Traditional rites fuel discord over Mugabe funeral

People sit around a fire at a night vigil for former Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe at the Mugabe homestead in Kutama village
People sit around a fire at a night vigil for former Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe at the Mugabe homestead in Kutama village

As public wakes for late Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe have drawn to a close, traditional chiefs are demanding the body be buried according to spiritual traditions.

Those requests have been part of a dispute over the final burial of Mugabe, who died on September 6 almost two years after a coup ended his increasingly autocratic 37-year rule.

He died at the age of 95 during a medical trip to Singapore, leaving Zimbabweans torn over the legacy of a man who some still laud as a colonial-era liberation hero.

Mugabe’s burial has already been caught up in a dispute between his family – who wanted to bury him at his rural homestead Zvimba – and the government, which pushed for the body to rest at a national monument in the capital.

They finally agreed Mugabe would be buried at the National Heroes Acre, once a mausoleum was built for him.

But Mugabe was a nonpractising chief in his homestead, and the burial feud has highlighted the spiritual beliefs, superstitions and rituals surrounding deaths of traditional leaders in Zimbabwe.

Once Mugabe’s remains were returned to Zvimba on Monday, traditional leaders demanded the burial remain in line with local rites.

One of the Zvimba chiefs, Raphael Zvikaramba, said they had so far accepted the government’s proposal, but refused to comment on the details.

“Chiefs are buried in caves secretly at night,” Mugabe’s nephew, Dominic Matibiri, said at his late uncle’s home.

Zimbabwean traditional healer Benjamin Burombo jnr detailed the cultural beliefs surrounding the funerals of chiefs.

“When a chief such as Mugabe dies, he is not a person that can be buried at Heroes Acre, that is forbidden. He should be buried in a cave.

“Mugabe was not just a president, but he was the embodiment of the spirit of Kaguvi,” Burombo said, referring to pre-colonial nationalist leader.

When a chief died, often his body would be dried, his teeth extracted and his fingernails and toenails ripped off, he said.

He said the body would be wrapped in skin hides before burial, and could be swapped with a token such as a goat’s head to be buried instead.

“You can build that monument, but it doesn’t mean that is where the remains of Mugabe will be buried – it’s just for people to remember him.”

Mugabe grew up Catholic and was educated by Jesuits, but he still followed traditional norms and practices.

His remains are lying in his childhood village of Kutama, in Zvimba district, west of Harare.

Retired sociology professor Claude Mararike said longstanding tensions between the family and the government might have precipitated the discord around the funeral.

Mugabe’s family are still bitter over the role President Emmerson Mnangagwa played in his ouster.