“The Museum is for All Cultures”

Monologue and Multivocality—The Dilemma of the Nambya Community Museum in North Western Zimbabwe

in Museum Worlds
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Munyaradzi Elton Sagiya Lecturer, Bindura University of Science Education, Zimbabwe

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Plan Shenjere-Nyabezi Senior Lecturer, University of Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe

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Abstract

Worldwide, community museums can play an important role in regenerating and safeguarding Indigenous living cultures. The aim of this article is to explore and examine the complex socio-cultural context of the Nambya Community Museum (NCM), located in Hwange district, north-western Zimbabwe. Over the past 18 years, a web of multiple stakeholders has struggled to find common ground on what and whose cultural heritage the NCM should represent. As a result, many often conflicting views and attitudes held by different stakeholders have emerged concerning the present or future status and the purpose of the NCM. In this article we deploy multivocality theory, and rely on qualitative data collected during a large-scale archeological and heritage management research project to present and discuss a wide range of conceptual and practical issues confronting the NCM. We situate this case study within current global conversations about the ideal museum of the present and the future.

Museums are part of the legacy of colonialism in sub-Saharan Africa. Despite several decades of political freedom, many African countries are still grappling with the relevance, role, and function of museums among different public groups and societies (Arinze 1998; Chipangura and Mataga 2021; Mawere et al. 2015; Omar et al. 2014; Silverman et al. 2022; Thondlana et al. 2022). Critical questions across the wide spectrum of interest groups revolve around what a museum for Africa is, whose idea(s) or interests it serves, how the museum engages with the public, and who gains from the museum and how. In Zimbabwe, although the first museums were established in 1901 (e.g., Rhodesian National Museum now the Natural History Museum of Zimbabwe in Bulawayo, and the Queen Victoria Museum, now the Zimbabwe Museum of Human Sciences in Harare), it is only recently that there has been an upsurge in museums and museological scholarship (Bvocho 2013; Chipangura 2014; Chipangura and Mataga 2021; Chitima 2018; Mataga 2014, 2018; Mawere et al. 2015; Pwiti 1994; Thondlana et al. 2022; Ucko 1994;). In comparison with related disciplines such as archeology, this research gap can largely be attributed to the international and national attention to Zimbabwean archeology stimulated by the popularity of Great Zimbabwe, a major pre-colonial settlement located in southern Zimbabwe (Caton-Thompson 1931; Chirikure and Pikirayi 2008; MacIver 1906). Due to the controversies around who built it, how, when, and why, Great Zimbabwe and other similar monumental buildings of the Zimbabwe culture have been extensively researched, producing a large body of literature about their histories and interpretation (Chirikure 2021; Huffman and Woodborne 2020; Pikirayi 2001). This has not been the case when it comes to Zimbabwean museums and museology, particularly the still evolving concept of community museums. In this article, we use the case study of Nambya Community Museum (NCM), located in Hwange district, to illuminate the complexities surrounding the representation of the past within a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic society.

Zimbabwe is divided into different geographical units for administrative purposes, the largest being the province, followed by a district, a ward, and then a village. Our field research is focused on the Hwange district in Matabeleland North province (see Figure 1). The region is home to different ethno-linguistic communities, some of which have co-existed since pre-colonial times. This situation has given rise to numerous understandings and interpretations of the past, often fueled by the politics of belonging (McGregor 2005; Mujere 2012; Ncube 2004; Nyathi 2005). In Hwange district there are Nambya, Dombe, Leya, Lozi, Tonga, Ndebele, Shona, and other smaller ethnic communities that fall under the jurisdiction of five chiefs (traditional leaders). Of these five, Chief Hwange, Chief Shana, and Chief Nekatambe are of Nambya descent. The other two, Chief Mvuthu and Chief Nelukoba, are of Ndebele and Dombe ancestry, respectively. The ethnic naming of a community museum after the Nambya within this multi-ethnic district has resulted in conflicts and contestation lasting for nearly two decades. Because it is a heterogeneous region, the other ethnic groups feel excluded and sidelined from the community museum concept, which is expected to be ethnically multivocal and inclusive. Along with challenges such as limited financial and other resources, the future of the NCM is now at stake.

Figure 1.
Figure 1.

Map of Zimbabwe showing Hwange District. Map drawn by Russel Kapumha.

Citation: Museum Worlds 11, 1; 10.3167/armw.2023.110104

Relying largely on our analysis of the different datasets generated from this local case study, we seek to contribute towards the ongoing global, fundamental, and transformational processes of imagining the ideal museum of the present and the future. Our thrust here is to interrogate how a “micromuseum” such as the NCM can overcome its own challenges and become an effective and inclusive institution not only centering on collections but also providing space for active engagement with contemporary socio-cultural and political issues confronting host societies. As observed by Fiona Candlin (2006), the field of museum studies has tended to focus on issues associated with major museum institutions, though there is a growing literature on community-run museums (Bounia 2017; Camarena and Morales 2006; Kreps 2003; Lonetree 2012; Pikela et al. 2022; Stanley 2007). In this article we argue that issues and challenges confronting micro/community museums matter in the global museological discourse as well. There are progressive conceptual and practical aspects of small museums like the NCM that can influence the reconfiguration of the museum world and regeneration of Indigenous cultures globally (Candlin 2006; Pikela et al. 2022).

Analytical and Methodological Approaches

Taking cognizance of the ongoing global conversations, debates, and discussions over the meaning, role, and futures of a museum (Hicks 2020; Chipangura and Mataga 2021; Emmerling et al. 2021; Schorch and McCarthy 2019; Silverman et al. 2022), the challenges confronting the NCM are not in isolation. For the NCM, as may be the case elsewhere, what a community museum is, and/or should (re)present has multiple interpretations and understandings. To this end, we deploy multivocality as a theoretical lens to engage with the localized museological contestation and discuss our findings within the ever-expanding global museum studies scholarship. Generally, multivocality refers to the appreciation of a diversity of ideas and multiple ways of understanding cultural knowledge (Atalay 2008), in this case, a “community museum.” Claire Fawcett and co-authors (2008) describe the theory of multivocality as a way of empowering under-represented ethnic groups to present their understanding and interpretations of their past. The term “ethnic” has been used in academic discourse from the 1970s, but it has been problematic, as its meaning and use is contested, and it has remained a subject of open debate, in particular among sociologists, historians, and anthropologists (Mujere 2012; Stell and Fox 2015). However, for want of a better expression with which to refer to the different groups of people in Hwange district, the term shall be used throughout the article to refer to communities who share (or claim) common ancestry, cultural practices, and ideas of a place, among other societal norms and values (Msindo 2012). In our study, views and ideas about a community museum held by the minority ethnic and other groups in Hwange, such as Nambya, Dombe, Tonga, and Leya people, were listened to, recorded, and analyzed within the multivocality theoretical framework.

Stressing the importance of multivocality, Sonya Atalay (2006) has argued that many interpretations are potentially valid, and it is our cultural worldview that determines how we evaluate and what we respect and choose to consider as valid. Thus, two of the critical questions embedded within the multivocality theoretical framework in the context of this article are whether all understandings of a community museum are equally valid and have to be taken on board, and who makes these decisions. Sophia Labadi (2007) and David Callaghan (2015) concur that heritage is multivocal and that different values can be attributed to it by various state and non-state institutions, local communities, and other interest groups, depending on the extent to which they identify with it. In this article, we explore the contestation which emanates from the dilemma of whether a community museum should be a monologic or multivocal representation of a multi-ethnic district of Hwange. We argue that the name, objects/belongings, space, or architecture of a community museum may embody many pasts that are known and perceived differently from multiple viewpoints. As such, knowledge about different values, narratives, attachments, and perceptions of a community museum is imperative for its role(s) and sustainability. Thus, multivocality as an analytical lens embraces complementary and/or contradictory interpretations or understandings of a community museum emerging from people of diverse ethnic, gender, age, academic, and non-academic backgrounds. Furthermore, the adoption of the multivocality approach enhances the rights and privileges of every research participant to reflect on and express his/her opinions and perceptions about the Nambya Community Museum.

The issues we present and discuss in this article emerged during a Volkswagen Foundation-funded, large-scale archeological and heritage management research project directed by one of us (Plan Shenjere-Nyabezi). This project commenced in January 2017 and concluded in April 2023. As we interacted with traditional leaders, villagers, cultural associations, and different public groups during the early phases of our field research, the contestation and debates around the NCM emerged as one of the topical cultural heritage issues in Hwange district. This motivated us to listen and conduct in-depth interviews and discussions with the traditional leaders, their people, members of cultural associations (e.g., Nambya and Dombe Cultural Associations), and other interest groups and stakeholders, including curators from the National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe (NMMZ), the government department responsible for the administration of national museums. With the consent of research participants, the bulk of the interviews were audio-recorded and transcribed for analysis and interpretation. Data was also generated from document analysis and consultation of the relevant literature. In exploring the numerous conceptual and practical issues confronting the NCM, we begin by presenting an institutional and typological overview of museums in Zimbabwe.

Museums in Zimbabwe: An Overview

Here we do not seek to rewrite or repeat the historiography of museums in Zimbabwe, which has recently been published elsewhere (Chipangura and Mataga 2021; Mawere et al. 2015; Thondlana et al. 2022). The aim of this section is to provide an overview of the museum institutional frameworks and categories that are found in the country. Thomas Thondlana (2015: 17) broadly fitted museums in Zimbabwe into a three-pronged typology, namely: National Museums/Public Museums; Private Museums; and Community Museums. The national museums are state-owned and responsible for curation of objects, sites, and monuments. Administering the national museums is the NMMZ, whose statutory mandate is spelled out in an act of Parliament (National Museums and Monuments Act, Chapter 25:11). NMMZ operates through five museological regions, each run from a national museum, with the exception of the Southern Region, whose administration offices are located at the national monument of Great Zimbabwe.

There are very few private museums in Zimbabwe. These museums mainly house memorabilia and ethnographic collections and are owned by individuals or private companies. Today, the most successful private museum is the Murray MacDougall Museum, owned by the Tongaat Hullet Triangle (formerly Triangle Ltd. Company) in south-eastern Zimbabwe. Although the MacDougall Museum was designated a national monument in 1975, its ownership and management have remained entirely that of Tongaat Hullet, a sugarcane-growing and sugar-producing private limited company. This museum focuses on interpretive displays of notable personalities, and development of the sugarcane estate and other outstanding events in the history of the company. The other well-known private museum is the Railway Museum located in Bulawayo, which is owned by the National Railways of Zimbabwe (NRZ), and was opened to the public in 1972. The NRZ, a parastatal organization, is responsible for the upkeep of the museum with support from individuals mainly from the Friends of the Museum (Burrett et al. 2016; Thondlana at al. 2022). This private museum is devoted to memorabilia that includes rail coaches and engines, as well as documents relating to the history of railways in Zimbabwe. The remainder of the private museums in Zimbabwe are very small and run by associated companies or individuals.

There are two categories of community museums in Zimbabwe, that is, the ones that are state-supported and the ones that are community-initiated and curated through Indigenous epistemologies and practices. Generally, community museums have been defined and redefined in multiple versions. From the multiple meanings of community museums, we adopt the definition by Chikozho (2015: 49), who defined them as “people-oriented cultural institutions, of the people, by the people and for the people, which preserve and promote cultural cohesion and community development.” Community museums are part and parcel of the worldwide discourse on “new museology,” which questions the social and political roles of museums and suggests alternatives to the perceived failing of the original museology that, among other shortcomings, was elitist, uninspiring, collections-focused, and building-based (McCall and Gray 2013: 2). Community museums can provide a more inclusive participatory model for communities that is largely absent in the national museums (Rasool 2006; Mawere 2015; Chipangura and Chipangura 2019). In comparison to other categories of museums, community museums in Zimbabwe are fairly recent (2000s) establishments, and the concept is still evolving.

Reflecting on Community Museums

Prior to our reflection on community museums, we first present our understanding of “community” and contextualize the term. We find it necessary to explain what constitutes a “community,” the entity for which the community museums are created. The concept of community is vague and problematic. There is lack of consensus on its definition as the term is entangled in layers of complexity (Appiah 2006; Chirikure and Pwiti 2008). Some writers, such as Silverman (2015), have defined a community as a group of people who share territory, a common history, and a memory of their history. A community can be insular or cosmopolitan. The former refers to a group of people bound by common ancestry, heritage, and culture, while the latter is underpinned by diversity. In this article, we use community as a broad term referring to a cosmopolitan society with diverse ethnic backgrounds but bound together by the same locality. This shared locality can be a village, ward, or district.

Since the 1970s, there has been a proliferation of community museums worldwide. There are many reasons to account for the rise of community museums, but chief among them is the absence of communities’ histories and cultures from the mainstream museums (Rasool 2006; Camarena and Lersch 2010; Njinuwo 2015; Pikela et al. 2022). As a result, cultural activists, associations, and community leaders, largely from the minority and marginalized communities, spearheaded the concept of community museums in an attempt to project their heritage, identities, and culture. Ideally, community museums, among other obligations, are meant to give the previously disadvantaged communities a platform to revive their customs, establish their identities, and negotiate their futures (Chikozho 2004; Rasool 2006; Chipangura and Chipangura 2019; Thondlana at al. 2022). In countries like Uganda, there are as many as 30 community museums whose thrust is anchored on depicting and preserving cultural heritage of different ethnicities, such as Baganda, Banyoro, and Madi (Ssenyonga 2016: 125).

In many instances, community museums have been established and run by cultural activists or societies rather than by the state (Camarena and Morales 2006; Bounia 2017). The District Six Museum in Cape Town, South Africa, is one good example. In Zimbabwe, the initiative for the creation of community museums was community-driven but was adopted by the state through the NMMZ's policy on the Community Museums Development Program of 2000. However, since the launch of this program, not much progress has been made in the establishment of state-funded community museums throughout the country. Under this initiative, only two community museums have been established. One is the BaTonga Community Museum located in north-western Zimbabwe. This community museum has been quite successful. The NCM is the other project that was adopted by the government as represented by the NMMZ. However, the operationalization of the NCM has faced myriad challenges, which we discuss in this article. In principle, the NMMZ's community museums program is seeking to empower smaller ethno-linguistic communities in Zimbabwe through the promotion and projection of their cultures. Outside the state-driven community museum program are other smaller community museums, such as the Avuxeni and Marange museums in southern and eastern Zimbabwe, respectively. The Marange Community Museum was opened in 2013 and holds displays mainly of material culture that depict the chieftainship of the Marange people (Chipangura and Chipangura 2019).

Thus, in “official” terms, the BaTonga and Nambya are the only ones “recognized” as community museums in Zimbabwe. This approach of state-supported or adopted community museums is convoluted, with administrative and operational ambiguities. As community institutions, the sharing of power, knowledge, and authority with government “experts” and administrators has often resulted in unending struggles, as witnessed in the case of the NCM. Adding to these existing shortcomings of the state-supported community museums is the naming of these institutions after ethno-linguistic communities. That is, the two community museums are named after the ethnic groups that are considered predominant in their respective districts. The BaTonga and Nambya community museums are named after the Tonga and Nambya people who predominate in the Binga and Hwange districts, respectively. Today, the debates, conflicts, and contestation around the NCM are intertwined and interwoven with the development and the successful running of the BaTonga Community Museum located in the neighboring district of Binga. In the next section we explore and examine the key issues emerging from the establishment of the NCM, which is located in a diverse and multi-ethnic district.

The Nambya Community Museum: A Site of Contestation

The lobbying for the establishment of the Nambya Community Museum in Hwange town was spearheaded by the Nambya Cultural Association (NCA). This association has been in existence since the 1960s when it was created by the young, Christian, and educated people of Nambya descent who had benefitted from missionary education, particularly that of the Roman Catholic Church (McGregor 2005; Sagiya 2020). Among its wide array of cultural activities, the NCA has been documenting the oral historical narratives of the Nambya elders and their associated sacred places. In 2004, realizing that a community museum had been established for the neighboring Tonga people, the chairperson of the NCA wrote a letter to the NMMZ as well as to the Mellemfolkeligt Samvirke (MS—Zimbabwe, a Danish non-governmental organization), which had funded the construction of the BaTonga Community Museum, requesting that a similar museum in Hwange be established. Initially, this request received positive consideration, not only from NMMZ and the donor but also from other business entities such as the Hwange Colliery Company.

In 2006, the Hwange Colliery Company, owner of the largest and oldest coal mine in Zimbabwe, donated a dilapidated sports pavilion building located in Hwange town to the community to house its museum (see Figure 2). When it was donated, this structure required substantial repair and refurbishment. The building had no roof, had broken windows, and was without doors. Over the years, well-wishers, the NCA and, in 2019, the NMMZ, have contributed funding, building materials, and other resources towards the renovation of the museum building. At the time of writing, the renovation was nearing completion.

Figure 2.
Figure 2.

The donated pavilion building prior to renovation. Photo courtesy of the author (Munyaradzi Elton Sagiya).

Citation: Museum Worlds 11, 1; 10.3167/armw.2023.110104

The Administration of the Museum

The Nambya Community Museum has a small collection of cultural heritage objects gathered by individuals, along with a few donations, particularly from the people of Nambya descent. Interestingly, the research and collection processes did not conform to “official” or “expert” standard museological practices. Instead, the community-initiated collection practices match what Kylie Message (2018) describes as those of the “disobedient” museum. As Message postulated, the disobedient museum does not seek to progress an “anti-museum” stance but instead identifies edges as potential sites of affective action. Thus, without any written collections acquisition policy or guidelines, the local Nambya connoisseurs of cultural heritage knowledge managed to assemble and curate collections that represented their own culture, history, and aspirations. Between 2007 and the end of 2018, these objects were named, classified, and displayed in ways that deconstruct normative modes of curatorial practices imbedded at national museums in Zimbabwe and beyond. This local and “non-expert” inaugural exhibition was dismantled in 2018 to make way for the ongoing renovation of the museum building. As part of our field research, we toured the now dismantled exhibition in January 2017 (see Figure 3).

Figure 3.
Figure 3.

Volkswagen research team touring the Nambya Community Museum in 2017 before its exhibitions were dismantled. Photo courtesy of the author (Munyaradzi Elton Sagiya).

Citation: Museum Worlds 11, 1; 10.3167/armw.2023.110104

In terms of administration, the Nambya Community Museum falls under a very complex web of “stockholders” and stakeholders. At the helm of the structure is NMMZ, which has staff members who run the museum on a day-to-day basis. The staff is made up of the heritage education officer, a general hand responsible for the cleaning of the museum and the surrounding environs, and security guards. Working very closely with NMMZ is the NCM advisory board, which comprises seven members, all of whom have Nambya ancestral connections. The Nambya people in Zimbabwe are descendants of the Nambya state, a complex pre-colonial, socio-political formation that flourished in this region until its demise during the early part of the twentieth century (Pikirayi et al. 2022). As such, the NCM advisory board members are chosen from the people who can trace their ancestral origins to the Nambya pre-colonial state. In addition to the advisory board, there are other Nambya pressure groups also involved in the development and activities of the museum. These include the Nambya Development Trust, the NCA, and Friends of the Nambya Community Museum. The traditional leaders in Hwange district have also expressed keen interest in the development and role of this community museum, although some of them have mixed feelings about its name and the possible motivation behind it.

The NCM has featured in daily and weekly national newspapers under different headings, such as the ones presented in Table 1. The main concern has been the limited financial support from government towards revamping and renovating the building that houses the community museum. The financial limitations facing the NCM have led to fundraising initiatives by some interest groups. For example, in June 2017, about 30 volunteers conducted a two-day, 100-kilometer sponsored walk between Hwange town and the resort city of Victoria Falls. This sponsored walk was designed to raise funds for museum projects. The target was to raise USD $10,000, but aside from a beast (cow) that was donated by Chief Shana, little money was realized from this effort. Although we could not establish with certainty what could have caused that lack of support for the fundraising initiative, we cannot rule out ethnic “sabotage.” A speech delivered by one of the local authorities welcoming the volunteers to Victoria Falls challenged those behind the community museum to widen their scope and include other ethnic groups, pointing out that the museum will benefit not only the Nambya people but everyone within the Hwange district, and even international tourists (Ncube 2017).

Table 1.

Weekly and daily newspaper articles covering the Nambya Community Museum.

Newspaper Title Date
The Herald “Cry our beloved Nambya museum.” https://www.herald.co.zw/cry-our-beloved-nambya-museum/ 23 Jan. 2013
The Sunday News “Locals chip in to complete Nambya museum.” https://www.sundaynews.co.zw/locals-chip-in-to-complete-nambya-museum 18 Jan. 2015
Chronicle “Nambya community walks to raise funds for museum.” https://www.chronicle.co.zw/nambya-community-walks-to-raise-funds-for-museum/ 10 June 2017
The Sunday News “Nambya museum – a far cry from tourism promotion.” https://www.sundaynews.co.zw/nambya-museum-a-far-cry-from-community-tourism-promotion/ 16 July 2017
The Sunday News “Calls for the refurbishment of Nambya community museum intensify.” https://nambya.org/news/calls-for-refurbishment-of-nambya-community-museum-intensify/ 12 Nov. 2017
The Standard “Travelling and touring: Wither Nambya community museum?” https://newsday.co.zw/thestandard/uncategorized/article/7610/travelling-038-touring-wither-nambya-community-museum 22 Feb. 2022
The Southern Eye “Nambya heritage under spotlight.” https://www.newsday.co.zw/southerneye/news/article/200006436/nambya-heritage-under-the-spotlight 22 Jan. 2023

There have been collective efforts made to complete the renovation of the community museum building, particularly by the descendants of the Nambya pre-colonial state. However, the museum project has not received much support from other ethno-linguistic communities in Hwange district who are disputing the exclusive naming and focus of this museum. For the Lozi, Dombe, Ndebele, and Tonga ethnic groups, who are also inhabitants of Hwange district, naming the community museum “Nambya” is tantamount to giving political power to the Nambya people (Chikozho 2015; Thondlana 2015; Chief Nelukoba pers. com). During our fieldwork, we also observed that other ethnic groups who are constituents of Hwange district consider the naming of this community museum after the Nambya an unfair claim to land, autochthony, and belonging.

Community Sentiments about the Nambya Community Museum

Wide-ranging discussions with the traditional leaders, their people, members of cultural associations (e.g., Nambya and Dombe cultural associations), and other interest groups and stakeholders, including curators from the NMMZ, as well as document analysis and consultation of the relevant literature, provided us with significant insights into various issues affecting the development and impact of the NCM. For instance, the naming of a community museum after the Nambya speakers has ignited ethnic conflicts and divisions which have led the donor (MS—Zimbabwe), who wanted to sponsor the structural repair and refurbishment, to pull out of the building project (Chikozho 2015). Chief Nelukoba, one of the district's five traditional leaders, was very clear on his thoughts with regard to the naming of the museum, as captured in one of the interviews:

Plan Shenjere-Nyabezi: My last question: There is a museum for BaTonga, have you been there?

Chief Nelukoba: Yes, I went there but I do not like that name, Tonga museum just the same as the Nambya museum. The museum is for the people. Since we have the Lubale, the Lozi, the Nambya, we have the San people, all that culture. It should be Hwange museum instead of Nambya museum. All those things [museum collections] belong to all people who are contributing to that culture. Then if we say BaTonga museum, there is a problem! Things that were used by Zambians are in that museum. Here we are against the name Nambya. We do not need that name, they should call it Hwange. Hwange will be embracing everybody. (Interview with Chief Nelukoba 13 February 2017)

Chief Nelukoba condemns the naming of community museums after ethnic groups. In his opinion, Zimbabwe, like other countries in southern Africa and elsewhere, is home to people of diverse ethnic and linguistic backgrounds. Therefore, the naming of community museums after ethnic groups is tantamount to conflict, since ethnicity is a very complex, elusive, and contested phenomenon (Mhlanga 2013; Msindo 2012; Ndakaripa 2014; Rex 1996; Thondlana 2014). Instead, the chief calls for more inclusive names, such as Binga and Hwange, which are the names of the places where the community museums are located, rather than using exclusive ethnic names. The Nambya people, particularly the members of the Nambya Cultural Association, believe it is unfair for the Dombe, Tonga, or other ethnic groups to oppose the current name of the community museum. In the background is the fact that the Tonga have managed to name a community museum in Binga after themselves without any opposition. Now, because the museum is perceived to be for the Nambya, other ethnic groups are uniting against them. Thus, the contestation regarding the naming of the NCM seems to be opening wounds that had always existed among numerous ethnic groups in north-western Zimbabwe, especially between the Nambya and Tonga peoples (McGregor 2005, 2009). These tensions date back to the colonial period when the colonial administrators lumped all other “smaller” ethnic groups within either the Shona or Ndebele groups (Msindo 2012; Ndakaripa 2014). This was the case even with regard to vernacular languages that were recognized by the colonial offices and schools. With the attainment of independence in 1980, and the revision of the educational curriculum that accommodated local languages in schools, the Tonga and Nambya people have always been at loggerheads on which language is to be taught in Hwange district. Until recently, besides Shona and Ndebele, Tonga was the third Indigenous language that schoolchildren could learn and in which they could sit for their primary and secondary national examinations. Among the Nambya people, we observed a very strong sense of being culturally misunderstood and looked down upon by other ethnic groups in the Hwange district and the nation at large. During our fieldwork, this feeling was best explained by Chief Shana:

The problem is that this talk about the Nambya people sounds as if it is a new thing, and some try to suppress it. That is, they would say what is that? The Ndebeles would say these people will cause trouble for us. When they hear Nambya language as part of the national news bulletin, they would be jealous of that. People should understand that we have been suppressed for a very long time. That was sabotage. Somebody was gaining mileage out of us. (Interview with Chief Shana, 6 February 2017)

The above sentiments personify an ethnic group who are often unified by construction of their past, by perception of injustice in the past or in the present, and by hopes of a future reunification (Emberling 1997). Chief Shana does not see any problem for a community museum to be named after the Nambya, an ethnic group that had been suppressed for a long time. Thus, those against the name are regarded as enemies of the Nambya people. When we engaged the NMMZ executive directorate with regard to the naming of state-supported community museums, the feedback stated that it was not the prerogative of the state heritage agency to dictate names for community museums. Instead, it was for the community to decide which name best suited their histories, culture, and interests. One of the state officials whom we spoke to informed us that he once attended a meeting where it was debated which name was suitable for the community museum in Hwange. According to him, the debate was a fierce one which took almost the whole day, and people were divided on whether the museum should be named after the district or a particular ethnic group within the region. It was at that meeting that advocates for the Nambya name won, but the matter seems not to have been settled, as we witnessed during our fieldwork.

As is evident from our fieldwork experience, ethnicity is increasingly becoming a divisive force negatively impacting the concept and development of state-supported community museums in Zimbabwe. Chikozho (2015) noted that the word “community” is a cliché that can be interpreted in ways that can foster or hinder progress. This observation is valid with regard to the challenges facing the NCM. Many groups speaking minority languages, including the Dombe, Leya, Chewa and Lozi, are contesting the name and refusing to be lumped into a specifically ethnically-named community museum with a mission and a vision that do not accommodate their cultural identities and biographies, narratives, histories, and aspirations. The past, as represented by the community museum, has been a useful “resource” or weapon in the ethnic-based politics in Hwange district. As postulated by Appadurai (1981), versions of the past can be collectively held, publicly expressed, and politically charged. The previously mounted “permanent” exhibition at the Nambya community museum had photographic displays of the major archeological stone-built settlements of the Zimbabwe culture that have been historically mobilized by the Nambya people to claim autochthony in Hwange district (Ncube 2004; McGregor 2005; Pikirayi et al. 2022; see also Figure 4). Other groups have challenged such historical narratives, mainly expressed in the oral histories of the Nambya people. The Leya, for example, claim that their settlement in Hwange pre-dates that of the Nambya, and their ancestors could have built the archeological stone-walled sites, such as the Bumbusi, which is also a national monument.

Figure 4.
Figure 4.

A photograph of one of the archeological sites in the Hwange district displayed in the Nambya community museum. Photo courtesy of the author (Munyaradzi Elton Sagiya).

Citation: Museum Worlds 11, 1; 10.3167/armw.2023.110104

Discussion: Towards Multivocality and Inclusivity of Community Museums

For too long, Zimbabwe's cultural diversity has been misrepresented. To see the country as only constituted by the Shona and Ndebele ethnic groups is a gross reduction of its cultural richness, and at the same time a regrettable denial of space to other equally important and hitherto marginalized ethnic communities. The community museum concept is a new tool to open democratic space for equal cultural opportunities, recognition, and participation. According to Godfrey Mahachi, the Executive Director of the NMMZ, all cultures are equal and have a role to play for the development of humanity and need to be treated as such (Godfrey Mahachi cited in Gono 2017; see also Gono 2015). Mahachi made this comment during an interview in a national newspaper, in which he explained the national position regarding the concept of community museums. However, as we discuss here, his envisaged “recognition and equity” enshrined within the concept of community museums remains rhetorical. Ideally, the starting point for NMMZ was supposed to center on provenance research of objects that were looted, unethically acquired, and deposited in the “inherited” colonial national museums, such as the Natural History Museum, located in big cities and far away from the descendants of the people who produced such collections. Those objects relating to ethno-linguistic communities in Hwange district, for example, in consultation with respective communities, should have been considered first for transfer to the state-supported community museums. It should have been the prerogative of the communities to decide how they would want such collections relating to their identities, cultural biographies, history, heritage, culture, and beliefs to be curated and used. However, this has not been the case. Very limited provenance research of ethnographic objects housed in national museums has been undertaken in Zimbabwe in order to establish their communities and their descendants. The recent work by Jesmael Mataga and coauthors (2022) established that most of the ethnographic objects in the custody of the Natural History Museum in Bulawayo were collected by Robert Edward Codrington, a colonialist who amassed cultural objects from chiefs, spiritual leaders, and local communities ranging from as far as West African and East African societies. With limited provenance research and a praxis of decolonizing museum-making in Zimbabwe, there is a danger of the state-supported community museums producing and reproducing authorized and exclusive institutions that will not relate to communities’ cultural heritage expectations and aspirations.

In fact, the Nambya state-supported community museum is now entangled in power struggles and ethnic contestation. The state's involvement through the NMMZ's Community Museum Development Program of 2000 is proving to be problematic for decolonizing museum practices and the sustenance of this new approach to museum-making. The ethnic naming of community museums such as Tonga and Nambya can be considered to be an act that perpetuates the notion of this category of museums as institutions serving the narrow interests, histories, and cultural biographies of specified ethno-linguistic communities. Within a multi-ethnic region such as Hwange district, the naming of a community museum after a single ethnic group is contested. Other ethnic groups (Dombe, Leya, Lozi, and Ndebele) feel excluded and sidelined from the whole community museum concept. Based on what was revealed to us during our interactions with the local communities, the institutional name, collections, personnel, curation, and other components of a community museum should embody the cultural diversity of its district as reflected in the different languages, Indigenous practices, beliefs, and material culture, among other heritage attributes that have co-existed for more than two centuries (Ncube 2004; Pikirayi et al. 2022; Sagiya 2009). Therefore, the museumification that particularizes and focuses on a single ethno-linguistic community of the Nambya is considered by other community members to be a threat to cultural diversity and tolerance. Instead of becoming a center of cultural exchange, reflection, dialog, enjoyment, and entertainment, the NCM has become a battleground for ethnic disputes, conflicts, and perpetuation of a nasty politics of belonging. Interestingly, what we would refer to here as the potential “mediator,” NMMZ, seems to have decided to withdraw from getting deeply involved in what could be labelled “ethnic rivalries” and appropriation of cultural heritage.

This image emerging from Hwange district evokes critical thinking on how community museums, particularly those that are state-supported, can be reconfigured and turned into more inclusive and multivocal institutions. The collections, displays, and curation practices at most of the inherited colonial national museums in Africa and other parts of the world are still contaminated with ideologies of colonialism. Most of these museum institutions lack the conceptual and practical multivocality and inclusiveness (Chipangura and Mataga 2021; Silverman et al. 2022) that the concept of community museums is well positioned to offer. From our own perspectives, it does not require much for a community-initiated and -run museum project to be democratic and become an open space that allows social biographies of objects to be articulated beyond the known premises of aestheticism. This is because, in principle, objects associated with community museums represent living cultures and are not curated as mundane (Chipangura and Chipangura 2019; Mataga 2018; Rassool 2006; Thondlana et al. 2022). It is therefore worrisome from a museological point of view to observe that the existing state-supported community museums in Zimbabwe tend to ignore the diversity and multiple pasts of communities that they purport to serve, an aspect that was clearly demonstrated in the NCM displays before the current renovations. The exhibits were focused on the display and presentation of the Nambya genealogies, histories, and material culture at the expense of the rest of the ethno-linguistic communities in the district.

In our case study, the negative effects of ethnicity in the development of community museums were epitomized when the Nambya people in Hwange district advocated for the establishment of a museum named after them, as had been the case with the BaTonga. The majority of the Nambya people feel that Hwange is for the Nambya as Binga is for the BaTonga. The name Hwange is derived from the Nambya dynastic title. But Hwange, because it is host to the biggest coal mine in Zimbabwe, is an ethnic mosaic or thoroughly cosmopolitan district. This is the result of the influx of immigrant laborers working for the coal mines beginning in the late 1890s. However, other ethnic groups, such as the Leya and Dombe, have been inhabitants of the district since the late seventeenth century, a considerable time before the colonization of Zimbabwe (1890–1980) (McGregor 2005, 2009; Ncube 2004; Nyathi 2005).

Aside from the obvious positive outcomes of community museums, some of which have been mentioned above, such institutions also face serious challenges that require research and critical reflection by museum scholars and practitioners. For more than a decade, the NCM has struggled to overcome conceptual and practical challenges. One of the NCM's challenges is to navigate the institutional appropriation by those within the proximity of power and the legitimization of group identities and claims to power, authority, and autochthony. One possible way of redressing these issues is to reconfigure the museum-making concept of state-supported community museums in order to reflect the diversity of the societies they serve. Ideally, community museums should increase democratization of curating and interpreting not only the past but also contemporary societal issues and challenges. Community museums should increasingly become spaces where diverse community members, museum professionals, and other interest groups meet and engage in work that yields new ways of thinking and living (Camarena and Lersch 2010; Rasool 2006; Silverman 2015). They should serve the different needs and interests of their host communities. Roles that community museums can play include building and rebuilding community identities through their diversity and promoting the ubuntu/unhu African philosophy of “I am, because we are” (or, “I am, because you are”). Underlining the ubuntu/unhu philosophy are virtues that maintain harmony and the spirit of sharing among members of society. This spirit and approach in establishing community museums will differentiate them from other types of museums worldwide. Thus, community museums need to reposition themselves as the “cultural soul” of the communities they serve (Arinze 1998; Bounia 2017; Camarena and Morales 2006; Lonetree 2012; Silverman 2015). This can be achieved through ideological and institutional reforms that promote respect of differences in ethnicity, gender, religious practices, and other social and cultural attributes.

We therefore concur with Shahid Vawda (2014), who argues that museums should address the relations between cultural groups and must accommodate, rather than sideline or simply ignore, the multiplicity of social and cultural compositions of communities. Community museums need to remodel themselves to fit into the diverse context of their locations. In the case of Hwange district, the community museum should become a space to explore the histories, identities, and cultural heritage of its multiple ethnic groups, such as the Nambya, Leya, Lozi, Dombe, and others. Ethnic or clan boundaries defining these community museums should be dismantled (Chikozho 2015; Chipangura and Chipangura 2019; Kreps 2003). A community museum within a multi-ethnic district such as Hwange, with cross-cutting social ties, requires a much broader and more inclusive conceptualization in the various aspects of research, collecting, classifying, exhibiting, and curation.

Conclusion

The positive alternative dimension offered by community museums to that of mainstream museums can be jeopardized if the concept is not conceptually and practically molded. In Zimbabwe, the concept of the community museum is still evolving (Chipangura and Chipangura 2019; Thondlana 2015). The existing state-supported community museums are currently facing myriad challenges largely due to locating themselves within the limits of specific ethnic or clan confinements. We have argued in this article that the success of this concept is dependent on the broader community as the driving force behind the museums, instead of activists or individuals who are pushing for different agendas, particularly those which are political. In the case of the NCM, the force behind the museum is still confined to proponents of Nambya descent, which has inhibited the prosperity of the concept as a collective community project. Taking into account the multi-ethnicity of Hwange district, the community museum could be a success story if it represented the other groups that have played a key role in the history, culture, and memory of this region. The research, collections, exhibitions, and other tangible and intangible community museum programs or events should reflect the biographies of the different ethnic groups constituting the “community.” We envisage a reframed community museum, achieved by renaming and adopting an inclusive mission that reflects Hwange's past, present, and future community aspirations.

Acknowledgements

This research was funded and conducted under the Volkswagen Foundation Senior Postdoctoral research project: The Past in the Present: The Zimbabwe Culture and Other Archaeological Heritage in North-Western Zimbabwe. We wish to express our gratitude to the five chiefs of Hwange district, members of local communities, and associations such as the Nambya Cultural Association and Nambya Development Organisation Trust for providing an enlightening perspective on issues and challenges associated with the Nambya Community Museum. We also thank the staff members of the National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe and the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority for their unwavering support throughout this research project.

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Interviews

  • Interview with Chief Shana, 2 February 2017, Jambezi, Hwange district.

  • Interview with Chief Nelukoba, 13 February 2017, Cross Mabale, Hwange district.

Contributor Notes

MUNYARADZI ELTON SAGIYA is Lecturer of Culture and Heritage Studies in the Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities at Bindura University of Science Education, Zimbabwe. He obtained his PhD in 2022 from the University of Zimbabwe. Previously, he served for 11 years as a curator of archeology for the National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe based at Great Zimbabwe World Heritage Site. His research interests include decolonizing museums and heritage management practices, African archeology, and heritage futures. Munyaradzi has been TheMuseumLab Fellow (May–November 2022), a Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Cologne (June–July 2019), and an Associate Research Fellow at the University College London-Qatar (September–November 2019).

PLAN SHENJERE-NYABEZI is Senior Lecturer in Archaeology and Heritage Studies in the Archaeology Unit, History Heritage and Knowledge Systems Department, University of Zimbabwe. She teaches undergraduate and post-graduate modules in archeology and heritage management, including specialized archeological materials analyses (archaeozoology). Her current major research projects, entitled The Past in the Present: The Zimbabwe Culture and other Archaeological Heritage in North-Western Zimbabwe and Bridging Gaps for the Future of the Past: Archaeological Heritage Knowledge Transfer in North-Western Zimbabwe are generously funded by the VolkswagenStiftung.

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  • Figure 1.

    Map of Zimbabwe showing Hwange District. Map drawn by Russel Kapumha.

  • Figure 2.

    The donated pavilion building prior to renovation. Photo courtesy of the author (Munyaradzi Elton Sagiya).

  • Figure 3.

    Volkswagen research team touring the Nambya Community Museum in 2017 before its exhibitions were dismantled. Photo courtesy of the author (Munyaradzi Elton Sagiya).

  • Figure 4.

    A photograph of one of the archeological sites in the Hwange district displayed in the Nambya community museum. Photo courtesy of the author (Munyaradzi Elton Sagiya).

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    • Export Citation
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    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
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