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Zimbabwe - Tribes and People

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The tribes and people of Zimbabwe

(Individual projects will follow)

The following at this stage are various notes - the aim is to refine them into a comprehensive and more cohesive overview of the Zimbabwean people.

Zimbabwe is a mixture of people. More than two-thirds of the population speaks Shona as their first language. Shona-speaking people live mainly in the eastern two-thirds of the country, including the capital of Harare, and are made up of the following groups

  • Karanga,
  • Korekore,
  • Manyika,
  • Ndau,
  • Rozwi and
  • Zezuru

Around one in five Zimbabweans (the Ndebele and Kalanga groups) speak Northern Ndebele, commonly known as Sindebele.

Both Shona and Sindebele are Bantu languages originating from the time when Bantu-speaking tribes populated the region over 1000 years ago.

The Shona tribe is Zimbabwe's largest indigenous group whose tribal language is also called Shona (Bantu). Their population is around 9 million. They are the largest ethnic group in Zimbabwe.

The Shona are found in Zimbabwe, Botswana and southern Mozambique. Representing over 80% of the population, the Shona tribe is culturally the most dominant tribe in Zimbabwe.

Traditionally, Shona people live in isolated settlements, usually consisting of one or more elder men and their extended families.

The Shona are a cluster of peoples who have lived for about 2,000 years in a region of the southern Africa Plateau that includes most of Zimbabwe and part of Mozambique.

Shona is the name collectively given to two groups of Bantu people in the east and southeast of Zimbabwe, and southern Mozambique.


There have been many civilisations in Zimbabwe, evidence being the ancient stone structures at Khami, Great Zimbabwe and Dhlo-Dhlo. The "Great Zimbabwe" ruins have been radio carbon dated to approximately 600 A.D. Historic findings suggest that the ancestors of modern day Shona people built Great Zimbabwe and hundreds of other stone walled sites in Zimbabwe. Bantu-speaking farmers, either Khoisan settlers or Iron Age migrants from the north, were the first occupants of the Great Zimbabwe site in the south of the country. Between 500 and 1000AD, the Gokomere (a Bantu group) enslaved and absorbed San groups in the area. As early as the 11th century, some foundations and stonework were in place at Great Zimbabwe and the settlement, generally regarded as the burgeoning Shona society.

One line of thought is that the Shona people are descendants from one group of families, that was ruled by one paramount Chief. This line of thought would justify the fact that such Shona High spirits as Chaminuka, Kaguvi and Nehanda command authority over all Shona tribes. It is this that could have enabled the Shona risings of 1896-7, known as the First Chimurenga. Before the risings there where a number of mhondoros (Mhondoro is a Shona language term meaning the founding ancestor of a particular dynasty) in the then Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) but none had the authority to co-ordinate the various Shona tribes against the European settlers.

The Shona people as they are today are a fragmented horde of tribes with very tenuous bonds of unity between them. Most Shona people identify with a particular clan rather than with the Shona group as a whole, most Shona communities contain a mixture of clans. (Clan - group of people who descended from the same ancestor) The Shona consisted and still consist of two distinct families – the original Bantu occupants of the country and the conquerors – each of which has split up into a multiplicity of tribes.

The original Shona occupants of Zimbabwe are all embodied under the umbrella name “Hungwe”. The conquerors of the Hungwe fall under the blanket name “Mbire”. It is believed that it was the Mbire who were the founders of the Mutapa Empire as well as the Rozvi Empire which was destroyed by the various Nguni tribes that passed through the land of Zimbabwe during the Mfecane wars. Namely, the Ndebele tribe, who now occupy southwest Zimbabwe, and the Shangane tribe in the southeast of Zimbabwe. The Hungwe settled in Zimbabwe for probably two to three hundred years before the Mbire arrived.

The difference between the present day Mbire (which refers to the Marondera – Wedza district and the people whose mutopo is Soko), and the 1500 A.D. Mbire. In about 1500 A.D. the term referred to all the members of the invading family which took over the land from the Hungwe. The Mbire took over the land of Zimbabwe between 1000 and 1050 AD. Their invasion from across the Zambezi river marked the beginning of the dynasty of the Mbire empire which is commonly known as Mutapa Empire (state). The Mutapa Empire or Mbire Empire covered most pasts of present day Zimbabwe. The empire incorporated most of the whole of Mozambique, South of the Zambezi river and north of the Sabi river down to the sea. Some of the present day South Africa tribes are known to have been segmented from the Shona (best known ones are the Venda and Lovendu). The expansion of Mbire Empire, include the following shona tribes Barwe, Manyika, Ndau, Korekore, Shangwe, and Guruuswa.

The Mwanamutapa (or Monomatapas) were the first major civilisation to become established in Zimbabwe. The Mwanamutapa empire, headed by a ruler of the same name, was founded about 1420 among the Karanga people and was centered at Great Zimbabwe. By the mid 1440's, the empire included almost all of the Zimbabwean plateau and extensive parts of what is now Mozambique. The empire was ruled in pyramidal fashion, with the Mwanamutapa appointing regionally based vassals. The wealth of this empire was based on small-scale industries, for example iron smelting, textiles, gold and copper, along with agriculture. At the height of Mwanamutapa state, it was part of a gold trade network that extended as far as China.

In about 1490 the empire split into two parts — Changamire in the south (including Great Zimbabwe) and Mwanamutapa in the north, stretching from the Indian Ocean in the east to present-day central Zambia in the west and from central Zimbabwe in the south to the Zambezi River in the north. The regular inhabitants of the empire's trading towns were the Arab and Swahili merchants with whom trade was conducted. The empire was an important source of gold and ivory, the area attracted Swahili traders from the east coast of Africa (in modern Tanzania). When the Shirazis founded Sofala (in present-day Mozambique), the Karanga empire acquired an export market for its mining production. The ‘Monomotapa’, the Karanga leader, imposed a tributary relation on the neighbouring Muslim nation as he had done with other minor cultures of the area. In this way Karanga supremacy was established over a region including parts of present-day Malawi. The area around Great Zimbabwe became the trading capital of the wealthiest and most powerful society in south-eastern Africa of its era. The hilltop acropolis at Great Zimbabwe came to serve not only as a fortress but as a shrine for the worship of Mwari, the pre-eminent Shona deity.

In the early 16th century the Portuguese arrived in the form of traders and soldiers from Mozambique, and established contact with the empire. Between 1509 and 1512 António Fernandes traveled inland and visited the Mwanamutapa kingdom, which controlled the region between the Zambezi and Save rivers and was the source of much of the gold exported at Sofala. Soon after, Swahili traders resident in Mwanamutapa began to redirect the kingdom's gold trade away from Portuguese-controlled Sofala and toward more northern ports. Thus, Portugal became interested in directly controlling the interior. In 1531, posts were established inland at Sena and Tete on the Zambezi, and in 1544 a station was founded at Quelimane.

The Mutapa empire started its decline around 1500 AD, power struggles among the Mbire resulted in fall of the Mutapa state and the founding of the Rozvi Empire in the South West of present day Zimbabwe. Further splits resulted in the fragmentation of these empires, which led to the innumerable autonomous Shona tribes found in present day Zimbabwe.

In 1560 and 1561 Gonçalo da Silveira, a Portuguese Jesuit missionary, visited Mwanamutapa, where he quickly made converts, including King Nogomo Mupunzagato. However, the Swahili traders who lived there, fearing for their commercial position, persuaded Nogomo to have Silveira murdered. The presence of the Portuguese had a serious impact that affected some of its trade and there had been a series of wars which left the empire so weakened that it entered the 17th century in serious decline. By the mid-17th century the Portuguese controlled Mwanamutapa empire.

By 1690 the Portuguese had been forced off the plateau and much of the land formerly under Mwanamutapa was controlled by the Rozwi. The Shona dynasties fractured into autonomous states, many of which later formed the Rozwi empire. Peace and prosperity reigned over the next two centuries and the centres of Dhlo-Dhlo, Khami, and Great Zimbabwe reached their peaks. The Mwanamutapa citadel and palace were taken over by the Rozwi, whose Changamira (king) extended his control over the mining area. The Rozwi empire did not however succeed in controlling an area as vast as the ancient Karanga had done.

As a result of the mid-19th century turmoil in Transvaal and Natal, the Rozwi Empire came to an end, this was due to the fact that The Matebeles led by Mzilikazi came and devastated the region. The Rozwi emigrated westwards; cities and farmlands, palaces and irrigation canals were abandoned and grass began to grow over the ancient walls of Great Zimbabwe. It was not until the late 19th century that the peoples speaking several mutually intelligible languages were united under the Shona name.

There are five main language clusters:

  • Korekore,
  • Zeseru,
  • Manyika,
  • Ndau, and
  • Karanga.

The last of these groups was largely absorbed by the Matebeles (Ndebele) when they moved into western side of present day Zimbabwe.

The Shona believe in two types of spirits. Shave spirits are most often considered to be outside or wandering spirits and vadzimu are ancestor spirits. Shave spirits are connected to populations living outside of Shona territory and may be connected to neighbouring people. These spirits may be either malevolent or benevolent. Bad spirits are associated with witchcraft, while good spirits may inspire individual talents associated with healing, music, or artistic ability.

Vadzimu represent all that is ideal and moral about a Shona way of life. They are usually associated with recent ancestors or with more remote culture heroes whose exact genealogy has been forgotten. They serve to protect society, but may withdraw this protection if the Shona moral ideals are not respected

In the late 19th century the peoples of this area, whilst speaking several mutually intelligible languages, were united under the Shona name.

Other ethnic groups in the southeast, representing around one percent of the population each, are

  • the Tonga in the Zambezi Valley,
  • the Shangaan or Hlengwe in the Low Veld, and
  • the Venda on the border with South Africa.

About two percent of the population is of non-African ethnic origin, mainly European and Asian.

The Manyika tribe are a Shona people with its own dialect, Manyika. The majority of Manyika comes from the eastern region of Zimbabwe. The dialect is widely spoken in Manicaland Province and in certain areas of Manica Province in neighbouring Mozambique. The Manyica dialect varies from region to region in Manicaland. Those from Nyanga, Nyamaropa, Nyatate and surrounding regions have a different tone and shaping of words compared to those from the Buhera and Bocha areas. There are inherent cultural norms in each of the sub-regions inhabited by the Manyika.

References and Sources