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Mbira: Zim heritage’s source of pride

This month Zimbabwe is celebrating Culture Month under the theme; Celebrating cultural diversity, leaving no one and no place behind.

These celebrations depict Zimbabwe’s varied unhu/ubuntu as well as cultivating a sense of belonging through music, dance, film, theatre, visual arts, literature and poetry.

The mbira musical instrument is a Zimbabwean invention that has been played for over 1000 years.

Shepherd Mutswiri is Doctoral Researcher at the University of Reading, History Department

In May 2020, Google doodle celebrated the mbira as part of the country’s Culture Week commemoration.

In December 2020, UNESCO inscribed the art of crafting and playing mbira on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Questions have been raised about what catapulted mbira to become a global product. Some scholars and musicians tend to point to the rise of anti-colonial nationalism as a catalyst.

However, Thomas Turino stated that the mbira story tends to fit with mass media, cosmopolitan aesthetics and anti-colonial nationalism.

It is the intersection of these local and international processes that have contributed to its rise in popularity.

Through print media and social media, mbira music has become attractive to people with cosmopolitan aesthetics, creating a new closeness founded on shared interests.

One person who has written extensively about cosmopolitanism is Kwame Anthony Appiah, who calls for a “rooted cosmopolitanism”.

The term seems to be oxymoronic: to have roots means being embedded in a specific history, people, or nation; to be a cosmopolitan essentially means not being bound by local or national traditions but declaring oneself as a citizen of the world.

He raises an important point of knowing and appreciating your roots or nation, but also embracing other nations or peoples.

Shepherd and his PhD supervisor Dr.  Heike I. Schmidt, who has also spent some time in Zimbabwe.

Nowhere else captures this idealism more effectively than our African history group at the University of Reading. It enjoys an active and inclusive research culture and what stands out to me is the sense of community and belonging.

With the wider global appeal of mbira, how can Zimbabweans become the major beneficiaries of their own heritage?

The Swakopmund Protocol on the Protection of Traditional Knowledge and Expressions of Folklore within the framework of the African Regional Intellectual Property Organisation has made traditional knowledge valuable in Africa and capable of intellectual property protection.

The mbira consists part of the artistic cultural and spiritual expression unique to Zimbabwe. Intellectual property protection of the mbira through traditional knowledge would allow the indigenous people of Zimbabwe to maintain, control, protect and develop their cultural heritage.

It would furthermore allow the indigenous people to benefit through equitable sharing of benefits arising from the commercial or industrial use of their knowledge.

While Zimbabwe ratified the Swakopmund Protocol, there is not much benefit that has been attained from the ratification as there has not been any supporting legislation enacted in Zimbabwe.

The call to action for lawmakers is to enact legislation in terms of Section 327 (2) of the Zimbabwe Constitution that incorporates the Swakopmund Protocol into law in Zimbabwe.

  • Shepherd Mutswiri is a researcher at the University of Reading. He was selected to do a poster presentation at the prestigious Fairbrother event in May 2022.

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