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» » Through the eyes of a sculptor

Symbolism of the soapstone birds at Great Zimbabwe

Elizabeth Duve Dziva
Over the years, interest in and understanding of African symbols and their meanings has greatly increased with contemporary research doing much to destroy earlier myths, correct distortions and add knowledge of Africa’s vast, varied and thrilling past.
The soapstone birds at Great Zimbabwe mean much more than any description of the relics found at the prehistoric city of theVaShona. Apart from their aesthetic appearance, the soapstone birds are visibly symbolic that even the settler government that ruled the country for 90 years could not resist their powerful symbolism.
A total of seven soapstone birds were found in and around the monument. It still remains a controversial issue as to which bird is represented by the carvings. Some want to believe that it represents the bateleur eagle (chapungu) while some want to believe that it represents the fish eagle (hungwe shirichena). Both birds are significant in the African religion. Both bird’s physical representation symbolises communication between the state and spirits of the land, a relationship vital to humanity.  The bateleur eagle flies to greater heights than any other bird hence the VaShona developed a belief that it was a messenger of God.
During the liberation struggle, appearance of the bateleur eagle would warn and signal danger to the freedom fighters. Divergently, the fish eagle (hungwe shirichena), is of religious significance not only in totemism. Its vitality extends to royalty at Great Zimbabwe. Symbolic are also the crocodile and chevron motifs on the birds which are equally associated with sacredness and royalty.
All, except one bird which is the national emblem of Zimbabwe were taken to South Africa, German and Austria at the end of the 19th century. The one which was exported to South Africa is still in the collection in Groote Schuur Museum. Reports are that it was found in Cecil John Rhodes’ bedroom. The former president of Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe is quoted saying “totemless people” referring to white men but Cecil John Rhodes became the first and last unique white men as it is orally reported that he had fallen in love with the soapstone bird that he made it his personal totem.  Consequently, a replica was made to represent the former and place in the bird gallery at Great Zimbabwe Museum.
Matenga is quoted saying the birds are an ideogram symbolising historical continuity of a strong spirituality from ancient to modern times. They are an icon of sovereign nationhood inscribed on the National Coat of Arms. One of the birds is on the national flag and an emblem of the collective will to build the nation through spiritual, socio political and economic endeavor. The birds are not just antique collection as they constitute a living tradition that is valuable to Zimbabweans.
Regardless of the value of the soapstone birds depicted beyond reasonable doubt, descendants of the Sculptors have turned a blind eye to the spirituality associated with the birds. They have rather been placed in galleries for foreigners to view in exchange for money. Surprisingly, that has not in any way improved the economy, a sign that there is something amiss.  It is time Zimbabweans decolonise their minds and value what needs be valued.
Elizabeth Duve Dziva is an Archaeologist and cultural Heritage practitioner. The views in this article are solely hers and do not represent those of any organization. Email

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