Arts & Lifestyle
Obituary: Stella Chiweshe, a life dedicated to preserving culture
I ROCKED up in a red T-shirt for the last interview I did with the departed Mbira music icon Ambuya Stella Chiweshe at a city hotel where she was staying during one of her brief visits home from Germany in 2020.
As I walked into the hotel lounge where she was waiting for me, I noticed her hard stare at me, which she explained after exchanging warm greetings.
Her vadzimu (ancestral spirits), she said, wouldn’t let her speak to me whilst I was dressed in that colour.
“Never again wear that colour,” she counselled me sternly but amiably. “I was seeing blurred vision because of that T-shirt.”
So since I had already arrived for the interview, what was I supposed to do as I had no changing clothes? Quick as a flash, Ambuya (the grandmother) had the solution.
She pulled off her black scarf from her shoulders and wrapped it around me!
That interview, in fact, had been made possible after Ambuya Chiweshe “consulted” her ancestral spirits.
“Mira nditange ndanzwa kuti vadzimu wanotibvumira here (wait until I get the go-ahead from the spirits),” she had said over the phone.
Thankfully, the ancestors did not disapprove!
A life indeed steeped in Zimbabwean customs and norms. Ambuya never wavered a bit in her commitment to tradition, even as she lived thousands of miles away from home among a sea of Europeans.
If I remember well, that visit to Zimbabwe was her last before she returned home permanently.
She had made the decision to come back to Zimbabwe, she told me, after completing the task of serving her ancestors overseas! Now it was time to take on a new task back home.
The interview was over dinner at a hotel in central Harare and, while we waited for our meals, Ambuya Chiweshe opened up to me about the unknown parts of her life story in her characteristic warm and relaxed manner.
“Do you know whenever I book into a hotel, I use my own linen, pillows and towels.
I spread the bed and also make sure I sprinkle some snuff otherwise I will not sleep well, even when I’m overseas I make sure I have enough snuff for use,” she said.
Half the time she was in Zimbabwe, she would book into a hotel except for when she visited her rural home in Nekati Village, some 40 kilometres outside Bindura.
Dinner was served and she asked me if I wanted to have a beer or two, to which I gladly accepted. She did not drink herself.
“I stopped drinking because every time I drank beer, I got sick,” she said. “So back in the village I would take snuff instead of beer and that is how it has been.”
She then delved deeper into the reasons for her return home, leaving the luxury and comfort of Germany for the unpredictable life of her troubled homeland.
“My first task was to go international and teach people how to return to their roots after they were brainwashed and made to lose their traditions by the Romans,” she remarked.
“This does not refer to Zimbabweans only, but all countries that were colonised by the Romans.”
“I have done what I was tasked to do and it is now time to come back home and settle here as vadzimu [ancestors] are saying. I have been asked to go to the countryside,” said the late world-renowned performer.
“As far back as 2003 I was invited to a bira (traditional festivity) in Toronto, Canada and I was the only one from Africa. While there, we had a bonfire where everyone was asked to make a wish. The bonfire, which burns until now, is meant for people to like and respect each other. We were all asked to make a wish. I don’t know that others wished for. I could have wished something for myself, but instead I wished for my people to return to their roots. And now I am happy that some people are becoming aware bit by bit to like their roots except those who are still following the teachings of the colonisers who taught us to abandon our traditions to make it easier for them to impose their rule on us.”
On her return home, the mbira maestro launched projects aimed at leaving behind a legacy.
“I registered a trust called Chivanhu Trust in 2011 and I want to build that centre in Masembura near Bindura. I am not going to do this for myself but for the eighth generation to come. So we are going to be using stone and not bricks to ensure that it stays for long. The good thing is that I don’t just do things from my own thinking, I have vadzimu who guide me and tell me what to do.”
One of the key areas of the centre, she said, was to promote African tradition as well as to learn other cultures.
“It’s easy to offend someone if you don’t know their manners and gestures of where they come from. The centre would keep Zimbabwean culture alive,” she said.
“I am a gwenyambira (mbira artiste) and I also consult vadzimu to guide me. I always call for people to return to their roots for solutions and guidance. Vadzimu always advise and guide us mostly when we are asleep which is what we were discouraged to recognise by the British.”
Ambuya Chiweshe, who has family in Germany, took her concerts around the world. She performed in Australia, New Zealand, Mozambique, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium Luxemburg, Netherlands, Austria, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, India, China, North Korea, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Slovania, Czech Republic, Norway, England, France, Spain, Ireland, the United States, Canada, South Africa, Colombia, Italy, Congo Brazzaville, South Africa, Botswana, Kenya, Ethiopia and Tanzania.
Ambuya Chiweshe breathed her last on 20 January after losing a battle with brain cancer, at the age of 77 – a life lived with grace, dignity and principle. Zimbabwean music and culture will be poorer for her loss.