Polygamy in traditional Shona society, as told in ‘Tambaoga Mwanangu’

A polygamous family

I’ve just started reading ‘Tambaoga Mwanangu.’ This is a story about how an eighteen year old boy, Tambaoga, went about trying to solve the mystery of the murder of his father VaMupakaviri, the king. I haven’t gotten to the end, but I’m sure he succeeded.

Tambaoga came from a polygamous family. The king had three wives and seven children at the time of his death. The practice of marrying more than one wife was common in the olden days.

I will use this story to explain the Shona family words listed below. This list includes a few words used only for a polygamous family setup. Such words are slowly disappearing from use, as the practice of polygamy becomes less common and less acceptable in modern society.

Now let us understand these words using Tambaoga’s family.

Tambaoga’s family

Shona names

Tambaoga’s famliy had interesting names, some of them short phrases coined into a single word. These names told stories about the name bearers.

In most Shona novels set in the pre-colonial era, names of characters tell stories relating to the characters. Such names could have been exaggerated for dramatic effect. However, they were very common in olden times, and still occur today.

During colonial times, a growing number of people shunned Shona names in favour of Christian ones. Enter the 80s, Shona names began to slowly regain popularity. Today they are increasingly becoming the preferred choice for first names.

Names with negative connotations, or those suggesting drama in a family, such as those in Tambaoga Mwanangu, have become less common though. Such names would tell stories of overwhelming family squabbles, difficulties, suffering and loss.

Tambaoga

Dangwe

He was the firstborn child (dangwe).

Literally translated the name means ‘play alone.’ Since he was the firstborn, he had no siblings to play and interact with.

At the time of the murder, the name Tambaoga stood out again. VaMupakaviri appeared to Tambaoga in a dream and said, ‘Zita rako ndiTambaoga nokudaro uchatamba wega mukati meshura iri.‘ (Your name is Tambaoga and as such you shall maneuver alone in this mysterious occurrence). In the context, Tambaoga means ‘go it alone.’

While the name Tambaoga described his story at birth, it seems it also described his future. This is not unique to Tambaoga alone. Some people bear names that describe their personality or life situation. Perhaps names have more to do with our lives than we think.

Nevanji

Tambaoga was the eldest son (nevanji) of the king.

The king had been grooming Tambaoga. The two of them would take long walks during which the king shared his wisdom. As Tambaoga was now a young man he was next in line to be king. It had been determined that his uncle, younger brother to his father, could only become king after him.

In olden days, the different groups of Shona people had different rules or systems for replacing a king. There were two common systems. One was where a king was replaced by his eldest son. The other common system was where the position of king was rotated from eldest to youngest brother, then back to the eldest son of the eldest brother, and from there down to this son’s youngest brother, and so on.

Mukoma

Tambaoga was older brother to Tapiwa and Tamuka. Because they were all of the same gender, the younger boys would have referred to Tambaoga (but not to an older sister) as mukoma (plural is vakoma). The king’s three other children with his second and third wives, if boys, would also have referred to Tambaoga as mukoma.

VaMupakaviri

Barika/ Chipari / Guru

Tambaoga’s father, the king, had three wives. Tambaoga’s mother, VaTakanongwa, was the first. VaRwaringeni was the second and VaFarai the third. A setup in which a man has more than one wife is called barika, chipari or guru.

This practice of marrying more than one wife at the same time is a type of polygamy, and is called polygyny. When it is a woman marrying more than one man it is known as polyandry, and this was unheard of in Shona society.

Taking on more wives was associated with status and wealth, as was the case of chiefs and kings. It also meant that a man could have more labourers – women and children, to work his land.

While such marriages are generally characterised by jealousy and discord, VaMupakaviri’s wives got along pretty well, so it seemed.

VaTakanongwa

Hosi

VaTakanongwa was the first wife in a polygamous union (hosi).

She had three sons – Tambaoga, Tapiwa and Tamuka, all who were born before the king took a second wife. Her daughter, Chandisaita, was then born after the king took VaRwaringeni as second wife.

The names of VaTakanongwa’s four children, Tambaoga, Tapiwa, Tamuka and Chandisaita , were statements about her life and her children.

Maiguru

VaMupakaviri’s other wives addressed VaTakanongwa, the wife senior to them, as maiguru. The children of the junior wives would also have addressed her in the same way.

VaRwaringeni and VaFarai

Mukaranga

VaRwaringeni and VaFarai were the other wives (vakaranga singular is mukaranga) of the king. At the time of his murder, the king had two children with VaRwaringeni, and one child with VaFarai. Altogether, the king had seven children.

Mainini

These women were vanaamainini (singuar is mainini) to VaTakanongwa’s children. One time during a conversation with her children, VaTakanongwa referred to VaRwaringeni and VaFarai as ‘vanaamainini (venyu),’ meaning ‘(your) junior mothers.’

Mukadzinyina

For women married into the same family, or by the same man, mukadzinyina (also written as mukadzin’ina) is a fellow wife who is junior. That is what VaTakanongwa would have called either VaRwaringeni or VaFarai.

Tapiwa and Tamuka

Tapiwa means ‘we have been given.’ As the second child, the couple had been blessed with another child.

Tamuka means ‘we have arisen.’ Tamuka was the third son of VaTakanongwa’s children. The clan had arisen with the birth of yet another son.

Sons were generally (and to a certain extent still are) preferred over girls. In Shona society, only the males will continue to pass their family identity to their children. This means that the more sons one has, the bigger the family and the greater the chances for the clan to grow. This is one (but not the only reason) sons would be preferred.

Munin’ina

Tapiwa and Tamuka were Tambaoga’s younger brothers. Because they are all of the same gender, Tambaoga would have referred to them (but not to his sister/s) as vanin’ina (singular is munin’ina).

Chandisaita

Gotwe

She was the lastborn child (gotwe) of VaTakanongwa.

Literally, Chandisaita means ‘That which I haven’t done.’ Chandisaita was born after the king had married VaRwaringeni. VaTakanongwa was asking the king, ‘What have I not done? Where have I fallen short, so as to make you need another wife?’

Hanzvadzi

Chandisaita was sister to Tambaoga, Tapiwa and Tamuka. Being siblings of the opposite gender, they would have referred to her as hanzavadzi. Similarly, she would have referred to each of them as hanzvadzi. The king’s three other children with his second and third wives, if girls, would also have referred to the boys as hanzvadzi.

Unlike mukoma and munin’ina, hanzvadzi makes no distinction between older or younger. This is because in Shona culture a man, being a father in the clan, automatically assumes seniority.

VaZinwamhanga

Babamunini

VaZinwamhanga, being VaMupakaviri’s young brother, was babamunini (literal meaning is ‘junior father,’) to VaMupakaviri’s seven children.


Tambaoga’s family was a very large one according to today’s standards, but typical according to the standards of that time. This was a time during which the dead spoke to the living through dreams, and kings were buried in secret underground caves. Had it not been for his untimely death, I’m sure VaMupakaviri’s family would have become even larger, his wealth considerable, and him a powerful ruler!

2 thoughts on “Polygamy in traditional Shona society, as told in ‘Tambaoga Mwanangu’”

  1. This is so interesting how Shona names have such deep meanings. Thank you for this article, and it also got me interested in the novel Tambaoga Mwanangu. Is that available only in Shona or is there an English version?

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