When I heard the title of Winky D’s new album ‘Gombwe’ I was fascinated. As someone who is passionate about traditional spirituality I knew a gombwe was an important spirit in our cultural beliefs, so when I heard the popular artist had given this name to his album my attention was captured. Unlike others who were busy speculating about whether the album would be a success or a flop, or if it would surpass his previous offerings or fail to live up to the hype, I was busy wondering what his motivations and intentions were in naming it Gombwe. Was he a genuine believer in traditional spirituality or was it just another way to add to the myth of Winky D by exploiting an important indigenous concept? Did he respect and honour the spirits or was he actually degrading them by comparing himself to such a powerful entity? Whatever the reasons behind him naming his new project Gombwe were, I was happy he had made the term mainstream and a trending topic in Zimbabwe. Taking note of this I decided to take a closer look at the concept and significance of the gombwe spirit in our Zimbabwean spirituality.
Many people mistakenly believe that a gombwe is the most powerful or greatest ancestral spirit in the ancestral hierarchy, but this is not the case. A gombwe is not an ancestral spirit because it never existed in human form, it was never a living person therefore it cannot be a mudzimu or ancestor. A gombwe is a spirit that was created by Mwari, the Creator, for an important purpose and comes directly from Mwari. This spirit never existed as a physical person and never died, it existed from beyond time and humanity as a creation of Mwari. So what is a gombwe then? A gombwe can be likened to an archangel of the Divine, a very powerful angelic being that emanates directly from the Deity. A gombwe is a divine spirit but not an ancestral spirit. Takawira Kazembe refers to gombwe spirits as “divine angels” or “angels of God.” Another way to define the gombwe is “super-mhondoro”, a term put forward by Chirevo Kwenda. He places this super-mhondoro in a category of divinities higher in status than clan spirits and positioned immediately below the high God Mwari. He states that these spirits are not associated with any specific dynasty and are regarded as spirits that are emanations of the high God.
In terms of the spiritual hierarchy the gombwe is the highest spirit and the nearest to Mwari. The gombwe is just below, or just next to, Mwari in the hierarchy and is higher than mhondoro and vadzimu who operate at clan and family level respectively. This makes gombwe the most powerful spirit in the spiritual hierarchy, greater than all other spirits and energies except Mwari. Ordinary mhondoro and ancestor spirits all bow down and give respect to the gombwe because they are lower in rank. A spirit medium of a gombwe is also the highest or most senior medium among all spirit mediums, and is accorded the greatest respect. A medium for a gombwe fits the role of a high priest/priestess or a prophet, and is of higher rank than an ordinary svikiro or spirit medium. Since a gombwe spirit is not of human origin it does not belong to any lineage, clan or family and does not have a totem. The gombwe is trans-tribal, meaning it is not limited to any particular tribe but operates across the whole land or nyika. It is a spirit in the truest sense of the word, beyond human categories and boundaries. The gombwe also mostly deals with collective issues rather than individual matters, although it still has influence in the individual realm.
In terms of the role of a gombwe it is “a messenger of God that reports to God and receives and transmits God’s wishes”, according to Takawira Kazembe. He asserts that the gombwe pleads with God in prayer on behalf of the people and intervenes between God and the people. He states that the gombwe has the means for atonement and intercession with both the world of the spirits and the world of the living. Therefore the main role of a gombwe is to be a mediator between the heavens and the earth below, sending messages from Mwari to the human population and vice versa. A gombwe acts as a go-between and intercessor that represents the desires and grievances of people to Mwari and also relays Mwari’s desires back to the living. The gombwe also performs other functions but the mediator role is its most prominent. This same role is what makes a gombwe very rare, it cannot be found just anywhere and does not possess just any medium. The appearance of a gombwe is a rarity that does not occur often.
It is claimed that Chaminuka, Nehanda and Kaguvi are gombwe spirits. These are very sacred and revered spirits of Zimbabwe that are believed to be eternal and angelic in nature, without human lineage and originating directly from Mwari. They are timeless spirits that possess great powers and are supreme in the spiritual hierarchy since they were created and not born. The spirits of Nehanda and Chaminuka (through their human incarnations) were said to have guided ancient Zimbabweans as they journeyed from East and North-East Africa down to present-day Zimbabwe thousands of years ago, meaning they were true gombwe spirits that existed since the eternal past and not ancestor spirits of persons who once lived and died. There is also a belief by various spirit mediums that the spirit Nehanda has been around since the beginning of life on Earth, according to T. Kazembe.
The three above-mentioned gombwe have played significant and transformative roles in the spiritual and socio-cultural life of Zimbabwe, as divine spirits and through their spirit mediums in different capacities across the ages. They deserve our highest respect and veneration, and are meant to be constantly invoked and approached for guidance in issues that affect our land and lives, since they have direct access to the Creator and can intercede on our behalf. We need to bring the necessity and significance of the gombwe back into the public consciousness and reawaken their energies for the greater good of the land and future generations. We must reclaim our sacred spirits and restore our connection to the Divine once more. There is no other way for us to rise as a people.