Why totems have never been the real reason… one philosopher’s interpretation of the evidence


By Dr Tafataona Mahoso

IN an autonomous African society before the advent of slavery and colonialism, upheavals such as the First Chimurenga, the Second Chimurenga, the Human Immune Virus — Acquired Immuno Seficiency Syndrome (HIV-AIDS) pandemic and Cyclone Idai in Zimbabwe would have normally forced many well-to-do African families to adopt children and other desperate people even from outside their totem group.

Those who now allege that the apparent African resistance to adoption is caused by a belief in rigid totemic taboos and blood boundaries have never seriously looked at the historical evidence, opting instead to adopt the colonial and post-colonial view of the African totem system as a taboo system rather than a practical social and moral structure for managing the gene pool.

There were other values of unhu which when necessary would be considered stronger and more important than the totem system.

Recently, a journalist asked me if adoption was an alien practice to Africans, as many people, including most journalists and child-support activists, seemed to have concluded. 

Was it true that the institution of mutupo (mitupo), totem and totems was the main barrier to African adoptions?  

My short but unexplained answer at the time was that adoption was not alien to the African ways of unhu but that in the colonial and post-colonial period the institution of mitupo became rigid because of gross distortions perpetrated by white Native Commissioners and some African chiefs saved from the noose or spared dethronement by the colonial regime after the First Chimurenga.  

Colonial missionaries were also eager to present ‘African culture’ in the most negative light as a means to justify their civilising mission among the ‘savages and heathens’.  

As a result, the colonial and neocolonial understanding of mitupo and adoption was wrong.

To begin with, I grew up in the African village singing the Chigiyo song: 

Ndiroore, ndiroore

Ndiroore, ndiroore

Gure ukama ndiroore

Gure ukama ndiroore.

This song represented the voice of a young man who fell in love with a beautiful woman of the same totem who happened to be, however, distant enough from the immediate bloodline to be considered for marriage, provided the proper ceremonies and rituals were first agreed and carried out by the two families.

In the song, the young man is begging the elders to conduct the rituals, ceremonies, considered necessary to clear distant relatives of the same totem so that they can marry.  

This song means that African totems were not as rigid as colonial authorities and their collaborating ‘chiefs’ made them to be in the post First Chimurenga period when so-called African Customary Law was concocted to service white settler power. Indeed, from Masvingo, there was another song which included the following lines:

Wakazvinzwa nani?

Wakazvinzwa nani

Kuti ndine mwanasikana wakanaka?

Gure ukama wee,

Gure ukama imombe chena yababa vangu

Iyo yakanuna.

Again this is about two related families.  

The father of a beautiful woman old enough to marry asks his distant relative: “Who told you that I have a beautiful daughter?”  

The other man avoids the answer but moves straight to suggest that his distant relative should accept a white cow and use it to conduct the appropriate rituals for modifying their blood relationship.

Among my own people, the story was told that we began with the lion totem (Shumba).  

But when the Shumba group grew big, the leader of one branch broke-off and adopted the Mbizi-Dube totem without cutting off Shumba.  

He called his new branch Shumba-Tembo or Dube.  

I shall get to the issue of adoption soon, but it is necessary from the outset to show that mutupo (mitupo) could be adjusted, depending on the value, the weight, of the justification in the context of the philosophy of unhu.

Further, in my own reading of Jordan Ngubane’s book Ushaba, a fictionalised history of South Africa under apartheid, the author tackles problems created by the forced removal of African women and children as ‘superfluous appendages’ from urban centres and mining towns to so-called Bantustans.  

This removal gave rise to large groups of African women living illegally in townships and using any means they could to have children with multiple partners who were not allowed to stay with them and build families.  

Male workers were by law, confined to all-male barracks called ‘hostels’. 

An African indigenous ‘church’ was organised to galvanise the women into a formidable force raising children of clearly different totems by themselves.  

These women, under the leadership of the ‘church’ had in many cases to disregard paternity and totems in order to raise cohesive families.

The African circle (dariro) and the basis of unhu

Having said that mutupo (mitupo) could and would be adjusted depending on the value and weight of the justification, it is now necessary to introduce the three bases of unhu which represent the most elemental values: Where Renē Descartes, as one of the founders of Euro-American linear philosophy, said:  “I think, therefore I am,” the African philosopher says: 

“I relate therefore I am.” 

My identity is the result of the relationships I was born into, the relationships I grew up in, the relationships I grew up to create and grow. Thought and language are also products of relationships. Thought is relational. Language is relational. 

No child anywhere in the world has ever been born into rights. Every child is born into relationships, good or bad, harmful and dangerous or optimal and nurturing.

The African relational philosophy of unhu teaches that there are three fundamental bases of unhu/ubuntu, bases of what makes a human being:

The first base (pfiwa) is the physical entity, the body, and it is the locus of survival. Is the physical entity viable, strong, secured? 

This principle applies to individuals, families, communities, organisations, nations. We can mark this base S for Survival. 

The second base (pfiwa) is space, land, place, the locus of Autonomy and the source of sustenance.  

Here, Autonomy is seen as capacity to earn or own one’s own space and place, capacity to come and go in one’s own space and place.  

For the entire human race as an entity, the earth so far is our shared place and space, our shared source of sustenance and sustainability.  

The productive earth is not raw material. It is a living organism with requirements for its own survival and sustenance as well. We can make this base A for Autonomy.

The third base (pfiwa) is the locus of relationships, Institution of Solidarity.  We can mark this base I, for Institution, with the whole basic triad coming out as S-A-I.

What these bases mean is that African Relational Philosophy defines munhu, the human being, as one essentially raised to be and, in turn, aims to be the nurturer of life in terms of the three mapfiwa of unhu.  

What this means is that an important institution and practice such as mutupo (mitupo) could and would be modified for good reasons arising from any or all the needs defined by the three mapfiwa of unhu

How the nurturer of human life, human dignity and human autonomy was constituted in African society?

The nurturer of unhu, the nurturer of human life, human dignity and human autonomy in African relational philosophy is not the equivalent of the human rights activist in Euro-centric human rights doctrine.  

The two are constituted differently if not in opposite directions.

The nurturer of human life and dignity in African philosophy is similar to a good artist.  

He or she nurtures life, dignity and autonomy by enlarging and nurturing relationships.  

He or she enlarges life by bringing together, that is via solidary constitution, as opposed to the Euro-centric activist who is driven by a propensity toward dis-selection of the other, to the extent of basing his measurement of self-worth on that ability to dis-select the African for plunder, torture and dehumanisation for the last 500 years.  

The structures which apartheid man has built over the last 500 years reveal who he is in relation to humanity and human dignity.  

These structures have been panel-beaten and renamed at convenient stages but they remain essentially the same apartheid structures of dis-selection, discrimination, racism and double-standards.

The structures of the human environment and the structures of the human relationships in which the child is born and raised are fundamental to our understanding how he or she will turn out in relation to the need to nurture and defend human life, human dignity and autonomy beyond his or her own individual concerns.

According to Valeriya Mukhina in Growing Up Human:

“Growing up human means to learn to act and to comport ourselves in relation to people and objects in the way that is peculiar to human beings.  

When we say that the child, under the guidance of adults, masters social experience and human culture, we are alluding to his or her mastery of the skill of relating to other people via language, of correctly using articles and structures created by human hands, and of behaving in conformity with social convention.” (Mukina, 1984: 18)

That is the view in terms of social psychology.  

From a moral and ideological point of view, the structures of human environment, the structures of human values and the structures of human relationships work together to produce a pattern of subjection qualification or moral interpellation which pattern qualifies the young human being by telling him or her, by relating him to or by making him or her recognise four essential lessons:

  • The difference between what exists and what does not exist;
  • The difference between what is good and what is bad;
  • The difference between what is possible and what is not possible;
  • The language which enables one to read and to create human relationships, human situations.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here