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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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
Photo credit: Hans Hillewaert
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.
Photo credit: Youngrobv
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.
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.
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That’s so good…im a zezuru
That’s wonderful! Thanks for reading Trevor.
wonderfully language I’m a karang a
that’s is so swt I’m a zezuru n im proud to be zezuru
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.
Only a pleasure. Thanks for reading Mufaro 🙂
I’m ndau.. a fascinating read.
Glad you enjoyed it Jasmine 🙂
That was amazing the rich vocabulary clearly bringinging out the beauty of zimbabwe
Thank you Kudakwashe! It’s definitely one of our favourite destinations in Africa.
thank you for the history. l am a shona but never went across that history of the creation.
Only a pleasure. Thanks for reading Yolanda 🙂
ndabva ndanzwa kudada nekuva mushona thanks
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
I’m so pleased you enjoyed it Jamie 🙂
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.
Hi Tawanda! So glad you found it informative. Thanks for reading 🙂
wow thanks to you thanda.
Only a pleasure 🙂
I vitori, from masvingo thanks for the briefing, and m proud to be shona,
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.
It’s such a pleasure Shadreck. Thanks for reading 🙂
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.
Thank you so much Julie. Let us know if there’s anything we can do to help plan your next African adventure.
Woow🙌,proud be shona, originated in manyika, migrated to zezurus, bottom line l love this article, thanks a lot bro
We’re so glad you loved the article. Take care Johnson 🙂
Wow amazing iam proudly Zezuru. Thank you for the beautiful info about Zimbabwe.
It’s a pleasure Charlene 🙂
This is a lovely article. SasaManyika ndazipirwa pandaverenga nhau iyi. Thanks for keeping our history and culture current.
It’s only a pleasure. Thanks so much for reading 🙂
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
Hi Confidence. That’s fascinating indeed! We’re so glad you enjoyed the blog 🙂
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
Thanks for reading Caroline 🙂
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.
So interesting I’m a Zezuru Great Zimbabwe was built by the Rozvi people I’m one of them”
That’s an absolutely fascinating bit of history! Thank you for reading Gerald 🙂
Nice you make me proud to be a Shona fascinating and true facts thanks
Wow thanks for the info, though I didn’t know the story of creation😇 😃 am proud to be a Zezuru
Such a pleasure 🙂 Thanks for reading Munesu.
Interesting, I loved it. I’m zezuru Nehoreka. Thank you so much
That’s lovely lam a proud karanga
Thanks amazing history ,I am Marlvin of manyika tribe
I didn’t even know about the creation story! Proudly Shona and Zezuru. Mbizi totem
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