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COLUMN ONE

Zimbabweans say angry ancestors are behind road accidents

Traditional rituals to appease the dead have not been performed for years. Some believe that's the cause for a recent string of terrible crashes on one highway.

May 23, 2009|Robyn Dixon

CHIVHU, ZIMBABWE — The road is scarred with skid marks, some curved like snakes, others pencil straight. They shriek the fates of unlucky travelers who lost their lives; they mark the near-misses.

It's not just the treacherous potholes, or the edges of the road nibbled away like cookies. It's not the dozing driver behind the glaring truck headlights about to veer onto the wrong side.

People here in central Zimbabwe are afraid of something else.

The pedestrians crossing the road at night, dressed in black, walking so slowly that drivers are forced to swerve -- ghostly figures not made of skin and bone. And the mermaid in the Pimbi River, angry at the blood and gasoline spilled when a bus crashed into the water two years ago.

For a long time, things have not been right anywhere in this beautiful but tortured country. The economy has collapsed; there's been conflict, hatred, repression. But many believe the nation's long, grinding crisis is just a symptom of something deeper: The ancestors are angry.

Some people here trace today's road disasters back to the blood spilled in 1890, on the arrival of white colonialist Cecil Rhodes, who founded the diamond company De Beers and settled Zimbabwe. Rhodesia, the colonial name for Zimbabwe and Zambia, was named after him.

Under Rhodes, an invading pioneer column set up camp near what is now the highway, and the colonialists called the place Fort Charter. Local people believe that many blacks were thrown into a burning pit by the foreigners.

When bad things happen in Zimbabwe, an uneasy suspicion arises. In times past, communities religiously attended to rituals, slaughtering cattle to keep the ancestors happy. But in the last 10 or 15 years, many communities have neglected the rituals.

Zimbabwean traditional beliefs are as real for most Christians in rural areas as they are for those cleaving solely to African religions. Many urban dwellers are the same, including top members of President Robert Mugabe's Cabinet.

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For some, traditional beliefs permeate every aspect of life: politics, business, family, illness, prosperity and fate. They also bring a measure of daily fear: Demons can sicken or curse you. Enemies with powerful muti, or magic, can strike you with a lightning bolt if challenged. Droughts, famines, locust plagues and wildfires happen when ancestors are upset or God is displeased.

A recent string of terrible car accidents here is seen as another sign of ancestors' anger. Such suspicions crop up especially when an accident kills many people, or prominent ones such as Susan Tsvangirai, the wife of Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai.

She died in March after a truck sideswiped the Tsvangirais' SUV at a place known as 52, on a bad 35-mile stretch of road an hour or so south of Harare, the capital, where the spirits' wrath is feared the most.

Days later, 15 people were injured when a truck collided with their bus at 52 -- named for the kilometer marker -- on their way back from her burial.

On April 16, 29 people died when a bus plunged into the Munyati River on the same stretch of road.

And just a few miles closer to Harare on the same road, a row of dented black gasoline drums on a bridge over the Pimbi River is a chilling reminder of the 11 traders killed in 2007 when a bus crashed through the concrete barrier into the river. Just after Christmas that year, 12 members of one family were killed when a bus hit their truck.

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Regardless of beliefs, part of the problem is the last decade of economic crisis: Roads are left unrepaired. Drivers can't afford new tires.

The horror of it worries Andrew Zhakata Chisvu, the chief metekedza, or traditional leader, from a place named Just in Time. As a Christian, he blames part of it on bad roads and worse drivers. But he also fears that the rash of bad accidents is a punishment.

"Why is it happening here only?" he asks.

The chief's round thatched hut is at the end of a rugged track near the town of Chivhu, which spreads along the bad road. A hillock of corncobs lies drying, a dog is curled asleep on a mound of sunflower seeds, and goats bob home in the evening light.

Greeting the chief, strangers clap their hands together silently in respect. He sits solemnly in a tall-backed wooden chair, wearing a tattered straw fedora, an ancient jacket and rubber sandals. Behind, the sun paints an extravagant red blaze across the evening sky, as if to emphasize his royal blood.

His teeth are like crooked gravestones; he speaks in a whisper.

"Some drivers, when they're passing that area, they see people with their eyes, when there's nobody on the road. We think the spirits of the dead may still be loitering around there," he murmurs. "So we need to do a ceremony, a cleansing, we call it.

"Are we being punished for something we don't know about? [What we are doing is] asking forgiveness through our ancestors to our almighty God because we are too poor and too small to go directly to him."

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