Meanings of the Shona names of months| A glimpse into Zimbabwean life in traditional society

This post was last updated on 7 April 2021, after I wrote the post titled ‘Indigenous religion| 5 key ‘chivanhu’ ritual festivals.’

A tale of the moon, cycles and the seasons

The names of the months tell a story of Zimbabwean life in traditional society. A tale of time told by experiences and culture, inspired by the climate of the land. They present a view of time witnessed beyond sunrise and sunset. In this setting, the country’s climate is characterized by a rainy season in the summer from about November to March, followed by a dry season from April to October. Growing crops and rearing livestock is the mainstay of the economy. Together, climate and agriculture tell the tale of the moon, cycles and the seasons.

‘Moon months’

The Shona word ‘mwedzi’ means both ‘moon’ and ‘month’, telling of how a lunar year was recognized. For the Shona, a new moon marks the start of a new month. Thirteen new moons are counted in 365 and a quarter days – the time the earth completes an orbit around the sun. However, while counting twelve lunar months makes the year shorter, thirteen makes it longer. Given this, trying to align our modern-day calendar to the lunar one is really tricky. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Shona recognized a thirty-day lunar month divided into three ten-day weeks. The wordplay doesn’t end there. A woman’s menstrual cycle, which is 28 days on average, is likened to the moon cycle. As such, the Shona expression for the monthly menstrual flow is ‘kuenda kumwedzi’.

The following are the names of the months.

  1. Ndira (January)
  2. Kukadzi (February)
  3. Kurume (March)
  4. Kubvumbi (April)
  5. Chivabvu (May)
  6. Chikumi (June)
  7. Chikunguru (July)
  8. Nyamavhuvhu (August)
  9. Gunyana (September)
  10. Gumiguru (October)
  11. Mbudzi (November)
  12. Zvita (December)

Ndira (January)

The month of January is also referred to as ‘Nyamataka’.

‘Mwana wangu homba asingabe mwedzi weNdira’

Small black beetles known as ‘ndira’, inspired the name for this month. The beetles are found in numbers in the month of January. I asked Sekuru Munaku what these beetles look like and he described them to me. Often on lifting a rock you find small quick black beetles underneath. It is these beetles that are known as ‘ndira.’ During our conversation, he used the word ‘kwadabu’ to express the manner of lifting a rock. This is an ideophone (‘nyaudzosingwi’) to describe the act of lifting an adhering object.

In January, work in the fields involves weeding (‘kusakura’), so weed type vegetables such as ‘nyevhe’ would be common during this time. Available foodstuffs are mostly those from the granaries (‘matura’), with little fresh produce, gathered straight from the field. The month is therefore generally considered as having limited food supplies. My aunt recalls how her grandmother would always use the expression, ‘mwana wangu homba asingabe mwedzi weNdira’. This is a saying to praise a disciplined child, who is likened to one who can fight the temptation to secretly grab rationed eats during this ‘dry’ month.

This narrative sets the scene for the following month – February.

Kukadzi (February)

The month of February is also referred to as ‘Rukuve’.

‘Kukadzi’ comes as a relief from January’s limited supplies. It is a time when women (‘vakadzi’) dominate the scene. I can visualize energetic women, returning from the fields while balancing on their heads, reed baskets filled with pumpkins (‘manhanga’), squashes (‘mapudzi’), groundnuts (‘nzungu’) and roundnuts (‘nyimo’). The chit-chat and laughter suggest excitement as the women cannot wait to get home and be the first to indulge in the first fruits.

Women busy themselves in the month of February, gathering the first fruits

Kurume (March)

In March, men (‘varume’) take center stage. Pause for a moment and rewind to the month of February. While women are excitedly gathering food plants from the fields, small herbivorous animals such as duiker (‘mhembwe’) lie in wait to join the party. These animals attack crops such as groundnuts and roundnuts. It is then that men set up snares (‘madhibhura’) in the fields to trap these animals, while hunting and tracking them down with dogs. Conveniently, the family can later enjoy a meal from the gathered foodstuffs and game meat brought home by the men. With the harvest of major crops fast approaching, men also busy themselves setting up ‘matara’. These are platforms on poles which will be used for drying the crop.

Kubvumbi (April)

Persistent drizzle (‘mubvumbi’) is the character of the month of April. This is in contrast to the rainfall experienced at the beginning of the rainy season (‘mvura yemunhuruka’). It is now time for the harvest.

Chivabvu (May)

The month of May is also referred to as ‘Bandwe’ or ‘Rushingo’.

The month of May marks the beginning of the winter, and harvesting is in progress. During the winter, evenings are chilly. I visualize the family seated around a fire at the center of the mud hut that serves as the kitchen, dining, and living area. The men sit on a built-in bench which runs round one side of the hut. Women, on the other hand, sit on the floor on the other side of the hut, where reed mats (‘hukwe’ or ‘mhasa’) are spread. It is after a long day’s work of harvesting the crop. When dinner is finished, everyone draws closer to the fire to keep warm. At this time, stories (‘ngano’) are told to the youngsters while roasting ‘mhandire’, which is a common dry maize snack.

The month of May marks the beginning of the winter, and harvesting is in progress

With the winter progressing, evenings get colder. It is not long before people start showing scorch marks (‘mbare’) and frequently scratching. This is a sign of sitting too close to the fire. The ideophone (‘nyaudzosingwi’) ‘gwabvu’ best describes the act of scratching intensely.

Chikumi (June)

The month of June is also referred to as ‘Mandundu’.

June marks the end of the first half of the year. As I write, it occurs to me that I do not know the Shona word for ‘half’. Could it be that the word ‘chikumi’ relates to a half? The harvest is over, now the crops are spread out to dry on ‘matara’ that have been set up. It is a much anticipated time for the children. They go through the fields collecting any remaining crops, and use these foodstuffs to play house (‘mahumbwe’). Herd-boys also take a break as animals are left to wander in the fields. Cattle can eat the remaining grain, husks, leaves and stalks.

Cattle can eat the remaining grain, husks, leaves and stalks.

Chikunguru (July)

The month of July is also referred to as ‘Kunguru’.

The crops have dried and are prepared for storage in air-tight stone-raised granaries called ‘matura’. The July wind, with force enough to roll away (‘kungurutsa’) light materials such as dry leaves, helps winnow (‘urutsa’) the grains. The winnowing removes chaff and any unwanted residue, before storage.

Nyamavhuvhu (August)

The month of August is also referred to as ‘Bedzamhepo’ or ‘Ruwanzamatare’.

Winds blow strongly (‘mhepo inovhuvhuta’), as families finish up storing away crops from the harvest. In modern times, people take advantage of this time to perform rituals such as ‘kurova makuva’.

Crops are spread out to dry on platforms called ‘matara

Gunyana (September)

The month of September is also referred to as ‘Mhingani’ or ‘Mhingasu’.

A noticeable presence of ‘nyana’ (bird chicks) marks the month of September. In preparation for ploughing the fields, crop residue is burnt so as to kill any insects and pests that could have been attacking the crops. This is called ‘kupisa mavivi.’

Gumiguru (October)

The ritual festival of mukwerera is performed in October

The tenth month (‘mwedzi wechigumi’) October seems uneventful as people await the rains. The ritual festival of ‘mukwerera‘ is performed in this month. October marks the beginning of the rains.

Mbudzi (November)

November is generally the time goats (‘mbudzi’) are ready to kid. It is taboo to hold ritual gatherings as these would involve animal slaughter, which could compromise production of offspring by the animals. The forbidding of ritual festivals affords people more time to work the fields, ploughing and sowing.

Zvita (December)

According to one source, ritual ceremonies that had been put on hold in the month of November can now be performed. It is time to say ‘mazvita’ (thank you) to the ancestors. Whilst I can’t think of anything else, I am not convinced that is the inspiration for the name Zvita. I tried to reconcile it with the agricultural cycle and ritual festivals that are celebrated traditionally, and it just didn’t add up for me.

The rainy season starts in November, meaning December is a busy time with people cultivating the fields. If anything, a time for thanksgiving to the ancestors would be after the harvest some time during the dry season, in the month of August for instance.

I am still on the hunt for the true inspiration for Zvita!

  • two goats

A note to the reader. The sources of information for this post were uneven in both quality and quantity. For some months such as ‘Chivabvu’ and ‘Chikumi’, I had very little to rely upon. As a result, my conclusions in such areas are much more tentative.

8 thoughts on “Meanings of the Shona names of months| A glimpse into Zimbabwean life in traditional society”

  1. I so love this. It breaks down the entire year into real (traditional) life practical considerations that make sense. Thank you. I’ll share with my son so that he has context re: Shona month names

    Reply
    • Thank you Olga for so loving this. I enjoyed writing this piece; and you’ll be surprised to know that this gave me the chance to better understand the way the sun, earth and moon interact with each other.

      Reply
  2. A Shona year has 13 months. A Shona week has 7 days. The seventh Shona day is CHISI. A Shona month has 28 days. This is important as you have reduced the Shona Calendar to the Gregorian Calendar used by the Europeans. I am not disputing what you know, I can only tell you what I know. Thank you.

    Reply
    • Thank you Edmore.

      I did point out that the Shona use moon cycles, of which there are 13 new moons in 365 and a quarter days.

      Yes, each week the Shona observe a day of rest called ‘chisi.’

      I also mentioned that (based on my research) the Shona observed a 30 day lunar month divided into 3 ten day weeks. This however happened way back, in the 16th and 17th centuries!

      This article explains the names of months as we use them today. A new ‘moon month’ will begin during a modern-day calendar month, but this does not mean the Shona and English names of months will be misaligned.

      Reply

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