For decades, the Shona people have been our most incendiary tribe, all thanks to former President Mugabe. But while a long history of countless national failures, the Shona people have long been adored as the smartest and most peaceful Africans. While they have remained aloof, enigmatic and outside the star system, I went on an epic journey of cultural discovery for an unexpected epiphany.
I first realised my knowledge of African culture had changed dramatically while sitting outside a pub a few weeks ago. It was the point on a Friday night when drinks begin to linger on the table as everyone privately debates whether to go home.
It wasn’t a moment worth remembering, but when someone wearing a brightly coloured blazer with matching shoes began to dance, everyone tried to figure out where they were from and what kind of fabric they were wearing. Glasses were moved aside and hand gesturing became the hallmark of a deep conversation.
Once I’d seen how visible and existentially critical this conversation was to my own identity, I saw it in everything: the sweat inducing dance-floor performances, the body language among friends, the heart-warming prayers of faithful believers. If you pulled back the curtain, I wondered, how much of our traditional culture has impacted our modern behaviour?
I needed to know more about my heritage, and more importantly how that culture has changed me and the more than 9 million of us around the world. In an effort to discover my roots and attract a different perspective, I opted for the spontaneous and ephemeral counsel of renowned African journalist, Godfrey Mutizwa.
Like most things do, in the soft light of a relaxed Tuesday morning, I got my chance fuelled by irrational optimism and unlimited time. “I heard about this thing,” I say to him, “that Shona people do.”
He raises an eyebrow and takes another glug of coffee: “Before we jump onto the technical aspects, how about we start from the beginning?”
Good point. The Shona tribe, whether by nature or by design, are a peaceful group of people who don’t stray too far away from home, having the most populations in neighbouring countries like Botswana, Zambia and South Africa. Meanwhile back home, those who held their ground through the worst of storms, represent a whopping 80% of the Zimbabwean population. And if that wasn’t fascinating enough, I discovered that the word “Shona” came into effect in the 19th century due to this tribe’s skill of disappearing and hiding in caves when attacked. As such, the infamous ruler Mzilikazi named them amaShona, “those who disappear”.
The Shona tribe as we know them, are a merger between five uniquely similar language groups, that is, Korekore, Zezuru, Manyika, Ndau, and Karanga. Like many languages, “deep” Shona, which is rich in proverbs and has a vocabulary all its own, is the language of spirituality and art.
Speaking of spirituality, it is said more than 60% of the population is Christian. Despite this, traditional beliefs such as ancestral “worship” and totemism are still an integral part of society. To many, the afterlife is a different state of the same existence, just as water can be a solid and a gas at one stage or another. These spiritual ancestors, “Vadzimu” play an important role in society, who not only stand as mediums between the people and their ancestors but also to their god, “Mwari”.
The Shona also believe the vadzimu are good spirits that protect the family. They influence the day to day lives of their descendents. They give and take, reward and punish, protect or leave you vulnerable.
One of the most important ceremonies in Shona culture is called “Kurova guva” which literally translates to “beating the grave”, but technically means “welcome the spirit home”. This all night ritual usually occurs a year after the passing of a loved one and symbolizes the concept of life after death and the integration of the living with the deceased.
Another highlight of the Shona tribe and the longevity of their culture is the Totem, or in other words, the family crest. Sigmund Freud in his book Totems and Taboo defined a totem as an animal either edible or harmless or dangerous and feared, more rarely it is a plant or a force of nature (rain, water) which stands in a peculiar relation to the whole clan. You’ll find this same dynamic culture flamboyantly shown in Polynesian and Native American tribes too.
Known as, Mutupo, the totems identified clans within the tribe either through an animal or a body part for example Mbizi (Zebra), Shumba (Lion) or Moyo (Heart). Totems in Zimbabwe are not a thing of the past despite the changes that have come with time. Many people are still identified by their respective totems. For example it is used in addressing people, by and large the elders, and is associated with family dignity and respect. It has also been used in praise poetry, thanksgiving and even in times of mourning.
It is critical to know which totem one belonged to, as people from the same clan are deemed to be related and as such, can not marry. Imagine that awkward situation after a handful of delightful first dates. But there was merit to their distaste for inter-totem unions. Firstly, it was thought to result in a weaker species being born. Besides being physically weak, such children were usually a source of trouble to the parents and society at large.
Long ago, when traditions were strictly adhered to, a marriage of that nature would require a special cleansing ceremony to solemnise the union in order to appease the ancestral spirits who would have been angered by such unbecoming behaviour.
The ceremony included among other rituals, the slaughtering of a white beast; referred to as “mombe yecheka hukama”. It signified the termination of all relations between the two wedded parties in as far as the totem was considered.
“And you must know,” Godfrey continues, “how important that is for roora negotiations.”
Of course. I have attended a few in my day and this part I am quite familiar with. Roora or more commonly known as lobola/dowry, is the gift a man pays to his future bride’s family in exchange for her hand in marriage. Common across Southern Africa, this ceremony takes place in a number of stages and each stage has its own traditions and small amounts to pay. Often a lengthy a complex process, the roora is never paid in full or at once. Traditionally, cattle were the currency of the age and it goes without saying, the more you owned, the wealthier you were. With this in mind, roora was paid in cows.
Though the practice is declining somewhat in my generation, the negotiation and payment of roora is still by far the most widely observed and socially significant traditional ceremony. Sure, the religious and civil marriage ceremonies may be performed in addition to roora, but these ceremonies are considered as incidental or extra. no substitute for the more meaningful, socially binding traditional practice of negotiating the bride price.
“And what’s a wedding without a little music huh?” I chime in, in jest.
While many of the indigenous sounds have been watered down by international styles like rock and pop, the Shona people still hold on dearly to some of its traditional music. The mbira, or thumb piano, is a common instrument and local style of music. This small instrument is not found nowhere else in the world. Its full name is the “mbira dza vadzimu” (voice of the ancestors), very significant and sacred in Shona religion and culture. It is usually played to facilitate communication with ancestral spirits.
My singular experience at a mbira concert was an utterly alien one, my primary urge to sing a along to a song I knew was softened from roar to whisper by the legend Ephat Mujuru. And that new kind of stillness was infectious.
Traditionally, the mbira had many uses. Its’ arresting melodies were required to bring rain during drought, chase away harmful spirits and cure illnesses. The mbira was played as a celebration at weddings and to guide wandering spirits at funerals. During Zimbabwe’s journey to liberation, notable musician, Thomas Mapfumo was a champion in the war for independence. His popularity as the leading liberation musician was fuelled by his band’s adaption of the mbira, thus drawing on the power of the spiritual realm for protection and victory.
Dance occupies a crucial place in Zimbabwean culture, tradition, spirituality and history. As an elaborative illustration of their rich ethnic diversity, the Shona tribe had dances to suit different purposes. For example, Dinhe is performed to praise ancestors, while Shangara and Mbakumba is an active part of the after-harvest thanksgiving ceremony. The Mbira is a very powerful dance practice to invoke the ancestral spirits, and the Mhande is performed during the kurova guva ceremony to welcome the return of a deceased family member’s spirit, in addition to the rain making ceremony.
The Jerusarema dance for example, is a dance style practiced by the Zezuru Shona people living in eastern regions of the country. With eyebrow raising circular motions, jaw dropping acrobatics and a smile curling drum beat, the Jerusarema is one of the most important and distinctive dances of Zimbabwe. Performed at rituals and ceremonies, this dance form is most significant for its role in guiding the ancestors into the spirit world.
“We certainly should touch on the Shona people’s most impressive quality.” he remarked as he finished his second cup of coffee.
“Which one is that? There are so many after all” I replied.
In the back of my mind, I knew what he was talking about. The Shona people are known worldwide, not for their gyrating waistline, nor for their astute fashion sense, but for their handcrafted stone sculptures.
Regarded as spectacular workmanship for decades, each piece can be found selling for extremely high prices in many galleries around the world. And yet, in local markets, these stone marvels are as elusive as they are far from ingratiating. Sculptors thus find their muse in the mystery of the spiritual realm as well as nurturing beauty of womanhood. The nude torso, the dancing girl, and the mother and child are depicted in a myriad of ways. What’s more, the detail achieved using serpentine stone is exquisite. While we realize that the origins of these remarkable sculptures date back no further than the 1950’s, it has been time enough to gain a global reputation not just as great African art, but great art in the broadest sense.
Looking back at my younger, and granted more naive years, my view of Shona customs were that it had no tangible role in my existence: but it seems to me more compelling as a narrative and more historically revealing of my own self worth. I suspect as more Africans become self aware of their origins and begin to embrace the lost history that makes them African, we will begin to see a modern appreciation and integration of tribal heritage in mainstream media.
Source: Nomad Africa Magazine