VaDoma: A Rare Zimbabwean ‘Ostrich’ Tribe With Two Toes

VaDoma: A Rare Zimbabwean ‘Ostrich’ Tribe With Two Toes

The Doma or vaDoma also known as muDoma or Dema, are a clan of an uncommon people. They live deep within the confines of western Zimbabwe and are derogatorily referred to as the “ostrich people.” They are said to suffer from a rare genetic condition called ectrodactyly, which affects one in four children within the population.

Ectrodactyly, or “lobster claw syndrome,” could affect either the hands or feet. But, in the case of the vaDoma people, the middle three toes are absent and the two outer ones are turned inward. The condition is an inherited dominant genetic mutation.

Though, some have theorized that the mutation may have adaptive benefit because, according to them, it aids in tree climbing. It is more likely, however, that the defect remains prevalent in the vaDoma because of a small genetic pool among them.

It is against tribal law for members to marry outside the group. They live in the Kanyemba region in the north of the country, particularly in the Urungwe and Sipolilo districts around the basins of Mwazamutanda River, a tributary of the Zambezi River Valley. The clan is the only traditional hunter-gatherers indigenous to Zimbabwe and are said to be famous for the inherited condition. According to vaDoma mythology, their ancestors emerged from a baobab tree.

Upon descending from it, they walked upright to hunt and gather the fruits of the land. The name vaDoma is also used in the Zambezi region for a semi-mythical people characterized as magical, capricious, hard to find, and living among the trees. This may refer to Khoisan hunter-gatherers, who preceded the migration of the Bantu Shona into the Zambezi Valley, and the vaDoma are said to be possibly related to this earlier population.

There is also the myth that persists among nearby peoples that the vaDoma are capable of disappearing in the forest and performing magic. Historically, they dwelt in the mountains, living a largely nomadic lifestyle of hunting, fishing, trapping, honey hunting, and gathering wild fruits and roots. Prior to the European colonisation of Africa, the vaDoma people were said to have resisted incorporation into the Korekore Shona kingdom of Mutapa, which resulted in little access to fertile land.

However, land reform after Zimbabwe’s independence did not change this, despite pressure from the Robert Mugabe-led government, and their continuing hunt down has invariably made them Zimbabwe’s only non-agricultural society, leading to stereotypes as “Stone Age cave-dwellers”.

This assumption is reinforced by the fact that there are many in their community, who cannot wear shoes due to the shape of their feet just because they only have two big toes on each foot. It is reported that those with the condition are not handicapped and wellintegrated into the tribe.