People & Culture

The People and Cultures of Zimbabwe

After a war of liberation between 1966-1979, what was then called Rhodesia gained its independence from British rule and became Zimbabwe in 1981. The two majority tribes of Zimbabwe are the Shona-speaking people made up of the Karanga, Korekore, Manyika, Ndau, Rozwi and Zezuru groups. The second and smaller of the two is the Sindebele people comprising of the Ndebele and Kalanga groups. The Shonas, as they’re collectively known, make up two-thirds of the population of Zimbabwe and live mainly in the highveld areas of the country between the Zambezi and Limpopo rivers, including the capital, Harare. The Sindebeles occupy the west and southwest areas (Matabeleland) from Victoria Falls to Bulawayo, which is Zimbabwe’s second largest city.

The vastly smaller tribes are the Tongas inhabiting the Zambezi Valley and Lake Kariba area, the Shangaan or Hlengwe in the Lowveld and the Venda on the borders of Zimbabwe and South Africa. Art, music and dance are very much a part of the culture of the Zimbabwean people and are highly regarded. The traditional music of Zimbabwe is very much influenced by rhythms and sounds and portrays people’s modes of expression, types of communication, their spiritual beliefs and many different forms of entertainment. The most frequently used instruments are the drums, the Mbira and the Marimba which is a type of xylophone. The Mbira , commonly known as the “thumb piano” is played using both thumbs and forefingers and is easily held in both hands. It comes in many different sizes with between 22 to 28 metal keys. These are made from smelted iron ore dug out from sacred hills and holy mountains where all the great Shona chiefs and statesmen are buried. Thus the spiritual aspect comes into it as the presence of the ancestral spirits are merged with the instrument. The sound board upon which the keys are mounted comes from a hardwood tree, the Mubvamaropa or the Mukwa tree, and which represents shelter and fuel, the basic necessities in everyday Shona life. The Mbira is used in many different rituals and ceremonies. These include weddings, the passing of a family member, pacifying the ancestral spirits, rain-making ceremonies, the appointing of a new chief or in the guva ceremony which is when a departed person’s spirit is welcomed back into the community a year after their death. Shona art is represented through stone or wooden sculptures which are very often abstract, portrayed through human-like figurines with little definite detail, leaving ones imagination to come to its own conclusion, or through animal sculptures which are more detailed and popular with tourists. The stone sculptures are made from many different types of stone found in Zimbabwe, including black serpentine, springstone and verdite. Ndebele art is one of vibrancy and colours of the African bush and this can be clearly seen through the decoration and painting of the outside of their homes, their dresses and aprons of the women and their beadwork and bead pattern-inspired mural paintings. The paint was made with ground up earth pigments mixed with liquid resulting in colours ranging from bright yellow to reddy browns. In the earlier days, the patterns painted around the doors and window frames were said to have sacred powers made in response to their ancestral spirit’s demands. To the Shona, being healthy is not just about the absence of an illness or disease, but it also means there is harmony in the ancestral, spiritual worlds. Having a balance between the natural and supernatural world means healthy living not just for one person, but for all. They believe that everything originates from One God whom they called Mwari which means “In God our lives belong”.

Though western methods of healing are available, many Shona people still use the traditional healing practices carried out by a traditional healer. To maintain this balance, the traditional healers perform sacrifices and give offerings to the spirits. To then heal a sick or unbalanced person, the healers use various methods such as herbs to cure and heal, dreams, cleansing rituals and/or protective amulets. Family and community support is also a big part of the healing process and may be asked by the traditional healer to partake in some of the cleansing rituals so that no bad spirits linger in the community as a whole.

Like the Shona, the Ndebele people associate hardship, illness and even death with discontented ancestral spirits. They also believe in a creater, uNkulunkulu whom they thought of as the first human being.

The men and women in the Ndebele culture share in the planning of their village. Each person has a role to play which shows both family/community unity but also individuality as each person has a part to play in creating the final result. The men perform the heavier tasks of constructing the walls, roof frame and the grass thatch cover whilst the women mix the clay, gather the cow dung and prepare the sun-dried bricks for the walls as well as collecting the thatch in bundles. The children help their mothers in these tasks. The women are considered the controllers of the household space and so the creation of the inside floors and plastering and painting of the walls are considered their duties. The men watch over the cattle, construct their kraals (enclosures) and set up the areas where the men of the village meet.

In the shona culture, cattle are also considered very important as they are a sign of wealth and are used for bride prices. Herding and milking of the cows is the men’s duty. Men may also work as blacksmiths or carvers and hunt and fish to help provide for their families. Both men and women participate with farming growing crops such as maize, millet, sorghum, rice, beans, peanuts, pumpkins and sweet potatoes as well as raising chickens, goats and sheep. The women may also sell pottery and hand-woven baskets.

Zimbabwe has three official languages; English, Shona and Ndebele. English is predominantly used in business and government. Shona is the most widely spoken native language, with Ndebele (Sindebele), spoken mainly in the west of the country. There are several other regional languages which may be encountered.

Leave a comment