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UNHU—The Personality of the Shona


Michael Gelfand

Source: Studies in Comparative Religion, Vol. 4, No. 1 (Winter, 1970). © World Wisdom, Inc.

THE Shona believe that there is an impersonal, omnipotent or principal Creator, called Muwari, Musikavanhu, or a Spirit which creates good and bad. I have not come across any cosmological myth comparable to that recorded by Marcel Griaule[1] amongst the Dogon who live in the hook of the Niger River. They believe the God Ammon in its union with the earth produced water or Nommo and each succeeding generation of Nommo was a twin or double. Nommo gave everflowing water and thus life to the earth. A succession of Nommo were born and the eighth (Lebe) used water to form the vapor or breath from which speech comes, i.e. man. Nor is there a myth amongst the Shona about the origin of the world as described by Germaine Dieterlin[2] amongst the Bambara who are situated not far distant from the Dogon. The Bambara have a similar cosmogony in which, in the same way, the verb and water are also the basis of all spiritual and religious force. The Shona appear to have concentrated instead on the great tutelary spirits of the founders of their clan. I think this is because they do not really turn to God as they believe He is too far removed from them and too indifferent. Why should they pray to one who is equally responsible for good and bad? As he has created the evil spirits or varoyi it would seem unreasonable to ask him to undo what they have done. As the prayers are directed certainly in the first instance to the clan spirits (mhondoro) or family spirits (Vadzimu) f the individual families, their myths almost all deal with them. When the founder of the clan died his spirit became deified as a mhondoro, whereas in the family there are the vadzimu of the dead grandparents and dead parents. There is therefore a clear distinction of function between the mhondoro and the vadzimu. The mhondoro are usually concerned with the affairs of the clan or extended lineages, such as succession to the chieftainship, rain, drought, epidemic diseases, incest and bestiality—indeed any matter which affects the well-being of the community as a whole, whilst the vadzimu are responsible for the protection of the family lineages, small and extended.

If by definition I can include both the mhondoro and vadzimu, since they both originated with the death of people, what function does ancestral worship serve? Perhaps their greatest value lies in the moral effect of both on the individual and on the group or society. Each plays its part, serving ultimately to produce a good man, one whom the Shona says has Unhu—a man of good behavior, respectful to others, pleasant and honest. He owes his Unhu to his Vadzimu. If he does not possess this quality he is a person of poor character, who is liable to break the social laws laid down for a decent person. If a man is to be decent and therefore full of Unhu he must follow certain well-defined paths of behavior. Belief in the Mhondoro helps to render a clansman content. Everyone bearing the mutupo common to the clan can claim that he has originated from its founder—the man who first arrived in that district (nyika), married and bore sons, who also begat son, sons etc., through the generations. All the land belonged to the founder and when he died it still belonged to his spirit, the mhondoro and owner of the nyika and its people. The chief only holds it in trust and is there to see that it is shared so that each man has just enough for his needs. A stranger (mutorwa) may come into the nyika and settle but he must first visit the medium of the mhondoro to pay his respects to the spirit and learn about the ritual day of rest prescribed by that mhondoro. Immediately we are aware of a great brotherhood of men and a compulsory equality for all within narrow margins of wealth, for it must be clear that if a man is not permitted more land than he needs, he cannot accumulate great wealth.

The Shona religion is very much part of the agricultural and natural life of the people. Before vegetable leaves are eaten at the beginning of the rainy season thanks must be given to the spirits of the land, the mhondoro and ancestors. This ceremony of mishashe is followed a few months later in April by that of thanksgiving to the tribal spirits for the harvest of zvio, the traditional millet of the Shona, from which alone beer can be prepared for religious ceremonies. Until this ritual has taken place no millet can be eaten. Then sometime between September and January the spirits of the land are prayed to again for good soaking rains and for the crops to be blessed.

The religion of the Shona is geared towards keeping the people on the land and in close touch with nature. The practice of this religion is difficult in an urban atmosphere and for this reason is not as adaptable as many others.

Complementary to this side of the Shona religion is the other aspect which is concerned with a man's own family lineage, with the vadzimu from whom his nuclear family originated, rather than the clan spirits. These are his dead grandfather, grandmother, father and mother. Attachment to these spirits is still extremely strong and much of the Shona behavior and ethical conduct can be explained by this belief.

The Shona individual owes all the goodness and decency that go to make up his Unhu to the vadzimu. Also his prosperity, comfort and good living are derived from the spirits of his ancestors. Therefore he must on no account deviate from the path of normality, seeking more than he is entitled to, lest he lose the protection and beneficial influence of his vadzimu (ancestral spirits). Thus the golden rule is to follow in their footsteps—what was good for them is good for him. I can quote two excellent examples of the vadzimu's insistence on conformity. The first is that no kinsman should leave his village to seek work elsewhere without the permission of his mudzimu. The mudzimu is opposed to a man's leaving his birthplace or nyika as this tends to break the lineage and so the unity and strength of the clan. To obtain this permission he must do so through the family medium who becomes possessed when asked by the head of the family whether this person should leave his home to seek work in the town, giving his reasons for this move. I have had Shona patients who have become ill in the township and been told by a nganga that their illnesses were due to their having forsaken their traditional homes and that in order to recover they must return to their villages. A very important point in support of this contention is that, it is believed, that practically no prayers to a man's mudzimu are answered if they are made in a township. The mudzimu refuses to appear and talk to his kin if prayers are not made in the traditional hut. I am told that the vadzimu are opposed to the white man's smell and to the soap of European origin used by Africans today. Secondly the vadzimu never possess anyone if prayers are made in a place which has a galvanized roof.

Another example is the bitter opposition of the vadzimu in the early days of the occupation of Rhodesia to a clansman receiving education from the white man. This still exists today, but is not so strong as it is said that an uneducated person cannot earn a living. They opposed the white man's teaching because they felt that the children would be spoilt, they would leave their homes and so weaken the unity of the clan by destroying the interdependence of its members on one another. We are told that the educated man is apt to take up an attitude of superiority to his fellow men and look down on his own kin, perhaps, even more important, lose his traditional good manners and consideration and respect for others. The principle of equality so dear to the Shona would be ruined. An educated man is not wanted in traditional society where all must have the same education, clothes and home life—even the chief. The same opposition to education was shown by the Barotse in the first few years of the rule of the B.S.A. Company.

A very important sanction is that which forbids any child to hurt a parent physically. This is believed to result in most serious consequences, for when the aggrieved person dies, his angered spirit, known as ngozi, will return even many years later to smite the guilty person or his kin. To prevent this the person who has committed such an act must perform the ritual ceremony called Kutanda botso. Shona parents are greatly respected and loved and it is extremely rare for any parent to be ill-treated by a child. Indeed the older the parent, the nearer he is to passing on, the greater the respect and the fear of upsetting him. The regard and respect for parents are so deeply ingrained in the Shona that the old are well cared for. There is no such institution as an old aged home in their minds. The old are considered to have one foot in the grave and therefore are halfway to becoming vadzimu. The Shona live partly in this life and partly with their dead parents in the next one. Their concept of a living family, I believe, is incomplete, unless it also includes their dead kin as well.[3]

So far I have brought out two important Shona commandments. The first is the importance of keeping the unity of the group and the second the honoring of one's parents. A third is to follow in the steps of one's forefathers. The fourth, I would say, is that a Shona must meet his bridewealth payments, not only to his father in law, but also, still more important, that of the mombe-you-amai to his mother in law. Unless the latter is paid the spirit of his wife's maternal grandmother will be annoyed and sickness will follow. One of the most potent causes of illness is the non-payment of the mombe-you-amai, or the disposal or slaughter of this beast or of one of its offspring. In order for his marriage to be successful a man must remember to honor his wife's vadzimu as well as his own. How wrong is the idea that the wife does not play a vital part in her family life! Her welfare is of great importance to her husband's happiness and she is greatly respected. Therefore I suggest that the fourth Shona commandment should be known as the requirement to pay the bridewealth (Roora).

At least another important precept should be remembered. If a man works for another, the latter must not fail to pay him for his services, lest, when he dies, his angered spirit (ngozi) visits the family who wronged him and causes havoc and death. In former days the Shona, unlike many of their neighbors, were afraid to own domestic slaves for fear that such an event would occur. Further they were always careful to honor their debts lest an ngnozi spirit took vengeance on them later. As a result the Shona did not look for material advantage through the employment of cheap labor, preferring to enjoy material equality with the rest of his clan. This precept or commandment might well be termed, "Labor should not be employed unless it is well rewarded".

"Thou shalt not kill" is firmly implanted in the minds of the Shona, because it is believed that the spirit of the murdered person will be aggrieved, restless and wish to seek revenge. This angered Mudzimu is greatly dreaded as it is believed to destroy not only the guilty party himself but other members of the family never resting until compensation is paid to the living family of the deceased.

The offence of incest has two applications amongst the Shona. The first, mentioned earlier, is that no man within the clan may have relations with a woman born of the same totem. This is a serious offence against the mhondoro. Therefore in order to propitiate the tribal or tutelary spirit, an ox (mombe) must be paid as a fine to the chief who is the hereditary representative of the clan. This beast must be sacrificed at the Dare (men's meeting place or court of the Chief) of the chief.

When a man marries a girl who is a distant relative, a descendant of an original pair of cross cousins, provided the relationship is beyond the second generation of that first pair, this is permissible. However a payment must be made by the boy's family to that of the girl's lest the vadzimu of either family are offended. This ritual payment is known as cheka ukama, which means that this fine cuts the relationship between the two families and therefore the vadzimu have been propitiated.

Thus there are a few clearly defined sanctions which must never be broken lest the vadzimu are offended. They are worth recapitulating.

1.    No incest.
2.    No beating of a parent by a child.
3.    No marriage without the payment of bridewealth ( roora) which includes the mombe you amai.
4.    No person to be killed.
5.    All services, especially that of labor, to be paid for.
6.    A son may not leave his homeland or interfere with the material equality of his kinsmen.

I am told that if a clansman commits adultery or steals, the vadzimu are not really concerned. This is interesting. An antisocial act can be committed as long as the sanctions described above are not broken. This does not mean that this society approves of an unmarried girl being spoilt. There are many other such offences that do not affect the vadzimu but are punishable in the tribal courts. Yet in an indirect and rather interesting way the vadzimu are virtually concerned with them and with almost the whole of human behavior. This is shown in two clearly defined ways. First the help of the vadzimu must be gained for any important venture. If a man or woman goes on a journey leaving the home for a time, if a marriage is contemplated or a man is about to start a new business, the family spirits must be told. The spokesman of the family prays to them before the potsherd (rukuva) in his main hut. The rest of the family are gathered there and if possible beer should have been prepared. Even if a child is sent to school the father should inform the vadzimu and ask them for their continued guidance and help. On any matter that is not regarded as routine in the village, the vadzimu must be remembered and prayers made to them.

Secondly whenever a person suffers from a setback, whether accidental or not, he or she should find out whether the protective powers of the vadzimu have been withdrawn and why, so that proper propitiation can be made. Resort must be made to a nganga to learn whether one of the vadzimu has been displeased by a member of the family. No matter who has harmed him or is responsible for his setback the victim considers there must be a spiritual reason for having been selected for such an attack. The vadzimu of the aggressor are not concerned with it, but the person who suffers believes that his misfortune may be due to his having been forsaken by his own vadzimu. Thus if a thief enters his home and steals something he dare not let the matter rest in case someone in his own kinship group has broken one of the ritual sanctions, offended the vadzimu and thus lost their protection. So that no further misfortunes will occur in the family it is essential for the victim to find out the cause of such an occurrence.

The concept of brotherhood or unity of the family lineage is maintained through the vadzimu. If one of its members has an illness, dies or receives a setback, it is not necessarily he himself who is the cause of the anger of the vadzimu, which may be due to the action of any of the cognates. No-one can lead a solitary existence; he is part of the whole kinship group and all must live and work together and help one another. If one moves away from the clan and annoys the vadzimu by so doing he is not necessarily the sufferer for this, but may bring misfortune on one of his innocent children or on one of his brothers or sisters.

To the Shona all the kinsmen are born equal and have the same potentiality for Unhu, which defines the good character of each person. But from time to time a man or a woman appears to possess a talent or quality above that of the average or normal person. He may be outstanding at hunting, dancing, doctoring or have some other skill. A person so endowed is believed to have acquired this talent through some spiritual agency other than the vadzimu, who like their kin all to be the same. Therefore it is considered that this talent is derived from a foreign spirit outside the family, from that of a stranger who died far from his home in a foreign land. This person was a hunter or one blessed with some special talent and as he was not buried in accordance with his own customs, his spirit roams until it selects a host or medium who will accept it and in return it confers its talent on the new host whenever he needs to use it. Thus amongst the Shona a gifted or brilliant person does not inherit his skill but acquires it from an alien spirit called a shave. For normal purposes he is like any other ordinary person, but when his spirit enters him he acquires its talent. For instance if it is a hunting spirit it will possess him during a hunt or if it is a healing one it will come into him and enable him to treat a sick patient with exceptional skill.

There is still a gap to be filled in the description of the Shona religion. So far I have stressed the part played by the good forces in life and how the vadzimu protect man and are responsible for his Unhu or character. There are also spirits responsible for evil (uroyi) and like the vadzimu (ancestral spirits) they emanate from individuals who are at times possessed with an evil spirit. They too originated at the time the clan was founded when there were a few families who had varoyi in them. When they died their spirits passed to their descendants, and so today there are many Shona families in which this bad trait is to be found. The Shona prefers to consider these evil spirits as mashave with the talent of evil rather than as bad vadzimu. It should be stressed that an individual possessed of this evil is in many ways endowed with the powers of a traditional medicine man (nganga) who, on the other hand, operates for the good of man. The nganga is a healer who tries to cure and help people with his inherent knowledge acquired through a shave or a special mudzimu in the family with the talent of curing and helping man. A person with the spirit of evil in him is a muroyi or witch who adopts methods similar to those of the nganga but with the opposite intent—that of destroying man.

Here I shall outline a comparison between the nganga and the muroyi as I see it because I believe this is fundamental in the understanding of what the Shona accept as witchcraft, since they do not possess such a word in their language nor have they one for magic.  Yet they have ideas as to what constitutes these practices. The muroyi, like the nganga, becomes possessed at times but with the spirit of evil. The nganga too owes his gifts to a spirit, which has selected him as a medium and before him one of his family—a healing spirit. Before he accepts the spirit of evil the muroyi may start to dream of a grandparent entering him and persuading him to become a witch. Similarly the first warning a person has that a healing spirit wishes to possess him is the appearance in dreams of a relative who tells him about this art. The first warning that a healing spirit wishes to enter a person may come rather differently. He may become sick with a chronic and intractable illness. The same may happen to a witch, who has repeated miscarriages. In both events the illness continues until the person discovers what the matter is and accepts the spirit that wishes to possess him or her. The nganga knows all about medicines which do good. He knows the plants and herbs that will help mankind, whereas the witch knows all the harmful ones which will destroy. Thus we have amongst the Shona a dual concept which would appear to embrace the whole of witchcraft. First there is the good or "white witch" corresponding to that of Europe, known in Africa as the nganga and on the other hand is the evil witch. To the Shona witchcraft and magic include both good and evil and both are in essence spiritual possession of mediums selected for the specific task.

Having described the main spiritual forces which make up the Shona religion, we must now consider one of the most distinguishing features of this Faith. Like the Dogon and Bambara of West Africa, the Shona are informed by the Voice, that is the spoken word—because they knew nothing of the written one. Many Shona are convinced that the word they hear coming from a possessed person is proof that it is the voice of the spirit who merely uses the body of the medium to transmit its message. Every main spirit of the family (such as that of the grandfather), every tribal or tutelary spirit, each shave, each ngozi, each healing or doctoring spirit and every evil spirit can select its own medium through whom it can talk in order to make amends to the offended spirit. It can tell whether the illness or death in question was due to the machinations of a witch. If in a family there is much quarrelling or fighting the medium of the family spirit (usually a son or daughter of the family) is consulted. When he becomes possessed the mudzimu speaks through him and reveals the cause of the trouble. In matters of concern to the clan, such as a drought or selection of the new chief, the views of the tribal mhondoro must be obtained. The tribal medium is consulted and when he is in a possessed state the clan is told what its people want to know. These various mediums, especially those of the mhondoro and nganga may be looked upon as clergy of the Shona faith.

The ritual at all Shona ceremonies has a common pattern. First beer is always prepared from millet (zvio) for when prayers are offered by the individual officiating at the ceremony. This man, half kneeling, claps his hands in front of the beer before he announces the purpose of the gathering. Then the beer is handed round. Next drums or mbira are played, depending on the type of spirit being contacted, and men and women come forward and dance. As the tempo of the music quickens a medium becomes possessed. Others present may become possessed as well. In one of the intervals between the dances the main medium is addressed by an acolyte or some other person and the special problem put to him. If the ceremony concerns the clan the acolyte may ask the mhondoro (clan spirit) about rain for example. The spirit replies accordingly through its medium. If the problem is a family affair, the head of the family may ask the family medium (svikiro) the reason for the quarrels within its circle. During the proceedings beer is passed round and dancing continues often for hours. What is so striking in all these ritual ceremonies is the happiness and intensity of feeling in all this. As the music continues its quick tempo, excitement is written on all faces and at any moment a man or woman falls into a trance. How very different this is from the usual quick service we meet in other religions! Stimulated by the alcohol and the music all the men and women come into close relationship with their spiritual world and we are reminded of the I-thou relationship of the Buberian philosophy and the similarity between this religion and that of the special Jewish Hassidic sect.

No matter how serious the omission of a person is, it is always possible to come to terms with the offended spirit and restore equilibrium. There is always hope of forgiveness and the restoration of the vadzimu's protection. But to achieve this there must always be an offering or a sacrifice, beer perhaps or an animal. As a rule the more serious the offence, the bigger the sacrifice. Further every person is forgiven past omissions when he dies. In the spiritual world the spirit is never reminded of what he did in his lifetime. His name is cleared and he is remembered in this world as long as his descendants remain on earth.

Since the second World War, led mostly by Tempels, a Roman Catholic priest from the Congo, there has been a new way of thinking about the philosophy of the African religion. We owe a great debt to Tempels, for he was largely responsible for bringing about a new approach, a fairer and more rational attitude towards African beliefs and purpose in life. Other workers, like Marcel Griaule and Germaine Dieterlen of the French School described the cosmogony of the West African peoples among whom they worked and also caused scholars to have another look at the religion of these people in Africa. But the main influence was that of Tempels and other notable contributors, the most outstanding of which is Alexis Kagame, himself an African from Ruanda, who carried Tempels' philosophy a stage further.

At this juncture I think I should give an outline of the concepts of Tempels. In his Bantu Philosophy[4] he stresses three principal themes of Bantu life—Life, Fertility and Vital Union with others. In the Bantu he says there is a peculiar inner mind in the form of a force. This essential being is so to speak sitting almost like another little man, corresponding, perhaps, to the concept of the "soul". This force lives on in the dead in some ways in a diminished form, yet in another way retaining its higher strengthening life force. The boundary between living and dead is obscured and it is not clear where one begins and the other ends. I have great difficulty in defining Tempels' vital force which dominates human behavior and causes the Bantu to live strongly. The Bantu is hungry for this force and prays to his dead ancestors as well as to God for this energy or force.

“In calling upon God, the Spirits or the Ancestral Spirits, the heathen ask above all, ‘Give me force’” (p. 31 of Bantu Philosophy. 4 It would seem, according to Tempels that everything in nature, animate or inanimate, possesses this vital force. "In the minds of Bantu, all beings in the universe possess vital force of their own; human, animal, vegetable or inanimate" (p. 31). "Being" is not static but dynamic. Force is a necessary attribute of being—that is being is in itself a force which is to be found in God, men—living and departed—animals, plants and minerals. Tempels does not agree that there are two forces, a good and an evil one.

Now Tempels goes further with his hypothesis adding that the degree of force or being varies with different individuals. He does not accept that the Bantu have the concept of a soul. They do not call what lives after death by a term which indicates part of a man.

The word "muntu" signifies vital force and opposed to this is the word "bintu" referring to things. But according to Bantu philosophy they are beings, forces or individuals with reason but not yet living.

Tempels claims that any force or Being can be strengthened or enfeebled, i.e. all beings can become stronger or weaker. One force will reinforce or weaken another and this interaction of human beings has been described by the word "magic". The older force may dominate the younger. Thus the child remains in causal dependence and autological subordination to the forces which are his father and mother. One being influences another.

Tempels claims that, according to the Bantu, man is the center of all humanity including the world f the dead and the universe is centered on man. Inferior forces (animal, plant and mineral) exist only to increase the vital force of men while they are on earth. All force, both higher and lower, is thought of by the Bantu in relation to living human force and therefore Tempels calls the influences of one created being upon another causal agencies of life rather than causal agencies or being or force. He defines these as the general laws of vital causality.

1.    Man (living or dead) can reinforce or diminish the being of another man. Such vital influence is possible from Man to Man; it is indeed necessarily effective between the progenitor or superior vital force and his progency, an inferior force.
2.    The vital human force can directly influence inferior forces—beings (animal, vegetable, or mineral) in their being itself.
3.    A rational being (spirit, manes or living) can act directly upon another rational being by communicating his vital influence to an inferior force (animal, vegetable, or mineral) through the intermediary through which it influences the rational being.

In Muntu is a living force which dominates animals and minerals. Muntu is an active causal agent which exercises vital influence.

Tempels points out that the Bantu have the idea of good and evil. They reject lies, deceit, theft and adultery. They know and accept Natural Law as it is formulated in the ten commandments. He defines this as the differentiation of human action into good and bad in accordance with divine will or from the standpoint of the natural order, which is but the expression of the divine will. All enmity, hatred, envy and jealousy, evil speaking, even false praise, or lying eulogy, are seriously condemned by the Bantu.

As a result of Tempels contribution other workers have thought a good deal along the lines of his hypothesis of this force that dominates all Bantu thought. Janheinz (1961)[5] speaks of a genuine renaissance in African thought which he calls neo-African Culture. There can be no doubt that African thinkers, mostly in West Africa and to a lesser extent in Equatorial Africa, seem to accept Tempels' philosophy eagerly, almost as if they wish to point out to the outside world that, unknown for years, in Africa there has existed a fine culture, if not superior to that of the West, at least as great and wonderful; armed with these concepts the African has indeed a noble and strengthening religion, well conceived to withstand the rigors of a harsh land. Indeed so beautiful is this new religious teaching that much of what has been written before about African thought being primitive and pre-logical, even though Lévy-Bruhl[6] later renounced his theory of prelogicism, as due to a misunderstanding.

At this point it might be worth mentioning the work of other thinkers who have also shown amongst peoples, such as the Ruandese, Dogon, Bambara and the Haitians (descended from Africans), all living far distant from one another, that Africans possess a deep faith. In 1965 Marcel Griaule,[7] a French ethnologist, wrote on the philosophy of the Dogon people who live in the great bend of the Niger River. According to the creation myth of the Dogon—Amman (God) created the Earth as a woman and then married her. His seed Nommo was water, fire, blood and the word. Nommo is the physical, spiritual life force that wakens all "sleeping forces", giving physical and spiritual Life. Earlier in 1950 Germaine Dieterlin,[8] a collaborator of Griaule, recorded her study of the Bambara people in Essay on the Bambara Religion. Three years later (1953) the Afro-American actress, Maya Deren,[9] wrote on the Religion of the Haitian people in her book Divine Horsemen, The Living Gods of Haiti.

Alexis Kagame[10] took Tempels' philosophy a stage further in his work La Philosophie bantu-ruandaise de l'Etre, greatly elaborating and extending what Tempels wrote about his people in the Congo. According to Kagame, Muntu has a deeper meaning than a living being or person, since it includes both the living and the dead. It is therefore a force endowed with intelligence and an entity which has control over the nommo described by Griaule among the Dogon. Kagame divides everything in the world into four classes; the word denoting the class can be recognized by the sound preceding its stem. Everything that exists belongs to one of these categories, which represents a force and not a substance. The root Ntu represents the universal force. He argues that the Bantu have a basic conception of "vital force" from the fact that in some Bantu languages there are the words:

Muntu meaning person
Kintu meaning thing
Hantu meaning place and time
Kuntu meaning modality.

These all have the common root ntu. Therefore the concepts of person, thing, place and time and modality must all have a common element and this common element is the concept of vital force. Kintu embraces those forces which cannot act for themselves and can only become active on the command of muntu. To this category of kintu belong plants, animals and tools. Hantu is the force which localizes spatially and temporally every event and every motion, for, since all beings are forces everything is constantly in motion. Kuntu is the modal force; such a modality would be beauty. In Kinyaruanda there are three words—Buzingo, Buzima and magara which mean life. Buzima refers to the union of a shadow with a body and because it is an abstraction the word buzima belongs to the category of kuntu, the category of way or manner. This principle asserts that if a shadow unites with a body, life originates and lasts till shadow and body should separate, which is death.

When an animal is born this is not an abstract but a concrete event. An animal body unites with an animal shadow and the result is a living animal, a kizima which belongs to the category kintu. When the life of this animal has run its course and death comes, then buzima, the union of the body and shadow, ceases and kizima the concrete living animal is no more, its body decays and its shadow vanishes.

The origin of a human being, however, is different and is represented as a double process. On the one hand it is purely biological (union of a shadow and body according to the principle of buzima). But at the same time something spiritual, called magara, a nommo force, unites with the body to produce a human being. The principle designating the union of nommo force with a body is called magara—"the life of intelligence".

The living human person partakes of both principles making him a muzima, belonging to the category of muntu. He shares biological life (buzimu) with the animal, but spiritual life (magara) divides him from the animal. When a man dies his biological buzima is over and his spiritual life also ceases, but something remains—namely that "life force", magara or nommo, which formed his personality. The living human being, muzima, becomes a muzimu, a being without life.  The dead do not live but exist as spiritual forces in communication with their descendants. The living person has the "innate" wish to exist forever. Kagame states that to have no living heirs is the worst evil that can befall a man; there is no curse more terrible to put on a man than to wish him to die childless. When a child is born to one of the living, man thanks his ancestors to whose helpful influence he owes the child. The physical birth arises from the union of the body and nommo. Thus the force that continues to exist in the ancestors becomes active again in a living person. What is "growing" in the child is ‘magara’ that life force expressed in the living human being as contentment and happiness, which increases in him through the influence of his dead forebears. But this force, the wisdom that gives happiness and intelligence, the principle that distinguishes man from all other living things, exists in "pure" form only in the dead; it is a force from their kingdom.

The individual dead are therefore of different strength according to whether they have many or few living descendants to honor them and sacrifice to them. Thus an ancestor, who is an aggregate of magara, can transfer to many newborn individuals the small share of magara they need to begin their lives. The magara principle, which makes the living and the dead, bazima and bazimu, close kin who can eventually strengthen one another, seems to be characteristic of African culture.

Therefore the relations of men to one another are governed by the magara principle and Kagame has adapted Tempels' laws to his conception of the magara principle.

1.    The living (muzima) or dead ( muzimu) man can directly strengthen or weaken another man in his being.
2.    Human and therefore life force (magara) can directly influence lower (kintu) forces in their being.
3.    A rational being (muzima or muzimu) can indirectly influence another rational being by practicing his life influence (magara ) on a lower (kintu) force and letting this force influence other rational beings.

This influence too must necessarily be effective unless the other rational being is himself stronger or is strengthened by a stronger rational being or protects himself in his turn by means of lower life forms, stronger than those used by his enemy. This is where the so-called magic and witchcraft belong, e.g. the influence of the medicine men, talismans etc. Here we may simply emphasize that it is always a question of forces of the magara principle, of the force of intelligence, which flow into the living man from his ancestors without whose help he can do little.

Criticisms of the Tempels Philosophy

Tempels gives the impression that this vital spirit or force is something that is confined to the Bantu religion, almost inferring that the Bantu have a deeper sense of the power of this factor that flows from one person to another and from a spirit to a living being. I cannot accept this point of view because in other faiths there is a similar reference to the powers of the Almighty. For instance throughout the Christian religion there is continual reference to this vital spirit which pervades everything. Tanner[11] maintains that the three basic themes of Bantu life, as suggested by Tempels,—Life, Fertility and Vital Union—are general concepts and are to be found in so many societies outside the Bantu world, that it is doubtful whether they can be of any immediate use to the theologian or anthropologist. Tanner asks, “How can one verify the references to a dynamic concept or reality as being one of the Bantu basic concepts?” He doubts whether it can be described as something specifically Bantu. Nietzsche spoke of a "will to power" and quite close to this conception is what Bergson later called elan vital. Bergson postulated the concept of an all-pervading vital impulse, an elan vital that came "gushing out unceasingly... from an immense reservoir of life". "It further expressed the resolve that the ‘philosophy of intuition’ would set the life of the body... where it really is, on the road that leads to the life of the spirit". "All the living", Bergson proclaimed, "hold together, and all yield to the same tremendous push... And the whole of humanity... is one immense army galloping beside and before and behind each of us in an overwhelming charge able to beat down every resistance and clear the most formidable obstacle, perhaps even death".[12]

The vital force described by Tempels and Kagame is similar to Mana of the Melanesians. To me both ideas mean the same. Mana is that active, mysterious power belonging to certain people, which passes on to the souls of the dead and all spirits. The act of creating the cosmos was performed by the Mana of God. Eliade[13] quotes as an example of the force of Mana the conquest of the Maoris by the English because the mana of the latter was stronger. The head of a family possesses mana. Further, similar to the vital force of Tempels, this power flows for both men and things. Both possess mana because they have received it from higher things. They have a mystical sharing of life with the sacred. A stone may have this supernatural power because a spirit has associated itself with it. A dead man has mana also through its spirit, a ghost, and can so direct it to effect what he desires. Mana is a force that is not the same as a physical force. If a man is a fine fighter he owes this skill not to his own strength but to the power he has obtained from the mana of a dead fighter. Further this mana or quality may be enclosed in the amulet which he wears round his neck. Another example quoted by Eliade is the fast boat which owes its speed to the mana which has entered it. The same would apply to the arrow which delivers a mortal wound. Everything that shows superiority has mana. Everything in nature which appears effective, creative or perfect to man has mana.

This concept of mana is not confined to the Melanesians. There are other people who accept the same sort of force that helps to make things powerful. The Sioux refer to this force as Wakan (Eliade) which renews itself in phenomena, such as the wind, the thunder, the moon and the sun. The West Indians know it as zemi, the African pygmies as Megbe and the Masai as Ngai. Eliade states that not everyone possesses mana or megbe etc.; it is confined to "heroes", divinities, the spirits of the dead or men and things linked with the sacred. This would include idols and sorcerers. Yet, according to another authority, Paul Schebesta, quoted by Eliade, megbe is everywhere although its force or power is not revealed everywhere to the same degree or in a similar way. Some animals possess it greatly and one person has more than another. Those who are capable are endowed with more megbe than the less able.

Mana is not a universal concept and is found only in a number of religions. Some authorities, like Paul Radin,[14] consider that some of the terms meaning mana in the different religions mean ‘sacred, remarkable, wonderful’, without conveying the meaning of inherent power. Others again regard it as an impersonal force and still others as one connected with a person or spirit that directs it.

Something that possesses mana is efficacious and fertile and Eliade does not regard it as an impersonal force. Mana is possessed through the intervention of a spirit or divine being. It should not be regarded as an impersonal magic force.

Tanner also argues that whilst the appeal to the ancestors and traditions may contribute, as Tempels claims, to the stability of Bantu society, it may even contribute to its instability through the necessity to build lineages and the need for clans and families to split. Again he disagrees with Tempels’ hypothesis that Fertility is a second basic Bantu concept, for, by breeding children, the living will be remembered, when they pass on, by their dependants on earth. Tanner argues that this attribute can be described as a philosophy of life, but with even greater reality it can be described as a functionate battle against a hostile environment.

If, according to Tempels and Kagame, God, The Supreme Spirit, is the Creator of man and the giver of the vital spirit, one would expect the Shona to be deeply attached to God. This is not so. Indeed I have repeatedly stressed how indifferent they are to the Creator, whom they rarely approach directly or ask through an intermediary for His help. The real affection is shown for the ancestral spirits (vadzimu). It is interesting that Tanner supports this view. He maintains that the Supreme Being has little concern for the Bantu or they for Him. God does not figure largely in the lives of the Shona. He is there, perhaps, but in the background. Tempels has implied that God is uppermost in the thoughts of the Africans he knows so well in the Congo.

The Shona believe that a certain power passes to the spirit of a dead person. The dead acquire this power, force (Tempels), magara (Kagame) or nommo (Griaule). How this is achieved is not explained except that it is one of the doings of Mawari the Creator. But I am wondering whether Tempels is justified in taking this a little further and claiming that the Bantu believe that this force can flow in two directions. It can reinforce the living and from the living it can reinforce the dead. The Shona seem not to have any such concept. This two-way passage of the vital force from one world to the other does not seem to be part of the philosophical thought of the Shona-speaking peoples.

Just as the Christian believes that God has the power to work wondrous deeds so the vadzimu of the Shona have been endowed with this power by the Creator. It enables them to protect and help their descendants on earth. But the Shona do not speak in the terms outlined by Tempels and Kagame of a flow of this energy like an electric current flowing to and from the living and the dead, reinforcing one another. The living owe much to their ancestral spirits, including their Unhu or personality but this is handed on to them in the same way as any person is blessed by God. Once a person has this personality it is his; it is static and does not vary from day to day with the flow of the vital force.

The Shona maintain that this power of the vadzimu to protect and help their families on earth is confined to the spirits who were married and had children when they were on this earth. An unmarried person with no children cannot be a mudzimu with these supernatural powers in the next world. Tempels and his supporters do not mention this limitation to the powers of the vadzimu, but it is possible that this view is held only amongst the Shona people. I mention this here merely to show how difficult it would be to conceive of a vital force which would not flow in to strengthen the dead who had never married.

I doubt whether any Shona believes that the vital human force of Tempels can influence an inferior force whether animal, vegetable, or mineral. Tempels takes this even further by claiming that a rational being (spirit or living) can act directly upon another rational being by communicating his vital influence to an inferior force (animal, vegetable or mineral) through which it influences the other rational being. Again I have never heard this view expressed by a Shona. I would say that the Shona view the animal and inanimate objects in a similar light to the Christian, that is man cannot by himself influence another living person or mudzimu (muntu) through the intermediary agency of the lower forms of life or inanimate objects. The Shona do not pray to animals or inanimate objects even though they believe that spirits may rest in certain trees. They may name a bull in remembrance of their family elder, but they never pray to it although special care is taken of this sacred animal. This is not done because they think the animal is possessed by the dead relation, but that the mudzimu will be pleased that it is being remembered by the naming of an animal after it.

The Shona believe that the vadzimu possess powers similar to those of God or according to Christians to those of Jesus. Indeed Shona have often pointed out to me that the vadzimu hold a similar intermediary power to God as that attributed to Jesus and the Saints. I think that Tempels and his followers have taken their own religious beliefs and thinking well beyond their real values. In certain respects Tempels has painted an unreal image of God as far as the Bantu are concerned and equally he may have gone too far in the other direction by inferring that they see a spiritual value in inanimate objects. I have for long pointed out that the Shona are not in any sense animists. Tempels in fact is reviving the old concept that the Bantu pray to idols and other inanimate objects. This I must deny as far as the philosophy of the Shona religion is concerned.

My criticisms of Tempels' account of the Bantu religion, as he knows it in the Congo, would apply equally to Kagame's description of the religion as he knows it among the Ruandese people. Naturally, as I do not know these peoples, I cannot criticize what he has said about them, but I can state that this philosophy does not apply to the Shona.

Perhaps Kagame's most impressive argument in favor of the vital force of Bantu philosophy is that the root Ntu forms the stem of all the words describing the concepts of a person, thing, place and time and this common element is the concept of vital force. But Hannan, who is an expert on Bantu languages begs to differ. He states: "It is argued that the Bantu have a basic concept of ‘vital force’ from the fact that in some Bantu languages there are the words:

Muntu meaning person;
Kintu meaning thing;
Hantu meaning place and time;
Kuntu meaning modality.

These all have the common root: ntu, therefore the concepts of person, thing, place and time and modality must all have a common element, and this common element is the concept of vital force.

"In Shona, a Bantu language, there are the words:

Muntu meaning person;
Nhu (ri-ma-class) meaning big, or inferior, thing;
Chinhu meaning thing;
Runhu meaning thin thing;
Kahnu meaning small thing;
Unhu meaning good manners;
Umunhu meaning human nature;
Panhu meaning a place at which in the phrase panhu namwe, the meaning may be ‘together’ or ‘at the same time’.
Kunhu meaning direction (to which).

"All these words have the common root nhu very probably derived from the UrBantu root—ntu. It is a characteristic of Bantu languages in general that an identical root has different meanings according as it is prefixed by one or the other of the class prefixes. I do not see the validity of an inference from this structural characteristic of the language to a specific way of thinking about things that is peculiarly Bantu, especially when that peculiar way of thinking is described in terms of a non-Bantu philosophy. Would anyone be right in inferring from the fact that words are either masculine, feminine or neuter in English, that therefore, English-speaking people think of things only in terms of sex? The English of today is descended from other languages, most of which had only two or three noun-classes. That these classes were given the names of masculine, feminine and neuter reflects the thought, or classificatory interpretation of the grammarians, rather than the philosophy of the original, or of the modern speakers of the language or languages in question.

"It is quite true that the different categories of Bantu nouns does reflect a difference in the way the original speakers of UrBantu thought about phenomena, but it does not seem justified to conclude that therefore speakers of modern Bantu languages must be regarded as seeing all phenomena as pervaded by a ‘vital force’, or as conceiving things, not as ‘beings’ but as ‘forces’, especially as the concepts ‘being’ and ‘force’ do not seem to have corresponding words in the Bantu lexicon"[15]

This belief in the intermediary spirits of the founders of the clan (mhondoro) and of the individual families (vadzimu) influences the ethical behavior of the people themselves and of their outlook about certain virtues. With this knowledge we can understand better the Shona's attitude to Hama or the brotherhood of man, to freedom, happiness and also the meaning of Unhu.

Unhu. The verb denoting brotherhood is kunzwana, which means to live in harmony, to reach or be in a position of understanding one another, to be patient with others, to listen to their grievances so that peace (rugare) may follow. There is a phrase in Shona which brings out this concept of brotherhood: "Hakungave norugare kana pasina kunzwana pakati pavanhu" (There can be no happiness (or peace) without an understanding of one another among the people). Significant too is a short phrase: "Kugare kunzwana" which is a Shona idiom and means that if one is to be happy there must be an understanding between people. This means the people concerned are in peace; this peace is not merely superficial but includes peace of mind. Another way in which the Shona show this sense of brotherhood is in the care and consideration they give to the needs of any stranger, for, if this is not done, they are likely to provoke their own vadzimu. To see this connection we need to know the role played by the vadzimu in giving man Unhu or what we might call his character or personality. Unhu is bound up with the vadzimu. If a child misbehaves regularly the fault is attributed to his parents for their failure to train him. It is believed too that the vadzimu who are next to God would be disappointed if a man or woman did not obey the laws of a human being (munhu). If a child lacks unhu his parents are blamed. The Shona mother accepts the responsibility in the up-bringing of her child, therefore she should receive special consideration; her family must try to help her and appease her whenever they can because she has suffered most in bringing up the children. We often hear the saying, "Mai hava tambwe navo (a mother should not be played with—meaning she should be treated with extra tenderness and consideration).

Unhu is the correct way of living according to the teachings of the Shona elders. A person with unhu behaves in a good way, respects his parents and sets a good example. A person with unhu is well-behaved. He shows respect to a stranger, particularly if older than he. He can adapt himself to any environment, is particularly careful not to damage the reputation of another person and when he is wrong admits it.

If a child is rude, pays no respect to his parents and disobeys them he is said to be lacking in unhu. A boy or girl who behaves contrary to what is expected is said by his elders not to have good manners (tsika). A person who cannot control his speech is said to have no unhu. Has a child unhu? Unhu implies a sense of responsibility, mostly of a personal nature. An individual is only accepted into Shona society when he reaches the age of maturity (wava munhu—you are grown up). The Shona admit that a child can have a sense of responsibility in certain matters, for instance, a boy can herd cattle and look after them. Therefore as the child grows so does his unhu increase but full unhu only comes at the age of maturity.

Zviito. Zviito is closely linked with unhu; it refers to the character of a person, which for the Shona means what he does. His character is determined by his actions. Zviito is derived from the verb kuita—to do. Thus when a child obeys his parents, it shows he has a good character. Respect for elders, honesty, correct behavior towards the opposite sex and the acceptance of the moral code of his people are requisites for good character. The individual must comply with the accepted culture of his people. (anezvi—ito zvakanaka—he has good behavior).

The word unhu is an abstract noun expressing the good or moral ideal and munhu refers to the person who displays this quality. Therefore the munhu thinks rationally and in a responsible way. He can control his passions, instincts and desires. If his desires overcome him it is said that he has no unhu (haana unhu). The man with unhu is above the animal but a greedy person is asina unhu because he is enslaved by an animal instinct. Thus the Shona differentiate between the human being and the animal because of man's possession of unhu. A person acts rationally in virtue of his unhu, whereas a baboon just steals and eats. The opposite of unhu would be kusava no unhu (He is without character). A quarrelsome person is said to be asina unhu.

Thus we may summarize the findings on unhu and zviito. The Shona believe this quality of goodness, correct behavior and character are intimately bound up with the vadzimu of the family who are responsible for its endowment. A person who steals, is rude or of bad character is said to be poorly endowed with unhu and this, as a rule, is traced back to his parents or even further back to his vadzimu.

What is the meaning of a "free man" (munhu aka-sununguka) in Shona society? If we ask a traditional Shona what is meant by being free, he will reply quite differently from a Western person. I am certain no traditional Shona has any doubt about the authority of the chief or his headman. This is accepted as part of life. Freedom of speech does not enter into his philosophy just as the concept of great wealth is alien to him. This is a Western invention, if I may use this term.

To the Shona a man who is free must be free of basic worries; he must have all he needs and does not require to rely on others. A man only becomes free when he marries and is no longer under his father's discipline, although in actual fact his father still controls him more indirectly. A woman also becomes free when she marries in the sense that she enters her own home. There is no really free man or woman in our sense of the word because every person is part of a group. There is a well known saying "Zano-ndoga akapisa gumbeze" (Mr. Know-all burns his blanket). A man is part of a whole and therefore cannot make decisions for himself and disregard society. In the material sense he may be free but he provides for his wife and children and this is the only way in which he is free. But in the moral, spiritual and social relations to his work he labors hand in hand with others. He must not stand aloof nor use his own judgment. He cannot do what he likes but must take advice from other people. A well known Shona saying, which warns against refusing to obey his society, is "Mwoyo muti unomera paunoda". (The heart is like a tree which grows wherever it likes). This saying is used practically only in love affairs and stresses that a man is free to choose his wife but approval must be obtained from each set of parents. In the same way a girl too is free to select whomever she likes. A man who conforms and obeys the law of his clan is free of worry and so has no cares. No real difficulty exists for one who accepts without question the teachings about life, marriage, unhu, death and religion. The word kusungungu means to unfasten, loosen, detach, become untied, so implying the concept of being free.

Some Shona have told me that those living in the village are free because:

1.    Food is easy to obtain.
2.    A person is living amongst his own kin where each one is ready to be helpful.
3.    No rent is paid in the village.

There are four ways in which freedom may be expressed:

1.    When referring to a family which has some material well-being the term akagarika (to be at peace) is used. It means to be settled and prosperous.
2.    Kumanikwa. Munhu akamanikwa is a state in which a man's movements or ability to do things are under grave restriction. Such a person may be restricted by a chief who forbids him to graze his cattle or plough in a certain place. A person who is not curbed in this way is free. If a chief is bad he may forbid people to do what his predecessor allowed. Then he is said to be munhu asinakunaka.
3.    Nherera ya -kamanikwa means an orphan who is not treated equally with others in a family or as a real child of that family. He may be given very hard work to do. This child is not free. This term would include the muranda (poor man) or mutapwa (prisoner of war who is not given his freedom after he has been captured).
4.    Kusunguka implies being free to talk, being open minded and having no ties. A man can speak without restraint or visit anyone and equally anyone can visit him. Kutaura kwako uku kugarika is a freedom that belongs to the better off person (who has kugarika). For instance a well-off person may see someone in poor clothes and may say, "Look at that person with such clothes". People will say that the man with kugarika does not understand; it is easy for him to talk. Kugarika implies a personal freedom and refers to matters within the family. It is a state of freedom at home where the person is well off. A man may have an animal (mombe) which he sold because he was sick. He now has plenty of money, but it is said of him that he has no freedom—haana kugarika (he has lost the thing which gave him kugarika).

Thus there are two kinds of freedom. There is the free man whose freedom goes out to others—munhu, wakasununguku or munhu wakagarika. Many look for kugarika, but others seek the ideal of kusununguka. In truly traditional society there was kusununguka and a limited number of people had kugarika. But kusununguka was available for everyone. Freedom of speech in a political sense was never conceived of or imagined. In kusununguka, therefore, there must be no restrictions outside the authority of the chief, one's father or one's religion.

In traditional society it is possible for a man to go from one village to another without carrying food, for he will be welcomed at any place on the way. He can speak to anyone. Wherever he goes everyone stops and speaks to him. Further he is free of debt. In the towns today life is too regulated without proper means of rest. To the Shona life in the rural setting is free; he can move where he likes without passes such as are required in town.


A person who has rufaro is in a happy state of mind, no matter how things go with him. He can take disasters and never seeks for revenge or has any wish to hurt his enemy. This man with a happy disposition is tolerant and prepared to forget a quarrel. He welcomes people to his home and makes them feel happy. He is generous to his neighbors and laughs and smiles with others.

If the word kudekara is used for a happy man it is implied that he is well off materially and has all he needs. Kudekara can also mean to have peace of conscience.

Kutamharara conveys a sense of material prosperity. The analogy is the growth of the sweet potato which throws out its runners in all directions. The word denoting the opposite of happiness is kutambudzvika or kusuwa or kutsamwa.

Who is a happy person? It would seem that the manifestation of happiness is that evoked by the return of a son who has been away for a long time; when his father sees him he experiences this inward feeling of warmth and love and shows his happiness by giving him food and gifts and the son is happy accepting them.

Another occasion of rufaro is the state of mind experienced just before a wedding when all the family group concerned come together to discuss arrangements and the women start brewing beer. The men gather and the owner of the beer calls on his wife to produce it. On this occasion it is said, "Aya ndino mafaro edu" (This is our happiness).

Yet I am told that the person who has rufaro is in a constant happy frame of mind. Every day his state of rufaro is the same and all who meet him see him in this state. They all receive the same welcome. Women under certain circumstances have rufaro which is more pronounced during a family reunion.

For a person to have rufaro a certain material standard must be enjoyed. To be happy a man must have certain basic or material needs which with the state of rufaro constitute happiness.

Munhu anofara or munhu akafara is an individual who always displays the same courtesy and good manners. When one asks are you well "unofara here?" (are you happy?), the reply is "ndinofara" (I am happy). When a family has rufaro all is well with their vadzimu. The latter are responsible for harmony within the family and good relations with neighbors as well as the quality that causes a man to receive strangers and help others. There are no complaints in the group.

It seems clear from these arguments that there must be some degree of prosperity, not enormous wealth but enough for the family to lead a decent life (Tine rudekaro or tine rugare). Rugare includes all that produce pleasant living—material needs and also good status with the chief and other people in society. As a person owes his possessions to the vadzimu it follows that rugare would include good relations with the rest of his society.

Rudekaro includes the happiness of the family and its harmony with its vadzimu, but rugare is not restricted to the family and includes people outside it and implies too a material sense of security.

Rufaro would be noted in a person when he laughs or smiles, but this is merely an outside side of happiness—such as is found at a beer gathering which brings out the feeling of happiness. Another such occasion is that when a woman gives birth to a child. The other women reveal their happiness by bringing gifts. This is rufaro.

Therefore happiness includes external or outward relations with others. If a person wins a large sum of money would he be happy? Although he may feel pleased this is not enough for true happiness even though others would share and enjoy his good fortune. On the other hand a father experiences the full feeling of happiness when he welcomes his son after an absence.

Can a man with riches but without children be happy? The answer is no. Vice versa if he has children and no resources he would not be happy. Again a man with children and riches would not be happy if he were not on good terms with his family or vadzimu. Rugare applies to material things together with good relations within the family and with its spirits. It includes those who are closest to one another and implies respect, obedience to and love of the family group. Rufaro can be temporary or permanent. It describes the feeling of happiness when one meets other people. Each time one meets others one is happy. This happiness is shared and does not refer to wealth.

A woman who is not well received when she visits another expresses this as, "hadina kumbofara" or "hadina kufarirwa" (I was not made happy). Courtesy was lacking and the visitor found something wrong with the individual or his family.

If a member of a family dies and the burial rites are satisfactory, the father says, "ndafara kwazvo" (I rejoice because the burial of my son was carried out properly) or "ndafara kunzwa kuvigwa kwomwana wangu" (I am happy because I know my child has been buried). "Takanakidzwa nokutambwa kwakai twa nanhamo" (We were pleased with the dancing that took place at the funeral).


Closely bound up with contentment and a feeling of happiness or pleasure is a sense of peace, which should now be defined. First there are a number of ideas on the subject which should be discussed. The words concerned with peace in Shona society are rugare and kugarika. Rugare refers to peace or calmness of mind in a person with good character who is not tainted with evil (uroyi). It is derived from a good character and thus when such a person suffers a misfortune he is not too upset to see it in a realistic light. The same sense is implied when a chief is on good terms with others and is also able to afford the material things he needs is said to have rugare. A poor man cannot have rugare because it implies a certain minimum of material prosperity although not as much as would be required before the term kugarika can be used. Kugarika refers to the satisfaction or peace of mind brought by material wealth, but it does not necessarily mean the peace of mind that goes with good character. Its possessor may have peace yet a bad character. There is a Shona saying, "Rugare (kugarika) tange nhamo" which means that peace or prosperity comes after hardships or sorrow. This proverb is often told to a poor man who is working hard, let us say, to complete his education; ultimately he will achieve his object and earn enough to prosper in a good way. As a result of this suffering he will have earned peace. A person has rugare if he has all he needs. If he loses any of it he is not at peace. Therefore to have peace (rugare) a person must have peace of mind (rugaro) together with upfumi (material wealth).

Beauty (Runako, kunaka)

Beauty is accepted as a physical quality as well as one of character (akanaka) in the sense of a good heart and self control. The Shona are fully aware of good bodily proportions and the degree of darkness of the skin, usually preferring a lighter complexion.

The expression mwana uyu akazvarwa (akanaka) is usually reserved for beauty in women whereas kunaka is mainly used to describe good taste. Runako is also used to denote beauty in cattle and other animals. A tree that is useful in that material benefit can be made of its wood is said to be rakanaka. Land that can be usefully tilled and made to produce crops would be rakanaka. In other words beauty in material things is linked with utilitarian objectives. This is expressed by the use of the word kunaka. It looks beautiful (inotarisika zvakanaka).

The Shona avoid expressing words of admiration of a beautiful scene for fear of invoking the anger of some alien spirit by judging something about which they know nothing. Therefore they consider it better to remain silent. If a person comes across magnificent scenery and is amazed at its beauty it is safer not to remark in case this upsets the spirits concerned with that particular part of the world. Whenever a person is in a strange or foreign environment and not acquainted with the customs or history of that place, it is better not to risk mentioning the beauty or ugliness of anything there. To pass a comment which might detract from a person or scene is dangerous lest the ancestral spirit concerned with the person or place is annoyed at such presumption. A Manyika once told me if a person in a strange country admires something attractive, such as a hare, and describes it in the diminutive he might easily be punished by losing his way, e.g. saying katsuro instead of tsuro. The state of being lost in a forest through using an incorrect word is called kuteterika.

Nhena refers to outstanding beauty in a girl and can also be used for a man. But great and unusual beauty is considered dangerous and is often linked with evil. If a girl is very beautiful she may be considered a witch or a thief and elderly women often warn against extreme beauty in a girl. Anything unusual is often believed to be accompanied by some dangerous propensity. The consensus of opinion favors a person who has average looks. To the Shona, whilst physical beauty may be a factor in attraction to a girl, what counts more is her ability to work and cook and the fact that she is well behaved and has a good reputation.


I have come to know the Shona better by trying to understand their ethics and morals. Basic to this is a study of their religion. I have been privileged to meet gentle and humble people. I myself have seen them practice many of the virtues which I had long forgotten and had believed were things of by-gone days. I can see the weaknesses in their philosophy. My task is not to compare nor criticize but to try and observe objectively, to see, meditate and guide. The good man—the good human—the munhu who has unhu—is the right man. The man who is decent and can live with others is admired. This goodness comes from those who love and care most for a person—his parents and after their death their spirits are responsible for the virtues which make up his personality and character. But if a father gives his son unhu what better example is there for him to follow than his father's and his father's father's before him. This means he should never change, never deviate and should be satisfied with his lot and in particular desire to conform. He must not be different from his brother or his neighbor. This leads us a step further advocating that cognates should remain as close to one another as possible as dispersal means a reduction in their strength. Parental respect and regard is also strengthened by prayers directed to the dead parents.

So much thought has gone into the Shona's study of human relations and into a search for peace, happiness and freedom. So much of their philosophy revolves around munhu—the human being with an almost complete neglect of the material aspects of life a feature of the Shona way of life that contrasts so greatly with that of the modern Western world.


I wish to acknowledge the valuable assistance I have received from the Rev. Father M. Hannan, S.J., and the Rev. Father P. G. Moloney, S.J.


[1] Griaule, Marcel (1965) Conversations with Ogotemmeli. An introduction to Dogon Religious Ideas. Oxford University Press.

[2] Dieterlin, G. (1950) Essai sur La Religion Bambara. Presses Universitaires De France. Paris.

[3] Gelfand, M. (1959) Shona Ritual. Juta.

[4] Tempels, P. (1952) Bantu Philosophy. Presence Africaine. Paris.

[5] Janheinz, Jahn (1961) Muntu—An Outline of Neo-African Culture. Translated by Marjorie Grene. Faber and Faber Ltd. London.

[6] Lévy-Bruhl, L. Les Fonctions Méntales dans les Sociétés Inférieures, quoted in Radin, P. (1956) Primitive Man as Philosopher. Dover Publications Inc., New York. p. 230

[7] Griaule, Marcel (1965) Conversations with Ogotemmeli. An introduction to Dogon Religious Ideas. Oxford University Press.

[8] Dieterlin, G. (1950) Essai sur La Religion Bambara. Presses Universitaires de France. Paris.

[9] Deren, M. (1953) Divine Horsemen. The Living Gods of Haiti. Thomas and Hudson. London.

[10] Kagame, A. (1955) La Philosophie bantu-ruandaise de l'Etre. Academie royale des Sciences coloniales. Bruxelles.

[11] Tanner, R. E. S. (1968) The Heythrop Journal, 9. 164.

[12] Bergson, (1907) L'Evolution Creatrice. Paris. Authorised translation by Arthur Mitchell as Creative Evolution, Modern Library Edition. New York, 1944. 270, 293, 295. Quoted from Consciousness and Society by H. Stuart Hughes, New York Vintage Books. 1961.

[13] Eliade, H. Patterns in Comparative Religion. Shoed and Ward. London and New York.

[14] Radin, P. (1957) Primitive Man as Philosopher. Dover Publications Inc., New York.

[15] Hannan, M. (1968) personal communication.