Shona ethnoaesthetics: beauty and the Shona proverb.

Author:Matereke, Kudzai


The concept 'beauty' and how it is currently celebrated amongst the Shona has radically shifted from its traditional conception; traditional the Shona people understood beauty in holistic terms, but as we will see, it has changed.

Linguistically, the Shona people speak a range of related Bantu languages which can be standardised as Shona. Demographically, they constitute the highest percentage of the Zimbabwean population, and some spread beyond the Zimbabwean borders into Mozambique, Zambia, Malawi and Botswana. While the dialects may account for some linguistic difference, it can be argued that the various dialects share a lot and proverbs in one dialect have variants in another dialect. Further, the use of 'standardised' Shona has enhanced inter-dialect understanding. For that reason, it can be safely concluded that 'the Shona', as an object of linguistic and cultural analysis is a viable enterprise that scholars can pursue without strong fears or worries of obfuscating the different dialects. The linguistic and cultural commonalities have been used to show that the different groups that fall under this category share, among other things, a worldview, an array of beliefs, and a coherent system of thought. We seek here to interrogate how the notion of beauty has been presented in the Shona traditional society, and how these presentations differ from some such modern presentations as the beauty contests, fashion shows and other similar forums.

Some presentations and analyses of physical beauty in the literary works by the Shona themselves, especially as they depicted the females, have been motivated by an inferiority complex and self-contempt that tended to glorify and celebrate the physical traits of the European colonisers.

This paper, therefore, deconstructs the narrative that has dominated the discourse on beauty, and it argues that there is need to reconsider the Shona conception of beauty and analyse its holistic nature insofar as it looks for the whole person, and that though physical or external beauty was important, inner beauty was also pivotal and had strong moral implications. It is the physical and inner beauty that made a person fit within the nexus of his or her social, economic, cultural and spiritual life and become a full member of the society. The Shona proverb is going to be used in this paper to demonstrate what the Shona people anticipated and envisaged in a person, especially the female. These anticipations are central in determining one's beauty or lack of it. The contention that informs this paper is that the proverb is close to tradition and it may inform us with higher precision of a people's worldview, and therefore their conception of reality.

Theoretical Framework

The theoretical framework that informs this paper is that of ethnophilosophy as it relates to Africa. In an attempt to expound what African philosophy consists in Oruka (1991) distinguishes four trends: ethnophilosophy, philosophical sagacity, nationalistic-ideological philosophy, and professional philosophy. As a trend, ethnophilosophy is a reflective philosophical enterprise rooted in a people's culture. It is in the people's shared beliefs, values and assumptions as they manifest in the language, customs and practices that we can decipher a people's philosophy. In this way, philosophy in Africa can be conceived as communally shared as opposed to being an individual's activity. For Imbo (1998:64) the common criticism of ethnophilosophy is that "it heralds a philosophy without philosophers." This criticism is rooted in the characteristic development of western philosophical thought that identifies philosophical ideas with individual philosophers. To use the defining characteristics of one philosophical tradition to judge another philosophical tradition is both mistaken and unfair. In this vein, ethnophilosophy seeks to deconstruct the assumptions implied in the Western philosophic tradition. The Western philosophic tradition argues that for anything to be called philosophical, it must conform to qualities of rationality, universality and objectivity. These qualities, Western philosophers have argued, cannot be attributable to traditional African systems of thought, world views and beliefs. This theoretical framework is also relevant to the methodological issue about the apparent disparity displayed by the universal-particular debate about the nature of philosophy itself and also the self-sufficiency of African thought systems in arming the African to conceptualise the world. Studies in African philosophy show that the logicality and rationality of Africans was denied by the very acts of slavery and colonisation.

Further, some western thinkers argued that African societies deserved to be enslaved and colonised as ways of imposing order, rationality and morality on them (Eze, 1997:8). Thus Africans' lack of self-consciousness, their primitive state, lack of historical development and culture (Masolo, 1994:5), the portraiture of the African as the half devil and half child (Serequerberhan, 1991), and the concomitant "marginalisation and peripheralization of Africa" (Odogu, 2004:76) implied by the colonial project are all forces at play in the silencing the African modes of knowing and are crucial for the process of the 'othering' African epistemological, metaphysical and moral claims. The concerns of the African philosophers are to reveal what Spivak (1985) termed "the epistemic violence of imperialism." By relying on this framework, we seek to highlight some of the pitfalls of modern philosophical thought as it decentred African 'ways of living' (morality), 'ways of knowing' (epistemology), and 'ways of being' (metaphysics) as all these try to penetrate to the core of Africanness. The Shona people and their language have been used to illuminate this debate with strong implications to Africa, but we have no doubt that what we can say about the Shona may be shared by some groups elsewhere in Africa. The main purpose of such an approach is to promote 'intercultural understanding' (Balser, 1997:359) by according voice to the viewpoints of the cultural groups. The theoretical framework we employ here is consistent with the strategic use of philosophy for the construction of African identity, a view advocated for by Masolo (1994).

Zimbabwe's Contested Bodies and Beauties

The transition from colonialism in Africa has witnessed calls for authentic conception of culture, values and norms. Beauty has not been spared either. Zimbabwe has seen its own attempts to construct an authentic conception of Zimbabwean beauty, a notion that has triggered other equally contested issues like who constitutes as the genuine Zimbabwean. For example, Muzondidya (2004:) refers to a Miss Teen Queen Beauty Contest in 1989 that ended in an uproar as the majority of audiences protested that the contest was won by two Coloured girls and an Indian girl. About a decade earlier, the 1981 'Miss Zimbabwe' pageant had become imbued in controversy when the then minister of Community Development and Women Affairs, Joyce Nhongo (now Joyce Mujuru, the Vice President of Zimbabwe), expressed her ministry's reservations that it did not want to be associated with the pageant, and that the winner, Juliet Nyathi, was going for the Miss World Beauty Contest in London not as a representing Zimbabwe "but as plain Miss Beauty on behalf of those who wish to commercialise her physical asserts" (Lyons 2004: 216).

Nhongo further argued that rather, "our real Miss Zimbabwe is the special breed of woman who works hard and who sweats to improve her life and the lives ofher community and her nation.... a woman's contribution to the improvement of the standard of life of her society is the yardstick to measure the crowning of Miss Zmbabwe" (Lyons 2004: 216). The two cases are only the tip of the iceberg. The beauty pageants in Zimbabwe, and probably elsewhere in Africa, have been accused of being too Western to have lost authenticity. As such, the winners of such titles as Miss Zimbabwe, Miss Malaika, Miss Face of Africa, Miss Tourism and others are said to be betraying the traditional conception of beauty. This fits into the wider conception of the 'real' and 'authentic' women as the domesticated women who, according to Seda (2001: 121), when they attempt to move freely beyond the domestic domain are challenged and branded as 'loose'. For Seda, the gender roles originated in traditional society and were later infused with colonial capitalist hierarchy (Seda 2001: 121).

The analysis above seeks to highlight that women's bodies are contested and that the notion of beauty itself embedded within the struggles of hegemony and power. This paper does not seek to defend the traditional notion of beauty among the Shona, but to expose its economy within the traditional context and to suggest that the transition from the precolonial, colonial into the postcolonial has also meant that the conceptualisation of the concept itself has grossly changed. The changes are also due to imbrications between the body, its properties and the context of modern capitalist commoditisation.

Comprehending Beauty: The Platonic Legacy through to Cartesianism

It is a fact that everyone is generally understood to have a conception of beauty with which to conduct business on a daily basis. Without such a conception life would not be easy to comprehend, and materials and events too complex to sort. The underlying assumption in these beauty pageants is that there is a universally acceptable way of determining and judging beauty. Those who call for an authentic African conception of beauty fall back on tradition, and they interpret the beauty of the pageants as modern and foreign, and, therefore, as something that has failed to remain true to the beauty as conceived by the Africans. It is this kind of dilemma that makes this debate important. The importance of the debate can be shown in a number of ways....

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