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A Poet's Progress, Randy Roark

A Poet’s Progress: James Explains the Marriage Customs of the Shona in Zimbabwe


After I told the story of the marriage customs in the United States of America, James, a Shona from Zimbabwe, told us the marriage customs of the Shona.

For the Shona, there are three ways for a man and woman to become engaged. The most common is when a poor family is nearly wiped out, and the men need to do something to survive, so they will sell off any unmarried females in their family to the highest bidder. Sometimes they can get 3-4 cattle and 10 bags of maize, which might be the difference between survival and starvation for the family for the next few years. You can sell a daughter who is only 2-3 years old, although it’s more common to wait until the age of 10, when the buyer can be sure the girl is healthy and will make a good wife. This means that often a girl will grow up in the household of a man who will one day become her husband. Families who have no eligible daughters can also sell the next girl born into the family or any of your sons’ wives.

When an older rich man buys a new bride, she leaves her family immediately and becomes the lowest ranking member of her new household, where the other wives will do whatever they can to humiliate her. The man who bought her—who is usually older than her father—will determine when they begin sleeping together as man and wife. It is believed this should happen before she begins to menstruate, so it usually happens as soon as she is able. After a girl bride’s first period, she is never again considered clean. From the time she first conceives until her body has grown too old, she will usually be pregnant or nursing or both.

The kids at school, Hwange Village, Zimbabwe

The second most common way to become engaged in Zimbabwe is for a boy to choose a girl from another family as his intended bride. Because this means that the two families will be marrying each other, the main members of the two families first have to negotiate to determine the specifics of the deal.

The method of payment for the bride is often a number of cattle. If the boy’s family owns no cattle, then the son will make an agreement to work for a certain number of years for his bride-to-be’s family. Once the agreement is made, the boy moves in with the in-laws, and behaves toward the girl of his choice as if she was his sister. As is traditional in tribal Africa, she will bring him food and kneel before him before getting her own, but she is not flirting. She would do the same if he was her older brother. The two never misbehave because it is impossible to hide anything in a small homestead. Worse than the personal disgrace would be the irreparable damage they’d have done to their families. An event like that would mark both families for generations.

As soon as the terms of the negotiations are met, the boy’s family throws in a couple of extra cows as a wedding bonus, and the young husband and his new bride build their house together and start their family. If the boy is the eldest son of his family, he returns to his own family with his new wife after the wedding, because he must take over his family when his father dies. He will be given a plot of land adjoining his homestead , where he begins his own family. If he dies before his father, the second eldest son will return with his family and adopt his dead brother’s family and take over his homestead. In all other cases, the groom will join the bride’s family after the wedding.

Mary and Butholethu

But James’ favorite means of acquiring a wife—and the way he got his wife—is known as “Capturing a Hyena.” When a young man fancies a woman from another family, he begins to stalk her. Once he’s sure she’s the one he wants, he knows enough about her daily habits that he can choose a time and place to abduct her. Often he will choose a time when she’s walking to the well because it is something she does regularly twice a day, one of the few times she will be alone. If she were to notice a young male stalking her and she was not interested in him, she would simply change her habits.

When James had his plan all figured out, he went to his mother and father and announced that they must have a meeting. He also invited another elder to speak for him at the meeting. James chose his father’s sister, with whom he’d discussed his plans beforehand and gained her as an ally. Typically one of the parents will object to the wedding, and then they’ll argue back and forth until everyone either agrees or disagrees with the wedding. Then the four of them chose a date for the abduction.


When the day arrived, James went into the woods to wait for his future bride. He knew she came by this path shortly before dawn to gather water at the well. This morning he surprised her and carried her on his shoulders to his homestead. In front of the gate that led to their property, he stopped and called to his parents and asked them to allow him to cross the threshold with her on his shoulders, thus acknowledging that they accepted her into the family.

While all of this is going on, his father’s sister was on her way to the girl’s family to tell them what had happened (so they didn’t worry that she’d been carried off by a lion or something) and agree on a date to negotiate.

Until the negotiations are final, the potential bride and groom cannot speak to each other and can only communicate in non-verbal ways until the negotiations are completed—and in a case of “Capturing a Hyena,” the in-laws can ask for almost anything (since the family already has her).


James says that in his case and for most of his friends, it is not really like that anymore. He had known his chosen for almost her entire lifetime—they went to school together. They talked all the time. She knew he liked her and she let him know that she liked him back. It was already settled long before “the abduction.” But it’s important to the children themselves that the whole process be taken seriously, as it is the way one becomes married in his tribe. The perfect wedding is every Shona’s dream—parents and children alike—just as a different scenario is very important to anyone growing up in the States.


James Explains Wedding Negotiations in Zimbabwe

(Note: These are the negotiations regardless of the method of engagement.)

After James caught his bride-to-be on her way to the well and carried her on his shoulders to his homestead, he sent his father’s brother and his mother’s cousin at the agreed-upon time to negotiate his claim. It was important not to deal with the girl’s immediate family directly at first, until one finds out whether such a union is acceptable to both parties. If it is agreed that discussions can proceed, a date and place are set for the formal negotiations between the two families. These are the negotiations that will determine the circumstances of the actual wedding negotiations. If both families are in agreement that the negotiations will continue, they will agree to discuss a formal merger on a specific date and location, and the daughter is returned to her family to prepare.

The next time James and his fiancé saw each other was on the morning of the formal negotiations. She arrived fashionably late with her entire family (except for her mother who—as is customary—was too distraught to be part of the negotiations). Her aunts brought a list of everything the groom must supply for the wedding. In James’ case the list was five pages long and included not only what food would be served and when and what drinks would be available and for whom and how many, but also when and where the wedding would be held, and who would be invited and where everyone would be seated.

When James and his negotiators arrived at the agreed-upon place at the agreed-upon time, her family initially put them off. First it was because one of their team wasn’t present. Then after the missing one arrived there were discussions they had to have in private. After three hours—the traditional length of time one has to wait on such a mission—his two negotiators were admitted, leaving him and his wife-to-be and her sister and an aunt outside the hut. They were to keep their heads down and they weren’t supposed to smile or look at each other, which made it all the more exciting when they got away with it.


After the formalities of who should sit where inside the hut were settled and the introductions were made in the proper order and the reason for their meeting established, the suitor was asked to appear in person. James walked into the room with all the money he had in the world in a paper sack. He put it at his representatives’ feet. Their job was to keep as much of his money as possible, and the bride’s family’s job was to try to take as much of it as they could without seeming greedy. It was as impolite to ask for too little as too much. To ask for too little would mean that you valued her too little, that you considered her almost worthless as a bride.

The men sat in chairs on one side of the room, and the women sat on the floor facing them. When James entered the room, her father pointed to a spot on the floor across from him and asked him to sit down. To sit on the floor on that side of the room was a woman’s place. “How can we help you?” “We are the Kashiri family. We are here to ask for your daughter.” “Which daughter are you talking about?” Once this important fact has been determined, her father asks for all the daughters to be brought in. They sit on the floor across from him. “Which one?” James is asked to point to the right one to be sure everyone knows exactly who they are talking about. “Daughter, do you know these people?” “Yes.” Then she and her sisters are told to return to the homestead.


Then he is interrogated by her father. “How did you know I had a daughter?” “How much do you love my daughter?” You don’t answer that question with words, but with dollar bills. In his case, it was $10.00 USD. This James knew was a reasonable amount; any less and it would have suggested that he thought she was marrying into the better family. Whatever the amount was, you aren’t expected to pay all of it that day—no one would think any less of you if you could only pay half, or even a third. It was actually the smartest thing you could do, because even if you already had the full amount in your bag, which you probably did, it would make it seem that you were willing to go into debt for their daughter. But it was important not to offer more money than you can actually afford. There is no worse foot to start off on in your new family than by defaulting on your dowry.

Her father laid it on pretty thick, to show how much he loved his daughter. “My daughter used to sit on my lap and play with my beard before she could even speak.” “How can a father tolerate losing what is more important to him than the spring rains and summer sun?” “Do you hear that sound in the distance? That is not a natural sound—that is a most unnatural sound. That is the sound of a mother who is being asked to give up her daughter. That is a loss that will never heal, a loss of something that cannot be replaced by any amount of money. To suggest that she could be relieved of her grief by a sum of money is an insult to the woman who gave birth to my daughter, who raised her to her breast still covered in her own blood, giving suck to the innocent with the milk her body created without instruction.”


These transactions used to be conducted in actual cattle, but these days there is more commonly a money bowl in the center of the room, and a pre-determined amount of cash equals one cow or bull. The girl’s family might open the bidding at twelve cattle, which was the usual amount. This means they will settle for eight. If actual cows are involved, these cattle are given to the father. Whatever money is in the money bowl will be collected by the aunts and brought back to the mother. Smart suitors will make sure that both father and mother have something to show for the transaction.

At one point in the negotiations, James’ fiancé got frustrated by all the arguing and began to sob and scream, and James yelled “Just give them what they want!” This response from James was what tipped the scales immediately in his favor. From then on the negotiations moved much faster. By the end of the negotiations, both families knew quite a bit about the other.

When the negotiations had drawn to an end, his negotiators were asked to wait outside while her family had a private discussion and came to a conclusion. All the women and the underage boys left for the kitchen to prepare the feast, and the menfolk had a very audible discussion on the merits and demerits of the proposed son-in-law. One member of the family usually voiced all of the concerns,another all of the benefits, and they would slowly form sides and argue back and forth. One side wins when all of their opponent’s objections are answered. By the end of that discussion, the boy knows exactly where he stands with his future in-laws, what is expected of him, and what will not be tolerated.

Ncube and Anitar

If the decision has been made in the groom’s favor (which is usually the case) he is brought back into the room alone. He is again asked to sit across from her father on the floor with the girls. Then he is introduced one by one to everyone in the room, from the oldest to the youngest. The groom acknowledges each of them by clapping his hands above his bowed head. When the introductions are over, the father says, “Relax, we’re family,” and asks him to sit on the empty chair beside him. Taking the chair is the formal acknowledgment that he has been accepted as their son-in-law. Then the daughter is called for, and sits in the place left empty by her husband-to-be, and the official announcement of a future wedding is declared.

When all has been settled, the suitor steps out and sings a song to announce to his family that the negotiations have been successful. Then his family has a song they sing in answer to his as they dance to the place of negotiations, and both families dance to feast, singing the “Both Families Dance to the Feast after the Official Announcement of a Future Wedding Is Announced” song. Young men from his family carry beer he’s bought for the occasion. Since there is no refrigeration in the village, the beer is warm.

Before the groom and his bride-to-be attend the feast, they first slip off to bring a gift to the girl’s mother—if she accepts it, this means she has accepted the future loss of her daughter, and mother and daughter share a private moment before the three leave for the celebration together.

Anitar and Ncube

The next day James began to build a house in her homestead with his own hands, sleeping under the stars until it was ready. After the house was finished, one of her aunts brought him to visit her mother. This was to be the morning her mother had chosen to give her daughter away.

These days, more and more people in the cities are getting married in civil ceremonies or in churches, but whether your mother hands you over to your husband, or you take vows at a magistrate’s office, your marriage is considered legal by the State and your tribe.


Music of Africa, Part 15: Eastern Africa, Part II: Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, and Niger

Dedicare: Monks of Keur Moussa

From the Sounds True website: “In 1963, nine monks from the French monastery of Saint-Pierre of Solesmes, a centuries-old stronghold of the ancient Gregorian plainchant tradition, journeyed to remote Senegal to establish a Benedictine abbey. Keur Moussa Abbey, as it is known to the local villagers, means ‘House of Moses.’ From the day of their arrival, the monks of Keur Moussa have investigated their convergent musical worlds, and created a remarkable new lineage in the thousand-year-old choral music tradition.”

Utopia: Gigi

Gigi appeared in an earlier column. She is an Ethiopian singer who was born Ejigayehu Shibabaw. She was trained as a young girl in the traditional song forms of the Ethiopian Church by a priest who lived in her house, defying a prohibition against women singing or playing music by the church at the time. She moved to Kenya, and then to San Francisco in 1998. Chris Blackwell of Island Records put her together with producer Bill Laswell (who later became her husband) and had her record with American jazz musicians, such as Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Pharoah Sanders. She has also recorded with Buckethead and Material.

La Ilha Illa Allah: Mahmoud Guenya

Mahmoud Guenya is a traditional Gnawa musician who has also recorded with Pharoah Sanders (on the album The Trance of Seven Colours).

Ekibobo: Samite

Samite is a singer from Uganda. His grandfather taught him to play traditional flute and he also plays the kalimba, marimba, and litungu. In 1982, was forced to leave Uganda and he settled in the U.S. in 1987 and lives in Ithaca, New York. His story is told in the 1998 PBS documentary Song of the Refugee. In 2002 he formed Musicians for World Harmony.  He performed his arrangement of the traditional Baganda song, Ani Oyo for The Dalai Lama in 2007 during Bridging Worlds with His Holiness The Dalia Lama in Ithaca, NY, and in 2009 he performed at “Connecting For Change,” part of the 2009 Vancouver Peace Summit: Nobel Laureates in Dialogue, hosted by the Dalai Lama Center for Peace and Education.

Ye Ye Ye: Geoffrey Oryema

Geoffrey Oryema is a Ugandan musician (born 16 April 1953) who was smuggled across the Ugandan border in 1977. He sings in his childhood languages of Swahili and Acholi, as well as English and French He has worked with Peter Gabriel, who released his first three albums on the Real World label.

Wasuze Otya: Samite

See above.

Obiero: Ayub Ogada

See above.

Ondiek: Ayub Ogada

See above.

Thum Nyatiti: Ayub Ogada

See above.

Assode: Groupe Oyiwan

Groupe Oyiwan is a group of traditional singers and musicians from Niger, formed in 1987.

Written by Randy Roark

Newtopia staff writer RANDY ROARK worked with Allen Ginsberg for the last 17 years of his life, first as an apprentice, then as his teaching assistant, and finally transcribing and editing 28,000 pages of Ginsberg’s poetry lectures, currently available on-line through the Ginsberg trust. Following Ginsberg’s death, he worked with artist Stan Brakhage, producing art events featuring his films until his death. Since 1998 he has worked with Sounds True as a producer, where he has edited artists such as Alex Grey, writers including William Burroughs and Robert Anton Wilson, and a wide variety of spiritual teachers, including Alan Watts, Krishnamurti, Jack Kornfield, Pema Chodron, and Lakota Elder Joseph Marshall.


2 thoughts on “A Poet’s Progress: James Explains the Marriage Customs of the Shona in Zimbabwe

  1. interesting story on zimbabwe marriage rituals!

    Posted by Danielle | March 20, 2013, 8:11 am
  2. I’m a Shona myself and am appalled by the information given by this James guy…particularly the marriage by being given to the “highest bidder”. Maybe within his own family circle, it has happened but as far as I am aware, arranged marriages are non-existent. Please James, DO NOT MISLEAD THE WORLD by your stories of cultures that were common in pre-historic societies. I can assure you not even his grandfather witnessed the “MUSENGABERE” concept which he has literally translated to “capturing a hyena” which really doesn’t make any sense. The things mentioned happened before the colonization of Africa. People just date as in the western world and then pay “the bride price” as requested by the woman’s family. This idea of 2-3 year old being married off to men older than their fathers cannot even be allowed to happen.

    Posted by Sam | October 8, 2014, 7:00 pm

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