Mobilizing place-related knowledge to assert autochthony

The case of sacred sites in Hwange District (Zimbabwe)

Building on her research experience, Zénaïde Dervieux will discuss the way that Hwange District ethno-linguistic groups use toponymic knowledge to assert their claims on specific territories, and she will focus on what this knowledge tells of the underlying dynamics at play between these groups. 

The discussion will be led together with Danny Simatele, Associated Professor at Wits University’s School of Geography, Archaeology and Environmental Studies.


29 June 2018 | Ifas-Research

IFAS-Research board room (1st floor), 62 Juta St, Braamfontein, Johannesburg


A joint seminar IFAS-Research | School of Geography, Archaeology and Environmental Studies (Wits University)

For the last three centuries, local communities of Hwange District have faced a violent history of forced population movements (Ndebele conquests, colonial and post-colonial territorialisation), resulting in a complex society made up of different ethno-linguistic groups with contrasting backgrounds. The relocations of the villages out of the protected and private safari areas crystallised local conflicts. In the context of ethnic diversity, the way people understand their history but also the history of the other family groups seems central in their strategy to assert rights over natural resources and sacred places. To address power relations between the different groups, family histories were documented for several months through semi-directed interviews and directed interviews to specify people’s origins and to map their places of living, their mobility and the places they refer to.

This presentation will focus on toponymic knowledge in Hwange District, by discussing the way it is used by family groups when claiming control over places of the territory. Names given to schools and villages often refer to forefather names, their histories, as well as to localized sacred grave sites. The topic of place-related knowledge extends further than material records and historical landmarks, since it contributes to legitimate former establishments and a greater right of access. Ultimately, these claims are mobilized to fuel territorial conflicts both with the park managers and between the family groups themselves.


Zénaïde Dervieux is a doctorate researcher from Sorbonne Université Paris 1 Panthéon’s PRODIG, and affilated to the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS). Her main study fields are the communal management of natural resources, local knowledges and practices, wildlife biodiversity and interactions between men and fauna. Her Master’s thesis focused on territorial recompositions in a context of territorial conservation tendancies in the community management model of Campfire, Zimbabwe. She also participated in several research programmes on biodiversity.