A small dirty road breaks into an isolated farming community in Mutare district along the eastern between Zimbabwe and Mozambique.
Similar small farming villages are dotted around the area, broken by rolling mountains and hills. In this part of the country, small-scale farmers thrive on rain-fed crop farming; from the country’s staple crop maize to groundnuts and various other crops. Unfortunately, the farmers’ livelihoods are under threat as rainfall is increasingly becoming unreliable due to climate change droughts. Farmers’ livestock and crops have been wiped out by the frequent and severe droughts.
And on this particular December afternoon in 2023, it was scorching hot and there were no signs of rainfall though it was nearly two months into the summer season. Farmers should have been working on their farms but the rains had been delayed and a serious El Nino induced drought was looming, according to the latest forecasts from climate experts.
Despite the seemingly gloomy situation, Ernest Munyama, a respected village elder and farmer in this community remained calm and bullish that it would be raining within days.
“The rains are coming soon,” said Munyama as he stared blankly at the clear afternoon sky. His confidence was partly buoyed by his and other farmers' strong traditional briefs in their ancestors and rain gods whom he says will not forsake them.
“Every year, we take part in rainmaking ceremonies to appease our ancestors and gods of rain,” Munyama explained.
But what is involved in these rainmaking ceremonies?
It is a day of singing, dancing and merrymaking with a lot of traditional beer and food. The beer —brewed from millet malt— is served in hollowed out dried gourds and no metal cups or pots are allowed near the ceremony which is normally led by a local traditional leader.
And if done properly, Munyama added, the rainmaking ceremony would bring a lot of rainfall and abundant crops and food.
“During the ceremony, we ask our ancestors and rain gods to provide us with plenty of rains. But during these ceremonies we don't use any metal cups or containers, instead we use gourds,” he said.
Cups made from metal and other materials were introduced in Zimbabwe by white colonialists. Today, these utensils are considered part of the colonial legacy which Munyama said would offend their ancestors and gods.
"Even at some of our water wells we don't use metal cups; our ancestors consider them as dirty. If we use such cups, the wells will mysteriously go dry. Our forefathers have using gourds for drinking at the rain and we're keeping that traditional. We don't want to anger our ancestors," he said.
In Zimbabwe, such rainmaking ceremonies are still part of tradition for small-scale farmers ahead of each farming season. These ceremonies take place between September and October. November, the farmers said, was a cursed month and the farmers did not take part in such important traditional activities in that month. Why November is believed to be cursed remains a mystery.
However, the gourds used during the ceremonies come in different shapes and sizes; when dried, smaller ones with long curved handles are used as cups to drink the beer while the larger ones are used as containers for storing the brew. However, the gourds are very versatile; when tender, they are a source of food for local farmers too. They can be eaten cooked or boiled while the leaves can be cooked and served as relish.
Gourds are known locally as matende or mikombe depending on the size and purpose but when used as food, the local people call them mapudzi.
“Though gourds are very important to various aspects of our lives, for the rain making ceremonies, we use these gourds to serve traditional beer. The gourds are very pure and clean,” says Munyama as he shows off various gourds kept in his small thatched hut used as kitchen.
Munyama’s gourds were covered in soot giving them black shiny colour and aura of importance. A matured gourd is dried and a hole is cut at the top. To remove the seeds and other stuff, the gourd is socked in water for days and later cleaned.
“The gourd can be put in hot water to make it stronger,” Munyama said.
These gourds, Munyama said, had been part of their culture for ages, well before metal cups and other utensils were introduced in the country.
But the future of these gourds is under threat; in fact the larger ones used for storage are already becoming scarce. Instead, some farmers are now using clay pots for storing the traditional beer. Farmers have been using seeds for previous harvests but at times the crops are wiped by droughts before they can provide viable seeds. This break the cycle of seed storage and most of these seeds are not available at farmers' shops.
However, Tirivanhu Tarupedza, a farmer in the same district suggested that farmers should establish some seed banks to preserve vital seeds for future generations. Seed banks have been successful in saving quality seeds for crops like beans, okra, sorghum, finger and pearl millet and other crops in the country.
“Some of these have been passed from one generation to another and we need to do something to preserve them otherwise some of our traditional practices will be erased forever,” Tarupedza said.
But it remains to be seen whether seed banks can save gourds in Zimbabwe and ultimately keep the region’s rainmaking ceremonies.