The Shona Significance of Bones

Margaret Hander '00, English 27, 1997

Bones in Shona culture represent not only the connection between the living and the dead but also instruments of divination. The divination ritual allows one to call upon the power of the ancestors and other deities to cure "whenever a person has reason to believe that one has lost touch with oneself, resulting in a series of misfortunes or unexplained circumstances" (Ephirim-Donkor, 41). The miserable circumstance of the commercial farm laborers in Bones cries for such a remedy: "the women will one day break their backs weeding the fields of the white man . . . The men are all castrated, you used to say. They cannot lift up their heads against the one man who uses the baas boy as his whip"(14).

The "nganga," diviners and herbalists, as well as laymen of the Shona culture use "bones" or hakata (called so although they are ritually prepared from wood) (Gelfand, 163), to detect the causes of both spiritual and physical illnesses. "Many men who do not pride themselves with the title of nganga claim to be able to divine with hakata for matters of average importance in daily life." "As long as those who interview the diviner are spiritually related to the patient, the bones are able to 'talk'" (Gelfand, 163). Therefore, the function of bones as tools of divination is commonly known in Shona culture and serves to reinforce connections to one's spiritual relations.


Ephirim-Donkor, Anthony. African Spirituality: on Becoming Ancestors. Trenton, N.J., Africa World P.: 1997.

Gelfand, Michael. Shona Religion. Wynberg, South Africa, Juta& Co. Ltd.: 1962.

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