The Vadoma people, also known as Dema or the Bantwana tribe, which mens children/descendants, are a tribe living in the Kanyemba region in the northern part of Zimbabwe, primarily in the Urungwe and Sipolilo districts around the basins of Mwazamutanda River, a tributary of the Zambezi River valley.
They are the only traditional hunter-gatherers indigenous to Zimbabwe and famous for the inherited ectrodactyly existing among some vaDoma families.
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 possibly related to this earlier population. Rumors also persist among nearby peoples that the vaDoma are capable of disappearing in the forest and performing magic.
Historically, the vaDoma chiefly 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 colonization of Africa, the vaDoma also resisted incorporation into the Korekore Shona kingdom of Mutapa which resulted in little access to fertile land.
Land reform after Zimbabwe’s independence did not change this, despite pressure from the Mugabe government, and the vaDoma’s continuing dispossession has made them Zimbabwe’s only non-agricultural society, leading to stereotypes as “Stone Age cave-dwellers”.
The mountain homeland of the vaDoma has now become the Chewore Safari Area. In recent years, vaDoma have been threatened by game rangers due to a crackdown on poaching. Many abandoned their hunter-gatherer lifestyle and moved to the lowlands.
Today, though they have little contact with the majority populace, many vaDoma families live settled lives as semi-foragers, building houses on wooden platforms to avoid predators. During rainfall, they cover the shelters with thatching. vaDoma are also reluctant to wear textile fabrics. Recently, the Seventh-Day Adventist Church built Mariga Primary School to educate vaDoma children.
There are many in their community, who can’t wear shoes due to the shape of their feet. They only have two big toes on each foot. They don’t have middle toes and the two outer ones are turned in. They still can walk but with some difficulty according to the shape, running is also difficult to them. It is said this condition helps them while climbing trees though.
The elders of Vadoma people claim that their remote ancestors were birds like beings who came from the stars and mixed their DNA with early earth women to produce offspring. The elders state that their ancient ancestors came from the star systems of Sirius and first established colonies on a planet within our solar system that they refer to as Liitolafisi.
A substantial minority of Vadoma has a condition known as ectrodactyly in which the middle three toes are absent and the two outer ones are turned in, resulting in the tribe being known as the “two-toed” or “Ostrich-footed” tribe.
This is an autosomal dominant condition resulting from a single mutation on chromosome number 7. It is reported that those with the condition are not handicapped and well integrated into the tribe.
While possibly an aid in tree climbing, the condition prevails because of a small genetic pool among the Vadoma and is propagated by the tribal law that forbids members to marry outside the group.
Due to the Vadoma tribe’s isolation, they have developed and maintained ectrodactyly, and their comparatively small gene pool has resulted in the condidtion being much more frequent than elsewhere.
The Eastern Shona Kalanga of the Kalahari Desert also have a number of members with ectrodactyly and may be related.