Shona praise poetry is referred to in Shona as nhetembo dzemadzinza, which means clan praise poetry. In the Shona traditional context, it was the medium for expressing genuine and heartfelt sentiments of appreciation, homage and gratitude for any commendable action done by someone to his/her relatives or even non-relatives. Generosity and concern for others are celebrated virtues at the core of Shona philosophy of life.
However, generous deeds always required sincere appreciation and thanks. Such a belief is expressed in the Shona proverbial saying, Kusatenda uroyi (Being unthankful is tantamount to practising witchcraft). Clan praise poetry derived its praises from the attributes of an animal, object or organ of an animal that is taken as totem by members of a particular clan as well as from the attributes of the clan's ancestors. It is for this reason why totemism is the basis of praise poetry in Shona culture rather than the attributes of an individual as in Nguni royal praises (izibongo). While in some Nguni cultures, praise poetry was more formalised and recited to chiefs and kings at public gatherings, in Shona culture its recitation was informal. Every member of the clan across age and sex deserved praise from the clan's poetic praises upon rendering some good service. However, the praises of chiefs were done by close relatives and friends particularly, the chief's nephew (dunzvi) or the chief's funeral friend (sahwira).
The historical and socio-cultural context of Shona Praise Poetry
The belief in totemism and recitation of clan praise poetry is a tradition whose history dates back to the initial stages of Shona culture. Shona verbal artistry, evolved in tandem with the culture that gave rise to it. With particular reference to Shona praise poetry, its rhythm echoes from the apex of Shona civilisation particularly in the socio-cultural history of the ruling dynasties associated with the Great Zimbabwe state (1250 - 1450), Mutapa state (1450 - 1870s), Torwa state (1450 - 1690s) and Rozvi state (1690s - 1830s). On the bottom, it reverberated in every homestead, village and chiefdom, making the entire Shona socio-cultural life a rhythm of laudatory remarks. Praise poetry was part and parcel of the belief in and celebration of totemism. In a typical traditional Shona life, praise poetry graced daily life. No day would pass without it being recited. It is not known exactly when totemism began in Shona society. What is clear is that it was adopted in the mythological times of Shona culture. According to Shona oral traditions, the adoption of totemism is associated with the earliest known ancestor of the Shona people, Mambiri (A. Chigwedere, 1980: 19). He chose the Shoko/Soko (Monkey) totem to guard against incestuous behaviour and also for the social identity of his followers. This took place in a mythical place called Guruuswa, which was located somewhere north of the Zambezi River in southern Tanganyika. As the early Shona grew in number and marriage became difficulty, due to the fact that they practiced the custom of exogamy (marrying only outside one's clan), there was need to adopt a second totem. The Shava/Mhofu (Eland) totem was therefore adopted so as to enable intermarriage between members of the two totems to take place. In contemporary Shona society there are at least 25 identifiable totems (mitupo) with at least 60 principal names (zvidawo).
Types of Clan Praise Poetry
There are mainly three kinds of Shona praise poetry namely, clan praises (madetembedzo edzinza/rudzi ), personal praises (madetembedzo okurumbidza munhu) and boasts (madetembedzo kuzvirumbidza). However, there are more sub-genres which include madetembedzo evasikana verudzi (praises of unmarried girls of the clan), madanha nemarevereve (praises for love-making), madetembedzo okutenda vana (praises for thanking children for rendering good service), madetembedzo emamiriro erudzi (boasts uttered in the name of the clan to warn its detractors or enemies of the consequences they may if provoked), nhetembo dzehondo (war-song of the clan), nhetembo dzemhuka yemutupo (praises of the totemic animal), nhetembo dzokunyaradza mwana (lulluby praises for calming a crying child) and nhetembo dzevari pasi (praises in honour of the clan's spirits) (A.C. Hodza and G. Fortune, 1979: 28). However, in this paper we will only refer to the main genre of Shona praise poetry, that is, clan praises.
Important features of Clan Praise Poetry
(a) The Clan - It is the core of every Shona chiefdom. It is a group of agnatically related kinsmen and women who trace their descent from a common founding ancestor (A. C. Hodza and G. Fortune, 1978: 12). The founding ancestor is called sikarudzi (progenitor or creator of the clan). In most clan praises the name of the sikarudzi is constantly made reference to. For example, in the praises of the people of the Soko totem, the names Tovela/Tobela and Mbire are mentioned. The first was a name for the second known earliest ancestor of the Shona people and the second is a name for the early Shona people that is derived from Mambiri, the earliest known ancestor of the same people.
(b) The Totem - Every Shona clan is identified by a particular totem (mutupo) and principal praise name (chidawo). The totem of each clan was adopted by the founder of the clan and is therefore supposed to be inherited by all his descendants, male and female alike. The principal praise name is used in addition to the totem if there is need to distinguish people who have the same totem but belong to different clans. For instance, there are many Shona clans whose totem is Shava (Eland) and these clans are differentiated by citing the totem together with the praise name. For instance, we have Shava - Mazarura, Shava- Mufakose, Shava - Mutenhesanwa, Shava - Museyamwa; Shoko - Vhudzijena, Shoko - Murehwa; Shumba - Murambwi, Shumba - Nyamuziwa and so on.
(c) The Chief - He is referred to as ishe or mambo and he is a living senior member of the clan. He is the guardian of the clan's traditions and customs. The founding fathers and other ancestors of the clan communicated with him and other living descendants through spirit possession, dreams, events such as natural catastrophes, voices from shrines and other oracular messages.
The reference of Clan Praise Poetry
First and foremost the praises of the clan are phrases in terms of the totem. For instance, the praises of the clans whose totems are Soko (Monkey), Tembo (Zebra) and Nzou (Elephant) are characterised by imagery that is directly implied by these animals. Thus we have such praises as 'soko makwiramiti' (monkey, the climber of trees), 'mbizi njuma yerenje' (zebra, the hornless beast) and 'nzou samanyanga' (elephant, the owner of huge horns). However, the praises of other clans whose totems are not animals but organs of human beings or animals, such as Moyo (Heart) and Tsiwo (Male genitalia) are differently inspired. The imagery of the Moyo totem is derived from the heart while that of the Tsiwo is allusive of the male genitalia and its domain as well as its field of operation, the female genitalia.
Secondly, clan praises are based on ancestral references; names of forefathers of the clan, their sisters including the names of placed they once lived in and were buried. Such places record milestones in the history of the clan and remain culturally and historically symbolic to the clan. In short they were part of the clan's non-tangible heritage. Reference to ancestors when thanking someone meant that actually it was his/her lineage that was thanked. The person only represented the clan in extending its good deeds.
To illustrate the main features of Shona praise poetry that have been highlighted above, below are the praises of the Soko - Vhudzijena and Shava - Museyamwa clans:
(Note that although I have given the translations 'titles', strictly these titles don't need to be translated because in Shona culture they primarily function as clan names through the totem as well as (sur)names used to identify a particular member of the clan. For example, Soko (Monkey) - Vhudzijena (White-hair); Shava (eland) - Museyamwa (One-who-can-be-leant-on).)
Soko - Vhudzijena
Makumbo mana muswe weshanu
Hekani Soko yangu yiyi
Vakaera mutupo umwe nashe
Soko Mbire yaSvosve
VekuMatonjeni vanaisi vemvura
Zvaitwa matarira vari mumabwe
Mhanimani tonodya, svosve tichobovera
Maita zvenyu rudzi rukuru
Vakawana ushe neuchenjeri
Vakufamba hujeukidza kwandabva
Pagerwe rinongova jemedzanwa
Vari mawere maramba kurimba
Vamazvikongonyadza kufamba hukanyaira
Zvibwezvitedza, zvinotedzera vari kure
Asi vari padyo vachitamba nazvo
Zvaitwa mukanya rudzi rusina chiramwa
Maita vari Makoromokwa, Mugarandaguta
Aiwa zvaonekwa Vhudzijena
Soko - Vhudzijena
Thank you Soko
White-hair, The Pompous one
Thank you Bearer of Children
The Tree-climber, one-who-always-barks
Those who survive by stealing
Those who bath only once in a year
Those who have four legs, the tail being the fifth
Thank you very much my dear Soko
Those who have the same totem as the chief
The descendants of Pfumojena
Those who came from Guruuswa
Soko Mbire of Svosve
Those who come from Hwedza
The rain-makers of Matojeni
A good service has been done the alert one, those in in the rocks
We eat centipedes, we throw ants into our mouths
Thank you for the good service, great lineage
The original inhabitants
Those who obtained chieftainship through shrewdness and diplomacy
The one who constantly looks back when moving
Wherever they settle there is quarreling and crying
When seated you are constantly scratching your body
Those always on the cliffs, who refused to till the land
The pompous one who walks proudly
The Slippery-rocks that are slippery to those come from afar
But is friendly to those in the vicinity
It has been done, a lineage that does not refuse to perform a task no matter how it is treated
Those on the steep rocks and cliffs, one-who-rests-only-when-he-is-full
Indeed your kindness has been seen, White-hair
From the English version of the poem, the praises "White hair", "Bearer of children", "Those who have four legs, the tail being the fifth", for instance, makes reference to the behaviour of the animal totem. However, praises like "Those who have the same totem as the chief", "Those who come from Guruuswa", "The descendants of Pfumojena", "The rain-makers of Matonjeni", "Those who come from Hwedza", "The Iron-smelters", refer to the history and the professions of the long departed ancestors of the clan.
Shava - Museyamwa
Mhofu yomukono, Ziwewera
Vakapiwa vakadzi munyika yavaNjanja
Hekani Mutekedza, vari uHera Mukonde
Zvaitwa Mhukahuru, vemiswe inochenga miviri
Ziendanetyaka, mutunhu une mago
Vanovangira vashura vhu, kutsivira mutumbi
Chidavarume, vanovhimwa navanonyanga
Vasakamonera vakadzi dzenhema
Vanomonera vakadzi dzamangondi
Vane misodzi inodonha pasi
Kuti yadonha yoda nhevedzo yeromunhu ropa
Tonotenda vari Matenhere
Vari pazvikomo zveMbwenya
Maita veTsambochena, Mhofu yomukono
Kuyambuka rwizi mvura yakwira makomo
Totenda voMuchimbare, veGuruuswa
Vane nzangachena kunge mwedzi wejenachena
Kuziva zvenyu VaShava Mukonde, vari Gombe
Zvaonekwa vahombarume, zvaitwa Mbiru
Aiwa, zvaonekwa Sarirambi, zvaiitwa Nyashanu.
Shava - Museyamwa
Thank you Shava
The Great Eland bull, The Runaway
Thank you very much The-one-who-carries heavy-loads
Those who challenged each other at Janga
Those who were given wives in the country of the Njanja people
Thank you my dear Mutekedza, those in uHera Mukonde
It has been done Great Animal, thosewith tails that are intimate with body
One with sounding feet, one who comb of wasps
Those who chase those who portend death, as compensation for a corpse
One-who-likes-men, hunted only by those who do so with caution
Those who do not wrap women with lies
Those who embrace and bend women
Those who yearn for the original one
Those with tears that are too sacred fall to the ground
But if they fall, they must be accompanied with human blood
We are so thankful those in Matenhere
Those who lie in the hills of Mbwenya
Thank you those those of White Bangles, Great Eland Bull
Crossing the river after the waters have ascended the mountains
We are so thankful those in Muchimbare, those of Guruuswa
Those with white settlements that resemble the whiteness of the full moon
It is your custom to be kind, Shava Mukonde, those in Gombe
Your kindness has been seen great hunter, it has been done Mbiru
No, your kindness has been seen, Sarirambi, it has been done Nyashanu
Similarly, from the Shava-Museyamwa praise poem above, the praises "The Great Eland Bull", "The one with sounding feet" and "Those with tails that are intimate with the body" for example, refer to the character of the eland, which is the totem animal. However, the epithets, "Thank you Mutekedza, those in Uhera Mukonde", "Those who lie in the Hills of Mbwenya", "We thank you Muchimbare, those of Guruuswa", "Those who yearn for the original one" and "Those who were given wives in the country of the Njanja people" are drawn from the history and deeds of the clan's ancestors.
Chigwedere, A., From Mutapa to Rhodes, 1000 - 1980 A.D., London: Macmillan, 1980.
Hodza, A.C., Mitupo neZvidawo Zvemadzinza, Harare: Longman, 1982.
Hodza, A.C and Fortune, G., Shona Praise Poetry, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979.
Mickias T. Musiyiwa teaches in the Dept of African Languages at the University of Zimbabwe. He also teaches music and culture ant the Zimbabwe College of Music. He may be contacted by e-mail on