According to the online Merriam-Webster dictionary, a totem is defined as “a : an object (such as an animal or plant) serving as the emblem of a family or clan and often as a reminder of its ancestry; also : a usually carved or painted representation of such an object b : a family or clan identified by a common totemic object”. The origins of totems is a very interesting topic and I would love to conduct much more in-depth research on it. I did, however, do a little bit of research before writing this post and it seems to me that a lot, if not all humans have some sort of totemism or symbolism, if not in their present, then certainly in their past. Here in Zimbabwe, our totems are referred to as “mitupo” and these are still very much part of our lives even today. However, if we look at groups of people from all over the world, it is evident that symbolism has played some part or the other in that particular group’s history. For example, in Europe, they have what are called family crests and coats of arms. Whilst these might not be exactly the same as totems, the main idea behind their origin, that of identification, is the same. Zimbabwean historian Grey Chakadonha Chivanda says “The real issue in adopting totems was identification; it was like a brand…It became another way of naming, so various people adopted totems for identity and differentiation during wars as well as hunting”. He also goes on to say “Our ancestors engaged in totems to avoid incest, to praise each other and to protect and preserve the environment”.
According to Zimbabwean website, ZimSculpt, there are at least 25 identifiable totems and 60 principal names in the contemporary Shona society. Totems are usually animals and body parts. Examples include Fish Eagle (Hungwe), Lion (Shumba), Monkey (Tsoko), Elephant (Nzou/Nhari/Zhou) or leg (Gumbo), heart (Mwoyo) etc. Each of these totems are usually accompanied by what is called praise poetry.
This song, Mutupo by local artist Juntal, is rather popular at the moment. It’s basically a fun song that talks about the different ways in which the different totems dance.
The main purpose of praise poetry is to praise the character in question and his or her achievements. To a certain extent, praise poetry, or nhetembo as it is called in Shona, is also used to describe the characteristics (real or perceived) of those that bear that particular totem. The characteristics described in the nhetembo are usually the positive traits, almost showing off to other clans that “this is what we are known for”.
Personally, I have never really taken totems and praise poetry that seriously. However, the older I get, the more I am interested in my history and culture and totems and praise poetry are a huge part of that. When it comes to totems, I know some people take them very seriously and they believe whole heartedly that certain clans behave in certain ways just by virtue of having a common totem. To be honest, I’m a bit torn about this. I’m torn because I can’t think of any logical reason why such a huge group of people would have the same characteristics just because they share the same totem. I mean yes, in the beginning it may have made sense as families identified themselves using different animals but surely all that biological and scientific connection has been heavily diluted by now? But then, on the other hand, some of it does seem to be true. I mean look at the Mhofu men (Eland). They are notorious for being womanisers and the ones I know really do love the ladies! The Chiheras (female form of the Mhofus) are known for being feisty, speaking their mind and not tolerating any nonsense from anyone. Once again, this is true of all the Chiheras I know.
My totem is Nhari unendoro which is an elephant. You can check out the praise poem for my clan here (anaNhari muriko here ukooo? anaNyamasvisva, vazungu vedande!). I’m not sure what characteristics really are associated with this totem but I can tell you I have several things in common with the actual elephant! Elephants are majestic creatures that usually just plod along, minding their own business out there in the bush, just like me. Elephants do not attack unless they feel threatened and then all hell will break loose, again, just like me. I have watched lots of documentaries on elephant families and how they are very protective of their family members. Many a lion have lost their lives when faced with livid elephant family members as they have tried to make a meal out of a fellow elephant. Elephants also have very good memories and do not forget, especially someone who has wronged them. I watched this documentary where they had to make a dummy of this man who had abused this elephant and let the elephant trample on it and tear it to shreds, just so the elephant could get over it. This is also just like me. I do not forget. I may forgive but forgetting, no. I may not be able to trample on you, but best believe I will be there, watching, when karma is dealing with you. I’m sure a lot of people, whether they have the elephant totem or not, can identify with this, but I just thought it was an interesting correlation with my character.
So what do you guys think of totems? What is yours? How seriously do you take yours? I know people who believe you shouldn’t just tell random people your totem because unoroyiwa (you will get cursed/bewitched). What meaning does it have in your life? There is also the question of totems and Christianity. I’ve heard Christians saying acknowledging ones totem goes against Christianity. What is your take on that? Let’s have your views in the comments section.