The Shona people, the largest ethnic group in Zimbabwe, are a unique group that embrace a variety of different cultures and traditions. Although Mozambique, South Africa, and Botswana all claim Shona populations, the majority of Shona live in Zimbabwe. Shona make up 80 percent of Zimbabwe’s 9-million-plus population. All told, the Shona are an estimated 14-million strong, and their cultural influence across Africa is extremely important. Here are 10 things you didn’t know about the Shona people.
Sources: EveryCulture.com, ZimEye.org, AfricanImportart.com, Britannica.com, Bulawayo1872.com, AfricanCraftsMarket.com, PBS.org, African Holocaust Society, University of Witwatersrand Press
The Western Shona, known as Bakalanga, are found in Southwestern Zimbabwe and Botswana, but are often not counted in the general Shona classification. As it is, the Shona people today are fairly fragmented, with most identifying with a particular clan rather than the whole. The Shona consist of two distinct families today – the original Bantu occupants of the region and the conquerors, each of which is split up into numerous tribes.
Dialect groups are extremely important in Shona, and although many are very similar, they can help identify exactly where a person is from, as well as which ethnic group they belong to. For instance, if a person speaks the Zezuru dialect, they would likely observe customs and beliefs unique to the Zezuru ethnic group.
Many Shona people are farmers, with their key crops including corn (maize), millet, sorghum, rice, beans, peanuts, and sweet potatoes. Cattle were traditionally used as a source of payment, often for bride prices, and for milk.
Totems, usually made of animal and body parts, delineate people with a common ancestor. The ancestor would have been the founder of the totem. Those within the same totem are not allowed to marry or have intimate relationships with each another. Totems can also cross regional groupings.
When a member of a totem dies, somebody from the same totem must initiate burial proceedings, along with other traditional ceremonies. Just to demonstrate the importance of the totem in Shona culture, Shona chiefs must be able to recite the history of their totem all the way from its initial founder before they can be sworn in as chiefs.
The Shona people have a rich artistic heritage, and are known particularly for carving stone sculptures. Though Shona sculptures were a common skill of the early Shona people, the work has seen a resurgence in popularity since the 1950s. Modern Shona sculptures continue to express enormous emotional power that speak to all humanity.
The preeminent Shona deity is Mwari, and many ancient shrines exist across Zimbabwe to honor Mwari. The Shona also place high importance on ancestral and other spirits, honoring and praying to them in a variety of ways for good health, rain, success in enterprise, and other critical facets of life.
The Shona believe in two types of spirits — “shave” or wandering spirits, and “vadzimu”, or ancestor spirits. While both can be malevolent or benevolent, the bad spirits are associated with witchcraft. To this day they are often used as explanations for disasters or misfortune in a community.
A mbira is a hollow gourd with metal reeds that are plucked by the player, and the instrument has become a token of the Shona people. Sometimes referred to as a finger piano, the mbira is associated with the ancestors. Many modern musicians choose to incorporate the mbira and its traditional sound in their songs to help establish a feeling of solidarity among families and communities.
The Rozwi Shona dynasty, which lasted from the 12th to 15th centuries, is responsible for the name of modern Zimbabwe. The Great Zimbabwe — the stone-built capital of the dynasty — derives its name from “dzimba dza mabwe,” or “great stone houses,” which later evolved into the word “Zimbabwe.”