30 May 2007
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 relatives or even non-relatives. Generosity and concern for others are celebrated virtues at the core of the Shona philosophy of life.
However, generous deeds always required sincere appreciation and thanks. Such a belief is expressed in the Shona prover, kusatenda uroyi. 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 Nhetembo
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), the Mutapa state (1450 - 1870s), the Torwa state (1450 - 1690s) and the 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. He chose the 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 difficult (due to the fact that they practiced the custom of 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), personal praises (madetembedzo ekurumbidza munhu) and boasts (madetembedzo ekuzvirumbidza). 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 ekutenda vana, 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, nhetembo dzemhuka yemutupo, nhetembo dzekunyaradza mwana and nhetembo dzevari pasi (praises in honour of the clan's spirits) However, here 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 (that is, pertaining to descent by the male line of ancestors) and women who trace their descent from a common founding ancestor. The founding ancestor is called sikarudzi. 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 mutupo (totem) and chidawo (principal praise name). 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 and these clans are differentiated by citing the totem together with the praise name. For instance, Shava - Museyamwa, Soko - Murehwa, 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, Tembo (Zebra) and Nzou are characterised by imagery that is directly implied by these animals. Thus we have such praises as 'soko makwiramiti', 'mbizi njuma yerenje' (zebra, the hornless beast) and 'nzou samanyanga'. However, the praises of other clans whose totems are not animals but organs of human beings or animals, such as Moyo 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.