There’s a hundred and one Shona nouns to describe ‘her’: mazita anoreva vakadzi

The below are only some of the many Shona nouns used to describe women, including a few gender neutral ones. Most of the descriptions given are from the Standard Shona Dictionary, Revised Edition, M. Hannan, S.J. You will also notice that some of the nouns appear in more than one section.

Ways to address a woman


A woman is addressed based on her marital status, with her husband’s surname after the title.

It is also common practice to address a mother by the name of her child after the title. e.g. amai vaMutsai (mother of Mutsai). This occurs regardless of marital status.

One cannot talk of addressing a woman in Shona custom without the mention of totems (mitupo) and sub-clan or praise names (zvidawo). A woman will be addressed by way of the totem into which she is born (generally with the prefix ‘ma’), but not the praise name. If she does get married, she can be addressed by the totem or praise name of her husband as well as her own totem. 

Who she is in the family

Shona distinguishes between a paternal and maternal aunt. A maternal aunt is essentially one’s mother (amai). A distinction is then made depending on whether she is older or younger than one’s mother. The daughter of a woman’s brother is a mother (mainini) to the woman’s children. A woman’s paternal aunt (tete) is also a mother (maiguru) to the woman’s children.

With one’s paternal uncle being essentially a father; his wife is either mainini or maiguru. The distinction is made depending on whether the uncle is older or younger than one’s father.

AmaiguruMother’s elder sister. Wife of senior paternal uncle. Senior wife of father. Wife of elder brother. Elder sister of wife.
AmaininiMother’s younger sister. Junior wife of father. Younger sister of wife. Wife of man’s younger brother.
AmweneMother-in-law of wife
AmbuyaGrandmother. Grandmother’s sister. Mother-in-law of husband. Wife of mother’s brother. Wife of wife’s brother.
AtetePaternal aunt (Sister of father). Sister of husband.
MaiguruElder sister of mother. Wife of father’s elder brother. Senior wife of father. Wife of elder brother. Elder sister of wife.
MaininiYounger sister of mother. Wife of father’s younger brother. Junior wife of father. Wife of younger brother. Younger sister of wife.
MbuyawashaWife of brother-in-law
MezvaraA wife’s mother-in-law
MhezvaraA wife’s mother-in-law
MbuyaAlternative form of Ambuya. Use varies based on age of addressee and degree of respect that should be accorded.
Mufana Younger sister
Munun’una Younger sister
Munin’inaYounger sister
MukomaElder sister or female cousin
MukwambokadziDaughter-in-law (sister of son-in-law)
MurongotiSister (brother speaking)
MuroorazukuruWife of son of man’s sister
MurumekadziSister of husband
MuramuSister of wife
MwaramuSister of wife
SisiSister. Girl acquaintance. Girl friend.
TetePaternal aunt (Sister of father). Sister of husband.
VamweneMother-in-law of wife
VatetePaternal aunt (Sister of father). Sister of husband.

The woman and marriage

In Zimbabwean society, despite the huge strides made in the empowerment of women, getting married still generally ranks high on a woman’s list of aspirations.

A number of the words listed below bring out the custom of polygyny. While its prevalence is thought to have declined in recent decades; millions of women across Africa (Zimbabwe included) are said to be living in complex relationships that resemble polygyny. This, despite the prevalence of HIV/ AIDS.

BandikaSecond wife (in addition to first)
Bandakadzi Second wife (in addition to first)
Bondwe  Substitute wife (given to widower). Second wife who is the sister of the first wife. Woman attendant (e.g. at a marriage)
BondwiSubstitute wife (given to widower). Second wife who is the sister of the first wife. Woman attendant (e.g. at a marriage)
ChigadzamapfihwaSubstitute wife (given to widower to replace wife who has died)
ChimutsamapfihwaSubstitute wife (given to widower to replace wife who has died)
ChipandaWoman whose relationship to a man is this, that her roora is used for obtaining a wife for him. More commonly such a woman may be the man’s sister, but occasionally this is not so.
ChitsaramwiSubstitute wife (given to widower to replace wife who has died)
MachipiriA second wife
MaivembaWife / married woman
MakumbiWife of divine healer
MhandaraGirl of marriageable age
MubvanaMarried daughter who has a child or children
MuchatwaBride in solemnised marriage
MudukutuSenior wife of a polygamist
MudzimaiMarried woman. Wife. 
MukadziWife. Married woman
MukadzinyinaJunior wife (senior wife speaking)
Mukadzin’inaJunior wife (senior wife speaking)
MukarangaFirst wife of chief.  Wife in addition to first wife
MumvanaUnmarried woman who has borne a child (but is still able to bear more). Divorced woman not yet remarried.
MunoroGirl child pledged, even before birth, to a husband-to-be who has already given roora
MupatiWomen with many children but no husband
MurongoSecond wife of chief.  Wife in addition to first (not the last)
MuzvariraYounger sister of person’s mother who is also married to person’s father
MvanaWoman (married or unmarried) who has borne a child and is still able to bear more. Married woman of loose morals
TsikombiStout, strong girl of marriageable age. Unmarried girl beyond marriageable age.
TsvinguMarried woman courted by other than her lawful partner
TsvunguMarried woman courted by other than her lawful partner

The woman as a child-bearer

In Shona culture, children are viewed as crucial to the family and to a marital union. It is common for childless women to suffer stigma and be shunned by their families, while some men resort to other relationships in the hope of having children.

Be it nature or nurture, the majority of women have an intense desire to have children of their own.

ChikoshaPregnant woman (whose pregnancy is apparent)
ChiremaWoman in sixth or later month of pregnancy
HandakamweWoman who has given birth once
MachinyerereA pregnant woman about to deliver
MuzvinamimbaPregnant woman
MungozvaNursing mother (up to 1 month or so after birth)
MuzvereNursing mother (up to 1 month or so after birth)
MusunungukiWoman who has just given birth to a child

A girl’s age, looks and character

Negative superstitions and misconceptions relating to girls still exist in Zimbabwe today. Child marriages are common with approximately 1 in 3 girls being married off before the age of 18. The preference to have sons instead of daughters is also still common.

BhevhiBaby girl
BunhaYoung girl (11-12). Baby of either sex.
ChibhamuAttractive girl
BanderaGirl who has never been to school
ChigadairwaShort plump person (generally girl)
ChigagairwaShort plump person (generally girl)
ChigezamusoronebweGirl who has not learned modern aids to cleanliness
ChihuniYoung healthy girl
ChijikitikwaYoung healthy girl
ChipwanyanamapfupaGrown girl of marriageable age
ChipwanyanenyangaGrown girl of marriageable age
ChimutsigoriBig, stout girl
ChisekeranziraGirl lacking in reserve.
ChitsikanyokaStout girl
ChitunduStout, strong young person. (especially girl)
ChipunhaYoung girl
ChitunyaStout strong girl of marriageable age
ChiuniYoung, healthy girl.
ChiwawaAttractive girl
ChukasiBeautiful, loose girl
MarweiGirl who has never been to school
MukundaDaughter of chief.
MunangaSlim, attractive girl
MbenembeGirlfriend of boy /Fiancee 
MuzvareDaughter of chief.
SherukuruChief’s daughter who is a spirit host
TepiSlim, attractive girl
Tombiyoung girl
Tsakupitistout girl
TsvarakadengaSlim, attractive girl

A woman’s age, looks and character

The western concept of beauty is at odds with views and perceptions of beauty among women in Zimbabwe. Women that are obese or overweight appear satisfied with their bodies. This is related to the unwritten standard of beauty which favors larger breasts, hips and bottoms.

ChembereElderly woman
ChizevengaOld woman
DekezhekwaVery stout and flabby woman
DhingaringaTall active stout woman
DhiziriVery fat woman
GorekapunhaWell preserved elderly woman. Adult woman with very young apperance
MafidiboVery ugly woman
MbazaWoman of strong and forceful character
Mbenembewoman of loose morals / mistress of married man
MhandakadziWoman with quarrelsome disposition
MharekadziHeroine. Brave woman.
MuchembereOld woman
MukweguruOld woman. Eldest daughter.
MunhukadziFemale person. Woman.
MutseheOld woman
RuchembereThin old woman

A woman who is recognised by her work

In traditional Shona society, women did not have the same decision making authority as men. This meant that men generally controlled the resources and owned the assets. Women were primarily responsible for household activities such as taking care of the children, laundry, preparing food, cleaning the home and fetching water and firewood.

This state of affairs is not uncommon in families today.

BandakadziFemale slave or servant. Companion of female spirit medium.
BombweWoman attendant (e.g. at marriage)
MakumbiFemale divine healer
MambokadziFemale chief. Queen.
MbongaGirl dedicated to service of Mwari
MufundisikadziLady teacher
MurandakadziFemale servant, female slave
MurandasikanaGirl servant

It is not surprising that one would be confused by some descriptions given for the nouns above. However, with the many varieties of dialects within the Shona language, unfamiliarity with variations in use of the same word is possible.

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