Shona people

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Total population
c. 17.6 million[1]
Regions with significant populations
 Zimbabwe13 million (2019)[1]
 Mozambique2.3 million[2][3]
 South Africa1-2 million (2020)
 United Kingdom200,000 (2011)[6]
Shona; English
Christianity, Shona traditional religion
Related ethnic groups
Lemba, Kalanga; Venda and other Bantu people

The Shona people (/ˈʃnə/) are part of the Bantu ethnic group native to Southern Africa, primarily Zimbabwe (where they form the majority of the population). They have five major clans.

A Shona n'anga (witch doctor).

Regional classification[edit]

The Shona people are divided into tribes in eastern and northern Zimbabwe. Their estimated population is 16.6 million:[8]

  • Karanga or Southern Shona (about 8.5 million people)
  • Zezuru or Central Shona (5.2 million people)
  • Korekore or Northern Shona (1.7 million people)
  • Manyika tribe or Eastern Shona (1.2 million)[9] in Zimbabwe (861,000) and Mozambique (173,000).
  • Ndau[10] in Mozambique (1,580,000) and Zimbabwe (800,000).


A Shona family, 1911.

When the first Bantu-speaking people arrived in the Zimbabwe plateau, they intermarried with the San bushmen in the area. This is passed down in oral tradition. During the 11th century, the Karanga people formed kingdoms on the Zimbabwe plateau. Construction, then, began on Great Zimbabwe; the capital of the kingdom of Zimbabwe. The Torwa dynasty ruled the kingdom of Butua, and the kingdom of Mutapa preceded the Rozvi Empire (which lasted into the 19th century).

Brother succeeded brother in the dynasties, leading to civil wars which were exploited by the Portuguese during the 16th century. The kings ruled a number of chiefs, sub-chiefs and headmen.[11]

The kingdoms were replaced by new groups who moved onto the plateau. The Ndebele destroyed the weakened Rozvi Empire during the 1830s; the Portuguese gradually encroached on the kingdom of Mutapa, which extended to the Mozambique coast after it provided valued exports (particularly gold) for Swahili, Arab and East Asian traders. The Pioneer Column of the British South Africa Company established the colony of Rhodesia, sparking the First Matabele War which led to the complete annexation of Mashonaland; the Portuguese colonial government in Mozambique fought the remnants of the kingdom of Mutapa until 1902. The Shona people were also a part of the Bantu migration where they are one of the largest Bantu ethnic groups in sub Saharan Africa.[11]


The dialect groups of Shona developed among dispersed tribes over a long period of time, and further groups of immigrants have contributed to this diversity. Although "standard" Shona is spoken throughout Zimbabwe, dialects help identify a speaker's town or village. Each Shona dialect is specific to a sub-group.

In 1931, during his attempt to reconcile the dialects into a single standard Shona language, Clement Doke[12] identified five groups and subdivisions:

  1. The Korekore (or Northern Shona), including Taυara, Shangwe, Korekore, Goυa, Budya, the Korekore of Urungwe, the Korekore of Sipolilo, Tande, Nyongwe of "Darwin", and Pfungwe of Mrewa
  2. The Zezuru group, including Shawasha, Haraυa, another Goυa, Nohwe, Hera, Njanja, Mbire, Nobvu, Vakwachikwakwa, Vakwazvimba, Tsunga
  3. The Karanga group, including Duma, Jena, Mari, Goυera, Nogoυa, and Nyubi
  4. The Manyika group, including Hungwe, Manyika themselves, Teυe, Unyama, Karombe, Nyamuka, Bunji, Domba, Nyatwe, Guta, Bvumba, Here, Jindwi, and Boca
  5. The Ndau group (mostly in Mozambique), including Ndau, Garwe, Danda, and Shanga
    1. The Ndau dialect, which is somewhat mutually intelligible with the main Shona dialects, has click sounds which do not occur in standard Shona. Ndau has a wealth of Nguni words as a result of the Gaza Nguni occupation of their ancestral land in the 19th century.[citation needed]

Economic Activities[edit]

Aerial photo
Shona farms near Murewa, Zimbabwe


The Shona have traditionally practiced subsistence agriculture. They grew sorghum, beans, African groundnuts, and after the Columbian Exchange, pumpkins; sorghum was also largely replaced by maize after the crop's introduction.[citation needed] The Shona also keep cattle and goats, since livestock are an important food reserve during droughts.[11]


Precolonial Shona states derived substantial revenue from the export of mining products, particularly gold and copper.[11]



Traditional clothing were usually animal skins that covered the front and the back, and were called 'mhapa' and 'shashiko.' These later evolved when the Shona people started trading for cloth with other groups, such as the Tsonga, and native cloths began to be manufactured.


Four late-19th-century wooden musical instruments

Shona traditional music's most important instruments are ngoma drums and the mbira. The drums vary in size and shape, depending on the type of music they are accompanying. How they are played also depends on drum size and music type. Large drums are typically played with sticks, and smaller drums with an open palm; the small drum used for the 'amabhiza' dance is played with a hand and a stick. The stick rubs, or scratches, the drum to produce a screeching sound.[citation needed]

The mbira has become a national instrument of sorts in Zimbabwe.[13] It has a number of variants, including the nhare, mbira dzavadzimu, the Mbira Nyunga Nyunga, njari mbira, and matepe. The mbira is played at religious and secular gatherings, and different mbiras have different purposes. The 22–24-key mbira dzavadzimu is used to summon spirits, and the 15-key Mbira Nyunga Nyunga is taught from primary school to university.[citation needed] Shona music also uses percussion instruments such as the marimba (similar to a xylophone), shakers ('hosho'), leg rattles, wooden clappers ('makwa'), and the 'chikorodzi,' a notched stick played with another stick.[citation needed]


The Shona are known for their stone sculptures, which were discovered during the 1940s. Shona sculpture developed during the eleventh century and peaked in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, before beginning a slow decline until their mid-20th-century rediscovery.[citation needed] Although most of the sculptures are made from sedimentary-stone (such as soapstone) and depict birds or humans, some are made with harder stone such as serpentinite. During the 1950s, Zimbabwean artists began carving stone sculptures for sale to European art collectors; these sculptures quickly became popular and were bought and exhibited at art museums around the world.[citation needed] Many of the sculptures depict the transformation of spirits into animals or vice versa, and some are more abstract. Many Zimbabwean artists carve wood and stone to sell to tourists. Pottery is also traditionally practiced.


Traditional Shona housing ('musha') are round huts arranged around a cleared yard ('ruvanze'). Each hut has a specific function, such as acting as a kitchen or a lounge.[14]


Sorghum and maize are used to prepare the staple dish, a thickened porridge ('sadza'), and the traditional beer known as hwahwa.[15]


The religion of Shona people is centred on Mwari (God), also known as Musikavanhu (Creator of man/people) or Nyadenga (one who lives high up). God communicates with his people on earth directly or through chosen holy people. At times God uses natural phenomena and the environment to communicate with his people. Some of the chosen people have powers to prophecy, heal and bless. People can also communicate with God directly through prayer. When someone dies, according to Shona religion, they join the spiritual world. In the spiritual world, they can enjoy their afterlife or become bad spirits. No one wants to be a bad spirit, so during life, people are guided by a culture of unhu so that when they die, they enjoy their afterlife. Deaths are not losses but a promotion to the stage where they can represent the living through the clan spirits.

Colonial white missionaries as well as anthropologists like Gelfand and political colonialists did not interpret this religion in a good light because they wanted to undermine it in favour of Christianity. Initially, they said the Shona did not have a God, but this was a lie. They denigrated the way the Shona had communicated with their God, the Shona way of worship and chosen people among the Shona. The chosen people were regarded as unholy and Shona prayer was regarded as pagan. When compared with Christianity, the Shona religion perspective of afterlife, holiness, worship and rules of life (unhu) have similar goals, they are only separated by cultures (African versus European) and values (unhu versus western).

Although sixty to eighty percent of the Shona people converted to Christians as a result of colonial missionaries, and at times by force, Shona religious beliefs are still very strong. Most of the Christian churches and beliefs have been blended with Shona religion. This was done to guard against European and western cultures that dominate Christianity. A small number of the population practice the Muslim faith, often brought about by immigrants from predominantly Malawi who practice Islam. There is also a small population of Jews. An example of a colonially constructed meaning of the Shona religion is found in the works of Gelfand, an anthropologist. Gelfand said the afterlife in Shona religion is not another world (like the Christian heaven and hell) but another form of existence in this world. This is not true. When people die, they join another world, and that world is not on earth, although like in Christianity, some of those people can interact with living beings in different ways. He further wrongly concluded that the Shona attitude towards dead ancestors is very similar to their attitude towards living parents and grandparents.[16] The Bira ceremony, which often lasts all night, summons spirits for guidance and help in the same manner daily, weekly or all night Christian ceremonies summon spirits for guidance and help. In this analysis, Gelfand and Hannan, both whites, and part of the colonial establishment, forgot that the Christian doctrine treats dead prophets, biblical figures and living 'holy people' in much the same way. In fact in the Christian community, some of the prophets, figures and 'holy people' are revered more than biological parents. In fact, in colonial Zimbabwe, converts were taught to disrespect their families and tribes, because of a promise of a new family and tribe in Christianity.

In Zimbabwe, (mutupo) (plural mitupo) wrongly called totems by colonial missionaries and anthropologists have been used by the Shona people since their culture developed. Mitupo are an elaborate was of identifying clans and sub-clans. They help to avoid incest, and they also build solidarity and identity. There are more than 25 mitupo in Zimbabwe. In marriage, mitupo help create a strong identity for children but it serves another function of ensuring that people marry someone they know. In shona this is explained by the proverb rooranai vematongo which means 'marry or have a relationship with someone that you know'. However, as a result of colonisation, urban areas and migration resulted in people mixing and others having relationships of convenience with people they do not know. This results in unwanted pregnancies and also unwanted babies some of whom are dumped or abandoned. This may end up with children without mutupo. This phenomenon has resulted in numerous challenges for communities but also for the children who lack part of their identity. It is, however, possible for a child to be adopted and receive mutupo.[17][18]

Notable Shona People[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Ehnologue: Languages of Zimbabwe Archived 2016-03-04 at the Wayback Machine, citing Chebanne, Andy and Nthapelelang, Moemedi. 2000. The socio-linguistic survey of the Eastern Khoe in the Boteti and Makgadikgadi Pans areas of Botswana.
  2. ^ "Ethnologue: Languages of Mozambique". Archived from the original on 2015-02-21. Retrieved 2015-06-04.
  3. ^ "Ethnologue: Languages of Botswana". Archived from the original on 2013-09-29. Retrieved 2015-05-28.
  4. ^ "Ethnologue: Languages of Zambia". Archived from the original on 2016-03-05. Retrieved 2015-05-28.
  5. ^ "South Africa | Joshua Project".
  6. ^ Zimbabwe — Mapping exercise (PDF). London: International Organization for Migration. December 2006. Archived from the original on 2011-07-16.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: unfit URL (link)
  7. ^ Haberland, Eike (May 3, 1974). Perspectives Des Études Africaines Contemporaines: Rapport Final D'un Symposium International. Deutsche UNESCO-Kommission. ISBN 9783794052257 – via Google Books.
  8. ^ "Shona". Ehnologue. (subscription required)
  9. ^ "Manyika". Ethnologue.
  10. ^ "Ndau". Ethnologue.
  11. ^ a b c d David N. Beach: The Shona and Zimbabwe 900–1850. Heinemann, London 1980 und Mambo Press, Gwelo 1980, ISBN 0-435-94505-X.
  12. ^ Doke, Clement M.,A Comparative Study in Shona Phonetics. 1931. University of Witwatersrand Press, Johannesburg.
  13. ^ "Music in Zimbabwe". Nordiska Afrikainstitutet. 16 March 2006. Archived from the original on 26 December 2007. Retrieved 23 May 2020. ... only in Zimbabwe has [the mbira] risen to become something of a national instrument.
  14. ^ Friedrich Du Toit, Musha: the Shona concept of home, Zimbabwe Pub. House, 1982
  15. ^ Correct spelling according to D. Dale, A basic English Shona Dictionary, mambo Press, Gwelo (Gweru) 1981; some sources write "whawha", misled by conventions of English words like "what".
  16. ^ Michael Gelfand, The spiritual beliefs of the Shona, Mambo Press 1982, ISBN 0-86922-077-2, with a preface by Father M. Hannan.
  17. ^ "Baby dumping in Zimbabwe". Archived from the original on 2015-05-28. Retrieved 2015-05-28.
  18. ^ "Project Tariro".
  19. ^ Evans, Diana. ""I'm Taking Back What's Mine": The Many Lives Of Thandiwe Newton". British Vogue.

Further reading[edit]

[1] [2] [3]

External links[edit]

  1. ^ Rev. Dr. L. Kadenge. Death and Mourning among the Zezuru.Beyond Today Publishers: Harare,2020
  2. ^ Rev J.S. Mbiti. African religion philosophy. 2nd ed. Heinemann:Switzerland.1989
  3. ^ carpernter, G.W.,The way in Africa, New York: Friendship Press.1964