Thursday, July 29, 2021

‘No cash, no ritual’: the intersections between cash shortages and ritual enactment in north-western Zimbabwe

By guest blogger Joshua Matanzima, La Trobe University


This article examines the impact of the ‘cash crisis’ bedevilling Zimbabwe since mid-2016 on the enactment of the Masabe ceremony within the BaTonga community, (Sinakatenge Chiefdom, Eastern Binga, North-west Zimbabwe). The article argues that the cash crisis has negatively affected Masabe ritual processes. The paper argues that traditional ceremonies have in contemporary times adopted use of ‘cash’ to facilitate their conduct. Hence, the liquidity crisis resulted in decreased cash in circulation has thus witnessed ceremonies being postponed, delayed or even avoided. In the quest to further understand the negative consequences of cash crisis on ritual engagement, the study analyses BaTonga traditional culture and religious practices. It highlights the importance of religion and ritual in fulfilling individual and societal needs and discusses how disruptions in ritual engagement can affect the psychological needs of individuals or the integration and cohesion of the society/group. The study utilizes cases from BaTonga villages in Sinakatenge Chiefdom. Oral testimonies were ethnographically collected from BaTonga villagers pertaining to the challenges being faced in conducting the Masabe ceremonial practices.

Figure 1. Researcher and local informants: women holding their smoking pipes. 

Field Notes

In 2017, I conducted ethnographic research among the BaTonga speaking people of Sinakatenge Chiefdom, north-western Zimbabwe. Sinakatenge is part of Binga Rural District. It lies along the margins of the nation-state at the Zimbabwe-Zambia border. The research examined the Masabe (alien) spirits ritual process. The Masabe ritual process is the means by which an alien spirit possessing a victim and causing illness is made to manifest itself and then depart the body of the victim, restoring the possessed person to health. Masabe possession as an ‘organized cult of affliction which addresses itself to the individual instead of the community’. Masabe can take over and speak through human vehicles and causes sickness to its victim. Masabe have desires which are made manifest through their victims and are pacified through a dance performance in which the victim enacts these desires. The research involved participant observations and semi-structured interviewing.  I attended a total of 5 Masabe ritual ceremonies and interviewed 24 elders, both men and women, regarding the Masabe ritual process. The centrality of ‘money’ in the entire process was emphasized by the elders interviewed and formed part of my personal observations. 

At a time when this research was conducted Zimbabwe faced serious economic crises characterized by high unemployment, high inflation, food shortages and cash crises. Many Masabe ritual ceremonies were delayed, procrastinated, and even avoided due to the costs involved and challenges encountered in purchasing the material required for the ritual to be successfully enacted. The material required for the Masabe ritual ceremony includes a black cloth, beads and black goat, as well as sugar, mealie meal, sorghum, and yeast for beer brewing. In the absence of these items the Masabe ritual ceremony cannot be enacted. Consequently, the affected families often delay, procrastinate, and, at worst, avoid conducting these ceremonies. 

Following the early to mid-2000s liquidity crunch, in 2009, the Zimbabwean economy was dollarized. Dollarization meant resorting to the use of the US dollar as a result of local currency devaluation. Dollarization helped reduce inflation rates and also stabilise the economy. However, from 2013 cash shortages re-emerged and by April 2016, much of the US dollars were reported to be externalized at an alarming rate, thereby causing the cash crisis. In a bid to address this cash crisis, the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe introduced ‘Bond Notes’ of 2 USD and 5 USD denominations, and the 1 USD ‘Bond coin’ which were said to be equivalent in value to the real US$2, US$5 and US$1 respectively. These new notes and coins were introduced alongside the increased emphasis on the use of plastic money and Ecocash/OneWallet (mobile phone-based money services, or mobile money) for transactions. Indeed, plastic money and Ecocash/OneWallet proved somewhat effective for those living in urban areas. But it did not have the same impact for those living in marginalised or remote communities. 

Local transactions in Sinakatenge were mainly based on barter trade at the time. Sadly, such materials as cloth, beads and yeast were unavailable in local stores where barter was tolerated. People had to purchase these from urban areas, where either cash or mobile money was required. Sugar was available in local stores, but its price of 3 USD per 2kgs, was steep for the local people, who could not afford the sugar needed for the ceremony. Many, if not all, people in Sinakatenge had no bank cards, were cashless, and had no Ecocash/OneWallet. The unavailability of mobile network coverage in the area discouraged people from owning mobile phones. Thus, the villagers found it difficult for them to purchase these materials needed for the Masabe ceremony. Before the liquidity challenge, purchasing of these items locally and in Gokwe was not a major challenge. The US dollar introduced during the Government of National Unity era had in a way solved inflation and currency devaluation problems.

The Masabe ritual process and costs

At first, the person possessed by Masabe normally is afflicted with ‘illness’ or ‘sickness’. The ‘sick’ person sought clinical medical attention in local clinics where consultation and medication were free of charge. It is the norm that every sick person must seek clinical medical attention before visiting bun’anga (traditional healer). However, some people were referred to hospitals in Gokwe or Binga, (which are the nearest town centres), especially when the ‘sickness’ becomes more serious. This, indeed, is done at some significant costs. If the kinsmen of the ‘sick’ person have bank cards or mobile money access, they might purchase and pay for medication using such platforms. But, this is usually expensive to them due to transaction charges. 

Furthermore, if the illness persists, despite modern medication uptake, then the ‘sick’ person is taken to traditional healers. Traditional healers also require payment, which also now is in the form of cash whether the Masabe is diagnosed or not. The ‘sickness’ is thus considered to be the ‘arrival’ of the Masabe which in this case is only diagnosed by traditional means than modern systems. Once the Masabe spirit discloses its identity through the traditional healer it awaits a performance to be held for it so that it manifests itself.

The second step is, after the ‘sickness’ has been found to be Masabe related, when beer is brewed. Beer brewing for Masabe ceremony is done by women from the possessed person’s matrilineage. This is so because the society is a matrilineal. The day at which sorghum is soaked in water, the possessed person is supposed to commence sleeping in a chidumba (a house made of poles and grass) until the process of beer brewing is over. The construction of the chidumba requires labour and meeting the costs of gathering the needed construction material, such as poles, grass and stones. To hire the labour for construction and gathering building material needs money. In many cases, these labourers demand cash rather than goods such as grain, soap, salt and so on. So, the kinsmen of the possessed usually wait until they obtain cash to pay for the material and constructors, thereby prolonging the duration of the illness of the victim. Beer for mizimu (ancestors) and the possessed person is brewed in a small pot separate from bigger containers (in which that of attendees is brewed). This is so because the beer for mizimu does not have yeast added into it, whereas that of the invited guests needs yeast. The explanations for putting and not putting yeast on the two different containers were not quite apparent. Sugar is also added in the beer.


Figure 2. An old woman beer brewing.

Purchasing these items from local stores its expensive, thus, villagers opt to purchase the aforementioned items in Gokwe where the prices are generally low. The cost of 2kgs sugar, for example, in Gokwe at the time of the study was US$1.90 and in their local shops was US$3.00. With the prevailing cash shortages purchasing sugar in Gokwe was a major challenge as it also involved transport costs to and from Gokwe. Villagers opted to exchange grain for sugar in local stores where they incurred heavy losses. In this case, barter trade is disadvantageous to the consumer as it is obvious that the measure of goods he/she obtains in return is usually inequivalent to that which he/she would have exchanged. 

Figure 3. Men constructing chidhumba.

When the possessed person sleeps in the chidumba, he/she is expected to ‘sleep’ together with a ‘black’ goat. Every morning the person and the goat are let out, the goat must not forage far from the chidumba. If the goat goes missing that implies that the person is not possessed. When the beer is ready for drinking, local people are invited to attend the Masabe ceremony. The goat is significant during the Masabe ceremony as it is part of the ritual. The purchasing of a goat is thus not necessarily regarded as a major challenge since most families own goats. The possessed person may own goats from which one may be used in the ritual. Those with no goats are bound to purchase one, and acquiring a goat due to cash shortages can be a challenge. The fact that the goat must be black forced those without black goats to either buy or exchange with others for a black one. 

The third and the last stage is the enactment of the ritual ceremony. The Masabe ritual ceremony is enacted during the night. It usually involves drum beating, dancing and traditional beer (Bugande) drinking especially by invited guests. The performance of the ceremony brings together all possessed by that particular form of Masabe to support the new victim as she/he expresses the nature of the possessing force. During the ceremony, the goat is cut on its neck and its blood (musiye) is drained and put into a bowl made of wood. The full goat meat is given to a close friend of the family (sahwira). The possessed is then given the musiye to drink it. It is alleged he/she must not vomit. If he/she vomits it simply means the person is not possessed by Masabe. A senior member of the family appeases to the alien spirits on behalf of the possessed person, at the same time drum (butimbe) beating and singing commences until the Masabe possessing the sick manifests itself. The manifestation of the spirits shows the kind of Masabe the person is possessed with. The possessed must act as the spirit behaves. For example, if one is possessed by a baboon spirit, he or she must behave or act like a baboon during that night. He/she must climb trees and roof tops etc. as baboons do. Thus, although Masabe spirits, like all other Tonga spirits, are considered as formless and bodiless before they afflict a person, they change their identity in the course of the ritual process from an immaterial being into a spirit of “something” which can take a great variety of embodiments. After the Masabe ceremony, the ‘sick’ person will then automatically get healed from her/his illness.

Figure 4. The chidhumba (a temporary shelter for a possessed person).
Case example: In Siachimupa Village, Mukuli’s (who had her Masabe ceremony enacted on the 5th of September 2017) illness, for instance, took about eight months. This period involved people having to consult medical practitioners and local prophets pertaining the cause of disease and its suitable medication. At which, no cause of the disease was detected. The final solution was to visit traditional healers who discovered that she was possessed by a dancing Masabe spirit and for her to be healed a Masabe ceremony was supposed to be held. Traditional healers had discovered this four months before 5 September 2017 when the ceremony was eventually conducted. The 4 months delay was because there were no funds to conduct the ceremony. Here we see the ways by which macro-economic hardships can negatively influence ritual processes. At this time, the Zimbabwean economic downturn coupled with cash crisis made it difficult for her kinsmen to acquire funds to purchase a black cloth, beads, black goat, and ingredients for beer brewing on time. Hence her ‘sickness’ was prolonged. Observing her skin, it had developed blistered. She had significantly lost weight, her legs were swollen and she could not even walk on her own.


Cash crisis in Zimbabwe has not only impacted on the economy and politics of the country, but it has also impacted on ritual enactment. In modern day rituals enactment require materials and money is needed to purchase these material items. In the case of the Masabe ritual- ceremonies discussed above, the purchase of black goats, black cloths, beer ingredients became difficult due to the cash crisis. Purchasing these using mobile and plastic money in the nearest towns of Gokwe and Binga was even more expensive due transaction charges. Due to these challenges Masabe ceremonies were often delayed, procrastinated and avoided. The delay or temporal avoidance of these ceremonies impacted on the possessed individual as well as the entire community. Delays prolonged the sickness of an individual which further impacted on the psychologically. If a person by a ‘water’ spirit, they have the power to predict and intercede for rains; so if their ceremonies are delayed or avoided it means that the community as a whole is affected as it benefits from the person’s rain spiritual forecasts and rainmaking intercessions. 

Link to research article in African Identities, "Religious rituals and socio-economic change: the impact of the Zimbabwe ‘cash crisis’ on the BaTonga Masabe (alien spirits) ceremony."

Photo credit: All photos by author.

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