Major Culture Groups of Zimbabwe

My first love is Zimbabwe. I fell in love with the country when I began my quest of researching the African continent. It was by chance my eye fell to this country of waterfalls and rich history. Then president, Robert Mugabe, made international news with his controversial land reformation act. Well over 10 years ago began my research of the country. And still even now, I can’t stop talking about it, describing it, dreaming of the day I get to set foot there.

As a result, Africa Defined contains numerous articles specifically about Zimbabwe, including this one – the cultures of Zimbabwe. Like many African countries, Zimbabwe hosts a large number of cultures, most notably, the Shona and the Ndebele. Each of these culture groups are further divided into several ethnic groups. Several mixed cultures also call Zimbabwe home – Coloureds, White Zimbabweans, and Indians. This article takes you through each group, briefly discussing their history with the nation.

Zimbabwe was home to indigenous Black people beginning with Stone Age hunter-gatherers known as the San, from as far back as 200BC. The San were later displaced by Bantu-speaking peoples, the ancestors of present day Shona-speaking inhabitants.

The San – the first nations of southern African; among the oldest cultures on Earth; they were subsequently driven off their ancestral lands or incorporated by incoming Iron Age Bantu-speaking groups around the tenth and eleven centuries AD; the San are reportedly the descendants of the original Homo sapiens and have the oldest gene pattern among all human beings; this means that most, if not all, other humans on the planet are descendants from that one gene type, and that these were the ancestors of most mankind

Bantu peoples – 85 million speakers of the more than 500 distinct languages of the Bantu subgroup of the Niger-Congo language family; the classification is primarily linguistic; These were groups of migrants from the northern parts of the African continent, who spoke languages that belong to a cluster that linguists have identified as Bantu.


The descendants of the Bantu-speaking peoples are now called the Shona and make up the majority of Zimbabweans numbering around 80% of the population. Their numbers exceed 16 million and are divided into tribes in eastern and northern Zimbabwe. 

  1. Karanga – Southern Shona (8.5 million)
  2. Zezuru – Central Shona (5.2 million)
  3. Korekore – Northern Shona (1.7 million)
  4. Manyika tribe – Eastern Shona(1.2 million)
  5. Ndau – (800,000)

After 1000 A.D., centralized states began to emerge among the Shona; it was not until the 14th century, however, that these empires became distinguishable, as they competed for trade in gold and ivory with Arab and, later, Portuguese merchants; major empires include Great Zimbabwe, Changamire, Thulamela, and Torwa.

There are several ancient stone wall sites in Zimbabwe which were built by the Shona, most notably Great Zimbabwe – a city that flourished between the 11th and 15th centuries AD. These stone walls are of particular interest since there is no evidence the Shona used mortar to hold the stone bricks together. In some places, these stone walls reach about 32 feet high. Great Zimbabwe was a center for trade and archaeologists have found artifacts on site from as far away as China.

Among the Shona, sculpting is not only an art but a means of expressing the relationship between the physical and spiritual worlds. Until recently, Shona artwork has not been mass produced or distributed much outside the country due to the close relationship the Shona have with their artwork.

Northern Ndebele 

The Northern Ndebele people are a Bantu ethnic group in Southern Africa, they speak a language called isiNdebele. They were historically referred to as the Matabele which derives from the Sesotho expression thebele, indicating people who sheltered behind tall cowhide shields.

The history of the Northern Ndebele began when a Nguni group split from King Shaka in the early 19th century. Under the leadership of Mzilikazi, a former chief in the Zulu Kingdom and ally to King Shaka.

Mzilikazi chose a new headquarters on the western edge of the central plateau of modern-day Zimbabwe, leading some 20,000 Ndebele, descendants of the Nguni and Sotho of South Africa. Mzilikazi called his new nation Mthwakazi, a Zulu word which means something which became big at conception. In Zulu – Europeans called the territory Matabeleland.

Coloured Zimbabweans

Coloured Zimbabweans or Coloureds are persons of mixed race claiming both European and African descent. They are found in multiple African countries including Malawi, Zambia, and South Africa. The largest mixed race population is Zimbabwe where about 48,000 reside.

The earliest Coloured communities were formed in Zimbabwe – then known as Southern Rhodesia. During colonial rule in the 1960s, Coloured communities were classified as persons of mixed ancestry who did not follow a traditional African way of life and whose culture was European in origin and form.  Coloureds who lived with Black families were notably excluded, as were those who physically passed for Europeans and Asians.

Since the 1980s, Coloured Zimbabweans have complained of being increasingly disenfranchised, and being projected as foreigners with limited rights.

In a January 2005 report on political injustice in Zimbabwe published by the South Africa-based Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR), mixed race individuals were described as “invisible minorities”, who have “suffered differing levels of discrimination”, especially with regard to unequal access to government controlled programs such as that for land ownership reform (24 Jan. 2005, 11).

White Zimbabweans

White Zimbabweans are people from Zimbabwe who are White. Their ethnic origin is divided among the English-speaking British and Irish settlers, the Afrikaans-speaking descendants of Afrikaners (Dutch ancestry) from South Africa, and those descended from Greek and Portuguese settlers.

At independence in 1980, most of the country’s most fertile land was owned by some 4,000 white farmers as a result of colonial era policies which forced Black people from their land.

Asians and Indians in Zimbabwe

Indians in Zimbabwe have never made up more than 1% of the country’s population. Asians still only numbered 8,965 as compared to 228,296 Europeans out of a total population of 4.8 million.

The Indian presence in what is now Zimbabwe dates back to 1890 or earlier. Some scholars suggest the similarities of the gold mining techniques carried out in southern Zimbabwe during ancient periods with the Indian ones. A brass cup of Hindu workmanship dated to 14th or 15th century AD was also found in Zimbabwean workings.


BBC. “Is Zimbabwe extending an olive branch to its white farmers?” BBC News, 3 September 2020, Accessed 17 December 2020.

Britannica, Editors. “Ndebele.” Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica, 23 September 2010, Accessed 15 December 2020.

Cultural Atlas, and Nina Evason. “Zimbabwean Culture.” Cultural Atlas, 2017, Accessed 6 December 2020.

Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada. “Zimbabwe: Racism, discrimination against “mixed race (coloured)” and the availability of state protection (2004-2006).” Research Directorate, Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, Ottawa, vol. 2, no. ZWE100933.E, 2006, p. 11., Accessed 17 December 2020.

Jarus, Owen. “Shona People: History & Culture.” Live Science, 28 February 2017, Accessed 15 December 2020.

Mlambo, Alois S. A History of Zimbabwe. New York, Cambridge University Press, 2014.

PBS. “Wonders: The Shona People.” Lost Cities of the South, 1999, Accessed 15 December 2020.

WikiCommons, and Problem Masau. “An Introduction to Zimbabwe’s Shona People.” Culture Trip, 18 May 2018, Accessed 7 December 2020.

Wikipedia. “Northern Ndebele People.”, 12 December 2020, Accessed 15 December 2020. “Goffal.” Wikipedia The Free Encyclopedia, 12 December 2020,,0.1%25%20of%20Zambia’s%20total%20population. Accessed 17 December 2020.

Wikipedia The Free Encyclopedia. “Bantu Peoples.” Wikipedia, 2 December 2020, Accessed 7 December 2020.

Wikipedia The Free Encyclopedia. “Indians in Zimbabwe.” Wikipedia, 5 December 2020, Accessed 17 December 2020.

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