Social philosophy of ubuntu/hunhu among the shona

Categories: Philosophy

The argument in this paper is based on two assumptions. The first assumption states that, the Shona people like any other group of people of Bantu Nguni origin, share a common social philosophy of life called Hunhu in Shona and ubuntu in Ndebele, Zulu, Xhosa and Swati (Ramose, 1999; Mapara, 2012). Secondly, the Shona people like any other human society, had its own focused broad system of educating its young members, long before the inception of colonialism (Agbemabiese, 2010).

Therefore, this writer opines that the education of the Shona people, just like any other sphere of their life(politics, law, religion, medicine) was focused due to the fact that it was guided by their philosophy of Hunhuism/Ubuntuism.

The purpose of this paper ,therefore, is to sustain the argument by way of illustrating how the pre-colonial education of the Shona people flowed naturally from their philosophy of hunhuism This writer observes that hunhu/ubuntu as an indigenous African philosophy in general and specifically from the Shona perspective is well articulated in the works of many thinkers.

Get quality help now
Verified writer

Proficient in: Philosophy

4.9 (247)

“ Rhizman is absolutely amazing at what he does . I highly recommend him if you need an assignment done ”

+84 relevant experts are online
Hire writer

The philosophy is well covered especially in Samkange and Samkange (1980), Pearce (1990), Makuvaza (1996 and 2008) and recently Mangena (2012) just to mention, but a few prominent ones. The Shona people are described by Bourdillon(1991) and Gwavaranda and Masaka(2008) as the largest ethnic group in Zimbabwe, which is made up of the following dialectical groups ;Karanga,Ndau,Manyika,Zezuru,Korekore and Kalanga. An understanding of the concept of hunhu can be achieved through any analysis of definitions drawn from a number of thinkers and writers .

Get to Know The Price Estimate For Your Paper
Number of pages
Email Invalid email

By clicking “Check Writers’ Offers”, you agree to our terms of service and privacy policy. We’ll occasionally send you promo and account related email

"You must agree to out terms of services and privacy policy"
Check writers' offers

You won’t be charged yet!

Broodryk (2002:56) gives a descriptive definition of ubuntu as an ancient African worldview based on the primary values of intense humanness, caring, sharing, respect, compassion, and associated values, ensuring a happy and qualitative human community life in the spirit of family. Important points coming out from Broodryk’s definition are the aspects of humanness, collective morality and collective personality. Hummaness in simple terms means the quality of being human.

Samkange and Samkange (1980) cited in Pearce (1990) expand on the concept of humanness by saying munhu according to the Shona people, is a person possessing hunhu in the sense that, that person has morality worthy human qualities. The explanation above entails that, there are certain qualities/attributes that are expected by the Shona community of one who aspires to qualify as a person (munhu). A number of scholars of the philosophy of ubuntu use a variety of terms such as virtues, traits, principles, attributes and qualities to describe the behavior commensurate with the hunhu way of life.

In addition to those identified by Broodryk(2002), the qualities of hunhu include social responsibility, trustworthiness, love, justice, peace, self reliance, hard work, integrity and others (Chingombe ,2013 ; Nziramasanga, 1999). The virtues, traits or qualities highlighted above show that the Shona people, like any other African society, value connectedness a person to other persons and discourage individualism in contradistinction to the western world (Msengana, 2006;). The essence of hunhu points to collective morality. It is the society which confers the status of personhood to a deserving individual (Makuvaza, 1996).

A person’s hunhu benefits both the community and the individual. Without the community one will not become a person or munhu. This explanation is best captured in the Xhosa proverb, umntu ngumntu ngabantu which means “I am because we are and since we are therefore I am”. This in other words means one is a person through other persons (Mbigi, 1972 cited in Msengana ,2006:98;Mbiti, 1969 cited in Mangova and Chingombe, 2013). The spirit of togetherness therefore becomes the hallmark of the binding philosophy of the Shona people.

It has already been highlighted in this paper that the philosophy of hunhu among the Shona permeates every aspect of their life (Ramose, 1999). What is now important to do is to analyse how the philosophy of hunhu defined, informed and shaped the traditional education of the Shona. Basing on the philosophy of hunhu as summarized above, this writer therefore argues that the purpose of traditional education was to assist young members of society to attain personhood or to acquire hunhu. Education became the means by which children would be expected to acquire personhood in accordance to the Shona society.

It is important to note that according to most African cultures, the concept of “person” is something that is achieved through a process that starts at conception through birth up to fruitful marriage (Mbiti, 1969; Ramose 1999). Simply put it means that one is not born human, but rather as an organism or an incomplete human individual. For this organism (child) to become a whole person as described above, the individual had “to go through various community prescribed stages and to fully participate in certain ceremonies and rituals” (Ramose 1999:81).

The prescribed various stages, ceremonial and rituals therefore became the various “units” of the Shona traditional curriculum aimed at producing a whole person at a marked stage. Pearce (1990) who particularly studied the Shona people argues that personhood or true humanness per se, is not expected of young children, who are not yet adults. In this sense, it means it would be unfair to expect a newly born child who has not gone through the holistic curriculum to be a munhu (truly and fully human moral person). So according to Pearce’s study a child is supposed to show tsika (decorum) when growing until puberty.

However, Mbiti (1969) disputes puberty as being the graduation stage into personhood, rather he postpones the graduation up to the point when one bears the first child after marriage. However, a child who was likely to become an ideal person (with humanness) was supposed to have the knowledge of custom (tsika) upon which hunhu would be realized later at an appropriate stage. To this effect Mhaka-Mutepfa and Seabi (2011) observe that the traditional Shona society cultivates good character (tsika) as the foundation.

This writer therefore observes that, it was the philosophy of hunhu which laid the foundation upon which the Shona traditional education rested on. The philosophy of hunhu played an instrumental role in guiding the behaviour of those who were in the process of becoming persons. As a result hunhu became the benchmark upon which the graduands of the holistic traditional education were evaluated against (Makuvaza 1996; Nziramasanga, 1999). Traditional education therefore played a role of being the means by which the desirable end of hunhu was attained.

Pearce (1990:3) correctly observes that, “Hunhu requires that …one…has learned tsika…and can reflect upon, and take responsibility for one’s behavior. This aspect of critical self-reflection in terms of behavior has been found to be lacking in the tertiary education graduands in post-colonial Zimbabwe. As a result Makuvaza (1996 and 2008);Chigwedere (1999) and Nziramasanga (1999) among others bemoan the moral decadence (lack of hunhu) that is running through all the strata of the Zimbabwean society at large. Traditional education among the Shona is in this last part going to be analysed in the context of five foundations or principles.

These principles as observed by Ocitti (1971) cited in Adeyemi and Adeyinka (2002) are communalism, preparationism, functionalism, perennialism and holisticism. However, after a close study, this writer observes that all the five principles are interwoven and not mutually exclusive. This writer suggests that the other four principles (holisticism, preparationism, functionalism and perennialism) stem from the principle of communalism (the hallmark of hunhu). As said before, the group success was of more importance than mere individual success.

Therefore, the implication is that, traditional Shona education was community orientated or was geared towards fostering a sense of communal identity (Msengana, 2006). It is important to note that, though in the traditional Shona society, children were under strict control of their parents they belonged to the whole community. Meaning to say every member of the community (who had successfully acquired personhood/ane hunhu) had a duty to play in the upbringing or education of the child. Indeed it took the whole village to raise a child (Adeyemi and Adeyinka, 2003).

The strength of the principle of communalism derives from the fact that there were less, if any loopholes that would allow a child to misbehave, without being noticed. Since it was the community which defined a person as a person, it means all adult eyes were on the growing child. If any well meaning adult, observes a child misbehaving he had the mandate to not only to correct the child, but to discipline him/her accordingly. In this case, the community itself provided a rigorous process of examination which was not removed from the learners’ experiences.

Msengana (2006) observes that the binding group solidarity that prevailed in the pre-colonial Shona society enabled a stable situation in which the cherished values of that society thrived naturally. In contradistinction to the traditional society, it can be observed that the binding group solidarity of the traditional Shona society is no longer the case in the modern societies. As a result, pupils of the modern Shona society, as they go to various schools, are supposed to be “book-taught” the values of their communities which they do not live.

Hence, the production of “educated but not educated professionals…devoid of hunhu/ubuntu” (Makuvaza, 1996:259). However, it is important to note that communalism did not negate individuality. Individual skills and talents were recognized. For example, Oruka (1990) cited in Broodryk (2002) identifies the presence of sages (wise people) in traditional societies who were respected by their societies as being unique individuals. However, their wisdom was not used for selfish reasons but for the betterment of their communities. On the same note,

Mandova and Chingombe (2013) argue that communalism; even in the olden days recognized that each individual had his or her private life that was supposed to be led alongside the community life. The implication is that, the individual was supposed to strike a balance between being an individual in his or her own respect and being a member of a united group. The balancing of these two roles for a properly educated person according to the philosophy of hunhu was not a challenge at all. The second principle of holisticism is derived from wholeness as the mark of the African concept of a person (munhu).

A whole person is one who is well rounded (complete) and therefore respectable in his/her community (Broodryk, 2002). Such a person is functionally adequate in his or her community. Therefore, as a result the traditional Shona education was centred on producing such a person who was complete in every respect. It focused on developing the “physical, cognitive, social, emotional, psychological, moral, spiritual and talent potentials and capacities” within the individual’s Shona cultural context (Mhaka-Mutepfa and Seabi, 2011:259). It is also important to realize that the traditional Shona curriculum was rich and effective but not clumsy.

The package of hunhu was delivered to the learners through oral narratives, which among other things included folklore, riddles, stories, dramas, myths, music and proverbs. Msengana (2006) observes storytelling of fables was the first stage of character building and was normally entrusted to grandmothers. The prominent role of storytelling, among other things, was of nurturing tsika upon which hunhu would later develop (Pearce, 1990). According to the Shona people, the notion of a rounded person (munhu chaiye akazara), was also observed in one’s ability to preserve his or her chastity.

Nukunya (1969) cited in Agbemabiese (2010) asserts that this ability, constituted one of the most major criterion that is representative of hunhu (personhood). As a result, appropriate elderly persons in the Shona extended family taught their youths sex education through among other ways, strict taboos. Such taboos were meant to; deter the youths in indulging in sexual activities at an inappropriate age, learn physiology of sexual relations and other rules of conduct in married life (Sifuna, 2008; Agbemabiese, 2010).

A person, for example, who was promiscuous, was considered to be the most wanting in as far as hunhu was concerned (Agbemabiese, 2010). It is disheartening to note that, some professionals, such as teachers who are ideally the rightful persons to teach sex education in modern day schools are also guilty of promiscuity (Makuvaza, 1996). The implication therefore, is that such teachers received an incomplete education which was rooted on the philosophy of hunhu. The aspect of holisticism gives credit to the traditional Shona education over the current education which seems to be overloaded but empty.

This is so because it is not premised on the philosophy of hunhu. On the contrary, Mhaka-Mutepfa and Seabi (2011) agree with Agbemabiese (2010) that moral uprightness, a highly priced component of hunhu was the central aim of traditional Shona education. However, the modern day parents also bemoan character decadence which has become rife among modern day school children. They also preferred their children to be, “upright, honest, sociable, courageous, humble, considerate, persevering, truthful and well-behaved at all the times” (Nziramasanga, 1999).

Sifuna (2008) also identified the ideology of preparationism in the holistic traditional education in which children were prepared to become useful members of the household or community. Such type of education was gender based with boys and girls receiving the kind of education that enabled them to fulfill respective expected roles in accordance with the philosophy of hunhu. Hence, girls were socialized to learn mainly the roles of motherhood, whilst on the other hand boys were socialized to become hunters, herders, blacksmiths and so on.

However, on this note traditional Shona education has been criticized of being gender stereotyped. But, this characteristic of being gender specific then was in line with the philosophy of hunhu, since it was not expected to find a real man (ane hunhu) to spend the whole day loitering in the kitchen, hence the name chinzvengamutsvairo . The name was given to a man who spends most of his time in the Shona main hut mainly because of greed and laziness thereby shunning “manly duties” which were normally done outside the homestead.

According to the traditional Shona society, an ideal person was one who was able to play a notable part in his or her community. As a result traditional education was a participatory kind in which the learner was productive as he or she learned (Adeyemi and Adeyinka, 2003). This approach enabled smooth integration of the becoming person into the community. This principle of functionalism enabled the system to identify those who were lazy earlier, such that they were given well timed appropriate remedy. This principle therefore, intended to produce a person who had the hunhu qualities of hardworking and self reliance (Nziramasanga, 1999).

The fifth and last principle of traditional education was perennialism. In the traditional Shona society education was used as a means of preserving and maintaining its cultural heritage including the philosophy of hunhu (Adeyime and Adeyinka, 2003). To this effect, traditional teachers discouraged those were to become persons from experimenting with the unknown. Every member of the community at one stage was expected to go through certain initiation rites as to make sure one would not skip important aspects of the curriculum which would make him or her culturally inadequate.

Initiation rites were therefore compulsory to everyone (Agbemabiese, 2010). This principle has however, been criticized for working against curriculum renewal. But all the same, this writer feels curriculum renewal is supposed to be a process with checks and balances, if it is to benefit those whom it is meant for or else it may work against its goal. For example, the advent of colonialism resulted in the abandonment of some traditional teaching methods and content which were effective inculcating good moral behavior in the youths.

Therefore, as a result, the product of the modern day western curriculum is a shameful professional who lacks hunhu because he received an inadequate culturally uprooted education during his adolescence (Chigwedere, 1999; Makuvaza, 2008). This paper has analyzed the philosophy of hunhu as articulated by the Shona people of Zimbabwe. The writer further illustrated how the basic tenets or characteristics of the philosophy of hunhu such as communalism, holisticism and functionalism formed the foundation upon which the rich Shona traditional education was anchored on.

It also emerged that the modern day education in Zimbabwe is weak because there seems to be no sound homegrown philosophy upon which it is rested on. Therefore, this writer concludes that, it is even possible today to revisit oral traditions to dig for the philosophy of hunhu and infuse it in the modern education system in Zimbabwe, because for any education system to be relevant it needs a correct philosophy to guide it.

Cite this page

Social philosophy of ubuntu/hunhu among the shona. (2016, Jul 19). Retrieved from

👋 Hi! I’m your smart assistant Amy!

Don’t know where to start? Type your requirements and I’ll connect you to an academic expert within 3 minutes.

get help with your assignment