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Totems And The Art of Shona Praise Poetry – The Lost Language Of Our Ancestors

30 Jul
Rhesus_Macaque_Monkey_Sitting_On_A_Tree_600

Monkeys are amazing creatures, swinging our way with messages of intelligence, intensity and involvement. They are as playful as they are entertaining. Monkeys also have a strong capacity for compassion, understanding and bonding. Monkeys are also one of the many totem animals among the Shona people of Zimbabwe.

A bit of background…

In Shona culture, totems (mutupo) are usually names of animals which the individual is likened to in terms of character and personality. A totem originates from one individual (the ancestor) and is passed on to the descendants of the individual. Totems are often used to praise a person for their good deeds, to seek the favour from someone who is at higher position or to address kings and chiefs.

According to Alec J.C. Pongweni author of Shona Praise Poetry As Role Negotiation:

Shona praise poetry has its origins in the totemic system. In the totemic system a clan associates itself with an animal, for example, Shumba – Lion, Soko – Monkey, Mhofu – Beast, etc. This animal is chosen because of certain admirable characteristics of appearance, demeanour and hunting tactics or the manner in which it feeds.

The members of the clan are supposed to emulate these traits.

The praise poem (detembo) is derived from the characteristics of the totem animal as well as those presented by the clan. These could be their famous victories, failures which cast them to the ground, their struggles for recognition, their idiosyncrasies, favourite food, and many other traits.

The praise poem (detembo) is basically a song of flattery recited as a reward for socially commendable acts. Praise poems (detembo) serve to build confidence and self esteem for the individuals being praised, creating a sense of worth and identity in a person.

Totems and praise poems are two different things. A totem (mutupo)  is used to address its bearer. A praise poem (detembo) is used to thank the bearer of the totem. According to Pongweni, young children are not supposed to be thanked by their praise poems; they are thanked by their totems only. Praise poems are for grownups, especially those who are married. Girls are never thanked by their fathers praise poems; they are thanked only by their totems. If they grow up they will be thanked by their husbands praise poems, if they are married. The boys also will be thanked by their praise poems if they marry a wife.

Learning the praise poetry for my totem…

For the better part of this year I have been trying to get members of my extended family to teach me how to recite the Shona praise poetry (detembo) for my totem Soko, the monkey. Finding someone to teach me this detembo proved to be more difficult than I had initially anticipated.  For starters many members of my family are spread not only across Zimbabwe, but across the world. And despite the ubiquity of technology in our lives which has made it easier to stay in touch with my aunts and uncles both in the rural areas and in Diaspora I was still unable to make any headway. No one seemed to know the proper detembo for our totem Soko.

When I had initially taken my parents to task as part of the research for my book they confessed to only having a vague idea on how to recite the praise poetry for my totem Soko (the monkey). My parents and everyone else I asked kept referring to my late great aunt (my paternal grandfather’s sister) who from all accounts was a renowned reciter of the praise poetry of our clan. However, in a complete betray of the oral traditions that are deeply ingrained in our Shona culture no one I had access to had learned this most fascinating form of verbal artistry from her. This didn’t sit well with me. And the more I thought about this the more obsessed I became with learning the detembo for Soko, if only for posterity’s sake.  Surely someone in our clan who I might not be immediately related to would know. They had to.

To be fair, I did learn a thing or two that I hadn’t known before. One uncle shared with me an anecdote about how our totem, the monkey taught the white men how to sit on chairs. The white men he said to me, learned how to sit on chairs by watching and copying how the monkeys sat on branches. Because of this people who had the monkey as their totem were revered for their ingenuity amongst other traits. However, he couldn’t quite remember whether this anecdote was actually part of the detembo or if it was just a story he had been told when he was younger.

 

All this happened at the top of the year and between then and as recently as this past weekend I hardly made any further progress in my quest. In fact I had put the whole thing at the back of my mind.

That was until I finally caught a break from the most unlikely of sources, the ordination ceremony of a Catholic priest. My mother, a staunch catholic attended the ordination ceremony of a priest from our local parish. To those unfamiliar with ordination ceremonies (like I was), they are basically the Priesthoods equivalent of a marriage ceremony. In this case the priest is marrying the ‘church’. Anyway as part of the celebrations the parish women decided to recite the detembo for the priest in question. And as luck would have it this particular priest was a Soko.

Things got even better when the Priests father, in effort to make sure that the detembo was recited accurately gave each the women (my mother included) printed copies of the detembo to recite. And that is how I came to be in possession of a written copy of the detembo for my totem Soko.

But wait, it gets better …

There is more…

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 difficulty, due to the fact that they practiced the custom of exogamy (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).

By that account, that actually makes my totem Soko, the monkey one of the originals.

This is also something that is detailed in the praise poetry for my totem which I have  shared below in both its original Shona form as well as an accompanying English version.

 

Soko

Ewoi Soko,

Vhudzijena, Mukanya

Hekanhi Mbereka

Makwiramiti, mahomu-homu

Vanopona nekuba

Vanamushamba negore

Makumbo mana muswe weshanu

Hekani Soko yangu yiyi

Vakaera mutupo umwe nashe

Vana VaPfumojena

Vakabva Guruuswa

Soko Mbire yaSvosve

Vanobva Hwedza

Vapfuri vemhangura

VekuMatonjeni vanaisi vemvura

Zvaitwa matarira vari mumabwe

Mhanimani tonodya, svosve tichobovera

Maita zvenyu rudzi rukuru

Matangakugara

Vakawana ushe neuchenjeri

Vakufamba hujeukidza kwandabva

Pagerwe rinongova jemedzanwa

Kugara hukwenya-kwenya

Vari mawere maramba kurimba

Vamazvikongonyadza kufamba hukanyaira

Zvibwezvitedza, zvinotedzera vari kure

Asi vari padyo vachitamba nazvo

Zvaitwa mukanya rudzi rusina chiramwa

Maita vari Makoromokwa, Mugarandaguta

Aiwa zvaonekwa Vhudzijena

 

Translated into English

Thank you Soko

White-hair, The Pompous one

Thank you Bearer of Children

The Tree-climber, one-who-always-barks

Those who survive by stealing

Those who bath only once in a year

Those who have four legs, the tail being the fifth

Thank you very much my dear Soko

Those who have the same totem as the chief

The descendants of Pfumojena

Those who came from Guruuswa

Soko Mbire of Svosve

Those who come from Hwedza

The iron-smelters

The rain-makers of Matojeni

A good service has been done the alert one, those in the rocks

We eat centipedes, we throw ants into our mouths

Thank you for the good service, great lineage

The original inhabitants

Those who obtained chieftainship through shrewdness and diplomacy

The one who constantly looks back when moving

Wherever they settle there is quarreling and crying

When seated you are constantly scratching your body

Those always on the cliffs, who refused to till the land

The pompous one who walks proudly

The Slippery-rocks that are slippery to those come from afar

But is friendly to those in the vicinity

It has been done, a lineage that does not refuse to perform a task no matter how it is treated

Those on the steep rocks and cliffs, one-who-rests-only-when-he-is-full

Indeed your kindness has been seen, White-hair

 

From the English version of the poem, the praises “White hair”, “Bearer of children”, “Those who have four legs, the tail being the fifth”, for instance, makes reference to the behaviour of the animal totem. However, praises like “Those who have the same totem as the chief”, “Those who come from Guruuswa”, “The descendants of Pfumojena”, “The rain-makers of Matonjeni”, “Those who come from Hwedza”, “The Iron-smelters”, refer to the history and the professions of the long departed ancestors of the clan.

And there you have it, I finally know the praise poetry for my totem. In the process I have learned a little bit more about the history of my ancestors. Something I am sure was always part of the motivation behind the use of praise poetry.

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2 Comments

Posted by on July 30, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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2 responses to “Totems And The Art of Shona Praise Poetry – The Lost Language Of Our Ancestors

  1. mitupo

    November 15, 2014 at 3:58 pm

    Makadii Soko!
    I have read your article with great interests and read a few more which are all very interesting. Please have a look at Mitupo.org and send us an email at info@mitupo.org coz I think we can work together. What you write about is part of a larger continental challenge and we would like to bring together like minded writers and build the constituency that can support one another first and support others while also benefitting from others inputs and thoughts. Great work and thank you for honoring your ancestors. Madadisa dzinza soko…
    Patrick – Shumba Makusha

     
    • Tafadzwa Tichawangana

      November 18, 2014 at 10:50 am

      Thank you for taking the time to read. This and other articles on the blog are p[art of a personal quest to try understand myself and if in the process I can contribute to a broader dialogue then that is even better. I am definitely interested in taking part of the building of this constituency of like minded writers you mentioned. I will be getting in touch with you.

       

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