The Sunday News
OUR symbolic journey continues, a journey that hopefully will add some new dimensions in the interpretation of central and southern Africa’s most grandiose cultural monument which was listed by Unesco as a World Heritage Site.
Ours is a journey in which the cultural edifice leads the way, speaks for itself on the basis of meanings resident in its artistic renditions.
Art is expressive culture and speaks and communicates the most eloquently and effortlessly. As said at the start of this journey, it is a journey that seeks not to get embroiled in contentious issues of authorship. We are aware that history renders legitimacy, authenticity and some sense of cultural identity.
That said, we are of the view that any meaningful explanation and subsequent interpretation of so important a cultural edifice which has bequeathed on us the name of our nation, has to flow from its concrete and objective attributes.
This initial stage must be guided by findings by an exact science such as Archaeology. However, interpretation may be a different kettle of fish as it must be guided by informed knowledge of the culture that is being expressed, in particular the underlying cosmology or worldview.
The built environment, as we often say, is a mirror image of the culture of its creators. Hands build and sculpt under instruction and command of the mind which creates. It thus goes without saying that to unpack the African past, it is imperative to get into the creative minds of ancient Africans.
What we see emerging is how various aspects of the diverse facets of the cultural monument play complementary roles in bringing out the overarching theme expressed at Great Zimbabwe. We expect not to find contradictory explanations and interpretations, from both architecture, sculpture and the various artefacts retrieved during excavations over different periods of time. Enquiry never reaches finality.
New theories emerge and should be allowed to do so, as part of efforts to expand frontiers of knowledge concerning the monument.
The Zimbabwe birds, form and design of walls, chevron patterns, the Conical Tower, forceps, razors, phallic objects and feminine soapstone cylinder and the platforms must all add up to the same thematic story. So far, we seem to be in a position where all this seems to fall in place.
Some overarching theme pushing above the layer of uncertainty and doubt. However, we have to continue with the journey and interrogate other aspects and see if our view will hold.
So far, the emerging theme points in the direction of ideas of continuity and endlessness as expressed through symbols of fertility such as the Conical Tower which symbolises and expresses the male element and the circular designs that express the female element and the chevron patterns which equally express the female element.
At the same time, the same theme of continuity and endlessness are expressed in forms and ways that are not of a sexual nature. Use of stones and their expressions of solidity; circularity in circular designs (with no beginning and end) all add up to expressions of continuity. In this article, we seek to interrogate the narrow passage formed between two colossal stone walls.
Before we even hazard what we consider as logical explanations and interpretations, we have to start with concrete and objective reality that is observations emanating from the physical/material structures out of which we seek symbolic meanings and interpretations.
We start with the location of the narrow passage in relation to the entire Great Enclosure. As pointed out in an earlier installation, the narrow passage is found in close proximity to the colossal external stone walls which bear the chevron patterns.
This is the broad area within which we find the Conical Tower with its stone testes, one albeit collapsed. It is here too that we find platforms with channels that lead to tunnels which lead outside the stone walls to some kind of soak ways. We note too that beyond the platforms the narrow passage no longer exists and open spaces lead to what we think is an exit. We have to pose questions why there is this difference of an entrance which leads to a long narrow passage which, all of a sudden, opens up to free and open spaces which, in the far end, lead to the exit.
That difference comes just after the point where there are platforms, suggesting important activity taking place there after which there is no need for funnelling what is being led to the platforms.
Against this background, we have to remind ourselves of some cardinal underlying and complementary African ideas. Firstly, at the higher level is the idea of an unending cycle of life, otherwise expressed as cyclicality. Life in its dual manifestation, comprising material and spiritual components, does not end at death.
Instead, the two components divorce with the spiritual component entering the spiritual domain while the body or flesh is interred and its own life ends. The enduring spiritual life enters the stage of eternal life within the unending cycle of life where, at some point, the spirit finds its once lost material partner.
Birth is the culmination of that important reunion. Remarriage is once again achieved and the two enter the ephemeral stage of the unending cycle of life on planet earth.
Within the critical stages of birth and death there is one very important stage that powers life to its next stage in the unending cycle.
This is the attainment of puberty or biological maturity when certain human tissues acquire capacity to replicate themselves when male and female elements come together in a process where spirit and flesh come together in a dual relationship that subsists to the point the point of death. This is an important stage where continuity, eternity, endlessness, immortality and perpetuity are attained and concretised.
And yet we do know that these ideas are concretised within a woman’s womb. It comes as no wonder therefore, to see the decorative motifs that are associated with femininity and are thus expressions and fulfilment of the said ideas, are all female.
They range from the chevrons patterns, chess boards herringbone and dentelles, all being variants of the circle with its message of endlessness derived from the fact that it has no beginning and no end.
It would thus not be surprising that attainment of puberty, translating to attainment of an important stage in the unending cycle of life, is accompanied by social and sacred rituals that celebrate this all important stage which is accompanied by a relevant educational curriculum relating to the proper handling of the social institution of marriage within which ideas of continuity, eternity, endlessness, perpetuity and immortality are effected.
We thus see some dovetailing between earthly expressions of continuity and endlessness linking up with similar heavenly aspects which, in dual complementarity, translate to the expressions of the unending cycle of life as posited by ancient Africans.
The narrow passage is thus contextualised within the architectural physical elements that, as we have seen, express continuity and endlessness. Whatever explanation and interpretation we offer, should equally be within the expressed explanations and emerging interpretations.
The one possibility therefore is to see the passage as lying between two symbolic stone walls where the exterior wall has the chevron patterns. Our initial thought here is that this is an area where both the stomach and the womb lie, with each having its own wall.
I remember vividly when I was still young and spiritually clean when I had revelations that where you see the Zimbabwe type stone walls on a hill, there will be two of them, one lower down and the other further up. I remember too, not so long ago when Jack Mlangeni Ncube, a former school mate at Mazowe Secondary School in the 1960s and I decided to go up Lubhangwe mountain in the southern part of the Matobo District. I did not even know the mountain had Zimbabwe type stone walls.
Near the base of the mountain close to the dam, we came across a stone wall. We did not seek to establish whether it formed a complete ring around the mountain. At that point, I remember telling Jack about my revelations in the early days.
I told him I expected to see another wall before getting to the summit of the mountain. Lo and behold, just as we approached the summit, we encountered the second and last stone wall. Characteristically the stone walls were not well dressed as happens at Zimbabwe and Khami cultures, suggesting links with both Mapela and Mapungubwe.
Revelations were indeed vindicated. Are stone walls on Lubhangwe Mountain symbolic of a womb and its single wall underneath the stomach wall? If this be the case, we would expect the double wall to be in that part where there is a womb and the position would be marked by the presence of the chevron patterns on the stone walls.
While this may be expressing the presence of a womb, this is true at the symbolic level. We still have to explain and interpret the functionality of the double stone walls.
We should never think that the African mind was simple and thus expect simplicity in the explanation and interpretation of the Great Enclosure in artistic, metaphoric and symbolic terms. Simple minds with their simplistic interpretations will not access the complex African Mind.
It is that possible explanation and interpretation of the meaning and significance of the passage that we shall endeavour in the next instalment. We do not pretend to know it all in the mould of interpreters that have gone ahead of us.