Shona Culture & Traditions

Jekesai, the heroine of The Convert, comes from the Shona people, the largest ethnic group in Zimbabwe. They first came to the region around one thousand years ago, as part of the Bantu Migration. At the time our play takes place, they were a peaceful agrarian society, struggling to adjust to the recent arrival of British colonists.

Social Structure: There were five main Shona groups, each with a distinct dialect of the Shona language, including Jekesai’s people, the Zezuru. Each of these groups included many smaller regional groups led by patriarchal chiefs, who each had authority over the headmen of several individual villages. Gender roles were fairly rigid, with boys and girls learning their separate responsibilities from their relatives of the same gender. Women were responsible for most of the farming work, as well as maintaining the huts, cooking, and brewing beer. Older men were the leaders of the community, while younger men and boys herded the livestock and hunted.

Family and Marriage: Family is central to Shona culture. Traditional marriages were polygamous and created large extended families. Typically, a few families lived together in a kraal (also called musha) consisting of many small huts surrounding a central area where livestock were kept. Separate huts housed a kitchen, sleeping quarters for each wife, a granary, and storage. The huts were circular, with wood-framed walls plastered with cow dung and mud, conical thatched roofs, packed cow dung floors, and west-facing doorways.
At this time, a Shona marriage was considered a contract between two families as well as two individuals. A prospective husband would pay a bride-price (roora) to his fiancee’s family, as a gesture of gratitude for raising her and as compensation for the loss of her labor (although in the play Chilford considers it equivalent to selling the woman).

Traditional huts in Zimbabwe

Cattle: Cattle were a crucial component of traditional Shona life. They were used not only as draft oxen for farming but also as a form of money, since prior to colonization the Shona had no currency. Bride-prices were usually paid in cattle, and smaller transactions might involve the exchange of a goat or sheep. Because of this the Shona would rarely eat beef, slaughtering a cow only for special occasions such as funerals or as a ritual sacrifice. In the 1890’s, Europeans accidentally introduced the rinderpest virus, which infects cattle; within a few years, almost 90% of the cows in southern Africa were dead (either of the virus or as a result of the colonists’ misguided attempts to stop its spread by preemptively killing herds), devastating the Shona economy.

Dead cattle in the 1896 rinderpest epidemic

Religion: The Shona religion is a blend of monotheism and veneration of ancestors. The creator god, Mwari, is omnipotent but also remote; ancestors and other spirits serve as intermediaries between Mwari and the people.

At the top of the spirit hierarchy are the mhondoro, spirits of dead clan founders and kings who watch over entire clans, regions, or the Shona people as a whole. Kaguvi and Nehanda, who incited the Shona to join the anti-colonial rebellion depicted in The Convert, were the mediums of powerful mhondoro.

The vadzimu (singular mudzimu) are the ancestors of specific families, and they continue to exist as long as they have living descendants to remember and honor them. A recently deceased person’s spirit does not become a mudzimu until the kurova guva ceremony, usually held one year after the death, at which the living relatives invite the spirit to return to the family and watch over them as an ancestor. Those who die childless or very young cannot become vadzimu because they have no direct descendants. Instead they become wandering spirits called mashavi.

All of these spirits communicate with humans through spiritual mediums, called svikiro. Each medium can become possessed by one specific spirit, and takes on the authority and social role of that spirit. For example, the Shona kings (mambo) were traditionally considered to be mediums of Mwari himself.

N`anga: Another important aspect of Shona culture are the n’anga, medicine men (and women) or “witchdoctors.” Their healing methods include spiritual guidance as well as traditional herbal medicine (muti), since in the traditional Shona worldview many physical ailments have spiritual causes. A n’anga may consult the ancestral spirits to determine whether a taboo has been violated or a ritual omitted, and then advise his or her patient on how to appease the spirits.

A modern-day n'anga with the tools of his trade

The Shona today: The Shona still make up the majority of Zimbabwe’s population. Many of the traditions described above have been integrated into modern, Westernized culture. Instead of cattle, grooms may give their future in-laws gifts of housewares, clothing, and cash; n`angas continue to practice, but may also refer patients to hospitals when necessary; and many Zimbabweans practice some blend of both Christianity and traditional spiritual beliefs.