A Shona legend| The vaHera’s chief and a cave

A legend is a traditional story that is believed to be true. Some legends on the origins of the Shona people detail how large societies separated, resulting in smaller groups heading in different directions. One such legend is that of Dukute, a chief of the Hera people.

The legend of the vaHera’s chief Dukute and the cave

The drought

A long long time ago, the Hera tribe (VaHera) lived around Gombe Mountain in Buhera. Their greatest ancestor, Mbiru, had three children, Nechavava, Dukute and Masarirambi. Dukute was the chief. He was good to his people.

Dukute was the chief

One year the rains did not fall. Without water, there was no harvest and the rivers began to dry up. Animals died and vegetation dried up. Dukute suffered because he did not know what to do when the people turned to him for help.

The men build a ladder

One day, when his food supplies had dried up, he asked his people to gather at the foot of Mount Gombe. They gathered, and there was music and dancing. They thought that the chief was going to give them food.

Dukute then ordered the strongest men to build a ladder that would reach the top of the mountain. The men worked for days, building a ladder hundreds of metres long.

When the ladder was complete they stood it up against the mountain. It reached the mouth of a big cave at the very top of the mountain.

When the ladder was complete they stood it up against the mountain.

The people continued singing, dancing and ululating. They thought there were stores of food up in the mountain.

The cave

Then there was silence as the chief stood up to address his people. He instructed his family and most trusted advisors to climb the ladder and enter the cave. When they entered the cave they were surprised to find that it was empty.

When they entered the cave they were surprised to find that it was empty.

Meanwhile, Dukute followed behind while the rest of his subjects looked up with hope. When he got to the top, he stood at the mouth of the cave and kicked the ladder which fell to the ground and shattered to pieces. He entered the cave leaving the rest of his subjects behind.

The dispersion

The people were shocked. In their eyes their chief had been very selfish. The VaHera were left without a chief. They split into groups and headed in different directions in search for food.

They split into groups and headed in different directions in search for food.

Dukute loved his people. Perhaps disappearing into the cave was a sacrifice, and thus an act of honour.

Truths related to the legend

A legend is a semi-true story that is just as good as a folktale. This means there could be some truths in the Dukute legend.

According to the legend, the Hera left their homes in the area around the Gombe mountain, in search for food. This was after their chief had disappeared into a cave with his family. Their chief was Dukute, the son of Mbiru.

So which parts of this story resemble true events?

Society of the Shona in ancient times

A household was made up of a small cluster of huts which consisted of a man, his wife or wives, their children and sometimes relatives or even non-relatives. Several of these households would make up a village. Villages in a territory would then make up the nyika under a hereditary ruler. For bigger territories the villages were grouped into wards.

Everybody belonged to their father’s lineage, and married women joined their husband’s lineage. The lineage was symbolised by a totem. It follows then that villages or wards would not be composed entirely of people of the same lineage, given that people of the same totem could not get married.

Economy of the Shona in ancient times

The Shona people are known to have carried out hunting and gathering. Wild fruits, vegetables and game meat were an important part of their diet. At some point they advanced and started to grow crops.

Sometimes while some areas would experience good rains, others would experience droughts due to changes in climate. The rains would either come too late, as too much, or not at all. When this happened, groups of people moved to neighboring regions.

VaHera in Buhera

Buhera is a distortion of the term Vuhera, meaning territory of the Hera. Old Buhera was occupied by the Hera – the descendants of Mbiru. The Mbiru title later changed to Nyashanu. Today Nyashanu is one of the chieftainships in the Buhera district.

At some point the Hera began to emigrate in groups from the centre to the outer parts of Old Buhera, or even farther. It is possible that the movements were due to environmental reasons, as people sought better areas for themselves and their herds. Some believe the movements were because Mbiru’s sons wanted to follow game.

One group of the Hera moved west to set up the Masarirambi dynasty. Smaller groups left for the south and later formed the Mapanzure and Matenda dynasties. The Hera emigrants who moved north were to later set up the Chiweshe and Hwata dynasties.

Royal suicide by Shona rulers

There is a theory that Shona rulers had to be perfect. If they fell ill or became disfigured say during a war, they would commit suicide. This suggests that it was possible that rulers could commit suicide under certain circumstances.

This theory has been put forward to explain the deaths of some Manyika rulers who died in civil wars. There are also stories about rulers’ wives who committed suicide on the deaths of their husbands.

While this was the theory, the practice was very rare.

Sacred caves

In ancient times, caves and shelters hidden away in rocks were used as secret places known only to the local communities.  They were used as places for making medicine, rainmaking, as burial places for rulers, or for grain storage.

Burial of rulers was always shrouded in secrecy, only known by the elders of the tribe/ clan. It is said for others, the grave which all else would see was simply symbolic, and in it was buried the head of a cow or goat, wrapped in cowhide.

Burial rites of some rulers included removing the viscera (internal organs), and placing them in a ‘headless lion’ clay pot. It was believed that maggots from the decay would develop into lions. These lions were known as ‘mhondoro’ which means ‘a great tribal guardian spirit.’

The body was kept for weeks before burial to avoid burying it while fresh, for fear that witches would steal the flesh and mix it with their own medicines. The successor would then find himself weak against such witches.

The flesh of a ruler was special because he would have been treated with special medicines, which gave him power to command respect from his subjects.

The real chief Dukute and his burial place

Gombe Mountain in Buhera is known to have been a burial place of chiefs. Dukute is said to be among the chiefs buried there in a cave.

Chiefs buried in mountain caves were sometimes buried with a number of items which often included beads and pottery. Dukute’s burial goods include a clay pot, glass and copper beads, a wooden head-rest known as mutsago, an axe, a spear and a cattle hide.

The clay pot could have been presented to the chief as a gift, to use in the afterlife. The beads were a good that was available to people of high social standing, while the spear, axe and hide are items that would have belonged to a chief.

Dukute is believed to have been the last chief to rule from Gombe.

  1. The legend is from an essay written by Samuel Gudza, from a book first published in 1970 titled ‘Shona Customs, Essays by African Writers edited by Clive and Peggy Kileff.’
  2. Reference was also made to a paper titled ‘The Archaeology of elite burials of Gombe, Buhera Zimbabwe’ by Obey K Nyakunhuwa

Leave a Comment