Crime increases as taboos disappear


By Saul Gwakuba-Ndlovu

THE incidence of crimes such as rape, theft and murder in Zimbabwe seems to be increasing proportionately to the rate of decreasing belief in taboos, what we generally call superstition. 

Cases of theft and murder are to a large extent worsened by intoxication caused by the consumption of alcohol and drugs such as dagga (mbanje) that make consumers have delusions and hallucinations. 

Economic hardship is another crime-contributory factor we cannot ignore, especially in connection with muggings, pickpocketing and shoplifting crimes caused largely by hunger. 

Whereas according to Bantu tradition and custom, it was taboo to steal from the blind or disabled, nowadays, it is common for such people to lose money or property to the able-bodied.

Taboos played an effective restraining role in cultural, social and economic behaviour among all ancient communities, including the black people, generically referred to as the Bantu. Zimbabweans are a part of that Bantu community. 

European Christian missionaries indiscriminately condemned taboos (mayile, amazilo) and described them either as demonic and sinful, or as primitive, uncivilised and unscientific. 

Modern Zimbabweans are cultural and social products of formal education whose foundation is in the very distant Greek past when various Greek philosophers played an important part, among whom was Epicurus who lived between 341 and 270BC 

A son of a schoolmaster named Neocles, Epicurus became a renowned philosopher and taught that pleasure is the chief good and that “…when we say that pleasure is the end of life, we mean that pleasure is freedom of the body from pain and of the soul from anxiety.” 

The last part of that statement simply means having a free conscience, that is freedom from a guilty conscience. 

Many cases of suicide are caused by guilty consciences which themselves are results of violations of a law or laws, social or cultural norms or moral values. 

Some suicides would have been violations of what have been regarded as taboos from time immemorial. 

Having sexual intercourse with a baby or having anal sex with another man, or two women having oral sex between themselves, or committing bestiality with whatever animal have always been most contemptibly frowned upon. 

In Bantu custom, it is taboo to commit any of the above and in some communities it would be described as a form of witchcraft. 

The least punishment meted out to those found guilty of any of the above was banishment to the furthest and most uninhabitable areas, and the harshest penalty was death which was common in all old Bantu kingdoms. 

The term by which such crimes were described was ‘taboo’, the violation of which could bring about some form of disaster to the nation at large or to the relevant community or family in particular. 

In some cases, the breaking of one of those taboos that included calculated murder, rape of one’s mother or grandmother or any other very close next of kin could bring about a curse (ngozi) on the culprit.

Such a curse (ngozi) could, it is believed, be passed from parent to child, or to more than one of the taboo violator’s children. 

Belief in such taboos wanes as communities become more enlightened by education. 

That is because, unlike in Japan where the national education and the country’s religious culture share the same indigenous origin (Japanese), in Zimbabwe, both are of foreign origin, with our Christian religion strongly upholding monotheistic doctrines. 

Monotheistic religions do not have any room for taboos. 

In inter-personal or social relations, what Bantu culture would call taboo, Christianity would lay down as a precept or law. 

We come across it in Deuteronomy and also in various New Testament books. In Bantu culture, it is taboo to disrespect, neglect or to insult, assault one’s parents. In Christianity, we are instructed to honour our parents so that our lives on earth can be made longer. 

Using similarities between the two cultures, we can effectively use culture to minimise crime in Zimbabwe. 

A properly done comparative cultural study can be carried out with the aim of incorporating its harmonised results into our education system. 

When we talk about independence, we should not confine ourselves to political institutions and power, but we should use our independence to form and shape our culture for the betterment of our national life in its entirety.

Identification of those of our taboos whose observation can enhance what we popularly call ubuntu/hunhu/bunhu can make Zimbabwe a happier nation if they are infused into our everyday practical lives. 

Some of our taboos have inevitably been overtaken by technical and other developments, so have some of the stories and experiences in the bible. 

Such cultural things range from food and attire to social norms and values, covering the entire human life from conception to burial. 

Many criminal laws could be more effectively respected if the nation at large is always made aware that everyone, except the law-breakers, is shocked whenever she/he hears about crime occurrence. 

The intensity of the shock is depended upon the seriousness of each crime. It is that shock that makes some crimes be called taboos (mayila, amazilo, mayira). 

A nation whose people are shocked by the occurrence of crime has a lower crime incidence than a nation whose people are indifferent to the occurrence of crime. 

If Zimbabwe were to infuse the customary fear and respect of its traditional taboos with their restraining effect into its criminal legal system, a typically Zimbabwean legal culture would be created and would eventually evolve into what could be termed the Zimbabwe-Roman-Dutch legal system unlike the current Roman-Dutch system in which our national cultural character and values are not reflected. 

Saul Gwakuba-Ndlovu is a retired, Bulawayo-based journalist. He can be contacted on cell 0734 328 136 or through email:


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