The origin of totems in Africa – Mhofu, Mbizi, Shumba, Nyati, Hungwe…


DIFFERENT people in the world are identified by certain practices and beliefs that define their essence.

During the pre-colonial era, the African people followed different beliefs, customs and practices that made them a unique people.

These customs did not only define them, but guided them through their daily lives.

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Without doubt, the practice of celebrating totems is synonymous with the African societies.

Historically, the choice of an animal, reptile, fish or bird for a totem was driven by a survival instinct.

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The belief that the chosen creature contributed in some way to the survival of the clan influenced their choice.

Another aspect was that a clan would model itself after an essential attribute of the chosen animal, particularly bravery, courage, speed and wisdom.

While the Shona people use mitupo based on animals and nature, in Ndebele izangelo/izibongo were derived from names of the ancestors, from power, looks and deeds.

For example, ‘abakoKhumalo ngondlangamandla’ (those of the Khumalo totem live by the sword) illustrates how they settled in present day Zimbabwe and established their kingdom.

It is through the use of totems, mitupo/izibongo that the unique way of living of the Shona and Ndebele people is reflected.

So strong were their beliefs that even up to now, some are still followed and respected though Christianity, which was introduced by whites, tried to belittle things such as totems and their significance.

Though many follow Christian beliefs, totems still play an important part in people’s daily lives.

Nowadays, many show appreciation of their totems by addressing each other with praise names (chidawo).

For example, those of the totem Mhofu or eland make use of praise names such as Mutenhesanwa, Mwendamberi and Chihera, among others.

Those whose totem is Ngara use the praise name Wamambo while Soko use Murehwa, Jena and Makwiramiti.

Those of the Nyati totem use praise names such as Mhukahuru or Shonga.

The basic idea of totemism is that kin, group, clan, kindred or maximal lineage adopts a totem animal, bird or other object.

Adapting to a totem object often carries a deep religious and spiritual significance that can be connected to the ancestors and associated with taboo.

The Shona people, like any other African group, shared similar understanding of African culture by adapting to different totems.

The use of totems, without doubt, separated Africans from other mankind in the world. Any totems therefore became a trademark or brand.

But as one discusses this broad subject of totemism and its significance to the African people, the big question is how the Shona people came up with the idea of totemism?

Oral history says there are many narratives on how different totem groups come into being.

Some say, totems originated from different beliefs which certain clans followed while others point out to the common practices that different clans practised.

In an interview, historian Grey Chakadonha Chivanda shared his sentiments on the origins and significance of totems.

“The use of totems by our ancestors highlighted the connection of Africans through the Bantu element. Tribes that were found in Zimbabwe are connected with those in Zambia, Malawi as well as South Africa and they are linked by totems,” said Chivanda.

For the Shona people, totems were a heritage to be passed down generations.

Through the use of totems, Africans made themselves different from other races.

“The real issue in adopting totems was identification; it was like a brand — kuzvishambadza.”

“It became another way of naming, so various people adopted totems for identity and differentiation during wars as well as hunting,” added Chivanda.

He said by following such beliefs, the Shona distinguished themselves like any other race, as civilised to the extent of using symbols to perpetuate their traditions.

“Our ancestors engaged in totems to avoid incest, to praise each other and to protect and preserve the environment,” said Chivanda.

Though colonisation changed and destroyed different practices that were associated with African heritage and culture, totems remained one of the aspects that could not easily be destroyed.

The late  Professor Isheunesu Mpepereki also pointed out that the Shona people were given totems by their leaders.

“Totems were assigned to different members of the Shona people by their leaders to ensure environmental stewardship, especially to take custody of different animal species. Many Shona groups have elaborate praise poems for their totems, which reflect the background to adoption of the particular totem,” said Prof Mpepereki.

The Shona people did not only show respect to their ancestors and elders, they “worshipped” traditions that made them co-exist.

The late Dr Vimbai Gukwe Chivaura said totems served society in practical ways and were not superstitions.

“The functions that totems serve in African society are scientific, not superstitious.

“They help members of the same family identify, recognise and belong to each other even when they have never met before in their lives,” wrote the late Dr Chivaura.

He went on to show how the systems that governed the people were advanced and not backward as presented by the West.

“The consequences of abandoning totems and other symbols of African identity and oneness are that persons of the same blood may enter into an incestuous relationship or even marry without knowing that they are related,” said Dr Chivaura.

He explained how the deformities that may occur to children born of parents of the same blood are scientific, not constructions of superstition or witchcraft.

To support Dr Chivaura, Chivanda also explained that the scientific importance of totems showed that the Shona ancestors understood very well that people of the same bloodline could not marry so as to prevent genetic disorders.

“Our ancestors understood that marriage of people of the same blood could result in weak breeds and this supports the idea of strong breeds that were taken as slaves from Africa,” Chivanda said.

To buttress the socio cultural attributes in the belief in totems, there was also the environmental aspect which saw Africans, the Shona in particular, not only protecting animals but preserving the balance of the ecosystem.

Totems reflected African science, a certain intelligence and unique development that did not require one to be literate to understand and appreciate it.

Traditionally, people respected wildlife as their cultural heritage, but nowadays, over-hunting, timber harvesting, bush fires, use of toxic chemicals and other forms of habitat destruction, are pushing a large number of animals, reptiles and bird species to extinction.

When others were coming up with researches of how to protect and balance the ecosystem, Africans adopted the use of totems as a way of protecting the environment and its species.

In his book “The Great Zimbabwe State and Its Off-Shoots AD 1000-1 700”, late historian Aeneas Chigwedere points out the taboos and beliefs associated with totenism for the eastern Hungwe Kalangas who have Dziva as their totem.

“They treated water as sacred for ritual purposes. And theirs was not all water or any water but specifically eastern sea water which meant either the Red Sea or Indian Ocean water.

“Indeed the tribe treated this water as divine and practically no ritual was conducted without it,” said Chigwedere.

Chigwedere also explained why eating one’s totem was considered a sacrilege.

“Some of their chiefs may transmigrate into Hungwe Birds after death but others might choose to transmigrate into fish or hippos or crocodiles or whales or even crabs.

“So if you eat one of these, you could be eating one of your ancestors or brother or sister or wife,” said Chigwedere.

According to Prof Mpepereki, to respect and appreciate totems, “Vaera Mbizi”, those of the zebra totem, look after zebras, meaning they do not hunt or kill them.

“Vaera Mhofu” look after the eland and appreciate its existence.

Those whose totem is Nzou or Ndlovu protect and defend the elephant from extinction, as a symbol of their culture.

Prof Mpepereki also highlights that those whose totem is Dziva are protectors of rivers and other sources of water such as lakes, springs and waterfalls.

“They would be outraged by any wanton destruction of fish, crocodiles, hippos and pollution of water bodies and all things that live in them.”

Those of the totem Mhara or Mpala are protectors of the impala while the Nyathis protect the buffalo.

Those of the Soko, Phiri or Ncube totem protect the baboon and monkey while the Hungwe and Nyoni are protectors of birds with the shumba or Sibanda protecting lions.

The Mheta protect the python while the Beta are protectors of ants and anthills.

“All cultures whose totems identify with nature will protect the environment as a sacred habitat and sanctuary of symbols of their identity and being as an important aspect of their cultures.

Totems therefore remain an important aspect of African heritage and it is through the use of these that civilisation and development of Africans is safeguarded. — The Patriot.

— Manica Post

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