Learning from nature: Connections to surroundings among the Shona people

Great Zimbabwe.jpg

Nature comes in a variety of forms, and we are constantly reminded of its abundance when we observe our surroundings. From the diverse natural landscapes that exist across the world and the broad range of animals on land and in water, as well as plants, vegetables and fruits, all are prime examples of the result of nature’s work. Yet, it feels as if many of us exist in spaces that promote having nature at an arms-length, the reasoning being that this distance will ensure more ease and comfort. At a time where we are witnessing a reluctance to engage with our surroundings, what does it mean in practice to connect with nature? Looking to the history of the Shona people, a strong connection to surroundings featured a great deal in the social setup and provided many opportunities to learn from nature.

It is believed that the Shona people have inhabited present day Zimbabwe, Botswana as well as Mozambique for thousands of years with early settlers occupying either side of the Limpopo river, before later settling on the Zimbabwean plateau. The water element, particularly in the form of rain was an important symbol for society due to its associations to Mwari (the supreme being) and it gives an indication of the importance placed on taking time to engage with nature. Other examples of the close connection to surroundings include:

Education – A child’s upbringing featured learning about plants, as well as identifying vegetables and fruits for eating. In addition, observing nature generally in order to gauge how various animals adapted to their surroundings. On recounting her upbringing, an elder explained “we would squat…for hours watching quietly how ant-lions’ homes also acted as traps…we had all the time in the world – and the patience too”. This example shows how creating the space to observe surroundings offered the chance to develop skills and knowledge of how to sustain oneself in nature.

Moon cycles – The concept of time was measured by following the pattern of the moon’s movement. Thus, events in an individual’s life as well as of the wider community were referenced using moon cycles. A popular belief was that the coming of a new moon signalled an opportunity to rid oneself of some illnesses including colds and flu.  In addition, a woman’s menstrual cycle was usually in sync with the emergence of a new moon which helped in identifying pregnancy.

Fables – Fables depicted various aspects of nature and provided key lessons for an individual. Two popular fables include; The hyenas puzzle, which draws attention to the importance of communicating with each other and How the honeybird puzzled the greedy one, which highlights the consequences of being led by greediness. The presence of fables points to the positive lessons that were promoted as a result of observing surroundings and applying these lessons to life.

Sacrifices – The slaughtering of animals for sacrifices to Mwari or to mark important occasions was a key feature in social relations. In Broken roots: a biographical narrative of the Shona people, Paul Chidyausiku notes that on the occasion of a husband visiting his in-laws with his wife in preparation for the birth of their first child, the couple would bring a goat and an ox for the family meal, “intestines and other tough cuts symbolised hardships and times of adversity while liver and fillet symbolised prosperity”. The symbolisms attached to the different parts of the animal indicates a representation of aspects of nature that were fused within social relations.

Architecture – Most of the architecture and sculptures in communities were created using stone. One example of this can be seen in the building styles that remain from the former city of Great Zimbabwe which the Shona named Madzimbabwe (big house of stone). In addition, stones were used to carve sculptures to represent former chiefs as well as other elements of Shona cosmology.

Cosmology – For the Shona, ancestral spirits live in the earth and Mwari lives in the sky and makes rain hence why respect is paid to nature. The bird, the bull and the snake were regarded as representing different elements of the supreme being. The snake acted as the messenger between the earth and spirit world, whereas eagles were seen as ‘birds of heaven’ that carried the prayers of the community to Mwari. In addition, the bull was thought to symbolise a chief’s power and his ability to connect with Mwari to ensure rain for the community. These examples point to the various elements of nature that played a key role in shaping spiritual beliefs.

The various examples indicated above point to a number of ways in which the Shona established and maintained a close connection to nature in many aspects of their social structure. For the Shona, having a good understanding of surroundings promoted respect and an appreciation of nature’s abundance. Taking note of this way of living can help to inspire many of us to look to and seek out nature in order to stimulate growth and a better understanding of ourselves through our surroundings, with the hopes of aiding greater sustainability in our lives.


The Broken promise and other traditional fables from Zimbabwe – Norman Joseph Atkinson (1989)

Shona – Gary Van Wyk (1997)

Great Zimbabwe – Mark Bessire (1998)

Broken roots: A biographical narrative of the Shona people – Paul Chidyausiku

Classical Southern African civilization – HomeTeam History

(I do not own the rights of the picture in the post)

Oro Anike