Guest column: Miriam Tose Majome
The word kuchekeresa became popular sometime in the 60s or 70’s. It means human sacrifice for ritual purposes to enhance luck and business prospects. Black businessmen who ran thriving grinding mills, farms, supermarkets and bus companies were commonly accused of this practice.
There were real and imagined claims that many if not the majority of successful businessmen engaged in unorthodox mystical practices to acquire wealth. Some were rumoured to keep preserved severed human body parts in their custody such as the bottom of store deep freezers.
White business people who were infinitely more successful and prosperous were, however, never suspected of such practice. It was simply out of the question that white people could do this. Lucky charms and talismans are believed to be for black people, while white people use their contacts, names, status and natural business acumen.
While some of the kuchekeresa rumours were just malicious prattle motivated by envy and ignorance they were not altogether unfounded. Some black business people did indeed and still do dabble in occultic practices in the fervently held belief that business needs some kind of supernatural intervention to succeed. Some black business people rarely trust in their own business acumen and skills and so they look for a little mystical help.
In the late 80’s, a story was told of two women neighbours from Zengeza, Chitungwiza. They each crocheted doilies for sale in South Africa. The 70s and 80s home décor trend was elaborate crocheted or embroidered centre spreads and chair backs cloths (macheyabek).
Women across the entire Sadc region could not get enough of doilies so there was good money to be made. Our mothers made sure that every home in southern Africa had at least two sets of handmade doilies. Zimbabwean women cashed in and crisscrossed the region with bagfuls of doilies and other hand sewn items for sale. They slept on trains and buses bound for South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Swaziland and Lesotho. Some made good money and bought or built houses and sent their children to school from the profits of their enterprises.
One of the Zengeza women happened to be more resourceful and prosperous than the other lazy one who remained stagnant despite them doing exactly the same business. It came to pass that one day the hardworking one vanished. Poof into thin air! It is curious that nobody, not even her family thought to file a missing persons report. But logic is a killer and we can’t have it killing this story just yet. Soon after her disappearance the lazy woman became inexplicably prosperous. Where she used to go to South Africa once a month with only half a small bag of doilies she now went once a week with two big bags ripping at the seams. She inexplicably marked one of the bedrooms in her house strictly off bounds to her family and the housemaid. However, there is always that one daft maid who can never follow simple instructions. One day in her absent minded stupor she opened the door to the forbidden room.
It was not explained why the door was unlocked, but if it had been locked there would be no story so suffice to say the woman forgot to lock it just that one day. To her horror the maid saw an apparition of the woman who had vanished into thin air months ago. She was just sitting there cold, stone-faced, cadaverous and completely lifeless, save for her hands which furiously crocheted doily after doily faster than the speed of light. The maid had unwittingly stumbled upon the Zengeza Zombie.
Hue and cry was raised and in no time the entire neighbourhood descended upon the house to savour a juicy local scandal. Word had quickly got round that the envious lazy woman had killed her hardworking neighbour and transformed her into a zombie slave.
The secret to her business success was exposed. She could not have done it any other way. Many people who heard the story believed it unquestioningly. The woman was instantly branded a witch. The few sceptical people who heard the story were too timid to speak up and debunk the whole story with logic because people hate having their superstitions and supernatural beliefs questioned so sceptics usually just listen and nod quietly in amusement. An accusation of witchcraft is sufficient for conviction and no further pleadings are necessary. The crowd itched to mete out justice to the witch because that is what you do with witches.
You don’t suffer a witch to live. The crowd got riotous and violent and pelted the house with stones culminating in running street battles with the riot police which lasted a number of days.
In 2007 a young woman from Sunningdale in Harare reportedly became very prosperous in her cross border business dealings. The same story was repeated with variations, but attributed to different high density areas across the country. It was unfathomable that she could attain so much success in her business.
In the townships people, especially women are expected to struggle along at relatively the same pace with others who are in the same line of business. Black people are allowed only an acceptable allowance of success within the realms of what can be explained and understood by ordinary people.
Any business success that cannot be understood means the business person is using supernatural enhancements. So the successful young woman had reportedly acquired a money making magic worm from either South Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo or Malawi depending on the story teller’s imagination and their knowledge of Sadc geography.
The magic worm came in a jar, but as the legend had it, it soon outgrew the jar and as it grew as the young woman’s business fortunes and material success also grew. It was put in a bucket before it quickly outgrew that too.
So it was put in the bathtub and soon enough even the entire bathroom could not hold it until it threatened to overrun the house, but it would not stop growing. Invisible magic worms are annoying and troublesome that way.
The worm grew, but its legend grew at an even faster rate in the neighbourhood and far beyond. The majority of people who heard the tale believed it instantly. It did not matter if they were university lecturers, doctors, lawyers, barbers, housemaids or students.
Nobody had actually seen it but they believed it because so many people would not talk about it or believe it if it wasn’t true.
Soon enough and as expected the usual mob of incensed neighbours gathered at the house. They kept vigil baying for the young woman’s blood in self righteous anger and indignation. The young woman was a witch and had to be dealt with instantly.
The story got wilder as the crowd swelled and got frustrated because no one was coming out from behind the tightly secured perimeter brick wall. The young woman really had her act together among her not so well off neighbours. The frustrated crowd was unable to break in and drag the occupants out so they got agitated and violent and started stoning the house.
ZTV got wind of the story and to their credit sought and gained access into the house. The news footage showed reporters interviewing the young woman’s father. He was understandably shaken as the blood thirsty vigilantes crowd shouted and sang menacingly outside. He gave the news crew unfettered access to the house with cameras. Needless to say not even an earthworm was found in the garden. The disappointing news filtered through the restless crowd. It was much too unsatisfactory and unproductive to just turn back and go home empty handed. A few people interviewed refused to accept it and give in just like that. With straight faces grown up men and women maintained that the worm had magical powers to disappear in front of cameras. Disappointed, powerless and confused they eventually trickled away but not without doubts and serious misgivings. The worm was there. It had to be there. Their belief in the magical camera shy worm was unshaken despite the glaring lack of evidence.
Superstitious practices and beliefs are no laughing matter. They have serious psychological, social and legal consequences. Next week we will discuss why some intelligent people are superstitious and why they believe in supernatural phenomenon and why Africans are particularly prone. Micheal Shermer’s book ‘Why People Believe in Weird Things’ is a key source in this regard.
Miriam Tose Majome is a lawyer and a teacher. She can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org