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» » Venerated emblems: Totems as biological, historical and cultural icons

Elizabeth Duve Dziva

The subject of totemism is very wide, complex and normally results in more questions than answers. The topic still remains necessary and worthy of an exploration so as to have a clearer understanding of how we have been ignorant or rather reluctant to preserve and conserve this very essential part of us.
From a general perspective, a totem (mutupo/isibongo) is a natural object, animal, plant or bird assumed as the emblem of a person, clan, family or group and gives a sense of identity.

Connotatively, totems are the symbolic significance of a being, an icon that we can turn to for various essential reminders. Among the various legends accounting for the origins of totemism, one has it that upon realising that they were multiplying at an alarming rate, our Bantu forefathers chose emblems which even after migration and expansion would help them identify their kinsmen. The choice of a totem was guided by a survival instinct or otherwise the chosen creature would be of some importance to their survival in the clan.

Totems are of religious, historical and biological importance to individuals. Back then, so strong were the beliefs in totemism unlike today when people of the same totem marry, the deeper meaning of (kudya mutupo). In our culture that is considered as incestuous since people of the same totem are of the same bloodline. Punishments for such an acts ranged from paying a plain white cow called chekaukama to cutting a finger or in acute situations, death. Not only is marrying a person of the same totem a cultural abomination but also biologically disapproved since there will not be genetic variation with consequences that can be best explained by biologists. Hence, it is very important for individuals before dating or engaging into serious courtship to know their partners' totems.

Today, very few individuals can recite their praise poems yet they are not aware that totems do not only carry a deep religious meaning but often carry important historical information about a certain clan. Thus, totems are very essential sources of history. Culture, history, identity and personality are intertwined. We should always bear in mind that this world and everything about it does not belong to us but to the generations ahead of us, hence there is no need to shy away from such aspects of culture like totems. We must not deprive our successors of an important aspect of identity by bringing to extinction something that we, as the present generation, never invented. Let us avoid carrying the never-ending blame of destroying such practices like totemism for they give one spiritual, emotional and intellectual distinction.

Though it varies according to individual beliefs, totems are of religious significance, it works for others for it all comes back to what one thinks and believes. Traditionally, it has always been believed that an individual carries the traits of his or her totem, most applicable to animal totems.

Coster Manyowa points that even Jesus Christ had a totem (Lion of Judah). Our Zimbabwe is a multi-tribal country but it is very essential to note that those are just dialects but we are one, with the same totems expressed in different languages since we are of the Bantu origin. Some of the totems include the Lion (Shumba/Sibanda) which has various classifications like Jichidza, Shumba Garwe, Shumba Murambwi, Shumba Mhazi, Shumba Tembo. There is also the heart (Moyo) classified into Chirandu and Zuruvi, the elephant (Zhou), the zebra (Dhuve/Dube), the pool (Dziva), fish eagle (Hungwe), the pig or wild boar (Humba), cattle leg (Gumbo), the eland (Mhofu) the buffalo (Nyathi), the monkey (Shoko), the porcupine (Ngara), Impala (Mhara), the Sheep (Gwai), the mice (Mbeva), the fire (Moto), the ant (Ishwa), the cow (Nkomo) among others. It is essential for us to be able to recite our praise poems and those of our spouses hence passing the cultural practice to our descendants.

Not knowing who we are is our doom and the curse of black humanity. Let us not be blindly ashamed of a very important part of us, for our sake and for the love of infinite generations ahead of us.

The writer is an archaeological and cultural heritage practitioner. The views expressed in this article are entirely those of the writer and do not necessarily represent any organisation.

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