Of Shona Origins: Language And Tribe

Its Culture and Fashion this week on Afrobloggers and I wrote about my hair because its something I can write about with authority, from my lived experience. I don’t need to look up a book about my hair only to realise it was written by someone who never grew their own locs but observed someone who did… That’s what some of the research on culture turns up…

I am a little in awe of people who can easily rattle of their identity, that they belong to this tribe of such a clan and this is their culture… Then other times I wonder if aspects of that wasn’t just a tactic to divide and conquer.. I have read allusions to how part of the colonialists’ manifesto is to first strip your subject off their identity then recreate them under a new culture, and while they are busy figuring out who they now are and where they fit in the grand scheme of things you dispossess them of their land….

Zimbabwe holds the record for having the most number of official languages namely Chewa, Chibarwe, English, Kalanga, Koisan, Nambya, Ndau, Ndebele, Shangani, Shona, sign language, Sotho, Tonga, Tswana, Venda, and Xhosa.

Its not as hectic as it sounds because Shona accounts for about 70% of the Zimbabwean population, Ndebele has about 20% and the remaining percentage has everything else; everyone practically speaks English which is the medium of instruction in educational institutions and functions as the de facto sole official language.


Sometimes I wonder what Shona is….

It counts as a language but it is in effect a grouping of dialects, ChiKaNdaMaZeKo i.e. ChiKaranga, chiNdau, chiManyika, chiZezuru, and chiKorekore; standardised into Standard language, ChiShona (one language to rule them all)

But the most curious thing about it is how the word Shona doesn’t seem to have any roots from any of the dialects that it encompasses…. very curious stuff.

Where did Shona originate from?

There’s many schools of thought as to where the name originated from:

African Architectures: Rethinking the Architecture of the House of Stone by Prof. Clapperton Chakanetsa Mavhunga

This historian postulated how the Shona people got their name from the Ndebele who called them amatshona(those who go under)  because of their habit of fighting from and seeking refuge in caves…

Would that mean they had no name before Mzilikazi?

Ken Mafuka – Dzimbahwe

In Dzimbahwe, a book by Ken Mafuka cites a couple of examples on possible origing

Ibu Said (1214-1286) an Arab traveller who wrote about the Soyouna (Shona) people inhabiting Zambezia

Janson a traveler and geographer whose 1639 map of Zambezia shows it inhabited by the Sajona (Shona)

Barreto de Rezende referred to Mwene Mutapa as the King Of The Matshone (Mashona) ( a 1739 map by De Lisle names the whole land of the Zambezia as Mwene Mutapa)

These dates cited predate the Mfecane(1815 -1840) which resulted in the Ndebele settling North of the Limpopo and the clashes which came after.

And an interesting exposition in The Patriot on The origins of the word Shona proposes that: Gold in Hindi is called ‘sona’. In Gujarati it is also called ‘sona’ or ‘sonu’. ‘Sonu’ means ‘handsome’ in Sanskrit. It is derived from the word ‘Sohna’ in Punjab, which means beautiful. As the land was rich in gold which they were trading, the whole land of Mutapa became known as ‘the land of sona’, or ‘Sonaland’.‘Sona’ or ‘Sohna’ were eventually corrupted to ‘Shona’. ‘Sonaland’ became ‘Shonaland’.

The people becoming collectively known as ‘Shona’

Report on The Unification of The Shona Dialects https://www.edd.uio.no/allex/ibooks/Doke/Doke.pdf

Teaching Chishona in Zimbabwe: A Curriculum Analysis Approachby Tafara Mufanechiya

Professor Clement Doke,  a  South African language expert is credited as the first person to  produce the  first  Shona alphabet.  An interesting theory puts it that standard Shona was invented by Professor Doke in 1931 when he used  the word  ChiShona  to  represent  all  five  languages, unifying and making recommendations that laid the groundwork of the way we know Shona today…

Before Doke 1931 different  missionary  groups  located had produced different writing systems of Shona using  the  language  variety  that  was  predominantly  used  in  the  area  where  the  church  group was founded and in the journey to  have a common version of the Bible the standardization the Shona language started….

Makes me wonder exactly whose history we have been studying in schools, who has been telling our stories for us…. Are we even who we think we are…




    1. Thank you Mellisa
      Sometimes we just embrace as fact somethings and unwittingly are agents in the corruption of our identity.

      We are always learning


  1. What a captivating read. Indeed I wonder who has been telling our stories. Thank you for sharing and opening doors for further research into understanding the origins of the Shona people and culture. It is us who should tell our own stories.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. When you don’t tell your own story, someone else will tell it for you…. And they might not do it correctly or may even intentionally embellish it for their own motive.

      Thank you for the affirmation


  2. interesting intricate read, its made me want to research more on stuffs like these., i wonder what is Shona.

    Thank you for archiving history on the blog lol

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Mellie, how come they never taught any of this to us in History Class?
      Hopefully this post helps kick start questions we should be asking…

      Liked by 1 person

  3. You find someone calling themselves a proud Shona but what does that even mean 🤣
    Just hoping this post sparks that spirit of knowing who we really are so we know where we are going


    1. Well there’s no one left to tell the real story but small by small we can take back the little bit we know and make sure we preserve and pass on that… One of my reasons for starting this blog, was I couldn’t find someone who remembered the things my grandfather used to tell us, and I worried some of that would die away with his passing and I didn’t want to die with all these stories untold

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Happy to help kick start your journey to finding answers, we really need more people questioning some of these things, we are too late to get the real answers but at least we should know to know enough not to simply accept something simply because some book says it was so…

      Liked by 1 person

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