Hari| Zimbabwe’s traditional pottery

Indigenous pottery

From records of early travelers and anthropologists, it has been established that pottery was made in large quantities in Southern Africa, with pottery of the type belonging to the earliest Iron Age having been found in Zimbabwe.

Techniques used for pottery have been handed down generally by women from generation to generation. Naturally, the form of pottery has evolved.

Different tribal groups of the Shona and Ndebele are known to have practiced different ways of manufacture and decoration. European influence is thought to also have influenced changes in pottery traditions.

By the mid-20th century, the number of potters had greatly declined and even those with the knowledge no longer used it.  

While present-day pottery has become more or less homogeneous, some differences still do occur. In addition, a number of vessel types are no longer widely seen. Vessels are made for cooking, making brews, serving and storage of food and liquids, washing and for use during performance of rituals.

Keep reading to learn more on Zimbabwe’s pottery traditions!

Use, shape, and size

The generic Shona name for an earthenware pot is hari. Generally, pottery used over a fire is plain. Vessels with decorations are mostly those used for drinking, serving food, storing dry foodstuffs or liquids, washing and any other use outside of cooking. Differentiation of vessels is based on functionality and appearance, while a range of sizes also does occur for each type.

To some extent, the name of a vessel describes its shape, size, and use. A name may point to a common use regardless of shape. Alternatively, a name could be used to describe the size, with variations in shape and use. Also, a pot could be used for cooking one type of food when new, and later be used for cooking other foods and the name changes accordingly.

Pottery used for cooking, serving, and food storage

mbiya, honza, chidodo

name variation – chimbiya

Typically, mbiya is an open-mouthed bowl without a neck. However, the name mbiya is sometimes used for any small vessel for serving relish. In the latter case, even a small pot in which relish is served would be called mbiya. It is also associated with a vessel used as a pot lid during cooking. This could be a small pot or an old chipped pot which is no longer suitable for cooking. For the old pot, the variation chimbiya is more common. Here ‘chi‘ is used before a noun to suggest something that is deformed, incomplete, unattractive or worthless. Mbiya is also used generally to refer to any type of bowl, other than just earthenware. Honza or chidodo is used for a small pot for serving side dish.


name variations – rwaenga, rwenga, zenga

This is a bowl used as a lid for another pot.  It also refers to a flattish wide-mouthed bowl for roasting maize or other food. As mentioned earlier, the use of a vessel could change with time, and so will the name. When a pot is old and no longer suitable for its ordinary use, it could then be converted for use as a lid or roasting pan.

tsaiya, mukate, shambakodzi

name variations: tsaiya katsaiya; and shambakodzi tsambakodzi, tsambakonzi

These names are associated with the sadza cooking pot. (Click here to read more on sadza.) However, a pot used for sadza could also be used to cook other plain foods such as porridge, samp and mangai (boiled dry maize).  It is usually wide-mouthed to suit the way sadza is cooked.  Katsaiya would be used for a smaller sized pot for small quantities. Mukate is from the Manyika and Ungwe dialects.

chikari, gapu, hadyana, pfuko, rongo, kadodo

name variations: gapu chigapu; hadyana chikadyana, kahadyana; rongo chirongo; and pfuko chipfuko

Shape or appearance of the pot seems irrelevant. Generally, these names are used to refer to a pot for cooking relish. Chikari is related to the word hari which is the generic name for an earthenware pot. The variations could be meant to bring out the pot’s stubby form or that it is smaller than other pots of the same type.

While pfuko is commonly associated with beer and water, it is also used for side dish cooking pot under the Manyika dialect. Kadodo is a very small pot for cooking the side dish.

gate, gaha

name variations: gatechigate

This is a large vessel used for storing dry foodstuffs such as meal. It would appear that in this case, the name gate is associated with size and use as a storage vessel in general. More often, gate is used in reference to a large pot for holding liquids.


In the Manyika and Ndau dialects, this is a pot for cooking. However, in the Zezuru dialect it is a gourd container.


Other food storage vessels that could have been a product of European influence include sugar bowls with handles and lids.

Pottery used for making brews, serving and storage of liquids

pfuko, chikaha

name variations: pfukochipfuko, kapfuko; chikahakakaha

This is a small pot with a narrow-mouthed neck, for carrying, drinking and serving water or beer. Beer is also used in this article to refer to maheu (sweet beer). As mentioned earlier, name variations could be as a result of comparison with pots of the same type.

This man is drinking from a ‘pfuko.’ The vessel is small and has a narrow-mouthed neck, making it suitable for drinking.

gate, gati

This is a very large pot used for setting beer to ferment. It is also used for storage of either beer or water, and others use it for souring milk. Storage vessels are usually decorated since they are not placed over a fire.

While a vessel type could be associated with both beer and water, the use of a particular vessel could be restricted to only one type of liquid, say for water only or milk only. This would be done to avoid spoiling one liquid with residue of others that clings to the pot, leaving tastes and odors.

Pfuko is a small drinking vessel


name variations – mbidziro

This is a very large pot in which beer is set to ferment. The word mbidziro is related to the words mbidzo and viriso (fermentation agent), hence this name is more suited for reference to a pot used for fermentation.

biso, rukambe

This is a large pot used for boiling beer during the brewing process. The word biso is related to the word pisa (burn), hence this name is more suited for reference to a pot used for boiling.

chirongo, musudze, maringo

This is a large pot for carrying and storing water. Musudze is from the Manyika dialect. Maringo is from the Teve dialect. It could also be a vessel for beer storage.

duwi, dupi

This is from the Ndau dialect. It is a pot for carrying water.

dzuwe , mutuwe

This is from the Teve dialect. It is a large wide-mouthed pot for brewing beer.

nyengero, mhirimo, chiwana

This is a portable pot for holding beer. It could be used for taking beer to people working in the fields.


There are also other drinking vessels that could have been a product of European influence. These include cups in the shape of small bowls or shaped like pots with necks.

Pottery used for washing and bathing

Bowls are also used for carrying water for washing. For example, a woman would keep a bowl for intimate purposes using it to wash her husband. Traditionally, such a bowl would have a pair of conical protrusions – mazamu, and a pair of indentations – maziso. The mazamu (female breasts) represented a woman’s giving herself to her husband. The maziso (eyes) represented a warning to observe the agreement between a married couple.


for use by married couples, for a woman to clean her husband.


for washing hands and face.

gaha/ kaha

for washing and bathing.

Other traditional uses of pottery


Other miscellaneous pottery associated with the Zezuru includes animal shaped vessels (goats, tortoise, lions, birds) and vases used for rituals. A clay pot used for washing a corpse is placed on top of the grave. Clay pots have been and are still associated with many traditional rituals such as kurova guva.


For use as beehives, clay pots are placed in high positions on boulders and supported with stones. Alternatively, the clay pots are installed up in some trees.

Disposal of twins

In ancient times, twins were disposed of by filling their mouths with ashes and putting them alive into a large pot which was buried in a wet vlei .

Virginity testing

The practice of virginity testing involved young adolescent girls going to a nearby stream for inspection by old women. Each girl would take a small clay pot which was to be filled with water and returned to her father. A half filled pot was a sign that the girl was no longer a virgin and as such, would be subjected to questioning by her father.

Home decor

The traditional round, thatched hut serves as the kitchen, dining and living area. Inside, there is a built-in platform called huva. The huva is used as a kitchen counter and usually displays a woman’s collection of clay pots.

There certainly are other pottery types and uses that have not been included. Please don’t hesitate to leave a comment and have your say.

For this article, reference was also made to a study by Anne Lawton, ‘Bantu Pottery of Southern Africa,’ University of Cape Town, 1965.

8 thoughts on “Hari| Zimbabwe’s traditional pottery”

  1. I am Shona but i never studied Shona but today my son came with homework and this article was very helpful thank you.


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