Totems

When I lived in Zimbabwe, people often asked me about my mutupo. In Shona culture, a mutupo, or totem, is an important symbol of identity within clans and communities. Each person is given the same totem as their father, which could be an animal such as the lion (shumba), elephant (nzou), zebra (mbizi) or monkey (soko), or even a body part such as the leg (gumbo) or heart (moyo). Early on I was adopted as a shumba, while my wife, Rochelle, became a soko murehwa. Yes, this means I married a monkey.

It is forbidden to eat of your totem, so a mhofu cannot eat of an eland, a ngwena of a crocodile, nor a bpepe of a lung. More importantly, you cannot marry within your own totem, which helps prevent intermarriage within tribal groups.

In Zimbabwe, it’s highly respectful and formal to address people by their totem. Once people knew that I was a shumba, this became the primary name used to address me. Rochelle, in turn, was referred to as Amai Shumba, or Mrs Lion.

My totem connected me with other shumba across the country. As I travelled around Zimbabwe, I met hundreds of new fathers and brothers who were my extended family. In addition, it felt as though I met thousands of fathers-in-law and mothers-in-law who I was connected to through my wife’s totem of soko murehwa. Why so many more in-laws? Well, if you had to get down on the ground and clap your hands for every ambuya (mother-in-law) who called you her mukwasha (son-in-law), you’d also think the numbers were significantly higher. Rochelle used to share an office with a woman who was also married to a tsoko, which made her one of my many ambuya. Every time I entered their office without knocking first I was reminded that I owed my ambuya a fine. There are so many rules for mukwasha to follow. Let’s just say that I still owe a lot of chickens for my many infractions. And let’s not discuss the many conversations about lebola (bride price or dowry).

There is something beautiful about the way in which totems connect people in Zimbabwe. The totems are also accompanied by praise names, such as shumba nyamuzihwa, and praise poems and songs, which help people to understand their history and origins.

However, there is also something troubling about how this can negatively impact abandoned babies who grow up without a familial totem and praise name. In a culture which generously encourages families to look after all of its members (even extended family), it is sadly not expected, and sometimes even superstitiously avoided, to look after those who do not belong to your family or who have no known connection to their ancestors. This lack of a totem can also impact a person’s ability to marry or to be buried appropriately. In a country with such a low life expectancy, and with so many orphans and vulnerable children, this is a concern that can’t be ignored, particularly when it puts marginalized people at even more risk of isolation.

But when I think to my first culture here in Canada, with our western notion of closed and small family groupings, I still prefer the wider sense of community and familiarity found in Shona culture. I miss travelling through Zimbabwe to new communities with the expectation that I will be closely connected with others living there, despite knowing that I will likely need to get down on my knees and clap for my countless ambuya.

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