Nairobi Anthropology, Archaeology & Social Histories (NAASH) Seminar Series
By Joost Fontein
In 1898, just before she was hanged for rebelling against colonial rule, Charwe Nyakasikana, spirit medium of the legendary ancestor Ambuya Nehanda, famously prophesised that ‘my bones will rise again’. A century later bones, bodies and human remains have come to occupy an increasingly complex place in Zimbabwe’s postcolonial bones of unsettled war dead; and from the troubling decaying remains of post-independence gukurahundi massacres to the leaky, tortured bodies of recent election violence, human materials are intertwined in postcolonial politics in ways that go far beyond, yet necessarily implicate, contests over memory, commemoration and the representation of the past.
My purpose here is to examine the complex political efficacies of human remains in Zimbabwe’s ‘politics of the dead’. Existing scholarship has become increasingly sophisticated in its analysis of the politics of nationalist historiography, of contested memory, commemoration and heritage, and of the changing significance of ‘traditional’ practices relating to ancestors, chiefs and spirit mediums across the region and beyond. These all turn on contested and contingent processes of (re)constituting the past and the dead. But the political imbrications of human remains as material substances, as well as that of returning spirits, in these highly contested processes is only beginning to be understood, despite a growing recognition of the transforming significance of human corporeality.
Based on fieldwork, research and reflection spanning more than a decade, part of my purpose is to redefine the parameters of this emerging scholarship, by exploring how the ‘politics of the dead’ in Zimbabwe is necessarily inflected and imbricated in the changing and indeterminate materialities of human remains. Linking this indeterminacy of human substances to the productive but precarious uncertainties of rumours and spirits, it points to how the indivisibility of the material and immaterial is not only inherently intertwined with but also constitutive of the stylistics of power and incomplete work of postcolonial politics.