The objective of this study was to develop an indigenous measure of common mental disorders (CMD) in the Shona language in Zimbabwe. Ethnographic and qualitative studies elicited idioms of distress of mental disorder leading to the preliminary Shona Symptom Questionnaire (SSQ), and items from the Self-Report Questionnaire (SRQ) were added to it. The 56-item Preliminary Shona Symptom Questionnaire (PSSQ) was administered to 302 randomly selected primary care attenders, of whom 100 were classified as cases on the basis of agreement between care provider assessment and a psychiatric interview. Discriminant analysis identified 14 items that were the strongest predictors of mental disorder. The 14-item SSQ has a high level of internal consistency (Cronbach's alpha = 0.85). The items are a mixture of emic and etic phenomena. The total score correlates strongly with patients' self-assessment of the emotional nature of their illness. Satisfactory specificity and sensitivity occurred at a cut-off point of 7/8. The SSQ is the first indigenous measure of mental disorder developed in sub-Saharan Africa to have included idioms or distress of primary care attenders and involved patients consulting traditional medical practitioners. It promises to be a useful instrument for epidemiological and clinical research. The methodology used is an innovative way of combining etic and emic methods in the evaluation of CMD.