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ETHNONYM: Karanga (historical)


Identification. The Shona-speaking peoples comprise about 80 percent of the population of Zimbabwe, with significant groups in Mozambique. Most of what follows applies to the Shona in Zimbabwe, who have been extensively studied.

There are a number of linguistic subgroups of Shona: the Zezuru, who inhabit the central plateau of Zimbabwe; the Karanga, to the south; the Korekore, to the north and dropping into the Zambezi Valley; the Manyika, to the east; the Tavara, in the Zambezi Valley in Mozambique and in the extreme northeast of Zimbabwe; the Ndau, in the southeast of Zimbabwe and stretching down to the coast in Mozambique; and the Kalanga, in the southwest of Zimbabwe and overflowing into Botswana.

These linguistic classifications led to the formation of distinct ethnic classifications in colonial times. Historically, however, neither the subgroups nor the Shona as a whole comprised distinct political or ethnic units. The Kalanga and the Ndau, in particular, have been considerably influenced by neighboring Nguni peoples.

Location. Central Shona country is the high plateau of Zimbabwe, with an elevation of 1,200 meters or more, a temperate climate, and an annual rainfall of 70 to 100 centimeters. The Zambezi Valley, in the north, is hotter and drier, as is the southwest. Few Shona now inhabit the eastern highlands, which are cool and wet. Generally, the colonial administration moved the majority of Shona away from the best farmland, into areas where the soils are sandy and thin and where the amount of rainfall is less favorable for agriculture.

Demography. The Shona population is estimated to have been slightly more than half a million early in the twentieth century. There has been rapid population increase in Zimbabwe throughout the twentieth century: there are now around 8,000,000 Shona in Zimbabwe and perhaps half a million outside. Approximately 26 percent of the population now reside in urban areas. Life expectancy at birth is 57, and the population growth rate is estimated at 3 percent.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Shona language is tonal and is one of the Bantu Group. There is relative ease of communication with neighboring peoples. A kind of pidgin Bantu, chilapalapa, based largely on Zulu and Afrikaans, is widely spoken in the region, especially in the towns.

History and Cultural Relations

The ancestors of the Shona settled in their region in the first millennium a.d., introducing settled agriculture, cattle, and iron mining to the area. Although the Shona have been organized, for the most part, into small, independent chiefdoms, from time to time during the course of their history, conglomerations of chiefdoms have been united into larger states. Control of trade in gold and ivory with Arabs and Portuguese on the coast constituted both a motive and a support for political rulers to expand their spheres of influence. From the twelfth century onward, techniques of drystone walling were developed by the Karanga in the south, who, with the formation of large states, constructed a number of large stone buildings.

In the nineteenth century, the Shona were disturbed by Nguni migrations from the south, particularly by the Ndebele who, possessing superior military techniques, settled in and dominated the southeast of what is now Zimbabwe. Colonial settlement came at the end of the century. An uprising against the settlers was defeated. Independence came after further wars in Rhodesia and Mozambique in the 1960s and 1970s.

From the nineteenth century onward, the Shona have migrated to work in the mines of South Africa. After the colonial settlement of southern Rhodesia, employment became available within the country, on farms and mines, and particularly in the growing industrial cities. Some groups were moved off their land to make way for settlers who wanted to farm it.

Widespread education was introduced by various groups of missionaries, who also established hospitals and diverse forms of technical training, including training in improved agriculture. These services were subsequently taken over and expanded by government. Plow agriculture is now prevalent.


There were some large stockaded villages prior to colonial settlement, but in some areas people lived in scattered family hamlets. The dominant settlement pattern is one of villages with homesteads spread out in lines next to agricultural land. The traditional homestead included a number of round, pole- and-mud huts with conical thatched roofs. These huts have largely been replaced by brick houses, roofed with zinc, sometimes in the traditional style of round huts.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. In precolonial times the main crops were various types of millet. Now, except in the drier areas, maize is predominant. Groundnuts and various vegetables are also grown for relish. Early in the colonial period, farmers grew surpluses for sale. Cash crops such as tobacco and cotton are also grown. Today, shortages of land are acute in many areas, and few Shona are able to make much of an income from farming. Agriculture is largely supported by salaried or wage labor in the towns. A cash income in the family allows for expenditure on implements and on quality seed and fertilizers, which increase agricultural output.

Except in the low-lying, tsetse-fly-infested areas, cattle are widely kept. Traditionally, cattle comprised the main indicator of wealth. They retain importance in this respect in the rural areas and have the added utility of providing draft power. Other domestic animals include goats, sheep, pigs, donkeys, and various types of poultry.

Industrial Arts. In the rural areas everyone is involved in agriculture and there are no full-time specialists. In the past there was extensive iron and gold smelting, but all the surface gold has now been mined, and superior iron is now obtained from modern plants. One still finds blacksmiths in many villages, however. Traditional crafts of basketwork and pottery are still widespread. One now finds carpenters, builders, tailors, and other semiskilled specialists in many rural areas. Women engage in sewing and knitting, now often on a cooperative basis.

Trade. Although there is a long history of trade both between Shona groups and with outsiders, there were traditionally no markets in Shona settlements. These are now well established in cities, towns, and many rural centers of administration and trade. Even the remotest areas have access to some stores in which basic consumer goods are sold.

Division of Labor. The division of labor in Shona society is primarily based on sex. Women make pottery, do all the domestic work, and perform many of the less strenuous agricultural tasks. Men are responsible for more strenuous (but less time-consuming) agricultural work, raising cattle, hunting, and ironwork. They are also involved in politics, which requires much sitting around and talking.

Certain men, such as a chief or a man with many daughters, can expect to have dependents do chores for them. People with good incomes from wages or salaries are now able to employ others to do some of their agricultural work.

Land Tenure. Traditionally, every adult man was given land by his father or village headman. Land could not be bought or sold; it was returned to the community for redistribution when no longer in use. Now there is a scarcity of agricultural land in most communities, and land rights are carefully guarded and inherited. Land has acquired a commercial value. Grazing land, however, remains communal and, except in freehold commercial-farming areas, is habitually overused.


Kin Groups and Descent. Patrilineal groups are the basic unit of economic cooperation and, usually, of residence: extended families traditionally shared a homestead or lived in adjacent homesteads. Except in chiefly families, such a group is rarely more than three or four generations in depth, and it is easy for an individual to attach instead to matrilateral relatives. The descendants of a deceased woman may occasionally gather for ritual purposes.

Kinship Terminology. Patrilineal kin are classified according to sex, generation, and seniority by age. Parallel matrilateral kin are accorded the same terms as patrilineal kin. Other matrilateral kin are classified simply by sex.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Polygyny was traditionally preferred, but the cost of living, and especially of education, has made monogamy more common. The preferred form of marriage is virilocal, with the payment of bride-price, traditionally in cattle but now in cash and kind. Bride-service was formerly an alternative; in the remoter low-lying areas where cattle are not kept, it remains a prominent part of marriage transactions. Occasionally, a young girl may be pledged to a wealthy man against help in time of extreme hardship. Divorce, although discouraged, is common and usually involves the return of a proportion of the bride-price, depending on the duration of the marriage and the number of children born.

Traditionally, the sexual activities of women were strictly controlled, and girls were inspected for virginity at marriage. Such controls have largely broken down.

Domestic Unit. In a polygynous marriage, the domestic unit was usually a wife and her children. Such a unit was usually allocated its own fields for subsistence purposes. A nuclear family is now the most common domestic unit.

Inheritance. A man's status, wives, and possessions may be inherited by his brother or by his adult child. The inheritor takes responsibility for the family of the deceased. Adelphic succession results in the position of chieftainship rotating between houses descended from different wives of the founder of the dynasty. Adelphic inheritance sometimes poses problems in a modern family, when the deceased husband's kin take all the family property, leaving the wife destitute. A woman's personal property is inherited by her daughters.

Socialization. Infants are pampered and receive much personal attention until the age of 3 or 4, resulting in rapid development of motor and cognitive skills. Thereafter, they are strictly disciplined. Children receive much personal attention from peers and a number of adults in the extended family. Although importance is attached to authority structures, including authority based on age among siblings, this authority is diffused among a number of older persons. Now, with more emphasis on the elementary family, authority often rests entirely with the family head and is more open to abuse.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Shona societies are primarily organized around kinship. Relations between nonkin may be formalized in bond friendship, which imposes mutual obligations of hospitality, material assistance, and certain ritual services. Heavy tasks, such as thatching a house, clearing or plowing a field or reaping the harvest, may be performed by work parties, at which neighbors work and are rewarded with supplies of millet beer. Attendance at such parties imposes obligations of reciprocation.

Political Organization. The principal Shona political unit was the chiefdom. A hereditary chief was ultimately responsible for the distribution of land, for appeasing the territorial spirit guardians, and for settling disputes. Larger chiefdoms were sometimes subdivided into wards, each with its ward headman. The details of distributing land and settling minor disputes were left to the village headmen, but in the colonial era his main function became keeping a tax register.

Although the traditional political authorities are still recognized in order to maintain Shona culture and values, they now have little power. Dispute settlement is now in the hands of elected presiding officers, and land distribution is controlled by government administrators.

Social Control. Serious crimes, such as incest and homicide, used to be in the control of the guardian spirits, through their mediums. All other offenses were dealt with by a hierarchy of courts from the village level to the chiefly level. Now offenses are dealt with by a hierarchy of government-controlled courts, from the community level to the High Court.

Conflict. Warfare between the scattered Shona chiefdoms was rare. A number of Shona groups suffered from raids by Ndebele armies during the nineteenth century. Tensions between the Shona and the Ndebele have not yet been totally resolved.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The ancestor cult is the dominant feature of Shona religion. Ancestors are largely benign; they protect their descendants from malign influences, both human and spiritual. Ancestors make their wishes known through the mediums they possess and often through causing their descendants to suffer mild but persistent illness. They dislike dissension among their descendants and are therefore a force for keeping groups together. Ancestors can be extremely dangerous; when they become angry, they can cause multiple deaths.

Ancestors of chiefly lineages often have a political function. They support and control the chiefly office and are often involved in the selection of a new chief. These spirit guardians are believed to care for all who live in their territory. They are responsible for rain and fertility. In some parts of Shona country, remote hero spirits can take on these territorial and political functions.

Most Shona have a vague idea of a remote High God but no traditional cult in his honor. Among the Karanga and the Kalanga, however, there is a cult of the High God Mwari, with a complex organization, which overshadows local chiefly or territorial cults. Partly through use of the name by missionaries, knowledge of Mwari has now spread throughout Shona country.

There are a variety of lesser spirits that may provide individuals with particular skills or protection. Belief in witchcraft and sorcery is widespread and can become obsessive, particularly under the strain of survival in urban environments.

Around 25 percent of the Shona belong to a variety of Christian denominations, and many ideas from Christianity have penetrated the thought of non-Christians. Among the denominations Shona have embraced are a number of independent churches that emphasize prophecy and healing through possession by the Holy Spirit.

Religious Practitioners. The most important practitioners are spirit mediums, men or women who have been chosen by particular spirits to be their hosts. From time to time, a medium becomes possessed by the spirit, and the spirit is believed to act and speak through the host. Hosts may have relatively unimportant spirits and have little function other than providing entertainment at possession dances. They may have healing spirits and thus be primarily concerned with divination and healing, or they may have ancestral spirits or politically important territorial spirits.

In the south, the cult of Mwari has a specialized priesthood that cares for a number of hill shrines and performs ceremonies at them. Otherwise, any adult male, and occasionally an adult female, may perform routine ceremonies in honor of deceased ancestors.

Ceremonies. Most important ceremonies involve offerings of millet beer to the spirits concerned. Small libations are poured, and the remainder is consumed by the gathering, amid singing and dancing. Sacrifices may occasionally be offered to ancestors and territorial spirits but are regularly offered to Mwari. Spirits may also be honored with gifts of cloth or money, handed over to the medium.

Arts. The most important musical instrument is the mbira, consisting of up to thirty finely tuned metal reeds, set on a wooden base and played inside a gourd resonator. The reeds are plucked with fingers and thumbs. The Shona also have a variety of drums, and in different parts of the country one finds horns, friction bows, gongs, panpipes, and xylophones.

Visual arts were relatively undeveloped in precolonial times. More recently, fine wood and stone carving have become widespread.

Medicine. Western medicine is widely available in Shona country and is widely accepted for most ailments. A wide range of herbs and charms are available for ordinary ailments or protection against them. When illness is persistent or when it is accompanied by tension in the community, spiritual causes are suspected and traditional healers are consulted. These divine the cause by dice or through spirit possession and prescribe both ritual and herbal remedies. Such healers may also prescribe charms for good fortune in various domains. A common result of divination is that a spirit wants the sick person to become its host; in such cases, healing may be achieved through possession trances. Traditional healing is particularly effective in dealing with psychological tensions: responsibility is transferred to spirits, and the whole community is involved in sorting out the problem.

Death and Afterlife. Although the ancestral cult is important, traditional Shona rarely speak about an afterlife; a person's future after death is vaguely thought to depend on having descendants who will remember the deceased and hold rituals in his or her honor. Funeral ceremonies are performed to take a dead person away from the community and to keep him or her away. For an adult with descendants, an additional ceremony a year or more later welcomes the deceased into the company of benign ancestors and back into the homestead.


Beach, David N. (1980). The Shona and Zimbabwe, 900-1850. Gweru: Mambo Press.

Bourdillon, M. F. C. (1987). The Shona Peoples. 3rd ed. Gweru: Mambo Press.

Ellert, Henrik (1984). The Material Culture of Zimbabwe. Harare: Longman.

Gelfand, Michael (1979). Growing Up in Shona Society. Gweru: Mambo Press.


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Shona Bantu-speaking people of e Zimbabwe. Shona society is based on subsistence agriculture and is centred on small villages, abandoned when local resources are exhausted. Their culture is noted for its pottery, music, and dance.