Language Use and the Media

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Shona Ethnoaesthetics:
Beauty and the Shona Proverb

Kudzai Matereke
Lecturer, Great Zimbabwe University; Ph.D. Candidate, University of New South Wales, Australia &

Jacob Mapara
Lecturer, Great Zimbabwe University; Ph.D. Candidate, University of South Africa

This paper seeks to examine how the Shona traditional society conceptualised beauty; drawing from the meaning and content of the Shona proverb, suggesting that traditional society emphasised beauty as holistic to include such elements as moral uprightness and humility as the markers of inner beauty. While physical or outer beauty was appreciated, looking for it as the sole desirable quality as done in the modern beauty pageants misses the core of the way the traditional Shona society conceptualised it. Relying on philosophical debate between the universalist and particularistic schools on the nature and content of African philosophy, and the analyses of the influence of Platonism and Cartesianism on discourses on beauty, we seek to argue for an ethnoaesthetic philosophy through which value systems can be evaluated to enhance cross-cultural understanding.

197 The Journal of Pan African Studies, vol.2, no.9, March 2009

Furthermore, this paper is motivated by the contention that the aesthetic sense of the Shona people was tied to the wider network of their social, economic, political and spiritual realms that defined their self-understanding. In this sense, beauty and its conceptualisation remain tied to a system of values that continues to inform the Shona people's identity. Hence, by quarrying into the Shona language (particularly the proverb), we call for the decolonisation of the way Africa conceptualises reality, a theme which runs across the vast array of African Studies. Keywords: Beauty, Ethnoaesthetics, Ethnophilosophy, Cartesianism, Platonism, Universalism, Proverb, Shona

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.

198 The Journal of Pan African Studies, vol.2, no.9, March 2009

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...
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