‘Matipe’s sons, grandchildren and people’ the Bible stories from the creation to Joseph in Egypt.[42]


I wish to cut short the rather cursory assessment of von Sicard’s contribution to Midlands history (which for now shall remain as negligible for its sheer bulk and complexity deserves more time) on a related note, that is his increasing professionalism and closeness to his sources. We may have alluded earlier on to his being one among a few antiquarians in the earliest stages of this tradition with a propensity for referencing even the most negligible sources whether they supported his evidence or not. This gets better with time and it is noticeable that, the closer he got to his sources the more he wanted them to be authenticated by others hence his inclinations especially after the 1960s to publish most of his accounts in both Shona and the foreign language he uses for that particular publication. His last publication is actually written in Shona completely, a development that seems to be emulated by other missionary scholars in other denominations that came after him.[43] The other point to make is about von. Sicard’s increasing fascination with matters deriving their authenticity in historical fact than in anthropological theory in the later part of his career. This is true of his authoritative account of the Dumbuseya, a goup of people adopted by Zwangendaba’s Ngoni when they passed through the Duma area during their migration from Shaka’s Zululand. They broke away after Zwangendaba clashed with another Nguni group lead by Nxaba in the Mazoe valley and since then, employed the Nguni war tactics, they had learnt from the Ngoni to embark on a career of mercenarism on the Zimbabwean plateau which influenced politics on the various emerging Shona polities of the south[44]. Of all his accounts, this was the most polished and far much more well substantiated with localized evidence suiting his micro-scale orientation of the culture history approach. Here he successfully put together events that account for various fragments of the history of a number of southern Shona polities as the Mhari, the Ngowa ,the Nemavuzhe Govera, the Pako, among others. It may be possible he had been keeping abreast with developments in oral historiography, yet he does not cite any of the key sources, much as it possible that he shared the growing disillusionment in anthropological circles that we alluded to at the beginning of the paper. Certainly the independence euphoria and its resultant historiography seemed to sound a death knell on antiquarian scholarship and although he was retiring by the time he wrote ‘The Dumbuseya’ he certainly was far much less the antiquarian that he was in the 1940s.


The Impact of von Sicard’s works on Historical Studies Concerning Mberengwa.


The first most serious challenge to von Sicard’s ideas came in the wake of the increasing debate over the meaning of Mwari in which a series of articles by various scholars were published thus calling for a more critical historically based assessment of Shona religion.[45] A more engaging paper was Ranger’s ‘The Meaning of Mwari’ which tried to demystify von Sicard’s Dziva complex by questioning the whole basis of these Hamitoid or Semitic founders of the great Shona state systems thus in every way challenging Sicard in the light of historical evidence about the Mwari cult being provided by the various works by J.K. Rennie, S.I Mudenge, Inus Daneel, which was far much divorced from Sicard’s ‘fanciful’ conclusions.[46]

So far, it will be contended that there has been one complete study of the district by Per Zachrisson[47] and by existing standards, one could consider the district to be lucky. Although he does use Sicard’s material quite often in the earlier parts of his book, he engages him less for his arguments than for the geographical description of the location of tribes and archaeological sites. He does not dwell much on the Lemba, preferring to identify them as people who had been in close contact with the Arab traders who intermarried and borrowed some Arabic customs.[48]All in all his assessment of the Mberengwa pre-colonial history is somewhat too rash, if at all he disregards Sicard‘s work as overzealous antiquarian fetishism he at least fails to demonstrate why. Beach on the other hand has offered a more contextualised history of Mberengwa and although he uses von Sicard’s ‘The Dumbuseya’ far much more widely than any historian does, he does not mince his words regarding any conclusions by von Sicard of difussionist persuasion which he regards as ‘wrong’, and as only representing the views of the Shona in their own local areas.[49] A more thorough approach to the work of von Sicard and others of his school has been Aviton Ruwitah’s seminal work on the identity of the Remba, which has demonstrated in its review of the available literature and historical fieldwork that most Remba traditions of origin have lost originality due to biblical antecedents and other western influences grafted on to them. According to his findings the Remba have rarely directly referd to themselves as Arabs, Jews or Falashas, and that where these descriptive terms have been embraced they never at any time enjoyed universal application, except where they appear to confer an advantage on the Remba such as racial or ethnic superiority.[50]


The most depressing example of the continued representation of von Sicard’s ideas in modern historical scholarship has been Aeneas Chigwedere’s series of texts which have pursued these concepts of the Judaeo-Christian template relentlessly and these are ironically more illustratively portrayed in his latest book aptly titled; The Roots Of The Bantu[51] As this is meant to be a continuing project we will perhaps leave the fuller discussion for the final version of this paper. I had intended to pursue the discussion further to cater for non- historical material emerging from the area in and around Mberengwa touching upon some of the key issues dealt with by von Sicard their failure to use his ideas.


Discussion. “The Culture Historiography Approach”

I had started this project on an ambitious note hoping to include most of the things I intended to cover in a summary at this conference, but I hope I have just used enough to encourage debate about oral historiography in Zimbabwe. But first perhaps, some general conclusions; to begin with von Sicard’s importance lies not in the quality of his work but its attempts to cover a small area to its minute detail. In many ways he had become a Mberengwa man in any way that any one of us here could choose to be historian of labour, gender or of pre-colonial Zimbabwe, he had employed difussionist concepts in any way that any one of us here would choose to be a Marxist or post-modernist, that is in several ways he was a true product of his time. From this we learn two main things, first that we may not understand the observed without understanding the observer, and secondly the importance of the case study approach. There are several things about Mberengwa that we cannot throw away from von Sicard’s package but sifting it amounts to obfuscation and obfuscation in oral methodology is throwing the baby with the bath water. What are the implications therefore for our oral methodology in this respect, now that we have been rid of Western contamination; we have at our disposal capable students armed with historical skills and a home grown understanding of the African culture, unlike the foreign anthropologist that the antiquarian was? Researchers elsewhere

have suggested the ‘culture area approach’ and by culture area is implied the geo-political space which a people of a given cultural identity have occupied. In this method students are sent to their home areas to research on various themes, from the vantage point that they know their cultures very well, and this approach is meant to afford the departments the opportunity to create databases of areas so that over time they are able to use them for comparative purposes.[52] This method is however most likely to create cultural niches not allowing non-autochthons to study other areas and thus render the comparative aspect more viable and less subjective, it is more inward looking and of course fertile ground for ‘intellectual tribalism’. I wish to propose here there culture historiography approach, which apart from merely looking for an authoritative history of a culture, seeks a broader assessment of how a specific culture has been studied and by whom. This approach does not need an insider but an assessor whose contribution would be to assess the production of a culture history which is what is more important than a ‘no event no history approach’. This yields much more for those seeking to know more about economic and social history which the young department here at M.S.U. is supposed to be all about, this will make the full year of attachment more interesting to the student in the culture areas.


For any further discussions on the improvement of this paper suggestions are welcome at

[1] It will be acknowledged that this work comes in the wake of various other attempts at problematising the antiquarian tradition, and will by no means pretend to be the first even on von Sicard himself. One of the daunting tasks pertaining to von Sicard is the availability of this material, most of which is published in very rare journals, in German, Swedish and even Russian. For a start, David Beach had collected most of them and bound them in a volume that he donated to the Arrupe College at the time of his death and I have since been tasked to reconstruct his collection for the College’s library. Meanwhile Dr. Heike Schmidt of Humboldt University in Berlin, informed me that von Sicard’s son, who made a presentation of his father’s works at a conference in Uppsala, invited her to assess his father’s material which is in his custody some of which was never published, the idea being to come up with a research center or database of some sort. In coming up with some of the ideas in this paper I am grateful to the discussions I held with Terry Ranger Munyaradzi Mushonga Ezra Chitando, Fr. Steve Buckland and Heike Schmidt.

[2] So far as can be observed many works of historic or ethnographic persuasion have not used much of von Sicard’s material, this is true of the work of Diana Jeater, Ken Wilson, Ian Scoones and Billy Mukamuri who have all been working on material related to that of von Sicard albeit at later time.

[3] This has been dealt with broadly in A. Roberts; “The Imperial Mind” in A. Roberts (ed) The Colonial Moment in Africa: Essays on the Movement of Minds and Materials 1900-1940 (C.U.P., Cambridge 1990) p 41, see also G.C. Mazarire “Of Spelling Errors and Historical Distortions: Historians Museums and the Way Forward’ Oral Traditions Concerning The Identity of Maziriri The Svikiro of the Chivi People” Zimbabwea No. 6, 1999, pp4-5

[4] I use the term first generation historians in the context of Thandika Mkandawire’s classification of the generation of African academics. See his “Three Generations of African Academics: A Note” CODESRIA Bulletin No. 3 1995 pp 9-12

[5] V.Y. Mudimbe; The Invention of Africa: Gnosis, Philosophy, and the Order of Knowledge (Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1988) p.64

[6] Ibid; pp 65-66

[7] Ibid; p. 67

[8] Ibid; p. 67

[9] S.F .Moore; Anthropology And Africa (University Press at Virginia Charlottes-Ville, 1994)


[10] A. Mafeje; “A Commentary on Anthropology And AfricaCODESRIA Bulletin No.2,1996

[11] Ibid. p8

[12] A. Mafeje; Anthropology and Independent Africans: Suicide or End of an Era, Monograph Series 4/96 (CODESRIA, Dakar, 1996) pp1-2

[13] J. Vansina; Living With Africa, (Wisconsin, Madison, 1994) p.24

[14] M.F.C. Bourdillon; “Anthropological Approaches to the Study of African Religion” in J. Platvoet, J. Cox, & J. Olupona (eds); The Study of Religions In Africa: Past, Present and Prospects, (Roots and Branches, Cambridge, 1996) p143

[15] D.N. Beach; “NADA and Mafohla: Antiquarianism in Rhodesia and Zimbabwe with Special Reference To the Work of F.W.T. Posselt, History In Africa, 13, (1986) p2

[16] T.O. Ranger; “ The Mobilization of Labour and the Production Of Knowledge: The Antiquarian Tradition in Rhodesia” Journ. Afr. Hist.20,(1979) p. 507

[17] Ibid. p 507

[18] For a more authoritative treatment of this historiographical development, see; J Platvoet; “From Object to Subject: A History of the Study of Religions of Africa” in J. Platvoet et. al. (eds) The Study of Religions in Africa.

[19] Ibid. pp. 112-113

[20] S. Falk Moore; Changing Perspectives on a Changing Africa: The Work of Anthropology’ in R. Bates, V. Y. Mudimbe and J O’Barr (eds.); Africa and the Disciplines: The Contributions of Research in Africa to the Social Sciences and the Humanities, (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1993) p. 5

[21] P.J.J. Sinclair; Space, Time and Social Formations: A Territorial Approach to the Archaeology and Anthropology of Zimbabwe and Mozambique c. 0-1700 AD, (Societas Archaeologica Upsaliensis, Uppsala 1987) pp. 17-18

[22] A. P. Kriel; The Legacy of Leo Frobenius; (Fort Hare University Press, 1973) p. 2

[23] P.S. Garlake; “The First Eighty Years of Rock Art Studies, 1890-1970”, in G. Pwiti (ed) Caves Monuments and Texts,(Dpt.of Archeology and Ancient History, Uppsala, 1997) pp.43-44

[24] S. Falk Moore; ‘Changing Perspectives on a Changing Africa’ pp. 4-5

[25] N.A.D.A. vol.40, 1963 pp.128-129; see also Beach; ‘NADA and Mafohla’ p.4 and appendix at the back.

[26] Beach; ‘NADA and Mafohla’ p.4. I am hoping to pursue this aspect even further in other area studies by antiquarians of this school and others and how they came to influence other studies apart from religion and history. Some scholars have already tried to deal with this in their respective fields, apart from Garlake, Pikirayi’s “Pots, People and Culture; An Overview of Ceramic Studies in Zimbabwe” in Pwiti,  Caves Monuments and Texts, pp.69-70 identifies what he calls the ‘the antiquarian phase in ceramological myopia’ characterized by scholars who never imagined the importance of local archeological material as sources of evidence for local sites such as Great Zimbabwe.

[27] H. von Sicard; “The Ancient East African Bantu Drum”, Ethnos, 1-2,1942 pp.49-54 and “ The Bird in The Zimbabwe Culture” Ethnos, 1943,3,pp 104-114

[28] Ibid; pp54 and 114 respectively

[29] H. von Sicard; “Tentative Chronological Tables” NADA, 23, 1946. He however seems to employ them much in his later reconstructions such as; Sicard; “The Vuxwa Hills and Their Inhabitants”, NADA, 35,1958, p80

[30] “          “ “The Origins of Some of The Tribes in The Belingwe Reserve” NADA, 25, 1948, 27,1950; 28,1951, 29,1952; 30, 1953; 32, 1955

[31] Sicard, “Origins” 1950 pp7-12. Apparently this preoccupation complexes seems to have influenced most scholars of the time and even today, the latest such attempt being E. Matenga “Images of the Fertility Complex amongst the Shona” in Dewey (ed) Legacies of Stone:Zimbabwe 1890-1990 (Royal Museum, Tervuren, 1997)

[32] Sicard; “Origins”, 1950, p. 7

[33] Sicard “Origins” 1951, p12

[34] Ibid; p 12

[35] R. Summers; “Imbahuru Hill, Belingwe” NADA, 1952 p.82

[36] Sicard; “Places of Ancient Occupation In Chief Negove’s Country” NADA,33,1956, pp32-50, and 34, 1957, pp8-30, see also “The Vuhxwa Hills…” For a discussion of the uses of such traditions see D. N. Beach, ‘Oral Tradition and Archaeology’ Zimbabwean Prehistory, 19, 1983, pp. 10-11

[37] Sicard, “Places of Ancient Occupation”, 1957 p13

[38] Sicard, “Ruins and Their Traditions on the lower Mzingwane and in the Beitbridge Area” NADA 1961, 38, pp50-73

[39] Sicard; “Lemba Clans” NADA,39, 1962 pp. 68-80

[40] Sicard; “The Lemba Ancestor Baramina”, African Studies, xii, 1953, pp57-58.  See also “Shaka and the North”, African Studies ,xiv, 4, 1955, pp 145-153

[41] The Way of The White Fields in Rhodesia, (London, 1928)

[42] Sicard; “Origins” 1952 p50

[43] Sicard; Zvakaitika Kare zve Kereke Yama Luthere Munyika YeRhodesia, (Chiedza Press, Gweru, 1972) see also a later attempt by N.J van der. Merwe; Kuvamba Nekukura KweKereke ye Reformed MuZimbabwe; (Morgenster Press, Masvingo, 1987). Although these by and large denominational histories, their precision in source referencing and criticism is commendable, and it is part of the plans of this project to compare the roles of these two missionaries in what will become the final version of this paper.


[44] Sicard; “The Dumbuseya”, NADA ix, 5, 1968

[45] See G. Fortune; “Who was Mwari”, Rhodesian History,4, 1973 pp1-20; D.N. Beach “Great Zimbabwe asa Mwari Cult Centre” Rhodesian Prehistory, 1973, 11, pp11-12, N.M. Bhebe; “A Critical Review of our knowledge of the Mwari Cult”, Henderson Seminar Paper no. 22, University of Rhodesia 1973

[46] See Ranger; “The Meaning of Mwari”, Rhodesian History,5, 1974, pp5-17

[47] P. Zachrisson; An African Area in Change: Belingwe 1894-1946: A Study Of Colonialism, Missionary activity and African Response in Southern Rhodesia, (Bulletin of Department of History no. 17, University of Gothenburg, 1978)

[48] Ibid; p20

[49] D.N.Beach  A Zimbabwean Past,(Mambo, Gweru, 1994) pp 6-7

[50] A. Ruwitah; “Lost Tribe, Lost Language? The invention of False Remba Identity”, Zimbabwea,5, October 1997,pp53-71

[51] (Mutapa Publishing, Harare , 2000)

[52] F. Mbon; “Some Methodological Issues In the Academic Study of West African Traditional Religions” in J. Platvoet,  The Study Of Religins in Africa, pp175-178


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  1. jason pfidze permalink

    great staff dr mazarire

  2. Interestingly, the latest research by Soodyall reveals that the Lemba do not share haplogroups with Jews, and even the CMH ( the y chromosome associated with Jewish priests ) was seen to be unrelated to Jewish priests across the diaspora, when examined at high resolution level. it has been inferred that they rather descend from Arab traders from the East Coast, which is in keeping with some of their tribal names, common in the Yemen

  3. Sigv ard von Sicard permalink

    Having just had my attention drawn to your seminar paper there are two observations which you may want to note. Harald von Sicard was born in St. Petersburg, Russia not in Germany. That his research was centred in the Berengwa District is true, but when it comes to the Ngoma Lungundu he makes it clear that he came across the Ngoma Lundundu near the Limpopo. He further states “Die rhodesische trommel hatte urspruenglich in der Mavhogwe-Grotte am Macena-Berge …gelegen” Sicard 1952, p. 6. It may also be appropriate to note that Parfitt 2008 p. 341 implies that von Sicard “found the ngoma in the Mavhogwe grotto. von Sicard’s text makes it clear that he came across the ngoma north of the Limpopo and not in the Messina Mountain grotto. von Sicard did not live among the Lemba as intimated by Parfit, but among the Karanga.

  4. The latest studies by Soodyall show that at extended level , Lemba Y chromosomes are not related to Jewish chromosomes. This included the Cohen modal haplotype associated with Jewish priests. The 2002 study that implied a connection only used 6 markers. With 12 markers it is clear that the Lemba CMH is actually more likely to be of Arab origin. The same applies with other Lemba haplogroups. This may not be surprising , given that many Lemba tribal names are also found in the Yemen

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