Zimbabwean Culture

Core Concepts

  • Politeness
  • Obedience
  • Warmth
  • Ancestry
  • Respect
  • Education
  • Tsika

 

Zimbabwe (formerly known as Rhodesia and southern Rhodesia) is a country in southern Africa, bordering South Africa, Mozambique, Zambia and Botswana. It is mostly populated by the Shona people, the majority of whom are Christian. However, the country also has a great diversity of languages, communities, beliefs and customs. The dominant culture of Zimbabwe has significantly changed from its traditional form under the influence of British colonisation, technology and contemporary social pressures. While some Zimbabweans in rural areas continue to practise and maintain traditional customs and beliefs, they represent a relatively small segment of the population. Today, for many Zimbabweans the value of the British education system, Christianity and economic prosperity has taken priority over certain cultural practices. This being said, social etiquette and identity are still deeply informed by the traditional social structures and conventions of tribal groups. Most Zimbabweans maintain deep respect for and connection to their ancestors and heritage, despite urban migration and globalisation.

 

Ethnic Groups and Languages

The indigenous people of Zimbabwe trace back to Bantu origins and are believed to have populated the land for more than 10 centuries. The Shona and Ndebele people are the two biggest ethnicities. The Shona form the majority of the population – approximately 80%. They traditionally have a strong regional clan structure, with six main groups: the Manyika, the Ndau, the Zezuru, the Karanga, the Korekore and the Rozvi. These groups are formed on the basis of linguistic and cultural similarities. The Ndebele comprise roughly 14% of the population and have two main tribal groups: the Ndebele and Kalanga. Smaller ethnic groups include the Venda, the Batonga/Balonka and the Shangani/Shangane people. Some white Zimbabweans (mainly of British origin) remain in the country and there are also some Asian communities in the cities. However, both these groups make up less than 1% of the population. Most white Zimbabweans migrated when the country achieved independence from British rule.

 

Almost all Zimbabweans can speak a native Bantu language, with Shona being the most widely spoken. Zezuru, Kalanga, Manyika and Ndau are the four main dialects of Shona that have a common vocabulary and similar tonal and grammatical features. However, English is used in government, administration, schooling and higher education. Hence, many Zimbabweans also speak English expertly. Urban Zimbabweans can generally alternate between Shona and English fluidly; however, some of the younger generation may be less fluent in their native tongue and need to substitute some Shona words with English words.

 

Social Changes

Zimbabwe achieved independence from the United Kingdom in 1980, following decades of British colonisation. The effects of colonisation remain imprinted on aspects of society. This is especially visible in the widespread use of English, the adoption of Christianity and associated Christian family values. Colonial impact has left a dualism in the practices and values of Zimbabweans. For example, the country operates under a twofold legal system incorporating both traditional law and Roman Dutch Law. Traditional chiefs enforce traditional law whereas Roman Dutch Law is the conventional law. Both legal systems are legitimate and any decision made independently by them is legally binding. 

 

Increased urbanisation and globalisation have also influenced the traditional culture of Zimbabwe. Pop culture and the Internet have introduced ideas of personal and individual choice, leading some to value those new ideas over societal obligation and communal organisation. Young people in particular are challenging ideas of the cultural hierarchy. Furthermore, while traditional Zimbabwean culture takes quite a fluid approach to timekeeping, the growing population living in the larger cities is becoming more time-bound. Many native Zimbabweans see these changes posing a negative effect on the traditional family and social structures. Others would argue that access and exposure to technology has enhanced their practices to suit the contemporary environment. Either way, the globalisation of cities has created a power imbalance between urban dwellers and rural dwellers. Most rural households are partly or totally dependent on the remittances sent back by a family member in an urban area. 

 

Zimbabwean society has also been significantly changed by immediate social pressures and necessity. President Robert Mugabe and his ruling party held power undemocratically for almost 40 years since independence. Under this leadership, the economy and infrastructure deteriorated, and political freedom and dissent was suppressed. In 2017, Mugabe was pressured to resign in a historic turn of events following a coup that ended his dictatorship. His removal from power has given many Zimbabweans a renewed sense of hope. Nevertheless, the country now faces a transitional period as it continues to struggle with massive inflation that has impoverished many and hinders social mobility. HIV/AIDS has also devastated communities. In 2009, it was estimated that 1.3 million children have been orphaned by AIDS in Zimbabwe.1 Indeed, it is worth noting that the population is very young, meaning that the effects of these problems are felt most acutely by adolescents. Almost 60% of the population is under 25 years of age and almost 37.8% are 14 years old or younger.2

 

Social Hierarchy

There is also a strong cultural hierarchy of respect based on age that affects all interactions in Zimbabwe. Those who are older are presumed to be superior, wiser and more knowledgeable. Hence, heightened respect should be shown to elders. One is expected to always allow their opinion to prevail, never argue with them and never answer back. Expect social situations to be slightly segregated by age whereby children are noticeably excluded from jokes and ‘adult conversations’.

 

Zimbabweans are generally status-conscious as the differences between social classes are also quite noticeable. People tend to be quite proud of their achievements and show off their wealth. Compliments about someone’s wealth are more likely to boost their confidence than make them feel awkward. The way people dress and eat can also be a social indicator between those that are impoverished, those that work in agriculture and live in rural areas, and those that live in the cities. Zimbabweans generally identify themselves by their region of birth when getting acquainted with someone, as this implies their linguistic background and, in some cases, their social attitudes and politics. 

 

Zimbabweans take deep pride in the educational standards of their country. According to UNESCO, 91.75% of Zimbabwean youths are literate while the adult literacy rate is 86.87%.3 One’s education level and English proficiency are often seen as the pathway to foreign exposure, travel and employment outside of agriculture. It is also thought to indicate good family background and wealth. Despite varying political opinions, many Zimbabweans remained proud of the fact that their long-term President (Robert Mugabe) was the most educated in Africa. 

 

Origins and Ancestry

Zimbabweans generally have an innate awareness of their ancestors that follows them throughout their life and keeps them grounded. Traditionally, it was believed that their spirits could be communicated with to provide guidance (see ‘Traditional Beliefs’ under Religion for more information on this). They were deeply revered and worshipped. Today, Christian churches in Zimbabwe generally frown upon ancestor worship and discourage people from calling on the spirits. However, some Zimbabweans living mostly in rural areas (including Christians) have continued the tradition. Though there is a reduced belief in the spiritual realm and the ability of ancestors to intervene with life, one’s heritage remains crucial to Zimbabweans’ concept of personal identity. 

 

Zimbabweans learn of their origin through stories told by elders; everyone’s origin is connected to the original province that their people came from centuries ago. Every person also has a totem (mutupo) that represents their heritage, bloodline, origin and identity. Someone who does not know their totem is considered ‘lost’, for it means they do not know their identity. Totems are usually animals (e.g. a zebra or buffalo); however, they can also be objects (e.g. a leg). They are passed down through the father’s lineage the way a surname is carried through a family in the English-speaking West. In this way, two people with the same totem can be forbidden from marrying as it is seen in a similar light to incest. 

 

Traditional Customs

Zimbabwean tribes and communities are traditionally collectivistic. People tend to put their group or family’s interests before their own, receiving support, protection and a sense of belonging in return. There is a great emphasis on communal gathering within tribes, where people share stories, music, songs and dance. Indeed, Zimbabwean culture has a long tradition of storytelling and folklore that provides each generation with a sense of connection to their history and ancestors. These stories also provide communities with a unified understanding of their group’s origins. Storytelling gatherings may be accompanied with theatrical and musical performances.

 

Music and dance are also central to Zimbabwean culture. The traditional sounds, rhythms and instruments are distinctive and showcase the colour, creativity, spirit and joy of the Zimbabwean people. The ‘mbira’ (a piece of wood with metal keys) has a light, warm, acoustic sound and is used in most celebrations. The mbira may be used to contact spirits, govern the weather and chase away sickness (among other purposes) and can be considered sacred in some communities.

 

There are many other rituals and ceremonial practices in Zimbabwe. Some are specific to certain tribes whilst others are more widely practised. Many relate to celebrating milestones in people’s lives, such as marriage, the installation of chiefs or the circumcision ceremony that marks a boy’s transition to manhood. Traditional ceremonies, festivals and rituals also usually involve contacting the spirit world and making offerings (see ‘Traditional Beliefs’ under Religion for more information on this). However, it should be noted that many urbanised Zimbabweans do not believe in the spirit realm, especially among those in Australia.

 

Politeness and ‘Tsika

Zimbabweans are often observed as being very warm, welcoming and engaging. They are also quite formal and non-confrontational. People generally seek to appease and avoid any disagreement or friction that could offend someone’s honour. Hence, Zimbabweans may be overly accommodating of other people’s opinions or reluctant to speak their mind if they feel their honesty could embarrass others. This is partly because there is a strong cultural value placed upon considerate behaviour, manners and politeness. One’s manners are generally thought to reflect their integrity and quality as a person. Every distinct social and ethnic group in Zimbabwe has a particular model for what they consider to be correct and polite decorum. For example, the largest group, the Shona, refer to one’s knowledge and compliance with socially acceptable behaviour as ‘tsika’.

 

Tsika is the virtuous, polite and moral way of behaving in accordance to the Shona cultural standard. This involves being respectful to elders, obedient to parents and figures of authority, having self-control and patience, as well as observing cultural customs and the social structures in place. Often, there is a strong emphasis on communal values, warmth, prudence and considerate behaviour. The Shona see tsika as something one learns and develops in adolescence to eventually foster self-control. Someone who has been taught and raised well to have good manners is said to have ‘hunhu’ (in Shona) or ‘ubuntu’ (in Nbedele). Hunhu and ubuntu cannot be accurately translated into English, but they mean something similar to ‘the essence of humanity/humaneness’. 

 

The values that underpin the norms of etiquette vary between cultures. Hence, native Zimbabweans often think that ‘varungu’ (white people) do not have hunhu/ubuntu; this is because people outside of Zimbabwe often do not follow the same social rules that constitute tsika. For example, the English-speaking West doesn’t give the same amount of reverence and respect to people based on their age. Someone who does not act according to the Zimbabwean code of politeness and social appropriateness is considered to be without manners – ‘hanna tsika’. 

 

_____________________

1 National Aids Council, 2010 
2 CIA World Factbook, 2016
3 UNESCO, 2015
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