Clans & Totems in Ndebele Culture

Ndebele Clans & Totems

Familial relationships are identified in two ways in Ndebele culture. Firstly, the Ndebele society was patriarchal, so your father’s last name becomes your surname or last name, and it is referred to as isibongo and establishes the bloodline. The word is derived from the Ndebele word for thank you or bonga,” a powerful word that also means to praise or worship, and it means that one has to draw a source of pride and identity from their father’s bloodline or clan. It’s also worth noting that a child must adopt their father’s totem, another important emblem of isibongo for the Ndebele people.

Secondly and consequent to the last point above, kinship is identified using the totem isibongo/isitemo. In the Ndebele culture, totems are derived from animals, plants, and nature, but with the added element of ancestral names, physical power, appearance, and deeds.  They symbolize harmony between humans (not necessarily related), animals, and the environment. They also reflect the relationship a particular clan or group might have had with the specific animal.

Historically, each member was responsible for physically protecting and defending the totem when conversing with people from other clans or cultures. To safeguard ones’ totem included not harming the animal or plant, actively nourishing, rescuing, or caring for it as needed. It was and is still taboo to consume an animal that is a symbol of your totem.

Why are totems important?

  • They establish family relations; as stated above, totems are a source of identity, defining a bloodline. People of a clan are generally related and have family ties of some sort.
  • Symbols of clan pride- Similar to the European Coat of Arms or Scottish Clan Kilts
  • Used as a tool to prevent incest, to this day, it is taboo to marry someone from your clan because custom considers people from the same clan to be of the same bloodline.
  • Totems resulted in the protection of the environment, as most tribes had multiple totems; not every animal was hunted or harmed.
  • Since the language is spoken, the elders orally passed down clan/totem history in story form. Fact and fantasy used to explain physical attributes, explorations, and heroic deeds eventually became a way for clans to define themselves in colorful ways, as in the Ndebele praise poems performed by praise poets or “imbongi.”

What is your Totem?

Ndebele English Association/symbolism
Sibanda Lion Strength, competitiveness, fearlessness
Ndlovu Elephant Mighty people, well built in stature, great hunters, intelligent
Dube Zebra People of pride
Nyoni Fish Eagle Uniters, hard workers
Ngulube Pig Shy, hardworking, generous, serious, friendly, loving, and caring
Mpofu Eland Domineering women, powerful, charming males, good warriors
Nyati Cape Buffalo Wise, hardworking, intelligent, slender males, orators, artful
Maphosa Porcupine/hedgehog A common totem, known as the King’s in-law, shy women
Impala Antelope Hard workers, women; great homemakers
Tshuma Sheep Quiet people, intelligent, beautiful women, heavily built
Bonga Wild cat Nocturnal, intelligent
Ncube Monkey Most intelligent and wise, known as the kiss due to pronunciation 
Nkomo Cow Mature, proud, smart
Mlambo Ants The ant people, united, fighters, believe in strength in numbers
Ngwenya crocodile People of the water/river, united, believe in continuity.