Land and Shona avian traditions


CHILDREN everywhere today, including Zimbabwe, raised in the cities and urban conurbations are not aware of the rich indigenous agro-botanical heritage and abundant bird life that is part of our traditional orature, indigenous culture and scientific knowledge.  

In fact, the field of indigenous ornithology in Zimbabwe has long been ignored and only survives in the unrecorded oral traditions of our grandparents. 

Zimbabwean fireside stories and folklore are rich with Mbire (Shona),traditional knowledge centred on bird life; suffice to say, the national symbol of the Zimbabwe bird is exemplary of the importance of avian ornithology in Zimbabwe.

The agro-based society of the Shona Mbire peoples of ancient Zimbabwe (900-1500 AD), reveals that they were keen conservationists and observers of nature.  

Some birds commonly seen in the vicinity of Great Zimbabwe include the African Hawk Eagle, the Giant Ground Hornbill, the African Hoopoe, the Fish Eagle, the Bateleur Eagle, the Ground Guinea Fowl, Purple-Crested Loerie, the Black-eyed Bulbul, Paradise Fly Catcher, Scarlet-Chested Sunbird,Grey Bush Shrike, Blue Waxbill, Lanner Falcon, Hooded Kingfisher, Black-Headed Oriole and the unique Green Fruit Pigeon that can still be seen feeding on wild figs and other fruits near the Temple and Acropolis of the Zimbabwe monument.

As traditional agronomists, the Mbire (Shona) peoples who had an intricate bird culture were also aware of the ornithology; that included the physiology, classification, ecology, behaviour and habitat of Zimbabwean bird life.

Early indigenous farmers were acutely aware of the benefits of bird-life for the fertilisation of forests, vegetation, crops, fruit through the dispersal of seeds.

In order to preserve the seeds and small grains of traditional crops of zviyo, mapfunde, rapoko, etc., the ancient people of Zimbabwe developed means of deterring birds from consuming seeds and small grain of their crops in their fields by offering the birds an alternative feeding space-by scattering some of the seeds in the wild.

Given our national symbol of the Zimbabwe Bird and the various royal bird totems, such as Gondo, Goto, Hungwe, Shiri, Nyoni, Nhengure, etc., which have been adopted as cultural symbols of the various sub-groups of the Shona people, it is important that we understand the value of birds in our culture.

There are about 9 000 species of birds in the world; which according to ornithological research findings 640 species have been recorded in Zimbabwe.  

Of these, about 60 species are intra-African migrants, i.e.: they visit Zimbabwe from elsewhere in Africa; yet surprisingly, most intra-African migrants prefer to breed in Zimbabwe and retire further north of Africa, during the non-breeding season.  

Most of the remaining approximately 505 species of birds found in Zimbabwe breed and roost locally.

Pastoral activities and the clearing of land for settlement and crop cultivation since independence, has had a profound impact on Zimbabwe’s fauna, including the avifauna.  

Although no species has yet become extinct, many birds have declined in numbers or disappeared from certain areas.  

The most conspicuous example of potential extinction is the nation’s iconic symbol, the Chapungu (Bateleur Eagle).

 Over 40 species are currently protected under the Specially Protected Species Act of the Parks and Wild Life Act (1975), most of which are large birds. 

There are many small species, however, that need protection because of their rarity and vulnerability, for example to illegal bird trade or because they are endemic to Zimbabwe.

However, the ‘inherited’ colonial laws have not taken into account the cultural significance of many birds that are not protected since the Act was drafted in 1975 in colonial Rhodesia. 

These laws need to be re-contextualised, expanded and amended for the protection and improved conservation of avian species of Zimbabwe.

Some of the larger, legally protected bird species include Gondo, (African Hawk Eagle) and Ayre Hawk Eagle, Chapungu, Hungwe (Fish Eagle), Black Eagle, Black Snake Eagle, Crowned Eagle, Martial Eagle, Hammer Kop, Osprey and the Secretary Bird, amongst others.  

Interestingly, all these birds are of prime importance in Shona indigenous culture, folklore and cosmology.

The Matobo Hills, believed to be over 3 000 million years old, are remarkable for its diversity of flora and fauna.  

It is home to 330 bird species and has the highest density of Black Eagles recorded in Africa.

To illustrate the familiarity of birds in the lives of traditional Mbire (Shona), people are examples of indigenous names of birds that are usually based on the birds’ field characters. Namely: Chisamaura (Fisical Shrike), Nhengure (Fork-Tailed Drongo), Hoto/Dendera (Hornbill), Horiori (Crested Crane), Haya (Rain Cuckoo), Hohodza (Woodpecker), Mhupupu (African Hoopoe), Chikodoga (Crested Barbet), Musavara (Pied Crow), Chikondomadvinyu (Lizard Buzzard), Horwe (Francolin), Njike-Njike (Orange-Breasted Wax Bill), Zhwezhwezhwe (Wood Hoopoe), Chihuta (Quail), and the ubiquitous Fudzamombe or Dzoramombe (Cattle Egret – Bubulcus Ibis). 

Other unique birdspecies found in Zimbabwe that commonly feature in the culture of the country and the peoples’ oral legends are: Gakamira (Trumpeter Hornbill), Gamanyuchi (Bee-Eater), Jenjere (Roller), Hanga (Guinea Fowl),  Tindiri (Cinnamon Breasted Rock Bunting), Timba (Common Grassland Cisticola), Tsekedzamakaya (Pin-Tailed Whydah), Kanyururahove (Kingfisher), Shuramurove, the Secretive Goliath Heron, and Hwata the snake-eating Secretary Bird.

Bird proverbs abound in Zimbabwean orature that articulate human behaviour and used to exemplify Shona decorum and cultural mores.  

For example: “Shiri inemaririro ayo” – every bird sings its own tune, meaning bad habits are hereditary.

The Korekore people of north, west and central Mashonaland practised a traditional form of ornithoscopy, which is the divination and forecast of seasons and agro-prospects derived from the observation and study of birds in the wild.  

By studying the behaviour of birds, the Korekore people were able to predict weather patterns such as rainfall, natural disasters and droughts and took measures to counter or alleviate the effects of the weather on their crops and society.

Birds announced the summer’s season such as ‘Zhizha’ in Shona – the greening of foliage; and in Shona traditions several bird species were known to proclaim the coming of rains such as a flight of swallows (nyenganyenga), was acknowledged to announce impending precipitation.

The distinctive bird song of the Red Bishop (Nyamafuro) and the Rain Cuckoo (Haya), the Guineafowl (Hanga) and the black-eyed Bulbul (Gwenhure) were also well recorded in the old peoples’ traditional orature as indications of imminent rainfall, and accordingly crop fields were prepared.

The Quelea birds (Nzwanzwe), today considered a national pest by most farmers in Zimbabwe, in ancient times were known to announce ominous droughts. 

Traditional orature records stories of these noisy destructive birds that ravage crops, especially when there is an imminent drought.

Nzwanzwe, the Shona name for the Quelea literally translates to hear, listen and take heed – or pay attention in Shona.

Zimbabwean children today, and adults, would do well to learn and heed the avian world that our ancestors knew all too well and preserved through oral traditions for their future.

Indigenous birdlife is an important part of our Zimbabwean heritage and needs to be preserved more so today. 

D. Michelina Andreucci is a Zimbabwean-Italian researcher, industrial design consultant, lecturer and specialist hospitality interior decorator. She is a published author in her field.  

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