One variety of praise poetry common across Africa are praises for one’s own clan. The Shumba Murambwi praise poem celebrates the ancestors and lineage of a Shona clan from Zimbabwe. Whilst recorded by Hodza in 1985, many of the allusions to events, personages and places within this poem are provided by Alec Pongweni from his fascinating book The Oral Traditions of the Shona People of Zimbabwe.
To understand the poem some of the history of the clan must be described. At some point estimated to be in the late 18th century, an early ancestor of the clan named Chikanga is murdered on his way home after trying to settle a dispute with the Warozi, a neighbouring ruling family. One of Chikanga’s sons, Muchinadzo, flees and adopts an alias to disguise himself, Chivunguvungu of the Ngonya – later shortened to Chibi, and is eventually invited to settle on the territory of Mhungudza under the protection of the local Paramount Chief. Chivunguvungu overthrows his host, taking over the kingdom until his grandson, Tavengegwei, succeeds him.
Until this point the family had maintained the alias used by Muchinadzo to hide himself from the murderers of his father, Chikanga. The descendants of Muchinadzo seem to acknowledge that Chikanga may have provoked those who murdered him due to his anti-social behaviour (Chikanga appears to have been a talented cattle thief), but regard themselves as unfairly associated with his crimes. This seems to be the reason why Tavengegwei chooses the name Murambwi, “the rejected one”.
Disputes over land for cultivation creates divisions of the tribe, leading to separate dynasties emerging from Tavengerwei’s cousin, Ndema, and later a large family calling themselves the Mhari splits from the descendants of Ndema.
Whilst these various dynasties are all referenced in the Shumba Murambwi Praises, the heart of the poem glorifies the Lion (Shumba), the totem animal that the Mhari adopt to represent their clan. The lion seems to be universally recognised as a emblem of courage, nobility, ferocity and supremacy in the popular imagination, but what makes the poem particularly vivid is that the Mhari were directly familiar with the lion in its natural habitat. The clan has tracked, hunted and fought with lions and thus glorify the animal with an intimate familiarity of its behaviours and habits whilst also invoking these qualities to define their tribe. The poem expresses gratitude to the ancestors of the clan and to the lion who triggers awe and shock when met face-to-face in the wild.
Thank you, The Rejected One
Thank you, the Lion…