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The Culture of Zimbabwe

In examining the culture of Zimbabwe it is necessary to identify the predominant population group. The Shona people make up over eighty percent of the population and historically have lived in the country longer than any other group. Because of both the relative size and historical significance of this group, the culture of the Shona best illustrates the true culture of Zimbabwe. Culture is a vague term and can be more specifically defined as the socially transmitted information that regulates a particular society. The culture of Zimbabwe can be best identified by examining the everyday mannerisms, rituals, family relationships, art forms, and religion practices of the Shona people.

The Shona possess an interesting variety of mannerisms. First and foremost, it is considered extremely impolite to look another person directly in the eyes. In addition, one should never stand looking down at and hovering over another. It is polite to squat or sit when talking to other people, or to one s elders. When receiving a gift, it is custom to first clap your hands together in a gesture of thanks, and then proceed to take the gift with both hands to show that it is too large for one hand only. Also, a gift is given with the right hand because the left hand is perceived to be unclean. When a man and his family are out together the man always walks in front, with his hands empty, so that he can protect his family if the need arises. His wife walks behind him, carrying everything and keeping track of the children. When approaching a village in Zimbabwe, one must pause at its edge and shout, Svikeyi? which means, May we arrive? When the reply comes back permitting entrance, then one may proceed. If it is necessary to approach another s hut, one must stand outside and either clap or shout, Gogogoyi, which means Knock, knock, knock (Cheney, 1990, p.191).

The unique marriage customs of the Shona further distinguish them from the other South African people. For the Shona, marriage is a process; there is no particular point when two people suddenly become married. The main purpose of marriage, the Shona believe, is the procreation of children, so a man is permitted to engage in intercourse with his wife-to-be before they have become accepted as a married couple. If she proves infertile, he is fully within his rights to return her to her family and either be repaid his bride-price or be given another daughter as a wife. If it can be proven that a man is sterile, it is shameful but not disastrous and he can discreetly arrange for someone else to impregnate the woman. The child that is then born is considered his own (p.197).

The government has outlawed polygamy but it still occurs, although most men can afford only one wife. Divorce, however, is quite common. A man can divorce his wife if she is infertile or if she does not fulfill her obligations. Serious failure as a housewife, repeated infidelity, and the practice of witchcraft can all lead to a woman being sent back to her family by her husband. While it is more difficult for a woman to divorce her husband, it is possible if she can produce evidence of physical abuse or if he fails to keep up his bride-price payments (p.201).

Bride-price is the payment to a woman s family by the husband that wishes to marry her; it involves two payments. The first, the rutsambo, used to be a utility object like a hoe, but nowadays is usually a large cash payment. The second payment, the roora, involves a second large cash payment or, sometimes, the more traditional payment of cattle. The groom may take many years to finish paying the roora, partly because it might take him that long to raise it, and partly because he is often disinclined to hand over all the cash until he is fully satisfied that his wife will fulfill all of her obligations. Although many people believe nowadays that payment of the bride-price is demeaning to women and a form of slavery, it was never perceived as such by the Shona themselves. The husband s family has rights and obligations towards the woman s family and may not pass her on to a third party (p.208).

The structure and relationships of the Shona families play a key role in the definition of the culture of the people of Zimbabwe. Despite the changing nature of the Shona society, it still remains patrilineal, which means that kinship through males is stressed over kinship though females. A child inherits his or her father s clan name and people distinguish members of their family only by their generation, age, and sex. For example, the term, baba, which means father, can apply equally to a father s brother, male cousin, or any other male of that generation no matter how distinctly they are related (p.191).

The individual is not considered important in Shona society. His or her status and behavior are determined by the relationships that person has with the other members of the community. The most important relationship within the Shona family is between father and child. This is a very formal relationship in which the child always shows the utmost respect for his or her father. Children can never eat with their father, take liberties with his property, or address him in a familiar manner. In contrast, the relationship between mother and child is extremely close. Most Shona children spend the first few years of their lives tied securely on their mothers backs with towels, and at her death, a mother s spirit is considered friendly and protective. Because of her good care for them, not to mention the pains of labor she went through, the mother s spirit demands to be well remembered by her children. If they fail to do this, the spirit is believed to regain the same absolute power over her children that she had when they were in their infancy (p.193).

Another aspect of culture that gives identity to the people of Zimbabwe is the arts. Crafts, sculptures, music, and dance are all very important to the history as well as the everyday life of the Shona people. The rural population of Zimbabwe crafts a wide variety of articles for daily use. Carved wooden headrests, ornamented knives and gourds, baskets containing panels of carved wood, musical instruments, and a wide variety of earthenware pots are made throughout the countryside. Roof thatching, perhaps the most practical art form is still very common in the countryside and is completed in a very traditional manner. Once grass is carefully chosen for its length, women bundle and comb the selected grasses, and men are the thatchers. They arrange the bundles on a roof, beginning at the edges and building towards the center. The thatchers attach the grass to the roof by repeatedly winding a coarse string around the bundle onto the frame of the dwelling until the bundle is securely tied. Layer is placed upon layer until only a small opening remains at the top, over which a cap of thatch is fastened (O Toole, 1989, p.137).

Other than using this artistic talent for survival, the people of Zimbabwe also create many forms of expressive art. Wooden masks are still created according to age-old designs and play a great role in Shona tradition. The most common mask is oval and often has two horns sticking out from a heavily grooved forehead. Narrow slits represent the eyes, and the broad, sharp nose has lines cut into it. Similar lines stretch across the cheekbones, and the mouth is open, with pursed lips. Dancers in religious ceremonies once used masks made of wood, straw, and other materials to enhance the rituals. Stone sculptures are also extremely popular among the Shona, and have become internationally popular with art collectors (p.120).

Music is tremendously popular and is a constant presence in Zimbabwe. When music is for dancing, its style is flamboyant, and the manyawi (the spirit of expression and excitement) develops the pace of the tune. If, however, the music is for a solemn occasion, musicians hold back the tempo to create a serious mood. Many lyrics simply express everyday events. For example, a babysitter sings a nurse s song to a baby when its mother is away, or a woman chants a presentation song when she gives a newborn baby to its father (p.79).

Native instruments often accompany this music, the most important being the drum. Drums are made in a number of sizes to provide a variety of sounds and are usually carved from solid blocks of wood with designs cut or burnt into them. Marimbas are also very poplar instruments. Like the xylophone, a marimba is made of strips of wood that vary in length, which are attached to a soundboard. Musicians strike the strips with wooden hammers to produce the melody. These instruments can also vary considerably in size and a group of different sized marimbas are often used to form a band (p.87).

In Zimbabwe, music is almost always accompanied by dancing as a means of self-expression. Dancing is a vital part of all social gatherings, including parties, weddings, political meetings, and receptions for visiting officials. Even religious occasions, such as funerals, include dancing as part of the rituals.

Religion is very important to the people of Zimbabwe and is centered on the spirits of deceased relatives. The belief in the constant presence of these ancestral spirits stands at the very core of the Shona life. For the Shona, these beliefs bind the past and the present together, and draw the extended family group into a complex pattern of mutual responsibilities.

There are two types of spirit guardians: the spirit elders for the family (midzimu), and the lion spirits who care for the chiefdom as a whole (mhondoro). Each home has a shrine to the midzimu, the most important of whom is the father or grandfather of the oldest living generation. Most families honor this spirit elder every year with a ceremonial offering of home-brewed millet beer. Occasionally, when something goes wrong for example, if someone becomes very ill or looses his or her job a family will also approach the spirit elder. Usually another offering of millet beer and promises to do better are enough to appease him. While the spirits of dead female members of the family also have roles to play in the affairs of the living, they seldom are official spirit guardians (Cheney, 1990, p.186).

The mhondoro or lion spirits, the spirits of clan founders, are more important than the midzimu, and generally concern themselves with matters that affect communities rather than individuals. They are consulted when locusts plague their fields, when lions are preying on the community, when people are threatened by an epidemic, or when they are about to become involved in a war. Through a possessed medium, an mhondoro may announce it has caused the problem because the people are forgetting their ancestors, or perhaps it will accuse members of the community of a specific crime like incest or quarreling at the spirit s shrine (p.186).

The Shona, like Christians, believe in an all-powerful God. He is usually known by the name Mwari. Unlike the Christian God, however, Mwari is not interested in the petty lives of the individuals, although he is ultimately responsible for everything that happens. The Shona rarely speak of him or try to communicate with him, except in the Matopo Hills, where there is an organized cult of Mwari. The most influential shrine is at the Matonjeni. It is looked from the Ndebele and even from neighboring white farmers who are interested in covering all their bases to ensure regular rainfall. The shrine is a cave from which the voice of Mwari speaks its oracles. The voice is an elderly woman who speaks to visiting delegations in a supposedly ancient dialect that must be translated into the language of the visitors (p.187).

These religious practices, compiled with the aforementioned everyday mannerisms, exchange rituals, family relationships, and art forms identify the true culture of the Shona people and the country of Zimbabwe.

Cheney, Robert. (1990). The Land and People of Zimbabwe. New York: Harper & Row

O Toole, Thomas. (1989). Zimbabwe. Minneapolis: Learner Publications Company

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