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.
|Amaiguru||Mother’s elder sister. Wife of senior paternal uncle. Senior wife of father. Wife of elder brother. Elder sister of wife.|
|Amainini||Mother’s younger sister. Junior wife of father. Younger sister of wife. Wife of man’s younger brother.|
|Amwene||Mother-in-law of wife|
|Ambuya||Grandmother. Grandmother’s sister. Mother-in-law of husband. Wife of mother’s brother. Wife of wife’s brother.|
|Atete||Paternal aunt (Sister of father). Sister of husband.|
|Maiguru||Elder sister of mother. Wife of father’s elder brother. Senior wife of father. Wife of elder brother. Elder sister of wife.|
|Mainini||Younger sister of mother. Wife of father’s younger brother. Junior wife of father. Wife of younger brother. Younger sister of wife.|
|Mbuyawasha||Wife of brother-in-law|
|Mezvara||A wife’s mother-in-law|
|Mhezvara||A wife’s mother-in-law|
|Mbuya||Alternative form of Ambuya. Use varies based on age of addressee and degree of respect that should be accorded.|
|Mukoma||Elder sister or female cousin|
|Mukwambokadzi||Daughter-in-law (sister of son-in-law)|
|Murongoti||Sister (brother speaking)|
|Muroorazukuru||Wife of son of man’s sister|
|Murumekadzi||Sister of husband|
|Muramu||Sister of wife|
|Mwaramu||Sister of wife|
|Sisi||Sister. Girl acquaintance. Girl friend.|
|Tete||Paternal aunt (Sister of father). Sister of husband.|
|Vamwene||Mother-in-law of wife|
|Vatete||Paternal 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.
|Bandika||Second 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)|
|Bondwi||Substitute wife (given to widower). Second wife who is the sister of the first wife. Woman attendant (e.g. at a marriage)|
|Chigadzamapfihwa||Substitute wife (given to widower to replace wife who has died)|
|Chimutsamapfihwa||Substitute wife (given to widower to replace wife who has died)|
|Chipanda||Woman 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.|
|Chitsaramwi||Substitute wife (given to widower to replace wife who has died)|
|Machipiri||A second wife|
|Maivemba||Wife / married woman|
|Makumbi||Wife of divine healer|
|Mhandara||Girl of marriageable age|
|Mubvana||Married daughter who has a child or children|
|Muchatwa||Bride in solemnised marriage|
|Mudukutu||Senior wife of a polygamist|
|Mudzimai||Married woman. Wife.|
|Mukadzi||Wife. Married woman|
|Mukadzinyina||Junior wife (senior wife speaking)|
|Mukadzin’ina||Junior wife (senior wife speaking)|
|Mukaranga||First wife of chief. Wife in addition to first wife|
|Mumvana||Unmarried woman who has borne a child (but is still able to bear more). Divorced woman not yet remarried.|
|Munoro||Girl child pledged, even before birth, to a husband-to-be who has already given roora|
|Mupati||Women with many children but no husband|
|Murongo||Second wife of chief. Wife in addition to first (not the last)|
|Muzvarira||Younger sister of person’s mother who is also married to person’s father|
|Mvana||Woman (married or unmarried) who has borne a child and is still able to bear more. Married woman of loose morals|
|Tsikombi||Stout, strong girl of marriageable age. Unmarried girl beyond marriageable age.|
|Tsvingu||Married woman courted by other than her lawful partner|
|Tsvungu||Married 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.
|Chikosha||Pregnant woman (whose pregnancy is apparent)|
|Chirema||Woman in sixth or later month of pregnancy|
|Handakamwe||Woman who has given birth once|
|Machinyerere||A pregnant woman about to deliver|
|Mungozva||Nursing mother (up to 1 month or so after birth)|
|Muzvere||Nursing mother (up to 1 month or so after birth)|
|Musununguki||Woman 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.
|Bunha||Young girl (11-12). Baby of either sex.|
|Bandera||Girl who has never been to school|
|Chigadairwa||Short plump person (generally girl)|
|Chigagairwa||Short plump person (generally girl)|
|Chigezamusoronebwe||Girl who has not learned modern aids to cleanliness|
|Chihuni||Young healthy girl|
|Chijikitikwa||Young healthy girl|
|Chipwanyanamapfupa||Grown girl of marriageable age|
|Chipwanyanenyanga||Grown girl of marriageable age|
|Chimutsigori||Big, stout girl|
|Chisekeranzira||Girl lacking in reserve.|
|Chitundu||Stout, strong young person. (especially girl)|
|Chitunya||Stout strong girl of marriageable age|
|Chiuni||Young, healthy girl.|
|Chukasi||Beautiful, loose girl|
|Marwei||Girl who has never been to school|
|Mukunda||Daughter of chief.|
|Munanga||Slim, attractive girl|
|Mbenembe||Girlfriend of boy /Fiancee|
|Muzvare||Daughter of chief.|
|Sherukuru||Chief’s daughter who is a spirit host|
|Tepi||Slim, attractive girl|
|Tsvarakadenga||Slim, 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.
|Dekezhekwa||Very stout and flabby woman|
|Dhingaringa||Tall active stout woman|
|Dhiziri||Very fat woman|
|Gorekapunha||Well preserved elderly woman. Adult woman with very young apperance|
|Mafidibo||Very ugly woman|
|Mbaza||Woman of strong and forceful character|
|Mbenembe||woman of loose morals / mistress of married man|
|Mhandakadzi||Woman with quarrelsome disposition|
|Mharekadzi||Heroine. Brave woman.|
|Mukweguru||Old woman. Eldest daughter.|
|Munhukadzi||Female person. Woman.|
|Ruchembere||Thin 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.
|Bandakadzi||Female slave or servant. Companion of female spirit medium.|
|Bombwe||Woman attendant (e.g. at marriage)|
|Makumbi||Female divine healer|
|Mambokadzi||Female chief. Queen.|
|Mbonga||Girl dedicated to service of Mwari|
|Murandakadzi||Female servant, female slave|
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.