This Shona Praise-Poem from Zimbabwe praises two women, the speaker’s mother-in-law and his wife, and criticises a third woman, his friend’s wife, for her laziness and unattractiveness. The poem contains such noble lines, especially in the middle section devoted to praising the speaker’s own wife, that it comes as a slight disappointment to find that it is not meant entirely seriously. It belongs to the context of a beer party at which two friends, joined in the special joking relationship of ushamwari, are having a mock argument, each trying to outdo the other in eloquence.

The mother of my wife has guardian spirits like to mine. (1)
On seeing me, she will give me her whole barn.
The mother who bore me is left far behind.
If I but cough, I am given last night’s porridge, (2)
I mention water and am given strong-brewed beer,
I sneeze and sweet beer I am given,
And if I yawn she gives me sweet potatoes.
What is there which does not reach my mouth
When there is a piece of dried meat, or a piece of honey-cake,
A portion of rice, some eggs or a couple of field-mice?
Truly, my mother-in-law is a generous giver.
When she is giving to me, you would think it was to a weanling.

Having said that, now let us turn to my wife herself, ah, frail beauty by nature and name,
Precious but fleeting, beauty as of a child born before time.
When subjects see her they greet her and say,
‘Good-day, graceful lady on whom flies fear to alight,
And if they do, the tail of a zebra would be your whisk. (3)
The tail of a beast for whisk would make you cough.
In olden days we would strip off bark for a blanket,
Such as the people raised in the days of the Uprising, (4)
So that it came to be called a raiser.
One like a rocky hollow yielding plenteous sorghum,
Tree that does not change from summer to winter,
Relish that needs neither seasoning nor salt.’

Enough, the elders have told us,
‘A goat that eats the mufenje bush is thereby like its mother.’ (5)
Her gifts come so thick that you think them an omen.
Thus this woman has no ordinary presence,
And when she walks, what firm and graceful movement!
When she breaks into a laugh, the heavens respond,
To give people on earth a glimpse of their happiness too.
What she cooks and eats is good with its own flavour.
Standing and sitting carry the same grave rhythm,
Such as is owned by none other in this land.
So mine is personable as a great hare of the valleys,
Not to be compared with your lean hare of the sands. (6)

Let her walk, she seems to be melting and strengthless.
When she rises, it is when the sun is high in the heavens.
If sick for three days, you would think she had lain for a year.
As for her cooking of porridge, it never gets further than gruel.
Her meat is barely fried as for those departing for battle.
Her beer is bitter and mixed without any proportion.
Cooking of pumpkin leaves gets as far as cooking for keeping. (7)
Her body a stranger to water, save when its owner is drinking;
Mine is at home in the water, a friend to the fish.
Give me an ox, my friend, that your wife may be taught to cook! (8)

from Shona Praise Poetry OUP, (1979)
ed. Aaron C. Hodza & George Fortune


Footnotes

  1. Guardian spirits: their spirits are in harmony which is why they are such good friends.
  2. Last night’s porridge: the remains of the previous evening’s meal are usually kept as a special treat for the children.
  3. The tail of a zebra: his wife deserves the special honour of a fly-whisk made from the tail of a zebra, rather than a cow.
  4. The Uprising: the anti-colonial war of 1895-96, when people were forced to use bark cloth for their blankets when fighting in the hills.
  5. A goat that eats the mufenje bush: a Shona proverb quoted here to suggest that his wife is just like mother-in-law.
  6. Great hare…lean hare: the same animal but large or thin, depending on whether it lives in the river valley or the desert. The image is a neat way of moving on to speak of the friend’s wife.
  7. Porridge…meat…pumpkin leaves: the descriptions are all of hasty or half-hearted cooking, never resulting in a good meal.
  8. Give me an ox: the speaker demands a whole ox as payment for giving his friend’s wife lessons in cooking.