The Shona people are an ethnic group native to Southern Africa, primarily Zimbabwe (where they form the vast majority). They have five major clans, and are adjacent to other groups with similar cultures and languages.
Zimbabwe is in central southern Africa. Because of the impact of its colonial history on the nation's political, economic, and sociocultural life, it generally is identified more with southern Africa than with central Africa. A land-locked country of 242,700 square miles 390,580 square kilometers between the Zambezi River to the north and the Limpopo River to the south, it is bordered by Mozambique, South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, and Zambia. Most of the country is a high to middle veld plateau with extensive areas of wooded savanna and a temperate climate; the low veld of the Limpopo and the Zambezi Valley is hotter and has less rain. On the Mozambique border, the only mountainous area, the Eastern Highlands, runs from Nyanga in the north to Chimanimani in the south. Rainfall is higher in the north of the Eastern Highlands and lower in the Zambezi Valley and the low veld.
The capital, Harare, is located in Mashonaland, which covers the eastern two-thirds of the country and is the area where most Shona-speaking people live. The second city, Bulawayo, is in Matabeleland in the west, where most Ndebele-speaking people live.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the population is estimated to have been about six hundred thousand. The 1992 national census estimated it at over ten million, and with a growth rate of 3 percent, it is expected to be over twelve million in 2000. About 70 percent of the population lives in rural areas, and Harare and Bulawayo account for most of the approximately 30 percent in urban areas. The largest ethnic group is collectively known as the Shona and consists of the Manyika, Zezuru, Karanga, Korekore, Rozwi, and Ndau groups, which make up about seventy-six percent of the population. The second largest ethnic group is the Ndebele, consisting of the Ndebele and Kalanga groups, which constitute about 18 percent. Mashonaland, where most of the Shona live, is a collective term for the eastern two-thirds of the country, and most Ndebele live in the western third of Matabeleland. Other ethnic groups, each constituting 1 percent of the population, are the Batonga in the Zambezi Valley, the Shangaan or Hlengwe in the low veld, and the Venda on the border with South Africa. About 2 percent of the population is of non-African ethnic origin, mainly European and Asian.
In the twentieth century, there were three major changes in the demographic and settlementpattern. First, the acquisition of large tracts of land by white settlers for commercial agriculture, until shortly after World War II resulted in a situation in which half the land was owned by well under 1 percent of the population, with limited access to land for the vast majority of the rural population. Second, in the colonial period, the development of industry in towns and cities, particularly Harare and Bulawayo, required men seeking work to live in urban areas, leaving women and children in the rural areas. Although this gender imbalance in urban areas no longer exists, and there is more movement between urban and rural areas, de facto women heads of household are still common in rural areas. Most jobs continue to be found in urban areas and employment income rather than income from farming is the most important factor in the standard of living among smallholder families. The third major change has involved the age profile of the population. A sharp drop in mortality rates and longer life expectancy between 1960 and 1992 meant that almost sixty-three percent of the population sixteen to thirty-four years of age. The statistical impact of the AIDS epidemic on the population will not be clear until the next national census in 2002, but that disease is considered a major factor in higher maternal and infant mortality rates.
The Shona people are divided into tribes in eastern and northern Zimbabwe. Their estimated population is 10.7 million:
Other members or close relatives:
When the term "Shona" was created during the early-19th-century Mfecane (possibly by the Ndebele king Mzilikazi), it was used as a pejorative for non-Nguni people; there was no awareness of a common identity by the tribes and peoples which make up the present-day Shona. The Shona people of the Zimbabwe highlands, however, retained a vivid memory of the ancient kingdom often identified with the Kingdom of Mutapa. The terms "Karanga", "Kalanga" and "Kalaka", now the names of discrete groups, seem to have been used for all Shona before the Mfecane. Ethnologue notes that the language of the Bakalanga is mutually intelligible with the main dialects of Karanga and other Bantu languages in central and eastern Africa, but counts them separately. The Kalanga and Karanga are believed to be one clan who built the Mapungubwe, Great Zimbabwe and Khami, and were assimilated by the Zezuru. Although many Karanga and Kalanga words are interchangeable, Kalanga is different from Zezuru.
Dialect groups have many similarities. Although "standard" Shona is spoken throughout Zimbabwe, the dialects help identify a speaker's town (or village) and ethnic group. Each Shona dialect is specific to a certain ethnic group.
In 1931, during his attempt to reconcile the dialects into a single standard Shona language, Clement Doke identified five groups and subdivisions:
Dialects developed during the dispersion of tribes across Zimbabwe over a long period, and the influx of immigrants into the country from bordering countries has contributed to the variety.
During the 11th century, the Kalanga people formed kingdoms on the Zimbabwe plateau. Construction began on Great Zimbabwe, capital of the kingdom of Zimbabwe. The Torwa dynasty ruled the kingdom of Butua, and the kingdom of Mutapa preceded the Rozvi Empire (which lasted into the 19th century).
Brother succeeded brother in the dynasties, leading to civil wars which were exploited by the Portuguese during the 16th century. The kings ruled a number of chiefs, sub-chiefs and headmen.
The kingdoms were replaced by new groups who moved onto the plateau. The Ndebele destroyed the Rozvi Empire during the 1830s; the Portuguese slowly eroded the kingdom of Mutapa, which extended to the Mozambique coast after it provided valued exports (particularly gold) for Swahili, Arab and East Asian traders. The British destroyed traditional power in 1890 and colonized the plateau of Rhodesia in 1890, and the Portuguese colonial government in Mozambique fought the remnants of the kingdom of Mutapa until 1902.
There were some large stockaded villages prior to colonial settlement, but in some areas people lived in scattered family hamlets. The dominant settlement pattern is one of villages with homesteads spread out in lines next to agricultural land. The traditional homestead included a number of round, pole- and-mud huts with conical thatched roofs. These huts have largely been replaced by brick houses, roofed with zinc, sometimes in the traditional style of round huts.
The major grain for consumption is maize, although in parts of the Zambezi Valley millet and sorghum are the principle grains. After grinding, the flour is cooked into a thick porridge that is eaten with green vegetables or meat. A wide range of green vegetables are grown in kitchen gardens and collected wild. They generally are prepared with onion and tomato and sometimes with groundnut (peanut) sauce. Bread is a staple in the urban diet but not as important in rural areas. Foods that are eaten seasonally include milk, boiled or roasted groundnuts, boiled or roasted maize, fruits, termites, and caterpillars. Dry land rice is grown insome parts of the country, but generally rice is not an everyday food.
A few food taboos with serious health consequences are still widely practiced. Traditionally eggs, were believed to cause infertility in women and therefore were avoided, but they are now widely consumed. The meat of one's clan totem was traditionally avoided; even today animals representing totems are rarely eaten.
Eating out is not common, even among men in the urban areas. Travelers purchase soft drinks and prepared food, such as fried cakes, potato chips, roasted maize, and sugarcane from vendors. A higher proportion of the white population regularly buys prepared meals and eats in restaurants.
Roasted and stewed meat is the food of celebrations; an ox, cow, or goat may be slaughtered in the rural areas, depending on the significance of the event, and may be accompanied by rice. Beer made from millet usually is prepared by women, and roasted groundnuts are served on special occasions.
Shona are primarily agricultural. Their main crop is maize, but they also grow millet, sorghum, rice, beans, manioc, peanuts, pumpkins, and sweet potatoes. They raise some cattle, sheep, and chickens. Women may supplement their income by selling pottery and handwoven baskets that serve primarily as utilitarian objects. Men may work as blacksmiths or carvers by commission. Although cows are milked, they are most often used for bride price. Cows are considered taboo for women, so men must do all of the milking and herding. Men also do some hunting and fishing, but neither contribute greatly to the food supply. Men and women both participate in farming.
Traditionally, every adult man was given land by his father or village headman. Land could not be bought or sold; it was returned to the community for redistribution when no longer in use. Now there is a scarcity of agricultural land in most communities, and land rights are carefully guarded and inherited. Land has acquired a commercial value. Grazing land, however, remains communal and, except in freehold commercial-farming areas, is habitually overused.
Although there is a long history of trade both between Shona groups and with outsiders, there were traditionally no markets in Shona settlements. These are now well established in cities, towns, and many rural centers of administration and trade. Even the remotest areas have access to some stores in which basic consumer goods are sold.
Major exports include tobacco, gold, ferroalloys, nickel, and asbestos. The main export destinations are Great Britain, South Africa, and Germany. South Africa is by the far the largest source of imports and machinery and transport equipment, manufactured goods, chemicals, petroleum products, and electricity are the largest imports.
The division of labor in Shona society is primarily based on sex. Women make pottery, do all the domestic work, and perform many of the less strenuous agricultural tasks. Men are responsible for more strenuous (but less time-consuming) agricultural work, raising cattle, hunting, and ironwork. They are also involved in politics, which requires much sitting around and talking.
Certain men, such as a chief or a man with many daughters, can expect to have dependents do chores for them. People with good incomes from wages or salaries are now able to employ others to do some of their agricultural work.
Shona are best known for their beautifully carved wooden headrests. Most of the art associated with Shona is either personal or utilitarian. Although they produce little figurative sculpture, they do have a rich tradition of metalworking and woodcarving.
In the rural areas everyone is involved in agriculture and there are no full-time specialists. In the past there was extensive iron and gold smelting, but all the surface gold has now been mined, and superior iron is now obtained from modern plants. One still finds blacksmiths in many villages, however. Traditional crafts of basketwork and pottery are still widespread. One now finds carpenters, builders, tailors, and other semiskilled specialists in many rural areas. Women engage in sewing and knitting, now often on a cooperative basis.
Polygyny was traditionally preferred, but the cost of living, and especially of education, has made monogamy more common. The preferred form of marriage is virilocal, with the payment of bride-price, traditionally in cattle but now in cash and kind. Bride-service was formerly an alternative; in the remoter low-lying areas where cattle are not kept, it remains a prominent part of marriage transactions. Occasionally, a young girl may be pledged to a wealthy man against help in time of extreme hardship. Divorce, although discouraged, is common and usually involves the return of a proportion of the bride-price, depending on the duration of the marriage and the number of children born.
Traditionally, the sexual activities of women were strictly controlled, and girls were inspected for virginity at marriage. Such controls have largely broken down.
In a polygynous marriage, the domestic unit was usually a wife and her children. Such a unit was usually allocated its own fields for subsistence purposes. A nuclear family is now the most common domestic unit.
A man's status, wives, and possessions may be inherited by his brother or by his adult child. The inheritor takes responsibility for the family of the deceased. Adelphic succession results in the position of chieftainship rotating between houses descended from different wives of the founder of the dynasty. Adelphic inheritance sometimes poses problems in a modern family, when the deceased husband's kin take all the family property, leaving the wife destitute. A woman's personal property is inherited by her daughters.
Infants are pampered and receive much personal attention until the age of 3 or 4, resulting in rapid development of motor and cognitive skills. Thereafter, they are strictly disciplined. Children receive much personal attention from peers and a number of adults in the extended family. Although importance is attached to authority structures, including authority based on age among siblings, this authority is diffused among a number of older persons. Now, with more emphasis on the elementary family, authority often rests entirely with the family head and is more open to abuse
Shona societies are primarily organized around kinship. Relations between non-kin may be formalized in bond friendship, which imposes mutual obligations of hospitality, material assistance, and certain ritual services. Heavy tasks, such as thatching a house, clearing or plowing a field or reaping the harvest, may be performed by work parties, at which neighbors work and are rewarded with supplies of millet beer. Attendance at such parties imposes obligations of reciprocation.
The principal Shona political unit was the chiefdom. A hereditary chief was ultimately responsible for the distribution of land, for appeasing the territorial spirit guardians, and for settling disputes. Larger chiefdoms were sometimes subdivided into wards, each with its ward headman. The details of distributing land and settling minor disputes were left to the village headmen, but in the colonial era his main function became keeping a tax register.
Although the traditional political authorities are still recognized in order to maintain Shona culture and values, they now have little power. Dispute settlement is now in the hands of elected presiding officers, and land distribution is controlled by government administrators.
Serious crimes, such as incest and homicide, used to be in the control of the guardian spirits, through their mediums. All other offenses were dealt with by a hierarchy of courts from the village level to the chiefly level. Now offenses are dealt with by a hierarchy of government-controlled courts, from the community level to the High Court.
Warfare between the scattered Shona chiefdoms was rare. A number of Shona groups suffered from raids by Ndebele armies during the nineteenth century. Tensions between the Shona and the Ndebele have not yet been totally resolved.
The indigenous religion of the Shona consists basically of a tripartite view of the cosmology. As noted by T. Shoko, there is in the first place, a belief in a ‘world above’ which is the abode of the Supreme Being or a Creator god known by different names, Mwari (“The Great One” or “He who is”), Musikavanhu (“the One who created people”) or Nyadenga (“the Great Spirit that lives above in heaven” or Owner of the Heavens), Dzivaguru (Great Pool) and quite a number of other names. The Shona does not believe God to have a shape or form such as a human being, but rather sees Him as a Spirit who inhabits heaven but who is also present on earth.
Secondly, there is the ‘human world’ which is the physical location here on earth. Constituting this world are humans themselves, animals, rocks, rivers, forests and so many other natural features. It is believed that God made all and everything that exists and that He is somehow involved in the everyday lives of people. He is responsible for good but also for bad in the world, and can give happiness or bring sudden destruction to an individual. It is believed that a human being cannot really reason or argue with Mwari, and the concept of an individual living in a close personal relationship with God (as found in Christianity and Judaism) is therefore not accepted.
Thirdly, one finds belief in the ‘underworld’ also. Such an underworld is normally associated with the dead as well as with evil powers.
Though these worlds may be conceived as tripartite, they are not separate entities as such, but are linked through ritual and conciliation. Spirits of different kinds, especially that of ancestors; pervade the worlds ‘above’, ‘below’ and ‘underground’. Human beings hold a central position in this Shona worldview.
Because God is regarded as being largely inaccessible to the individual, the vadzimu (ancestral spirits) plays a very important role in the Shona’s religious life. It is believed that when an individual dies, his or her spirit wanders until it is invited to return home and protect its descendants. This is done during the kurova guva ceremony when beer is poured over the grave and the spirit asked by the relatives to “come home” and protect them. However, only an adult individual who has children of his own can become a family mudzimu (plural). The vadzimu are believed to live in an invisible community parallel to the community of the living, which enables them to watch over the living and be aware of everything that happens in the lives of their living relatives.
Two groups of vadzimu can be discerned – the mhondoro who are believed to be the spirits of the founders of the clan or tribe, and the vadzimu, believed to be the spirits of the individual’s deceased patrilineal and matrilineal ancestors. The mhonddoro or tribal spirits are therefore mostly concerned with the clan or tribe as a whole and would traditionally be approached in matters such as drought, warfare, succession of chiefs, etc.
The family vadzimu not only controls the lives of their descendants to a large extend, but also act as intermediaries between them and God on all matters concerning everyday life. Although the vadzimu helps and takes care of the family on the one hand, they can also be angered or offended easily, especially when certain customs, rituals or traditions are not kept by the living. They would then punish the offenders by causing sickness or other problems in their lives.
When a mudzimu becomes extremely angered or seeks revenge against someone, it is known as an ngozi or evil spirit. Typically, the spirit of someone who was murdered is believed to become an ngozi who would revenge his murder on the murderer and his or her family. Such an attack would be far fiercer and more savage than the punishment a mildly angered mudzimu would bestow on a descendant who offended it by neglecting a custom or ritual. The ngozi may attack its victim in various ways, causing serious sickness, death or disaster in the family.
In such a case, the offended mudzimu or ngozi has to be appeased by first discovering the cause of its anger and then doing restitution by prayer and offerings (beer, animal sacrifice, etc.).
Another type of spirit Shonas traditionally believe to have an effect on their lives, are the shavi (plural mashavi) or wandering spirits. These are foreign spirits from outside the family – spirits of strangers who died away from their homes (and who was therefore not granted the proper burial rites). The spirits of people (children or adults) who die without any descendants of their own also becomes mashavi who roams until they find a person from another family whom they can possess to express their ego and identity. Another kind of mashavi are called majukwa – the spirits of ancestors that no one remembers and honors any more.
The Shona believe that it is not enough for a spirit to merely exist, but that it is essential for a spirit to be known to exist, to be acknowledged and remembered by its descendants and to have a way of expressing its ego and identity. Although the family mudzimu is incorporated into the family vadzimo during the kurova guva ceremony and thereafter venerated and honored as a member of the family, all spirits (vadzimu, ngozi and mashavi) manifest themselves through living persons by ways of possession.
When a spirit selects an individual to possess, the individual becomes ill or has strange dreams. This will continue until the person consults an n’anga (witchdoctor) who will reveal that a spirit that wants to possess him or her causes the sickness or dreams. If the individual accepts the spirit, a ceremony is prepared during which the spirit “comes out” and introduce itself and its intentions. If the person accepts and welcomes the spirit, it would remain with him or her and the person would become the svikiro (medium) for that particular spirit.
In this way, the possessed individual could receive special powers or abilities that it did not have before. For instance, it is believed that each shavi has a particular skill or talent such as artwork, hunting or healing. When a person becomes the medium for a shavi skillful in healing, that person would then become a skillful healer.
It is believed that when a mudzimo wants to possess one of its family members, that individual will die if it refuses to accept the mudzimo. The chosen one may, however, ask the mudzimo to choose another of its descendants – something that he may or may not decide to do. If the chosen individual is a Christian, prayer to Jesus Christ and/or exorcism will free them from the power of the mudzimo or shavi.
The traditional Shona religion does not provide for the existence of Satan or demons. However, varoyi (witches, plural muroyi) and the ghosts under their command are seen as responsible for a lot of evil that takes place in this world. Just as the talents or powers of a n’anga is passed on from one generation to another by a mudzimo, the evil powers of a muroyi is also passed on by ways of spirit possession. Unlike the n’anga, however, varoyi are almost always women.
It is said that a muroyi travels at night (usually naked on the back of a hyena) to visit the people she wants to harm. To bewitch someone, the muroyi first misleads the persons guarding family vadzimo to think she comes as a friend, and then proceed to cast spells to cause the victim to fall into a deep coma. She then sends her zvidhoma (ghosts) into the house to beat or even kill him or her.
Witches are believed to create ghosts to serve them by calling the spirits of children they have killed and forcing them to eat their potions. They are said to practice a variety of spells and magic, but always with an evil intend. For instance, their so-called “black medicine” causes permanent physical disorder instead of healing. Some of their rituals include the use of dead bodies and even cannibalism. Witches often meet in
covens to practice rituals together and keep “familiars” such as owls or snakes which they sometime send to carry evil to unsuspecting victims.
The Shona believe that, ages ago, there were families among them who had the ability to heal the sick and help those suffering from misfortune. These special abilities or gifts were passed on through the vadzimu from one generation of descendants to the next. This means that a chosen individual could become possessed by a mudzimo that will empower him or her with the talent of an n’anga (witchdoctor).
The Shona recognizes several kinds of n’anga or witchdoctors. Firstly, there are herbalists who specialize in herbs that are sold to customers to treat a variety of illnesses or misfortunes. These n’anga are generally regarded as “good”, although they have the ability to cause harm by using poisonous herbs.
The second kind is bone-throwers or soothsayers that cast bones (literally a variety of “magical” items such as pieces of rock, bones, wood, hair, etc.) to reveal the unknown. They are consulted on a variety of issues, such as determining the cause of a sudden illness or crisis or advice when an important decision has to be made. If the problem is the result of witchcraft, the n’anga will use the bones to identify the witch or guilty party. If the problem is caused by an angered mudzimo or avenging ngozi, the spirit must be placated by prayer and sacrifice.
The most feared n’anga are those magicians who could use magic to protect or harm people. They could for instance be hired to strike a house with lightning or inflict pain or death on an enemy. They can also be hired to cast spells to protect someone who is under attack from a mudzimo, shavi or the magic spells of another person.
Most important ceremonies involve offerings of millet beer to the spirits concerned. Small libations are poured, and the remainder is consumed by the gathering, amid singing and dancing. Sacrifices may occasionally be offered to ancestors and territorial spirits but are regularly offered to Mwari. Spirits may also be honored with gifts of cloth or money, handed over to the medium.
The most important musical instrument is the mbira. In African music, the mbira (also known as likembe, mbila, thumb piano, mbira huru, mbira njari, mbira nyunga nyunga, sansu, zanzu, karimbao, kalimba, or—between the late 1960s and early 1970s—sanza) is a musical instrument that consists of a wooden board with attached staggered metal keys. It is often fitted into a resonator. In Eastern and Southern Africa, there are many kinds of mbira, usually accompanied by the hosho. Among the Shona people there are three that are very popular (see Shona music). The mbira is usually classified as part of the lamellaphone family. It is also part of the idiophones family of musical instruments.
Both Dr. Joseph H. Howard, owner of the largest collection of drums and ancillary folk instruments in the Americas, and Nigerian drummer Babatunde Olatunji argue that the mbira is thoroughly African, being found only in areas populated by Africans or their descendants.
Mbira came to prominence after the worldwide stage performance and recordings of Thomas Mapfumo, whose music is based on and includes the mbira; the work of Dumisani Maraire, who brought marimba and karimba music to the US Pacific Northwest; Ephat Mujuru, who was one of the pioneer teachers of mbira in the US; as well as the writings and recordings of Zimbabwean musicians made by Paul Berliner.
In Shona music, the mbira dzavadzimu ("voice of the ancestors", national instrument of Zimbabwe) is a musical instrument that has been played by the Shona people of Zimbabwe for thousands of years. The mbira dzavadzimu is frequently played at religious ceremonies and social gatherings called mabira (sing. "bira").
A typical mbira dzavadzimu consists of between 22 and 28 keys constructed from hot- or cold-forged metal affixed to a hardwood soundboard (gwariva) in three different registers—two on the left, one on the right.
While playing, the little finger of the right hand is placed through a hole in the bottom right corner of the soundboard, stabilizing the instrument and leaving thumb and index finger of the right hand open to stroke the keys in the right register from above and below. The fingers of the left hand stabilize the left side of the instrument, with most fingers reaching behind the instrument. Both registers on the left side of the instrument are played with the left thumb and sometimes the left forefinger.
Bottle caps, shells, or other objects ("machachara") are often affixed to the soundboard to create a buzzing sound when the instrument is played. In a traditional setting, this sound is considered extremely important, as it is believed to attract the ancestral spirits.
During a public performance, an mbira dzavadzimu is frequently placed in a deze (calabash resonator) to amplify its sound.
The mbira dza vadzimu is very significant in Shona religion and culture, considered a sacred instrument by natives. It is usually played to facilitate communication with ancestral spirits. Within the Shona tradition, the mbira may be played with paired performers in which the kushaura, the caller, leads the performed piece as the kutsinhira, the responder, "interlocks" a subsequent part.
The Ritual is known as the Bira. During these all night ceremonies, people call upon the spirits to answer questions, the variations of notes in an Mbira piece aid the participants by going into a trance in which it is said in shona culture aid the spirits in taking over the participants body
Mbira music, like much of the sub-Saharan African music traditions is based on cross-rhythm. The following example is from the kushuara part of the traditional mbira piece "Nhema Mussasa." The left hand plays the ostinato "bass line," while the right hand plays the upper melody. The composite melody is an embellishment of the 3:2 cross-rhythm (also known as a hemiola)
Western medicine is widely available in Shona country and is widely accepted for most ailments. A wide range of herbs and charms are available for ordinary ailments or protection against them. When illness is persistent or when it is accompanied by tension in the community, spiritual causes are suspected and traditional healers are consulted. These divine the cause by dice or through spirit possession and prescribe both ritual and herbal remedies. Such healers may also prescribe charms for good fortune in various domains. A common result of divination is that a spirit wants the sick person to become its host; in such cases, healing may be achieved through possession trances. Traditional healing is particularly effective in dealing with psychological tensions: responsibility is transferred to spirits, and the whole community is involved in sorting out the problem.
Although the ancestral cult is important, traditional Shona rarely speak about an afterlife; a person's future after death is vaguely thought to depend on having descendants who will remember the deceased and hold rituals in his or her honor. Death, as commonly perceived among the Shona, is the separation of the body and soul in which the material body takes a new state of decomposition while the soul due to its immortality continues to survive as a spiritual entity.
When it comes to the Shona, one finds that it is not a single rite but rather several of them which they perform in respect of their dead and for their own well-being. In total, they can actually come up to seven. They are as follows: kupeta (folding) ritual; burial ritual; ritual of purification; ritual of bringing back the spirit; ritual of inheritance; ritual of honour and rituals of appeasemen.
Funeral ceremonies are performed to take a dead person away from the community and to keep him or her away. For an adult with descendants, an additional ceremony a year or more later welcomes the deceased into the company of benign ancestors and back into the homestead.