Rhodesia - Intaf

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Customs and Beliefs





Customs and beliefs have been established by the people over many, many years and have been passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth.  The elders in the village sat around the fire in the centre of the village or at a Dare and told stories of the ancestors and the ways in which they conducted themselves.  The younger members of the village knew their place and sat and absorbed all the information.  Due to the fact that almost all of the stories were never written down the next generation added a few embellishments to suit the situation.  The customs that developed from this communal gathering became customary law for the people.  If they were deviated from the spirits would take offence and brought to being dire consequences for those who did so.


The people were bound together by very strong family bonds that were enhanced by customary law and the spirits of the ancestors who possessed the elders and even in death still had a direct influence over the day to day happenings of village life.


This précis is very brief and only touches the surface of elementary customary law.


Tribal Structure.  In the tribal areas the Chief (sometimes known as Mambo, Changamire or Ishe in ChiShona or iNkosi in SiNdebele) is the most important person.  He is appointed because of his birthright as well as the approval of the people and the tribal spirits of the local area.  The chief has three main roles to play within the community.  They are spiritual, judicial and administrative. 


The Shona chieftainship is based on a hereditary system where the appointment is passed on to the firstborn son known as collateral succession.  When the firstborn son of the original chief dies, the position of Chief is then inherited by the oldest surviving male member of the next youngest brother of that Chief.  It is then inherited by the next oldest surviving male of the next brother and so on.  As time passes it is difficult to know exactly who is the actual person to become next Chief.  The tribal spirits now play an important role.  The spirit of the original Chief will be consulted and his advice will be followed in determining whom the next person is, to be appointed.


There were very few female chiefs.  The most famous of all was Chieftainess Charewa who lived in the Mtoko district.  She was possessed by the male spirit of a chief of her tribe.  She was not allowed to leave her official residence except on one annual occasion.  This was to participate in a secret grave cleansing ceremony where all the previous chieftainesses were buried.  To get to and from the secret graveyard she was physically carried by some of her followers.  Chieftainess Charewa received her people on specific occasions to conduct the daily duties required of her.  Very few Europeans ever visited as this was considered inappropriate.  They were specifically invited.  The procedure on visiting the Chieftainess was to take off ones footwear when entering her inner village.  The visitor was received by a senior member of the Chieftainess’ immediate family and they would then go to the Chieftainess to report the presence of the stranger.  The Chieftainess would then decide if she actually wanted to speak personally to the stranger or not.  The visitor always brought gifts of snuff and cloth.  The cloth had to be red, black and white in colour.  These are the most important spiritual colours in Shona folklore.  However if the visitor was wearing any clothing that was red in colour, it had to be removed from sight.  This posed a problem for Intaf personnel who did get to visit the Chieftainess. The regimental colours of Intaf are red and khaki!


The MaShona people believe that maturity / age is very important and therefore older people will always be appointed as leaders due to the fact that age counts! 

In the hierarchy of tribal life the next most senior leader is known as the Headman (Sadunhu).  He is in charge of a smaller segment of the Chiefs people.  Under his authority are the village heads known for some time as Kraalheads (Sabhuku).  Their appointment also follows collateral succession to a large extent.


The Ndebele system is slightly different wherein they follow a system of primogeniture succession.


Spiritual Affairs.  Shona people believe in a supreme being known to them as Mwari. Among the Ndebele, this being was also known as Mlimo. There are very important spirits who are subordinate to Mwari and possess the bodies of human beings (mediums) from time to time.  Such important spirits include Chaminuka, Nehanda and Nyamuswa who are all able to make rain.  Such spirits as these have never been human.  Tribal spirits are ancestral and all were human at one time.  Male spirits are most important and will make contact with their family members and others through spirit mediums who they select based on their appropriateness of relationship.  A spirit medium is known as a svikiro / swikiro (depending on dialect). 


The svikiro undergoes a trance and is possessed by the ancestral spirit (mhondoro) at that time who will then talk through the svikiro to family members at a special gathering.  Family spirits (mudzimu - singular /midzimu or vadzimu - plural) are crucially important in daily life because they are responsible for making sure that the family are in good health and are not struggling from day to day.  In turn the family must look after the spirits, consult with them and communicate on all family affairs.  On occasion the family will sacrifice an animal to celebrate the good things that the spirit brings.  The tribal spirit is responsible for the good welfare of the tribe.  Therefore the tribe must not neglect the tribal spirit.  The tribal spirit is very powerful and will send bad fortune down on the people.  Such ancestral spirits are worshipped by their people and they are consulted on a regular basis for all manner of things.


The link is the spirit medium.  Spirit mediums talk to the ancestral spirits while in a trance.  This is induced by means of the spirit medium concentrating on the matter in a small gathering of those who wish to pass on or receive a message from the ancestral spirits.  The use of tribal medicine or other items of sacred value may be used in the “ceremony”, including the throwing of “bones” (kukanda hakata).


There are also other spirits that play a role in every day life.  One such spirit is known as a “shave” (pronounced shaavee).  These spirits are lost souls who have not had the proper tribal customary rites applied when they died.  They wander around until such time as they find a suitable human being in which they can then reside.  A shave spirit will take over the host’s body on occasion and that person then does things that may be quite out of the ordinary for them.  An example is where such a host displays extraordinary skills that they do not normally have.  Perhaps they are shy and all of a sudden become excellent story tellers.  Many of the stories will be from the shave’s lifetime.  Perhaps the person starts to talk in a different language because they are possessed by the spirit of a person of that race.  Such incidences will be noticed by the people and the claim will be made that the concerned person is possessed by a shave spirit which allows them to have some extraordinary skill.  Some shave spirits may not necessarily be human; they may come from an animal.  Gatherings are held where shave spirits are given the opportunity to take possession of the hosts’ body.  Much dancing and trance like behaviour occurs.


Another spirit is the ngozi.  This is the spirit of a person who may have been badly treated while alive or may have some grievance and wants to take revenge for it.  Such spirits can be dealt with by diviners who will undertake a ceremony to drive the ngozi away, at a price.  Diviners are able to do such things because of their knowledge and the fact that they may be possessed by a more powerful yet benevolent (to them) spirit.


Witchcraft.  Witchcraft is closely allied to the spirit world.  Witches and wizards (singular muroi, plural varoi) are very powerful people and may be considered the enemies of the people because they have the ability to cast spells and inflict evil on people.  They are also known to ride on the backs of hyenas at night and to eat corpses from time to time.  Protection from the varoi may be obtained by undergoing a consultation with a svikiro to invoke the protection of the ancestral spirits.


Any form of bad luck, death or sickness or other disaster does not happen just by itself.  There will always be a reason and it is likely to be because they have neglected to conduct a specific tribal ritual to appease the ancestral spirits or even worse, somebody has cast a spell using the services of a muroi to do so.  A svikiro can conduct a ritual to determine who the witch is and then that person will be named as such.  Punishment generally follows! 


There are three ways of determining if a person is guilty of an offence.  These are known as Mteu, Nyikisa and Rupadza.  Mteu consists of the accused drinking a potion made from poisonous bark and roots.  If he / she survives then they are pronounced innocent.  Nyikisa is when a pot of boiling water is heated on a fire and a small stone is left in the bottom of the pot.  The accused must retrieve the stone without getting scalded to prove innocence.  Rupadza involves placing ones tongue on the metal blade of a hoe (badza) after it has been heated up in a fire.  If the tongue is not burnt then the accused is innocent.


Herbs and healing.  The people believe that all illness is due to the fact that the living have upset the midzimu/vadzimu.  The N’anga/nganga is an important member of the community.  He or she is able to cure any number of ailments and diseases using knowledge passed down from generation to generation.  They are also considered to be protected by an ancestral spirit who possess them in a trance and give them the necessary recipe when there is a requirement to blend a concoction of herbs to treat a “patient”.  Such N’angas can also drive out evil spirits or provide a charm that will protect the wearer from all manner of evil and bad things. 


Some of their potions and talismans incorporate body parts of human beings.  It is believed that if one eats a part of a body then one acquires the qualities of the deceased.  Organs of babies are used to ensure that the element of youth is acquired.  Generally the fingertips, toes, ear lobes and genitals of humans are used.  On occasion though, internal organs are required.  The person who kills the victim will eat such a part of the body in order to become “one” with the dead person and in this manner protect himself from any possible interference of the victim’s ancestral spirits or family.  Body parts such as the lungs and heart of a boy or girl will be placed inside a newly constructed drum which is to be used in ceremonies to call up or honour the ancestral spirits.  The organs give the drum more power to call up the spirits and also will give the drummer the ability to play unknown drumbeats to call them up.


The N’anga is not part of the murder to obtain body parts generally.  He merely tells his / her client what is required for the talisman to be made and the client is responsible for obtaining it.


Marriage.  Marriage is essential for the Shona people because they believe that it is only by getting married and having children that they can continue the family lineage.  It guarantees that the ancestral spirits continue to exist and have live people to worship them.  It is the only way to continue life.  Women hold the mysterious ability to ensure that life continues, but despite this fact they have no say in tribal politics or any other such serious matters.  Her power lies in the ability to encourage, persuade or to sometimes goad the men into action!


Marriage also ensures that two separate families become much closer.  The marriage contract is between both families and not just the individual man and woman.  Should a man and his wife quarrel both families will intervene to stop the infighting and get them in mutual agreement.


When a man decides that it is time for him to get married he will look for a suitable partner.  This relationship will start off with very public encounters; perhaps on dipping day or at the market.  Once the man decides that this is his partner to be he will tell his family so that arrangements can be made for the negotiations to begin to cement the relationship.  This starts with the appointment of an intermediary (gwevedzeri) who will visit the girls’ family to find out if the feelings of the girl are mutual.  A love token may be taken with when the first visit by the intermediary takes place.  The bride to be indicates her approval by touching the token (a procedure known as ruvunzo).  She may also accept it as a gift at this time (rubvumo).  Once this is done both families know how the bride to be feels about the proposed marriage.  The son-in-law (mukuwasha) and his family then negotiate an amount to be paid as rovoro / lobolo.  This may be a combination of cattle, other livestock and money.  Once this has been paid the woman then joins her husbands’ family.  The return on the rovoro being paid by the man is that he gets sons and daughters.  This procreation ensures the ancestral spirits and therefore the family continue to exist.


More modern customs have been embraced and western style weddings do take place.

The most important task the new wife has is to produce children so that the family line may continue and the ancestral spirits can continue to exist in the next generation.  Other elements of marriage such as divorce have not been described here.


Births and Deaths.  Children are extremely important in the Shona family unit.  Sons carry on with the responsibility of paying off their fathers’ debts.  If a woman is unable to bear children it becomes an absolute disaster for the woman and for both families.


When a married woman becomes pregnant for the first time she returns to her home.  Her first born must be born at her home.  Once the child is born the father is sent for.  He then goes to his wife’s fathers’ home but once there will have to wait a day or two before he is allowed to see his first child.  He has custody and all full rights over the child from the onset.


Should a married woman commit adultery and have a child by another man it would not be considered such a disaster.  Such children could be considered automatically to belong to the husband because he and his family have paid rovoro / lobolo for the woman.  The Shona people believe that it is “cattle and not men who beget children”.  This justifies the rovoro / lobolo system.  However, the father of the illegitimate child is expected to pay damages.  A further payment may be made to the husband of the woman which then indicates that the husband acknowledges the parental rights of the third party.  This does not mean that the child leaves its mother.  The child remains with the mother until it is old enough to leave the home. Another payment must be made by the natural father to the husband as a fee for bringing up the child.  The husband will generally never acknowledge the fact that his wife had taken a lover and that a child had been conceived unless he was away from his wife at the time of conception!


Sons remain the responsibility of their parents until they take a wife and set up their own homes.  Daughters also remain part of the family until they marry.  If a daughter has a physical relationship with a man the father is entitled to sue the man for damages whether a child is born or not.  Seduction is paid for in damages to the father.  If a marriage results in the liaison then the traditional rovoro / lobolo must also be paid.


Parentage.  In the hierarchy of a family there are very close ties between a child and their father (baba) and his siblings.  If there are three sons in a family and the middle son marries and has children, those children will consider all three sons as their father.  This is because the Shona man believes that the bloodline from father to son is pure and is not connected to the bloodline of the mother.  Each of the three sons is addressed as “father”.  Baba mudiki will be the younger of the three and baba mukoma the elder.


General Behaviour and Manners.  Manners are very important for the Shona and Ndebele people.  They are somewhat different to those of the European and a few are described here to illustrate the differences.  All people fit into a hierarchy of seniority.  If a person considers somebody senior to him or herself they will sit down without being invited to do so.  This is a mark of respect showing that the senior is physically higher and has command over the subordinate person.


When talking a junior ranking person does not look directly into the eyes of the senior.  This would be considered cheeky and somewhat challenging.  The junior person looks slightly downwards in a deferential manner.


Both hands will be extended in a cupped fashion to receive something from another person, or the right hand will be supported at the wrist by the left hand..  This is to show that what is being received is so valuable and big (whether it actually is or not) that it requires two hands to receive it.  Men will clap their hands in a cupped fashion with fingers extended in the same direction just before putting their hands out to receive something (kuita nondo).  Women cross their hands to form a hollow in the palm when they clap their hands (kuita gusvi).


When men sit around the communal fire to eat their meal they will eat from a communal pot of sadza (cooked maize meal).  There will also be a pot of usavi (relish and gravy).  The right hand only will be used to take some sadza, roll it into a ball, and then make an indentation which allows the eater to dip it into the usavi to scoop up a bit of it before placing it in the mouth.  Africans consider the left hand to be only used for unclean tasks and it would be a grave insult to use the left hand when eating or receiving anything at all.


Exaggeration is also apart of every day life.  If one asks a person just how far away a village is one will be told that it is not that far even if it is fifty kilometres away.  The reason for this is that the African believes that it is polite to tell a person what they actually want to hear!  If a cow gets into the vegetable garden the person who saw the incident will report to the garden’s owner that the vegetables have been all eaten up by the animal.  When the owner of the vegetable garden investigates they may well discover that only one or two vegetables have actually been eaten.  The reason behind this is that the owner of the garden will be relieved to see that the damage is much less than he feared it would be !


It is polite for a person who is walking past two people in conversation to walk in between them.  This shows that the passer by has no evil intentions towards either of them.


Conclusion.  The customs of a person make them what they are.  They establish core values of society and need to be respected.  Over the years customs are changed and adapted to suit the circumstances. The basic values, however, remain the same.  Today modern Africans have adopted many western ways and have incorporated them into the traditions of the people.  At one time African women would never wear trousers or short skirts.  Today such western dress is the norm amongst the younger generation.


During the Rhodesian war it was essential for all the security forces to understand the customs of the people.  Intaf members were formally taught about them and then often put them in practice, themselves.  It brought them closer to the people, gained their confidence and made them an accepted element of day to day life.  After all, Intaf personnel lived and worked amongst the people all the time.  They lived in the Keeps, patrolled the villages and were a part of the community.  Intaf members were the experts!




The above is an outline of some of the basic aspects of Mashona and Matabele customs and beliefs.  It will no doubt encourage many to undertake further reading and study, and the following are suggested :


THE MASHONA AND THE MATABELE.  Charles Bullock, Juta & Co. Ltd., 1950.




NADA  :  the Southern Rhodesia Native Affairs Annual.  Published annually from 1923 to the end of the era, this publication contains fascinating articles on every aspect of  African culture and beliefs, in highly readable form.


THE MAN AND HIS WAYS.  N.J.Brendon.  Government Printer, Salisbury, Rhodesia, 1969.