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Mobilizing Dance/Traumatizing Dance: Kongonya and the Politics of Zimbabwe
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Kongonya is a dance born of Zimbabwe's liberation struggle of the 1970s against the white Rhodesian regime of Ian Smith. Kongonya was grown and nurtured as the guerrillas and peasants together executed what is called the Second Chimurenga—the stage of armed struggle carried out by the armed wings of the Patriotic Front (PF), also known as the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU PF), and the Zimbabwe African People's Union (PF ZAPU). The First Chimurenga was the 1896-1897 war of resistance against the British colonial forces in which the Africans of Zimbabwe were defeated, resulting in the creation of the settler colony, Rhodesia. Mbuya Nehanda was one of the spiritual leaders of that war of resistance or "uprising." After being captured by colonial forces, Mbuya Nehanda refused to be converted to Christianity, and was hanged. She is said to have defiantly performed a traditional dance and prophesied that "my bones will rise," meaning another Chimurenga "uprising" would follow. Leaders of both the Second and Third Chimurenga have always turned to the First Chimurenga as a cultural reference point to justify their deeds, some of which Mbuya Nehanda might never have condoned had she lived to see them.

Previously analyzed Zimbabwean dances include those associated with major Shona subcultures. (The Shona people who include the Zezuru, Karanga, and Manyika, are the largest ethnic grouping in Zimbabwe; they speak the Shona language.) The Zezuru, the Karanga, and the Manyika subcultures have, respectively, recognizable cultural dances such as jerusarema, mbakumba, and muchongoyo; these dances can function as courtship, ceremonial, or ritual (Asante 2000). I, however, see kongonya as markedly different from earlier dances. I initially conceptualized this 1970s dance as transcending ethnic boundaries—a dance with popular national appeal born out of a desire for a wider cultural independence—a conception no longer as stable and acceptable today. My argument is that kongonya has played an important, previously unacknowledged sociopolitical role in Zimbabwe. Disturbingly, it appears that kongonya has been mobilized to benefit ruling party politicians before and after independence.

However, since kongonya only emerged in Zimbabwe with the 1970s war for independence, I take my analysis of it from my recollections of those later years, and after. During the 1970s liberation struggle, kongonya was danced at all night political meetings (pungwe) called by ZANU PF guerrillas. Pungwes were meetings held in the bush, where guerrillas lectured the peasants (amidst song and kongonya dance) about the justice and necessity of the war against the Rhodesian regime. For a people waging a war of liberation, kongonya facilitated political mobilization, morale boosting, psychological anchoring, and, above all, a comforting sense of the ordinary in an otherwise traumatic context. But in the independence years—especially after 2000—the values that kongonya dance had become associated with were subverted, and became contestable.

I present here what I have seen and gathered about kongonya since my childhood. I have widely consulted those linked to it through personal interviews and testimonies; I also offer a historical exposé of the contexts giving rise to kongonya, particularly the wartime pungwe, the contemporary political rally, the 2000 land reform program, and the 2003 gala phenomenon. I am particularly interested in kongonya because I suspect the dance has undergone a significant functional metamorphosis: though originally well intentioned (particularly during the 1970s liberation struggle against colonial rule), in post-2000 Zimbabwe, those intentions have become distorted.

However, because kongonya was originally performed during the 1970s war, and since major participants of the war traveled across the country's provinces, kongonya was spread as far as the war went, and, therefore, could not be pinned down to one cultural location. Arguably, it weaned people from the limitations of regionalist definitions and styles of dance. Instead of kongonya being a Zezuru, Karanga, or Manyika dance, it was the Zezuru together with the Karanga and Manyika dancing kongonya. But peasants who danced it then never consciously linked kongonya to narrow political party thinking. Etymologically, however, the literal meaning of the word "kongonya" derives from the Shona lexical term "kongonyara," which describes the swaggering movement of a mature male baboon, or from the saying, "Masvanhikongonya kutarisana kwevakarambana" (the defiant and mocking...

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