African Heritage: Realities & myths about Ngomalungundu

By Elizabeth Duve Dziva

Ngomalungundu is believed to be a powerful cultural drum with remains resembling it once housed in the Zimbabwe Museum of Human Sciences in Harare. A month ago, Esther Chipashu a curator of Ethnography at the Zimbabwe Natural History Museum in Harare presented about the drum in question at an event in the United Kingdom.

Chipashu said the drum was taken for custody by the Zimbabwean government since it attracted a lot of attention from varied ethnic groups in Zimbabwe and Jewish researchers from outside the country. Apparently, the drum is associated with some intangible spiritual value.

Oral tradition has it that the drum was used during rainmaking ceremonies and other important cultural rituals. In fact, the Ngomalungundu is said to have been a strong magical drum with extraordinary powers. Whatever the myth surrounding the drum is a cause for interest since it involves our very own country and who knows the fate or fortunes it carries.

Ownership of the drum has been a controversial issue among many ethnic groups which want to associate themselves with it. Among them are the Lemba (VaRemba) people who a minority group of the zhou totem found predominantly in Maberengwa, the Venda people in Matabeleland South province and the National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe (NMMZ) which is the current custodian of the drum.

The million dollar question is who is the rightful custodian of the drum? Is it national heritage or heritage of a particular group of people with intangible aspects that need the rightful people to conserve and preserve? Besides, will the descendants of those who invented the drum and its magic be able to access and use the drum accordingly? Culturally, it does not necessarily mean that the drum has ceased to carry its spiritual value regardless of how worn out it has become. Most people seem to deliberately avoid the subject for, not only because it leads to more questions than answers but also because it stirs acute controversy. It, however, still worthy the discussions and literature since ignorance of one’s distant past leads to stagnation in knowledge accumulation.

The VaRemba people, also known as the black Jews, claim that their ascendants migrated to Zimbabwe with the drum in question. There is a hypothesis that the Ngomalungundu is the Biblical Ark of Covenant which Moses was instructed to build at Mount Sinai as he led the Israelites out of Egypt.

The VaRemba, also known as Mwenye people, are an ethnic group that speak Bantu languages spoken by their geographical neighbours whom they even resemble physically yet they have some religious practices and beliefs similar to the Biblical Jews. They observe practices like circumcision; place a Star of David on their tombstones and many other practices. The fact whether these people are really Jews, and even more are the actual owners of the Ngomalungundu is more apparent than real because it seems as if since they are a minority group, maybe they are only trying to draw attention for the sake of greater recognition in the nation. Their Jewish ancestry is controversial since the evidence is only attained from oral tradition which has a number of weaknesses as a historical source. Research shows that DNA in 2000 people of the society did not support claims for a specifically Jewish genetic heritage. Somehow, the stories do not tally, there is something missing and one may ponder their real association with the Ngomalungundu.

According to the Jewish hypothesis, the drum was last seen 2500 years ago in Jerusalem. It was then found by a Swedish missionary, Von Sicard in the early 1940s at Dumbwi Mountains in Mberengwa. It was taken to the by then National Museums and Monuments of the colonial Rhodesian government.

It was rediscovered in 2007 in a forgotten shelf in the Zimbabwe Museum of Human Sciences in Harare by a British Professor Parfitt. In 2010, an unveiling ceremony was held in Harare with that government officials, National Museums and Monuments and some members of the VaRemba ethnic group. The drum has been taken by NMMZ on tours to other parts of the country but it is queer that it has never been taken to Mberengwa where it supposedly belongs, where the black Jews are found today.

The Venda hypothesis has it that the Ngomalungundu, which in their native language is known as the drum of the dead, was brought to its present location by the Senzi people, present day Venda. According to them, the Ngomalungundu was the drum of Mwali, the ancestor God of the Venda and the Kalanga people. It was the voice of the great god (Mambo weDenga). The drum was seen and beaten by no one except the high priest Dzomo la Dzimu and Mwali, the king whom they now regard as their great ancestor. The Venda say king Thohoyandou disappeared with the drum and nobody knew about its whereabouts until something with remains that resembles it was found in Mberengwa.

The puzzle pertaining Ngomalungundu remains debatable though over and above, there is need to preserve it. Apart from conserving and preserving the aesthetic and economic value of cultural objects, their spiritual value should never be ignored for we should consider that such artefacts have their essential role; they are our grounding and they make us who we are.

Elizabeth Duve Dziva is an archaeological and cultural heritage practitioner who presently teaches at Errymaple High School in Zvishavane. The views and opinions expressed in this article are purely the author’s in her own capacity and do not necessarily represent any organisation


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