7 Aug 2014

The lives of Shona kings

Posted by K Chikuse

The following is an account of the ritual surrounding the the Shona chief in the year 1609 written by the missionary friar Joao dos Santos.

The king has another class of people, who are called ,which means the same as jester. These also go round and round the royal dwelling, shouting in very harsh voices many songs and discourses in praise of the king, in the course of which they call him lord of the sun and moon, king of the land and of the rivers, conqueror of his enemies, great in all things, great thief, great wizard, great lion; and all other forms of greatness which they can invent, either good or bad, are attributed to him by them.

When the king goes out he is surrounded and encircled by these marombes, who recite these praises to him with loud cries, to the sound of small drums, iron and bells, which help them to make a louder noise and clamour. Quiteve also makes use of another class of people, great musicians and dancers, who have no other office than to sit at the first room of the king’s palace at the outer door, and round his dwelling, playing many different musical instruments and singing to them a great variety of songs and discourses in praise of the king, in high and sonorous voices.

We have the following account, written about the same time, of the king Monomotapa, from Joao de Barros:

This king, whom we call Benomotapa or Monomotapa, is the same as an emperor among us, for such according to them is the significance of his name. His state does not consist of great pomp, ornaments and furniture for the service of his person, for the greatest ornaments in his house are cotton cloths made in the country with much labour…

They wait upon him upon their knees, with one to taste the food, which is done, not before he eats it, but from what is left. When he drinks and coughs, all those who are present must cry out some good words in praise of the king; and wherever it is heard, the cry is passed from one to the other, so that all the town knows that the king is drinking and coughing…

The Benomotapa has state music of their fashion, wherever he may be, even in the open country under a tree.

Dos Santos tells us that the courts of Monomotapa and Quiteve were very similar:

They speak in metaphors with very just comparisons, used most appropriately for their purpose and interest. The other customs of this Monomotapa, and of his wives, officers, service, dealings and laws, as well as other details touching government and mode of life, and his vassals, are very similar. and almost exactly the same as what I have related of Quiteve, king of Sofala.

Some 300 years later H.N Hemans wrote the following description of the ritual surrounding Hwange, chief of the Nanzva, an offshoot of the Changamire Rozvi:

Another prerogative exercised by the king was the use of the drum. Of these he had two, one a large one … which was always kept in the town, and a smaller one which was carried before him on his journeys. He also had musicians who played the native piano, imbila, and the one-stringed guitar, dende.

When travelling, the king was carried by his captains in a mashila, none of the common people being allowed to touch his conveyance. The order of procession was roughly as follows:

First came soldiers; following them came the drum carried on a pole slung between two men, the hinder one of whom beat it as they marched; then came the king in his mashila; in their turn came the musicians, the armour-bearers, (who were captains each in charge of a special weapon), relays of captains for the mashila, women carrying the king’s food, drinks and clothes, the bearers of the captains’ impedimenta, and then more soldiers.

Whenever the sound of the king’s drum was heard, people from the villages through or near which the procession passed were supposed to leave their various occupations, and run out to salute their ruler.

of their work at Penhalonga and Old Umtali in 1891, the two nurses, Rose Blennerhassett and Lucy Sleeman, mention a visit to Mutasa, chief of the Manyika. Their description includes a reference to praises.

…a great noise announced the approach of the Chief. A picturesque procession came winding in and out through the crags and boulders, and descended slowly towards us. First ran a sort of herald, crying out, “Here comes M’tassa! – Lord of the Sun and Moon! – The Dog that prowls by night! – The Eater up of white men!”

The writers mention a man who carried the chiefly emblem, ‘a beautiful battle-axe, made of black polished wood, curiously inlaid with brass’, which the Chief refused to sell, as it was part of the inheritance he would leave to his successor.


The accounts give more prominence to music, dance and song than to the verbal praises. This accords with the considerable development of music and musical instruments among the Shona, and the place that music, song and dance play in their lives. It also accords with the kind of ritual with which modern chiefs are welcomed when they visit villages under their jurisdiction. There is jubilation expressed in whistling and shrill cries, leaping with simulated stabbing and striking among the men, the hurling of axes and spears into trees and on to the ground, dancing to the rhythm of drums, and songs from groups both old and young. The young unmarried women of the village go backwards on their knees before the chief, sweeping his path with their fingers. Praises are uttered by the orators of the village community. In such a context of ritual, kufarira mambo (rejoicing over the chief), they are a medley of clan praises which, in the case of chiefs, are especially elaborate.

It is likely that the ritual which emerges on these occasions, to greet the accession or the visit of a Shona chief, bears some relation of continuity with that of the Rozvi kings. The royal courts would have evoked replicas among the tributary chiefs. This ceremonial appears to be different from that which attended the Zulu kings in historic times. For one thing, the Shona chiefs do not seem to have had an official bard responsible for the composition and recitations of chiefly praises. For another, the Shona poets do not appear to have laid the same emphasis on warlike exploits that the Zulu izimbongi did.

Shona poets did produce heroic poetry in response to deeds of valor, and certain heroes are remembered who fought bravely for their clans. There was certainly warfare in Shona life. Cross-raiding and wars were common. The 18th century Portuguese documents stress the aggressive, military side of the Rozvi. It may be that the Rozvi kings did inspire heroic poetry similar to that of the Zulu kings, and that this disappeared in their “refuge” period.

Certainly in the 19th century the Shona are seen as excelling rather in the arts of peace than those of war, and were in this respect very different from the Ndebele.


Kateve is the form of this title today. It is possible that dos Santos misspelt it as Quiteve. The Teve live to the east and north-east of Mutare, mainly in Mozambique
The term jester is not an accurate translation of rombe. The duties of the rombe combined a serious intention to celebrate the authority of the chief with an exuberant manner of so doing. The rombe used also to stroll from village to village, playing and begging for food
R. Blennerhassett and L. Sleeman, Adventures in Mashonaland, books of Rhodesia, Bulawayo, 1969 pp. 301-2

Subscribe to Comments

3 Responses to “The lives of Shona kings”

  1. They did bring christianity to colonize, christianity is a religion. Think of it this way, magaya comes and tells u that your God sent me to tell you that eat grass and give me all your food and money, and u start doing this religiously. U can say he used religion to steal from you cant you? Christianity is different from out traditional religion. We were religous so they used that to sort of claim that the God they were preaching to us is the same as our Mwari, then after that they changed the game everything about christianity was different from our initial beliefs. They managed to convince everyone by saying Jesus christ came to change the old ways to new ways….



  2. Does this mean therefore Shona believed in Mwari before the Whites brought the bible and started praising Jesus instead ? If so then there are theories which may not be correct regard white people bring in Christianity as a rightful tool to colonies Rhodesia. I hope I understood ?? If not kindly correct me.


    Mpandeyamadoda Gagisa

  3. this book is good I have already read it, it is so fantastic my heart feels so great when I read it


    kudzai manyenga

Leave a Reply