Featured: Karanga, Matabele, Shona; ®Lemba, ®Atonga


Shona practice of labial elongation is called kusenga (Gelfand, 1973b[1]; 1973a[2]). It is generally done at age eleven before the onset of menarche, sometimes mutual, and particularly in rural areas (1979b:p19-20): “from at least the time of menstruation, sometimes even from a year or two before”. It is taught to girls by older cousins and neighbours “at the first signs of puberty” (Williams, 1969)[3], but it may also started before menarche ([1967a][4]). In one study ([1967a]) it was done by 13 of 29 girls. In the harvest season, adolescents would be allowed a one-month period of play marriage in early “adolescence”; supposedly, this does not include full intercourse (Gelfand, 1963[5]; Gelfland, 1967b[6]), and is actually “conducted on strict moral standards”.  It is called muhumbwe (or mahungwe) and takes place in shelters (Gelfand, 1959:p183[7]; [1973c:p172][8]). The pairing off is supervised by parents, and occurs at about age ten (1967a:p105-6; 1967b:62-3). In the formerly mentioned study, 9 of 21 boys and 23 of 29 girls said they played at this pretence marriage (p101).

Children sleep in the parental bedroom until ages eight or nine. Sexual instruction of girls is provided by the grandmother or parental aunt (Gelfand, [1973c]). From age fourteen on, the girl is examined for virginity biannually (Gelfand, 1973a; 1979b:p19; [1967a:p100]), a custom called kuenda kurukova. A pubertal boy was warned for sex by his grandfather. His urine and semen was examined to assess his potency, and to asses the necessity of special foods (Gelfand, 1979a, 1985)[9]. Herding the cattle, boys “may mimic” their act (Gelfand, 1979b:p17, 18)[10]. Masturbation occurred in variable number of boys, but is discouraged. Procreative heterosexuality is strongly emphasised in both sexes from “very early age”, and theirs is “safeguarded” by seniors.


“There is no attempt to deny knowledge, but this knowledge is only given at an age when the boy or girl can appreciate it. Neither is told very much about the sexual act until about 14. Before that in the early ages they are taught cleanliness and modesty by their mothers and are encouraged to keep to their own sex. As the child becomes a little older the grandfather tells the boy that he will marry someday, but in the meantime he must not interfere with any girl and the girl is taught similarly by her grandmother. The grandparents and youngest aunt talk to the children freely on these matters. But even before puberty stress is laid on the importance of marriage” (1967b:p62).


Shire (1994:p154-6)[11] observed that boys learn sex from the paternal aunt, vatete. That is, “[…] about practical matters such as contraception and also about sex: about what kinds of character to marry, the kinds of pleasure which would stop women from leaving, and ways in which women could be handled or controlled”. From the maternal aunts, Shona boys “learnt about a masculinity whose discourse centred on giving pleasure to women”, including knowledge about “medicinal plants” and “ideas about sexual prowess”.


“From an early age, boys engaged in games which were concerned with ensuring procreation in adulthood. Certain fruits and pods signified potency and formed the basis for activities which centred on notions of sexual competence. For example, the mumveva (Kigelia pinnata) fruit was regarded as signifying this kind of masculinity. When the fruit was regarded in season, boys would bore a hole in the young fruit, into which they would insert their penises. They would then wait to see whether the fruit matured or died. If the fruit died or became deformed, this signified a threat to their sexual potency. If it grew into maturity, this was seen to result in sexual competence and an enlarged penis”.


Boys do pissing games, and operate on themselves to “free the foreskin” to win games, and because of “its association with the passage of semen in adulthood. Boys who did not want to have this operation were teased an laughed at; they were called “chickens”, told that they were not really boys and that all they wanted to do was to stay home and look after chickens”. The homosexual games are discontinued around pubescence, after which it becomes a sign of homosexuality. Those who continued “were called names alluding to bullocks with only one testicle, which are unable to fend off other bulls that mount cows, and which were only able to mount oxen”. As boys were becoming of topic, girls faded in as long as they were still allowed to swim together (thelarche). Pretence marriage (mahumbwe) “could at times end up provoking jealousies as it became obvious that people were not just playing, but that something else was going on”. Biting beetles were used to promote thelopoesis.







Additional reading:


§         Goercke (2004)[12]

§         Jules-Rosette, B. (1980) Changing Aspects of Women's Initiation in Southern Africa: An Exploratory Study, Canadian J African Studies 13,3:389-405





Janssen, D. F., Growing Up Sexually. VolumeI. World Reference Atlas. 0.2 ed. 2004. Berlin: Magnus Hirschfeld Archive for Sexology

Last revised: Sept 2004


[1] Gelfand, M. (1973b) Gross enlargement of the labia minora in an African female, Centr Afr J Med 19,5:101

[2] Gelfand, M. (1973a) The Shona woman, NADA 10,5:41-50

[3] Williams, J. (1969) Labial elongation in the Shona, Centr Afr J Med 15,7:165-6

[4] Gelfand, M. ([1967a]) African Crudible. Cape Town: Juta

[5] Gelfand, M. (1963) The Shona mother and child, Centr Afr J Med 9:116-9

[6] Gelfland, M. (1967b) The Shona attitude to sex behavior, NADA 9,4:61-4

[7] Gelfland, M. (1959) Shona Ritual. Cape Town: Juta

[8] Gelfand, M. ([1973c]) The Genuine Shona. [Salisbury]: Mambo Press. See p39, 167-73

[9] Gelfand, M. (1979a) The infrequency of homosexuality in traditional Shona society, Centr Afr J Med 25,9:201-2; Gelfand, M. (1985) Apparent absence of homosexuality and lesbianism in traditional Zimbabweans, Centr Afr J Med 31,7:137-8

[10] Gelfand, M. (1979b) Growing Up in Shona Society. Gwelo: Mambo

[11]Shire, Ch. (1994) Men don’t go to the moon, in Cornwall, A. & Lindisfarne, N. (Eds.) Dislocating Masculinity. London & New York: Routledge, p147-58

[12] Goercke, B. (June 2004) The Impact of Traditional Shona Beliefs on HIV/AIDS Intervention Work in Zimbabwe. MA thesis, DuquesneUniversity, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania []