Zimbabwe Ethnic Groups

Instructor: Eve Levinson

Eve has taught various courses of high school history and has a master's degree in education.

The people of Zimbabwe are 98% African, with regional distributions of Bantu-speaking Shona and Ndebele peoples that impact the nation's art, music, and traditional beliefs.

Where Are Zimbabweans From?

We all have home towns, but do you know why your family lives there? Has your family always lived there? Did you move there recently? What about the parts of your life that are connected to your home town: are you a fan of the local sports team, do you attend school down the road, is your favorite food something that you can only find where you live?

In Zimbabwe, traditionally nearly all of the people speak Bantu, though English is the current official language. The population is divided among two groups, the Shona, who made up the majority of the country, and the Ndebele, who were the minority living in the southwest. The ancestry of the remainder of the population comes from Mozambique, South Africa, England, and China.

Zimbabwe Map
Zimbabwe Map

Shona Culture

The lives of the Shona people are predominantly based around family and farming. Each child is the result of two family lines, represented by totems, or mutupos, which represent the ancestral home and tie everyone together. The connections through the mutupos link extended family and create the bonds with the community. After a baby is born, his/her umbilical cord is buried near the family's kitchen hut to represent the individual's connection to the land. As life goes on, no matter where people move or what families they join through marriage, the home of origin is always referred to as Kune makuva amadzitateguru angu, the place where my ancestors are buried.

Shona Farm
Shona Farm

Shona society is patriarchal, meaning it's controlled by men, though it also honors women. Both genders attend crops, primarily maize, but additionally have other separate roles in the community. Women can supplement income by selling pottery and baskets, whereas men may do the same by working as blacksmiths or carvers. Cows also play a large role in the culture. Used for milk and dowries, cows are the sole responsibility of men as they are a taboo task for women.

Prior to European colonization, the Shona people used music to communicate all experiences. Songs taught values and expectations for each gender. Individuals used the medium to communicate protests or complaints against unfair encounters, whether it is one person's experience with meanness or the whole community's grievance against a chief. Drums and call-and-response characterized the music until Europeans replaced that with a more choral sound.

Shona Beliefs

One of the driving forces in Shona culture is hunhu, which means character. It is highly important for individuals to foster this quality as hunhu determines one's place in society. Those without the right level of respect are treated as outcasts.

Shona Witch Doctor
Shona Witch Doctor

Shona religious beliefs are based in the idea of two types of spirits, shave, or outsider and vadzimu, or ancestor spirits. Shave spirits represent those who don't live in Shona territory, such as neighboring people, Europeans, and even animals. Vadzimu spirits keep the morals and traditions of ancestors alive. The bad spirits, which can be based in witchcraft or a disrespect of the culture, might directly harm someone or bring negative outcomes to the community while good spirits protect the culture and can stimulate positive abilities, like art or healing.

Ndebele Culture

The Ndebele tribe broke away from the South African Zulus in the 19th century. Though initially a warlike people, they have taken on many of the same family and farming traits of tribes like the Shona. An Ndebele man will build a communal home with huts for his wives and children, distributing livestock, crops, and land amongst them depending on marriage and birth order. Their primary crop is also maize and only the men may tend to the cattle.

Ndebele Chief
Ndebele Chief

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