This post was last updated on 19 May 2020.
Did you know that Shona clan poems (nhetembo dzemadzinza) which are recited in line with totems (mitupo) and praise names (zvidawo) are in essence an expression of compliment recited as a reward for commendable acts?
The ‘mutupo’ system is an important source of ancestral and family history in Zimbabwe. The Shona are a tribe that became divided into a number of clans. The clans are represented by the various totems.
Below are the 6 interesting things I never knew.
1. ‘kudya mutupo’ refers to incest
As praise naturally tends to build self-esteem, it seems this in a way was intended to create a sense of identity and worth in an individual. A symbol of identity, totems also served as a safeguard against incest. Eating of the totem, ‘kudya mutupo’ is forbidden. Others have suggested ‘kudya mutupo’ refers to incest. Today totems, praise names and clan poems are still a huge identifier among the Shona people. The practice remains widespread and those that still recognise it take pride in ‘wearing’ their praise names.
2. The totem of the Beta clan is a flying termite whose Shona name is ‘ishwa’
A flying termite is the totem of the Beta clan, something I only got to know recently. While the most common Shona totems concern animals or parts of the body, the animal totems are clearly not restricted to just the big animals.
Some of the totems are linked to a number of different praise names, suggesting existence of sub-clans within a clan. Take a look at the ones listed below.
|totem name||praise/ clan name|
| Moyo |
3. Chirongo Wafawanaka
|Dziva / Hove|
|Mbeva – Musoni|
|Humba / Nguruve|
| Shiri |
(elephant – mouse)
The table does not include all the clans of the Shona, and also there could be sub-clans that are not listed.
I have heard others say that tsivo/ mbwetete refers to the female reproductive organ. Zhou is a sub-totem of the mbeva totem, where the trunk of an elephant is likened to the nose of a shrew.
3. A married woman can be addressed by both her totem and that of her husband
I paid a visit to ambuya Tirivangani, accompanied by a colleague of the Moyo totem under the Chirandu praise name. As soon as my colleague identified himself by his totem, realizing they share the same totem and clan praise name, she was very much delighted and said her formal greeting while referring to him as her father and remarking, ‘we are the same people.’
During our conversation, ambuya Tirivangani recalled how she would always recite the clan poem for her little girl of the Gwai totem after the little girl performed her errands or chores around the house. She remembers only a segment of the gwai woman clan poem which she proceeded to recite in unison with the now grown-up little girl who was also present.
‘maita basa gwai,
maita basa machuma
The usage of totems, praise names and clan poems varies between men and women. A child will adopt the totem of the father. A woman will be addressed by way of the totem into which she is born (generally with the prefix ‘ma’), but not the praise name. On the other hand, a man will be addressed by way of the totem or the praise name. Once a woman gets married, she can be addressed by the totem or praise name of her husband in addition to her own totem. Clan poems will have variations so as to differentiate between praising a woman as opposed to a man.
4. Most praise poems detail the history of the clan
Reciting praise poems conveys a cultural message to cultivate a particular value from childhood. Most praise poems speak to the history of the clan, describing or making reference to the totemic animal or object highlighting its commendable features or characteristics.
A common use of praise poetry although waning, is to show gratitude to one’s spouse. Back in the day, a woman would recite her husband’s praise poem to calm him, soothe him or praise him as appropriate. The man too would in similar circumstances achieve the same through use of words denoting his wife’s totem. The intended result was restoration of marital bliss, joy and a display of mutual respect between couples.
My aunt, who married into the Mupamombe clan, remembers how she would ‘sing praises’ to her husband;
‘Maita Ngezi, Maita Mupamombe
Vakatumbura mombe nechara chipanga chichisvina muto
Maita varidzi vemasango
5. Love poetry for Him
I have heard very little about love poetry, or should I call it ‘bedroom praise poetry’. My grandmother while admitting she was aware of this type of clan poetry, simply shook her head when I asked her to recite the poem for me, as she considers it too explicit. Perhaps that’s why its use is little known, highlighting one major challenge around oral tradition. A woman would recite the love poem known as ‘madanha omugudza’ to appreciate her husband’s prowess in the bedroom. It is said a woman could be sent back to her people to be counselled, where she failed in this regard.
I’m left wondering whether it was failure to recite the poetry, or rather failure to perform to the expectation of the husband that resulted in a woman being sent back to her people. However, at a time when women were expected to focus solely on their responsibilities as wives and mothers, I suppose any woman would heed whatever advice to ensure she pleased her husband especially in bed.
I came across the love poem for the Shumba Murambwi man. Like my grandmother, I just could not pen the portions I considered somewhat explicit.
Maita Shumba yangu
Mune kutendwa kune mubvururu
Baba vangu, VaChigumbate
Vanogumbatira mberi ne shure’
(J Haasbroek, Uyavaya hwenduri dzeChinyakare, 1988, 310)
6. Love poetry for Her
Men are known to have recited love poems known as ‘zvirevereve zvomugudza,’ for their wives too. Here the man shows respect and appreciation for his wife during the same period as that stated above. A man could also be reported to his grandmother where he failed in this regard, and a reprimand would be in order.
Here, a glimpse into the love poem for the Sinyoro woman;
Vane zvitsime zvitenderere,
Zvakatenderedzwa netsanga nyoro,
Zvinomwiwa mvura wakapfugama,
Mabvi namagokora zvakatsikitsira’
(A.C. Hodza, Mitupo neZvidawo Zvamadzinza, 1985)
Totems and clan names remain a huge symbol of identity among the majority of Zimbabweans. There is no doubt that this is a unique and interesting narrative of who we are.