October 15

The Shona People of Zimbabwe | 5 Fascinating Facts


October 15, 2018

The Shona people of Zimbabwe are a diverse ethnic group with a rich history and fascinating culture. A majority tribe in this Southern African country, they make up 80% of its population though they can be found in Botswana, Mozambique, Zambia and South Africa as well. Many visitors to this gorgeous nation, a popular safari and holiday destination, remark on the warmth and hospitality of its people. With this in mind, we’ve collected a few interesting facts about the group you’re most likely to encounter when on your visit there.

P.S. On your next trip to Zimbabwe, be sure to engage with the locals you meet to learn more about their respective cultures. You will discover that even among the Shona (as it is with many tribes throughout Africa) there are manifold sub-groups with contrasting practices and shifting mythologies, not to mention the ever-evolving, multi-dialect nature of the language itself. In many ways, there isn’t a single, pure way to be Shona so the below may vary.

1. They Are Known For Their Sculptures

The ancestors of the Shona built great stone cities in Southern Africa over a thousand years ago. It’s no wonder that this inheritance has led to Zimbabwe being world renowned for its stone sculptures. Among the Shona, sculpting is not only an art but a means of expressing the relationship between the physical and spiritual worlds. Through this skill that’s passed down through generations, sculptors are able to explore legends, ancestry, belief and even the human condition, as exampled by Samwell Chriume, who’s pictured below with one of his works.

Samwell Chriume poses next to one of his sculptures at Tengenenge sculptors community
Photo credit: Ernst Schade

Stone sculpture emerged in Zimbabwe in the early sixties and the sculptors of that time, such as Thomas Mukarobgwa and Joram Mariga, were heavily influenced by Shona mythology with various interpretations of spirit mediums and guises. The indigenous stones available were a huge guide for the artists –  the popular ones were green, brown and black serpentine, opal, springstone, leopard rock, verdite, rapoko and red jasper. The work of new artists continues to evolve but remains culturally specific and representative of Shona belief and myth.

2. The Language Is Tonal & Not Too Difficult To Learn

The Shona language has several dialects including Korekore, Karanga, Ndau, Manyika and Zezuru. This poetic tongue is derived from the Bantu languages of Central Africa and shares words with Swahili, a language spoken mainly in East and Central Africa. The dialects spoken are a great way to determine people’s origins or the specific group they belong to.

In Shona, the vowel sounds do not alter from word to word and all words end in a vowel, which makes it one of the easier vernaculars to learn. A phonetic language, the way words are spelt easily indicates how they are meant to sound. Shona is also a tonal language with two tones, high and low, which are not indicated in its written form.

Shona maidens during a traditional dance ceremony
Image credit: PRLog

A nifty tricky when trying to learn the language is to pronounce each vowel (there are no silent letters or diphthongs in the Shona language), even when one follows another. For example, the word “kuudza” (to tell) is not “koo-dza” (which actually means “raise/respect”) – the proper pronunciation is, in fact, “koo-oo-za”.

3. They Have Compelling Belief Systems

Traditionally Shona people believe in Mwari (God) whom they believe should only be accessed through their ancestors known as “Vadzimu”. Interacting directly with the divine is considered disrespectful, which is why the mediation of spirits in necessary.

Vadzimu are the good spirits that protect the individual and lineage. Every family has its ancestors and there are ceremonies that are performed intermittently to appease and appeal to them – as in the case of the rain-making ceremony to prevent drought. Good spirits serve to protect and may inspire music, artistic ability or healing. They may, however, withdraw their favour if Shona moral ideals are neglected.

A diviner from the Shona people
Photo credit: Africa Geographic

The Shona people also believe in “Shave,” evils spirits that are thought to cause calamities within the family. The Shave spirits are often considered to be wandering or “intrusive” spirits from outside the tribal territory and only the ancestors are able to remove them. It is also believed that when a person dies their spirit lingers and has an influence on the events of the family and community. Immediately after death, a spirit is thought to be unpredictable but in time it settles and becomes a guardian. In traditional settings, homes will have shrines to their ancestors where descendants can honour them and seek guidance.

A medicine man in a Shona village
Photo credit: Hans Hillewaert

4. The Use Of Totems Is Significant

Among the Shona, people of the same clan use common totems. These are usually made of animal and body parts and indicate that people have a common ancestor. This ancestor would be the founder of the particular totem. When a person dies, someone from the same totem must initiate the burial and other traditional ceremonies. They are so important that Shona chiefs must be able to recite the history of their totem all the way back to its initial founder before they are sworn in.

Though the same totems can be found across several regions, people with the same one are not allowed to be in a romantic relationship or marry.

A Shona traditional dancer mid-leap
Photo credit: Youngrobv

5. They Have An Incredible Creation Story

Though the details (names and sequence) differ from region to region and between groups, the Shona creation myth goes as follows:

God (Mwari) created the first man, Mwedzi (the moon) in a great depth of water. Mwedzi became lonely and yearned to live on land. Despite Mwari’s warnings, he insisted on being released to the earth. Once there, he found that the earth was indeed a lonely and desolate place and begged Mwari for a partner. Mwari sent him morning star (Hweva / Massassi) and the couple gave birth to all the vegetation on earth. After a period of two years, the lovers were separated, leaving Mwedzi desolate once again. He petitioned for another wife and was given evening star (Morongo / Venekatsvimborume) and together they gave birth to the herbivores and birds of the earth and then to boys and girls. Morongo also gave birth to wild animals and reptiles but then created a great sin when she mated with a snake. This snake eventually bit Mwedzi and made him ill. His illness marked the dawn of all human suffering.

The End.

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About the author 

Thanda Mhlanga

An enthusiastic globe-trotter born in Mpumalanga, South Africa, Thanda is back in Cape Town after a year of amazing adventures abroad. When not scouring Soundcloud for her next music obsession, she’s plotting a weekend sho’t left or scrambling to keep track of friends who're scattered all over the world.

  • oh wow.this is so beautiful.I am proudly a Shona girl.thank you so much for all this info.I didn’t know about the Creation story though.

  • That’s amazing story indeed thanks for the creation history “Ndafara ” I’m happy and proudly Shona boy…I’m a victory clan or “WeZhira Wezhara Wezheve” from Shurugwi town lol

  • What a nice read. I’m a Manyika. Humba Makombe totem.
    I didn’t know about the creation story, the joys of always reading I guess.

  • I’m a proud shona man,thank you for the info its really ,interesting, I didn’t know there are such hidden interesting stuff about shona thank you once again.

  • I love learning about the Shona. I’m a former geography teacher. I’ve traveled to South Africa 3 times and visited Zambia. I hope to visit more African countries. I love everything about it and Rhino Africa.

  • Woow?,proud be shona, originated in manyika, migrated to zezurus, bottom line l love this article, thanks a lot bro

  • This is a lovely article. SasaManyika ndazipirwa pandaverenga nhau iyi. Thanks for keeping our history and culture current.

  • Fascinating hey as a Zezuru to me its natural knowledge that speaking to God directly its total disrespect

  • An intriguing read…my first time to learn about the creation story….i have always believed that shona is one of the easiest language to learn….for instance most ndebele people can speak shona while a very small number of shonas can speak ndebele

  • An intriguing read…my first time to learn about the creation story….i have always believed that shona is one of the easiest language to learn….for instance most ndebele people can speak shona while a very small number of shonas can speak ndebele


  • I’m a zezuru, I’m very pleased to come across this history which I never knew regarding the creation
    Mostly I’m proud of my totem

  • This is increadible history lesson.thank you for this.as africans i feel we really need to know where we come from for us ti know where we going.

  • Thank very much I am a Katanga from Masvingo, I also didn’t no about creation, thank u we are learning

  • A very good piece of writing but left a lot but was happy with how you wrote it. Was really impressed with how you find out about the closeness of Shona n Swahili. Good work.

  • Can you please tell me where I can find about THE ORIGIN(ETYMOLOGY)OF THE NAME “SONA”.
    Thank you very much.
    Ibro Tabak
    a history teacher

    • Hi there Ibro,

      Thank you for commenting on our post. Your request isn’t one we can comprehensively answer for you, but we can lend some knowledge from what we already know. South Africa boasts 11 official languages, with many more excluded from the list of the official tongues. Each one would have a slight variation of the word in question and where it comes from. As a native speaker of isiXhosa; one of the 11 recognised languages; I can assist a little by letting you know that in my language this word is plural for wrongdoing. It is spelt the same whether in reference to the future or the past, however, the compound nature of the word remains. If in your journey of discovering new words and their origins you ever think of venturing into an Africa adventure, please do not hesitate to reach out to us.

      Thank you very much again Ibro
      Best regards
      The Rhino Africa team

  • Wow this is amazing – well articulated. I am of the Chewa Tribe from Malawi but originally we migrated from Nigeria and Cameroon and settled in Zaire (today’s Democratic Republic of Congo) before coming to Malawi and Zambia in the 15th century.

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