This post was last updated on 10 June 2022.
The ‘mutupo’ system is an important source of ancestral and family history in Zimbabwe. The Shona are a cultural group native to Zimbabwe that became divided into a number of clans. The clans are represented by the various totems. 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.
Below are 6 interesting things you should know about the Shona totem system.
1. Eating the meat or products from your totem animal is forbidden
A symbol of identity, totems serve as a safeguard against incest. Eating of the totem, ‘kudya mutupo’ is forbidden. It is believed that if one eats their totem meat all their teeth will fall off. Others have suggested ‘kudya mutupo’ refers to incest. Generally, people who have the same totem cannot get married. Since a totem represents members of the same clan, marriage between people of the same totem would be regarded as some form of incest.
2. A totem could be linked to a number of different sub-clans
While the most common Shona totems are from four-legged animals or parts of the body, there are others outside these categories. For instance the totem of the Beta clan is a flying termite known in ChiShona as ishwa. I have heard others say mbwetete, totem of the Gushungo clan, refers to the female reproductive organ.
It is also worth noting that most praise poems speak to the history of the clan. They also describe or make reference to the totemic animal or object, highlighting its commendable features or characteristics.
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
|* Gwai |
|Dziva / Hove|
|Mbeva – Musoni|
|Humba / Nguruve|
| Shiri |
The table does not include all the clans of the Shona, and also there could be sub-clans that are not listed.
3. Reciting clan poetry for someone creates a sense of identity and worth in them
Shona clan poems (nhetembo dzemadzinza) which are recited in line with totems (mitupo) and praise names (zvidao) are in essence an expression of compliment recited as a reward for commendable acts. 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. Reciting praise poems conveys a cultural message to cultivate a particular value from childhood.
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
4. The usage of totems, praise names and clan poems varies between men and women
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, 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.
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. There is special praise poetry recited by women for their husbands
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. There is special poetry recited by men for their wives
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.