There is Mhofu, then all the other totems

Mhofu or Eland in English
© Charles J Sharp

The ideas of totems have always been interesting to me. As a designer, I understand the need for identity. And totems are a way of identifying a group. I would have liked a time where the idea was developed to beyond an oral tradition, where there would be a standard ‘coat of arms’ for each totem. But with the way our culture is going and the way our traditions have been forsaken I do not see this happening.

I for starters only partly embrace my totem because my parents never went too deep with it. The history of the totems I find very intriguing and wouldn’t mind reading books about it but I don’t know of any. As it stands I haven’t even told my children (8 & 10yr) about our totem.

Mhofu Mwendamberi

My totem Mhofu (Mpofu in Ndebele) with the praise name Mwendamberi also known as Shava is the Eland. Shava which is the name for light brown in Shona was associated with the fairness of skin (Yellow bones) similar to the colour of the Eland. Shava is associated with the Vaheri tribe who were descendants of Mbiru who lived in Gombe Hills which is present-day Buhera. Buhera is an English corruption of the word Vahera, which means the Hera people. The Vahera have two supposed areas of origin. Some say they came from the Guruuswa in Uganda and Sudan while another account states they entered Zimbabwe through Mozambique.

Whenever we meet it’s always Mwendemberi this, or Mhofu that or Shava this. I have come to accept it and have no worries about being addressed as such. Even with some of my friends who I am aware of my their totems I call them by that. My mother when she visits addresses me as Mwendamberi out of respect. I still always get excited when I discover people who have been my friends for years are also Mwendamberi’s. But I have to say it has just been a momentary joy of kinship. It hasn’t really changed our relationship.

There are certain traits associated with different totems. And the most notorious are the women born to Mhofus who are called Chihera. Apparently, they are controlling of their homes and of their brother’s homes! They are known to be talkative and brazen and apparently of loose morals. The male Mhofus are said to be romantics of note and know no boundaries when they fall in love and have an affinity for leadership.

Totems and Religion

Like many Shona traditions, our totems came with taboos which is one reason why I didn’t fully embrace them. We are not supposed to eat our totems. The saying was that if we ate our totem we would lose our teeth. This was a common thing with Shona culture where if something was forbidden, for reasons of safety or conservation a taboo was linked to it mainly to scare one into obedience. I have had biltong of my totem with no effect. Our teeth would generally fall out with old age anyway.

I have had two conflicting accounts about intra totem marriages. One which says you cannot marry within your totem and the other saying people of old only married within the same totem. I grew up knowing about the latter and only got to know about the former very recently. Now I don’t know which one applies! The different praise names e.g Museyamwa, Mwendamberi were adopted to allow intermarriages.

With the advent of Christianity, some have put forward that having totems was evil a form of idol worship. The superstitious aspect of them can certainly be a hindrance to worship. I know of a story where someone went to pay roora / lobola (bride price). They were asked what their totem was and they said we have none, we are Christians. And the inlaws sent them away and said there is no such thing even as Christians you have a totem.

Now with people travelling to different areas, I don’t know if we can accurately prove that my totem is my original totem of our family clan. For example, if I went to Mutare and started a new life I could just adopt a cool totem from that area hence forming new relatives. Without a lot of documented genealogies, it may be difficult to trace. After family feuds, some changed surnames, and am sure totems as well.


One thing I really like about the totems and one that can really impress is the
Detembo (praise poem) about the totem. This was done after as a form of praise for various reasons, as introductions, to show gratitude. I also heard that after the husband has sexually satisfied his wife, she would also say this detembo in praise of her husband’s prowess. Below is our detembo for our totem and a good point to impress your Shava husband, who probably doesn’t even know the poem himself…

Shava Mwendamberi
Maita Shava, Mwendamberi.
Maita vokwaGwenzi rakavita mambo,
Maita Mvurayadzongwa
Matangakunwa Shava yangu yiyi,
Vari shure vanomwa mabvongwe,
Varimberi vachinwa tsvene,
Nyahunzvi, Shava yangu yiyi,
Zvaitwa vari Tsonzo,
Vana vaChikono chengwe
VokwaZongororo kunava,
Ariona ati rakafa,
Zvaitwa veChitemberere,
Vaera mhofu,
VokwaMazurukuwanda, kurimugukwa,
Maita VaKarimudunhu uchizvinwzira.
Zvaitwa VaShava vana vaChivero,
Aiwa zvaonekwa Mendamberi.

Sources: The Standard  | Facebook  | Wikipedia