Finding Family: A Missing Totem Means Uncertainty in Zimbabwe

Children who don’t know their fathers risk being raised without a totem, the identity that links them to their ancestors. Totems, the patrilineal spirit animal, plant or object shared by families, help Zimbabweans explain themselves and others.

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HARARE, ZIMBABWE — Naome Mhukayesango, 59, is surrounded by small children.

Her three daughters, two of whom have passed away, have had seven children in total, and all of those children, plus the living daughter, live with Mhukayesango. But the two youngest children, ages 3 and 1, are the source of her primary concern.

“Who are they? What do I call them?” she asks.

Mhukayesango shakes her head in anger and clicks her tongue in an African sign of distaste.

The man who Mhukayesango’s daughter says is the father of the children denies it. In any country, that situation poses problems. But in Zimbabwe, the implications of being raised without a father are deeply spiritual.

“If I am chastising them, who do I refer to them as?” Mhukayesango asks.

She says she doesn’t know what the childrens’ father’s “totem” is – the patrilineal family spirit animal, object or plant that connects a family deep into history. In some areas, people even are greeted by their totem.

INSIDE THE STORY: Sometimes a story leads journalists to learn new things about the place they call home. In reporting her story, GPJ’s Kudzai Mazvarirwofa is baffled by a cultural phenomenon, but sees in hindsight its value in promoting Zimbabwean family life.  Read the blog.

Mhukayesango is afraid that when the two boys grow up, they will become uncontrollable because they’re being raised under an identity that isn’t theirs by blood. In fact, none of the seven children who live with Mhukayesango have fathers who claim them. They are registered with the government under their mother’s names.  And the mother of the two youngest is dead, so there’s no way of confirming who their father is.

As more women register their children under their own names because the child’s father is either not present or unwilling to claim the child, a trend confirmed by government officials, more children are at risk of growing up with a totem that Shona people, as well as people from other Southern African communities, would say is not truly theirs. As many as half of all rural children are not registered at all, which means they can’t take the national exams required for ongoing education, among other consequences. (Read our story on this issue here.) But the primary concern for those parents is often rooted in a tradition that they believe is more critical even than education.

It’s a deeply held belief here that people who are raised in that circumstance are at risk of living with personal oddities that, because they’re not connected with their father’s family, can’t be explained. In severe circumstances, some are even thought to suffer from mental illness.

“We educate the women that they can in fact get their children birth certificates if the father is not around, but some women choose not to, as they say that if the child is raised with the mother’s maiden name, then that child will carry the mother’s totem as well,” one nonprofit logistics manager says. “In cultural practices, this is viewed as stealing a child.”

The manager asked not to be named because speaking to the press might put his job in jeopardy.

Nisbert Taringa, chairman of the Department of Religious Studies, Classics and Philosophy at the University of Zimbabwe, confirms that those concerns.

“In Shona culture, we believe that people do not die, they just pass on to different realms where they can watch and guide those who are still living,” he says. “A person is never at any point alone. You have your ancestors and deceased relatives who travel with you and keep you from harm.”

Greeting a person’s totem is a way of greeting his or her ancestral spirits, Taringa says. A child who grows up without knowledge of his or her cultural identity is vulnerable to spiritual attacks.

“If you give a child an identity which is not theirs, you are inviting danger onto yourself and your family,” Taringa says.

Knowledge of one’s totem is also a factor when it comes to love. People who share the same totem are considered siblings, so a marriage between them is taboo.

“Regardless of where you find yourself, if you meet someone who has the same totem as you, you know you have found a relative – a member of your family,” says Edgar Mberi, a lecturer in African languages and literature at the University of Zimbabwe.

And there’s a sense of ownership when it comes to totems, and some don’t take kindly to sharing theirs.

“My son was angry,” says Mhukayesango. “He said that all these children are stealing his name, his heritage. He referred to me and his sister as thieves.”

Mhukayesango says she’s still looking for the father of her youngest grandchildren.

“I have to find him and tell him to acknowledge his children,” she says. “If anything goes wrong, I do not want to bear the brunt later in life.”


Kudzai Mazvarirwofa, GPJ, translated some interviews from Shona.