Silence, destruction and closure at great Zimbabwe: Local narratives of desecration and alienation

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16 Citations (Scopus)


Based on recent research around Great Zimbabwe National Monument in southern Zimbabwe, this article considers the history of Great Zimbabwe's 'destruction' and 'desecration' from the perspective of the elders of the surrounding communities. Although each clan puts forwards competing claims over Great Zimbabwe, their narratives of the processes that have led to its 'desecration' are remarkably similar. Using notions of 'destruction', 'closure', and 'silence' these narratives illustrate how the processes through which a place becomes a national and international heritage site can alienate local communities, and thereby undermine the 'spiritual values' associated with it. Local people often state that the 'desecration' of Great Zimbabwe began with the arrival of Europeans at the end of the nineteenth century. In particular whites are blamed for the destruction they caused as they dug for gold and relics, or for the source of the mysterious sounds and voices heard there in the past. Although archaeologists today often lament the reckless pillaging of ruins across Zimbabwe by early Rhodesian antiquarians, local narratives do not differentiate between the destructive diggings of early antiquarians and the careful, 'scientific', excavations of professional archaeologists. Rather, local accounts emphasise the 'desecration' caused by a lack of respect for the spirits and the 'traditional' rules regarding the site. Other issues raised in local narratives include the removal of artefacts, the appropriation of the site and distancing caused by the encircling fence, management of the site as a 'business', and the control of ceremonies. The implication of these narratives is that the fundamental cause of the 'silence' of the Voice at Great Zimbabwe is the refusal by the government and National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe (NMMZ) to acknowledge ownership and control of the site by the ancestors and Mwari (God).

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)771-794
Number of pages24
JournalJournal of Southern African Studies
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2006
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Sociology and Political Science


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