a look at Jerusarema Mbende

The sexually-suggestive UNESCO-protected dance

Daisy Jeremani speaks to the elders, villagers and cultural experts in Zimbabwe preserving a fertility and courtship routine that was based on a mole

Through songs and dance, Africans have always celebrated continuity of their lineages and communities.

Pathisa Nyathi, historian

Characterised by energetic and sensual movements, a Zimbabwean fertility and courtship dance has been recognised by the UN as a masterpiece of oral and intangible heritage; Jerusarema Mbende is the only Zimbabwean traditional dance to have that honour.

A small glossary

  • Mbende (Jerusarema) – a dance that gets its etymology from a mole or “fast running mouse”.
  • The Shona people – part of the Bantu ethnic group primarily living in Zimbabwe where they form the majority of the population, as well as Mozambique, South Africa, and a worldwide diaspora including global celebrities, such as Thandiwe Newton.

A popular traditional dance in a northeastern province of Zimbabwe, Mbende was commonly performed in northeastern Zimbabwe before colonialism. The settlers banned it in 1899 due to the dance piece’s sexual connotations. But when Zimbabwe gained independence from Britain in 1980, the dance saw a resurgence. It is now significant as a statement of cultural independence.

In 2005, Jerusarema Mbende was proclaimed on the UNESCO list as a testament to its importance in the Zimbabwean arts and culture. Performed mainly in pairs that are balanced between males and female, the dance is popular among the Shona-Zezuru people of Murehwa and Uzumba-Maramba-Pfungwe districts of Mashonaland East Province, north east of the southern African country.

It is accompanied by a polyrhythmic drummer,

men playing woodblock clappers,

and women hand-clapping,
yodelling and whistling.

In an interview with TOPIA, Phineas Mugwati, a music lecturer and applied ethnomusicologist in the Department of Music Business Musicology and Technology at Zimbabwe’s Midlands State University, said Jerusarema Mbende depicts how “a male mouse burrows into the ground to take food to its pregnant partner”. The idea of partner, he said, implies fertility. This act is brought to life in the dance when the man crouches, while jerking his arms and vigorously kicking the ground with his right leg mimicking the burrowing mouse, or mole. The women will also be moving towards the man with vigorous hip moments.

Getting ready to burrow | Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

The acrobatic dance movements visualise sexual intentions, as both partners energetically dance towards each other and the man would rise and act as if he and his dancing partner are going to clash at each other’s waist area, while they are mid-air, but would turn away from each other. Often, this is much to the chagrin and protestations from onlookers, who would be urging them to physically get in contact with each other. This movement is varyingly repeated with other sensual movements.

“Dancing movements largely depict the idea of choosing, selecting a partner,” said Mugwati. The idea of having the dance performed by both the old and the young is so that it could be preserved for posterity. 

The Journal of Asian and Pacific Arts, Performing Authenticity and Contesting Heritage in the UNESCO-Inscribed Jerusarema Mbende Dance of Zimbabwe says the dance is believed to have originated as a war dance, fertility dance, hunting dance and funeral dance.

According to Kennedy Kachuruka, president of the Zimbabwe National Traditional Dance Association (ZNTDA), Jerusarema Mbende was a courtship and ceremonial dance. In ancient times, he added, married couples would dance at a memorial or funeral of elders. With time, young boys and girls adopted it and would dance at evening gatherings during the full moon, referred to as jenaguru in Shona, the most widely spoken vernacular which also incorporates Zezuru.

Boys and girls would dance in pairs and would court each other through songs such as the popular Sarura Wako in Shona, loosely translated to “choose your partner.” As much as it would seem like frolicking, this would sometimes translate into meaningful relationships.

“So some would fall in love and even marry,” said Kachuruka.

Though Jerusarema Mbende has undergone continual socio-cultural and aesthetic change, it is distinctly identified by its four counts, tied, or capped by a lock, known in Zezuru language as “kuva,” which is the intended hitting or clash point of male and female in their dance.

Alfred Chiyangwa, a dancer and manager of Ngoma Dzepasi Mbende Dance Group, which is based Dzimwe RaGutu Arts Centre in Fungai Village in Mashonaland East, said this masterpiece also depicts love between couples. During the dance, the locking move at the end of the routine highlights the ultimate coupling of lovers.

“From my years of practicing it, I have come to discover that the dance shows the hard work of the father for the sake of his wife and children – and then after the hard work how they enter their bedroom for intimacy,” he said.

Censoring the curiously-named dance

Chiyangwa Mukuvapasi, who is popularly known as Mambo (Shona for King), said when European missionaries came into contact with the dance they were so disgusted by its suggestiveness that they banned it in terms of the Witchcraft Suppression Act of 18 August 1899.  Two other traditional dances performed in other parts of the country were proscribed under that law. 

Zezuru chiefs were so distraught to lose a dance that was not only significant, but also their vehicle of cultural and emotional expression. A council of elders from the Zezuru community met in 1910 to determine a plan of action to go round the prohibition. According to historical accounts, villagers came up with a plan to dramatise the birth of Jesus Christ in Jerusalem at a Christmas event, even though he was born in Bethlehem. The chiefs are said to have presented gifts while dancing Mbende, singing and praising Jesus’ birth to the astonishment of the missionaries who were present.

In a bid to appeal to their Christian values, they then convinced the missionaries to change the name from Mbende – the Shona word for “mole”, which was regarded as a symbol of fertility, sexuality and family – to Jerusarema, the Shona words for Jerusalem. The dance’s curious name reveals much about its vicissitudes over the centuries. Both names are used today.

Due to its popularity, Jerusarema Mbende was picked at independence in 1980 as the introductory and signature tune for all radio and television news bulletins on the national broadcaster, Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation. The dance is increasingly used at political party rallies, with the mitumba drum, rattles and whistles being replaced by instruments of poor quality, contributing to the loss of the uniqueness of the Mbende music.

An attempt by the entity to drop it in 2000 was met with a public outcry resulting in its reinstatement.

In one of his writings in a local newspaper, historian Pathisa Nyathi weighed in on this issue, saying it was “unthinkable” for Africans to exclude sexual expression through song and dance in their cultural practices. In those days, Africans, he wrote, were obsessed with attaining eternity through sexuality and imposed the same ideas on both the physical landscape and the cosmos – and would not fail to create the same thematic elements in what he has control over, like song and dance. Thus the banning of such expressive dances was a direct attack to Zezurus’ beliefs.

He said the two dancers in their repertoire energetically dance towards each other and exhibit erotic gyrations of the waist. “Through songs and dance, Africans have always celebrated continuity of their lineages and communities,” Nyathi said.

What’s so good about this?

In all African settings that are still steeped in their traditional cultures, dance is integral, just like language. Preserving them, including Jerusarema Mbende reminds people of their past and invokes a sense of belonging. It is good entertainment as well.

Meet the writer

Daisy Jeremani is an award-winning freelance journalist based in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. She has worked for The Chronicle, one of the leading dailies in the country, for 15 years, ten of which she covered arts and culture as the Arts and Entertainment Editor. Her work has appeared in local and international outlets, among them Al Jazeera Impact. She can be reached @ManyikaDaisy.

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