Totems are used in Zimbabwean culture to identify the different clans that makeup the ancient civilisations of the dynasties. The symbols are usually associatedwith animal names and provide the social identity of the clan. They are also meant to guard against incestuous behaviour.

 There are at least 25 identifiable totems and 60 principal names. Every clan is identified by a particular totem and a principal praise name, which distinguishes people who have the same totem but are from different clans.

People of the same totem are descendants of one common ancestor and the totem unity is recognised even across tribal boundary lines. Totem identity is very important at traditional ceremonies. e.g. a person of the same totem, even if that person is from a different tribe, can initiate burial of the deceased. However, a person from a different totem cannot initiate burial and if he does, he risks paying a substantial fine to the family of the deceased.


Published in: on June 9, 2011 at 2:15 am  Leave a Comment  

Burial and Mourning Customs

Death in African religions is one of the last transitional stages of life requiring passage rites, and this too takes a long time to complete. The deceased must be “detached” from the living and make as smooth a transition to the next life as possible because the journey to the world of the dead has many interruptions. If the correct funeral rites are not observed, the deceased may come back to trouble the living relatives. Usually an animal is killed in ritual, although this also serves the practical purpose of providing food for the many guests. Personal belongings are often buried with the deceased to assist in the journey. Various other rituals follow the funeral itself. Some kill an ox at the burial to accompany the deceased. Others kill another animal some time after the funeral (three months to two years and even longer is the period observed).

Published in: on June 3, 2011 at 6:54 pm  Leave a Comment  

The African Concept of The Afterlife

Nearly all African peoples have a belief in a singular supreme being, the creator of the earth. Although the dead are believed to be somehow nearer to the supreme being than the living, the original state of bliss in the distant past expressed in creation myths is not restored in the afterlife. The separation between the supreme being and humankind remains unavoidable and natural in the place of the departed, even though the dead are able to rest there and be safe. Most African peoples believe that rewards and punishments come to people in this life and not in the hereafter. In the land of the departed, what happens there happens automatically, irrespective of a person’s earthly behaviour, provided the correct burial rites have been observed. But if a person is a wizard, a murderer, a thief, one who has broken the community code or taboos, or one who has had an unnatural death or an improper burial, then such a person may be doomed to punishment in the afterlife as a wandering ghost, and may be beaten and expelled by the ancestors or subjected to a period of torture according to the seriousness of their misdeeds, much like the Catholic concept of purgatory.


Among many African peoples is the widespread belief that witches and sorcerers are not admitted to the spirit world, and therefore they are refused proper burial—sometimes their bodies are subjected to actions that would make such burial impossible, such as burning, chopping up, and feeding them to hyenas. Among the Africans, to be cut off from the community of the ancestors in death is the nearest equivalent of hell.

The concept of reincarnation is found among many peoples. Reincarnation refers to the soul of a dead person being reborn in the body of another. There is a close relationship between birth and death. Instead, Africans are “world-affirming,” and welcome reincarnation. The world is a light, warm, and living place to which the dead are only too glad to return from the darkness and coldness of the grave. The dead return to their communities, except for those unfortunate ones previously mentioned, and there are no limits set to the number of possible reincarnations—an ancestor may be reincarnated in more than one person at a time. Some African myths say that the number of souls and bodies is limited. It is important for Africans to discover which ancestor is reborn in a child, for this is a reason for deep thankfulness. The destiny of a community is fulfilled through both successive and simultaneous multiple reincarnations.

Transmigration (also called metempsychosis) denotes the changing of a person into an animal. The most common form of this idea relates to a witch or sorcerer who is believed to be able to transform into an animal in order to perform evil deeds. Africans also believe that people may inhabit particular animals after death, especially snakes, which are treated with great respect. Some African rulers reappear as lions. Some peoples believe that the dead will reappear in the form of the totem animal of that ethnic group, and these totems are fearsome (such as lions, leopards, or crocodiles). They symbolize the terrible punishments the dead can inflict if the moral values of the community are not upheld.

In short: The Afterlife. Customarily, the dead are buried close to home, and people in urban areas may bring the deceased back to rural areas for burial. Graves are prepared close to the family homestead and are both sacred and feared for their association with death and spirits. A diviner may be consulted to determine the cause of death and prescribe a ritual action; this is followed by ceremonies to settle the spirit and mark the end of mourning. After one year a final ceremony is held at which the spirit becomes a spirit guardian of the family. 







Published in: on May 31, 2011 at 6:26 am  Leave a Comment  

African Mythology in Zimbabwe pt 2

Revenge of the River God

City dwellers had mocked the stories of Nyaminyami, the river god but by 1958 the laughter had turned to chilled apprehension. Especially for those working on the project of building Kariba dam wall. Survey work on the proposed dam wall began in the late 1940’s. On the night of the 15th February 1950 a cyclone from the Indian Ocean swept up the valley. Such a thing had never been heard of in this landlocked, stable land. Fifteen inches of rain, driven by a hurricane, fell in a few hours.

The river rose seven metres that night. A number of villages were swept away. When rescue teams finally managed to reach the area three days later, the putrefying bodies of antelope and other animals were seen hanging from the tops of trees. The survey team had perished in a landslide.

Work on the dam began in earnest in 1955 – but on Christmas Eve that year, an unprecedented flood stormed down the gorge and washed away the foundations of the coffer dam and the recently constructed pontoon bridge. The flood peaked, receded, and then peaked again. This had never happened before and people started to talk about the river god.

Nyami nyami struck a third time in November 1956. The heavy rains fell a month before they were due. Sudden flash floods impeded work on the dam.

The Zambezi swollen with water from local catchment areas would rise over a metre in a night. They were unaware that 1300 kilometres away the Zambezi was mobilising its forces. It is fed by a catchment area of over a million square kilometres, of which nearly half is above the lake.

Heavy rains were falling throughout this vast region. The water was being hoarded in the floodplains of Zambia and the forests of Angola, and in January the Sanyati River, which entered the Zambezi very near the new wall, suddenly came down like cavalry charge. The river rose almost six metres in the next 24 hours and surged over the coffer dam.

The largest digger truck, which had not been moved, disappeared instantly. Only in March, after much damage had been done and the project set back some months, did the river begin to subside. Such a flood should occur on average once every 1000 years.

Believe it or not in January 1958 a flood such as could be expected to occur only once in every 10 000 years, swept down the riverbed, wreaking havoc on all in its path. 16 million litres per second exploded over the suspension bridge, which buckled and heaved.

The north tower collapsed and the bridge rose clear of the water, bent like a gigantic bow.

Its spine shattered in three places and the Zambezi carried away its battered remains with what appeared to be a roar of triumph.

Finally in December 1958 the Kariba dam was completed but not before it cost the lives of 80 people.

The victorious people felt slightly ashamed of having brought about the humiliation of this mysterious and primeval river.

Today minor earth tremors are occasionally felt in and around Kariba – tonga african mythology believes that this is Nyaminyami trying to see his wife but he is now cut off from her by the dam wall. When he can’t get through He turns around with such fury that the whole earth shakes.

Published in: on May 20, 2011 at 11:46 pm  Leave a Comment  

African Mythology in Zimbabwe pt 1


Nyami Nyami The Zambezi River God

African mythology of the local Tonga tribe of the Zambezi Valley states that Nyaminyami the River God who lives in Lake Kariba is believed to be a serpent-like creature. He is said to be about three metres wide, but nobody dares to guess at his length.

Legends has it that the water stains red when he swims past. Chief Sampakaruma saw him on two occasions many years ago, but the river god has been in hiding since the white men arrived in the country.

According to African mythology he lived under a large rock close to the present day Kariba dam wall. No tribesman would venture near it those few who did were sucked down with their canoes in the whirlpools and never seen again. They called the rock Kariwa, the “trap” and hence the name of the lake, Kariba.

The rising water of lake Kariba covered the rock Kariwa and it now lies 30 metres below the surface annoying Nyaminyami. The tonga people also believe that Nyaminyami is married and that the building of Kariba Dam wall would seperate him from his wife, this would anger him greatly and the river god threatened the peace of the valley.

Published in: on May 20, 2011 at 11:41 pm  Comments (3)  

The concept of death…

Death, although a dreaded event, is perceived as the beginning of the communication between the visible and the invisible worlds. The goal of life is to become an ancestor after death. This is why every person who dies must be given a “correct” funeral, supported by a number of religious ceremonies. If this is not done, the dead person may become a ghost, unable to “live” properly after death and therefore a danger to those who remain alive. It might be argued that “proper” death rites are more a guarantee of protection for the living than to secure a safe passage for the dying. There is ambivalence about attitudes to the recent dead, which fluctuate between love and respect on the one hand and dread and despair on the other, particularly because it is believed that the dead have power over the living.

Many people believe that death is the loss of a soul, or souls. When a person dies, there is not some “part” of that person that lives on—it is the whole person who continues to live in the spirit world, receiving a new body identical to the earthly body, but with enhanced powers to move about as an ancestor. The death of children is regarded as a particularly grievous evil event, and many peoples give special names to their children to try to ward off the reoccurrence of untimely death.

There are many different ideas about the “place” the departed go to, a “land” which in most cases seems to be a replica of this world. For it is a much better place without pain or hunger.

Read more on the concept of the “Afterlife”.

Published in: on August 3, 2010 at 9:20 pm  Leave a Comment  

Cultural religions and death in Zimbabwe

In the cultural religions of Zimbabwe, life does not end with death. Life continues in another realm. The ideas of “life” and “death” are not mutually exclusive ideas. There are no clear dividing lines between them. Human existence is a dynamic process involving the increase or decrease of “power” or “life force,” of “living” and “dying,” and there are different levels of life and death. Every misfortune that Africans encounter is seen as “a diminution of vital force.” Illness and death result from some outside agent, a person, thing, or circumstance that weakens people because the agent contains a greater life force. Death does not end the life or the personality of an individual, but only causes a change in its conditions. This is expressed in the concept of “ancestors”: people who have died but who continue to “live” in the community and communicate with their families. Ancestors are seen as “The living dead”.

Published in: on August 2, 2010 at 7:09 pm  Leave a Comment  

Basic cultures and traditions in Zimbabwe pt 1

There are quite a few basic cultural and traditional norms that are great to know in Zimbabwe. These vary from the urban to rural life. The first one we’ll look at is: 


  1. Sticking the tongue out to anytone especially an Elderly person, is considered very rude.
  2. Making a “hissing” sound or other sounds using the mouth is bad form.
  3. Licking the lips whist staring at someone of the opposite sex is an obscene gesture.
  4. Speaking to someone with your hands in your pockets can be viewed as rude behavior.
  5. Fathers spending “too” much time with their daughters is considered “unnatural”.
  6. Speaking with an elderly person standing is not allowed.
  7. Sexual education is somewhat considered taboo e.g. fathers cannot teach their daughters about sex.
  8. In some areas of Zimbabwe, women are not allowed to wear trousers. If they do, the women will pay a fine in cattle.
  9. People are not allowed to kill the python.

10.  To marry someone of the same totem(clan name) is not allowed. If one does so, a fine of a cow is required of the person.


Published in: on May 17, 2010 at 4:25 pm  Leave a Comment  

“Damages” – What does that mean?

Damages means a man has impregnated a woman before marriage or more specifically, without the families consent.

When a woman is considered to be “damaged” by the man, the two families meet together and the man’s family needs to agree that their son is the prospective father to be. If the son or the family doesn’t agree, this issue is then taken to the village leaders. If an agreement is not reached by the two families, it becomes a police case. The police then work closely with the local hospital to ensure that DNA tests are done to determine the father of the child.

If the families are in agreement, a fee is paid (damages fee) to the woman’s family. This fee is determined by the educational level of the woman or how well the woman has been raised by her family. If the pregnant lady is an “older” woman – in her twenties and above, the couple is encouraged to get married. If the pregnant lady is “young” – in her teens, family discussions and choices need to be made, for example, the young lady will need to decide whether or not she would like to marry the man who has made her pregnant. In some cases, the family decides for her by saying she is not ready for marriage. This poses more problems because, if the girl is “in love” with the man, she will elope or simply run away from her parent’s home. If she stays at her home, there will be serious family tensions/friction.

The moral of this story is “don’t get pregnant before marriage.”

Published in: on April 20, 2010 at 3:54 pm  Leave a Comment  

The bride price – amalobolo

When a man meets a woman and they decide to marry, the man informs his parents and the woman does the same. The man’s parents then send a representative to the woman’s parents to ask for her hand in marriage. The representative can be a relative – but not a very close relative.

The woman’s parents will then charge the bride price depending on the achievements of the woman for example, her educational attainment, her behavior – whether she has a child/children or not and so on. After the bridal price has been stated, the man’s parents pay a fee called imvulamlomo (to open your mouth – to speak). They can say when they will pay the bride price.

Some parents only pay the bridal price after the children are born and some before depending on what the woman’s parents are saying.  The bridal price is normally paid in the form of cattle or cash, depending what they have. The couple then decides whether they want a wedding or they just want to be married without a wedding ceremony.

If the woman gets pregnant before they are married, the man pays for what is called “damage”.

Read more

Published in: on March 26, 2010 at 9:15 pm  Comments (1)