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Ethnic Groups and Languages

Zimbabwe’s population is divided into two major linguistic and ethnic groups: the Shona and the Ndebele. Numerous Shona subgroups, such as the Tavara, Korekore, and Manyika, are traditionally distinguished by region and dialect of Shona. Altogether, the Shona constitute 71 percent of the population. The Ndebele minority, representing 16 percent of the population, speak a language related to Zulu and are concentrated in the southwest. There are small but politically and economically significant minorities of people of Asian and European descent, as well as immigrants from nearby African countries, principally Mozambique. English is the official language of Zimbabwe and is used in government and education. Some of the white population are of Afrikaner origin and speak Afrikaans.



Protestant and Catholic missionaries attempted to spread Christianity into what is now Zimbabwe starting in the early 17th century. However, they made few converts until the establishment of British colonial control in the late 19th century. An estimated 62 percent of the population adhere to Christianity or to syncretic religions (merging Christian and indigenous beliefs). Most of the rest adhere to traditional indigenous religions. The largest Christian churches are Anglican, Roman Catholic, and Methodist. Each church draws its following from black and white segments of the population and from across social ranks. There are also a large number of African independent churches. The country also has small groups of Greek Orthodox Christians, Jews, and Muslims.



Christian missionaries conducted the first formal education in Zimbabwe, and many schools still retain a strong religious affiliation. With the growth of white settlement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, schools for the white population were established in all the major towns. Public day schools were initially single sex and were complemented by private boarding schools modeled on those in Britain. As late as 1965 there were only two government-run secondary schools for blacks.

Primary education in Zimbabwe has been universal and compulsory since 1987. With nearly half the population of school age, there has been massive growth since the country’s independence in the provision of education. Education accounts for about 24 percent (1997) of government expenditure. About 94 percent (2002–2003) of primary school-aged children are enrolled in school, but only 40 percent of appropriate-aged children attend secondary schools and just 4 percent attend colleges or universities. Zimbabwe has a number of colleges and universities, including the University of Zimbabwe (founded as the University College of Rhodesia in 1955) and Zimbabwe Open University (1999) in Harare, and the National University of Science and Technology (1990) in Bulawayo. Literacy has increased dramatically since independence. Adult literacy was estimated at 92 percent (95 percent for males and 89 percent for females) in 2005, up from only 39 percent in 1962.


Way of Life

Zimbabwe has inherited many traits from its colonial past. The white population reproduced the sport-based culture of colonial Britain and has produced world-class sports figures, competing at the highest level in rugby, cricket, and golf. Africans tend to be more interested in football (soccer). The African middle and upper classes tend to imitate the lifestyle of the old colonial ruling class, while younger Africans are drawn to the popular urban styles of South Africa. European-style clothing and housing are fashionable, although traditional rondavels (round thatched huts made of wood) are preferred in rural areas.


Social Issues and Social Services

Zimbabwe’s white population still lives very much aloof from the African majority, and there is relatively little social mixing. Whites enjoy a high standard of living and control most of the country’s private businesses. The government promised since independence to redistribute white farmland to landless African peasants and began seizing white farms in 2000. The seizure and subsequent distribution of the land are sources of tension in the country.

Zimbabwe’s biggest social problem is the spread of AIDS, which became an epidemic in the 1990s. In 2003 it was estimated that 1.5 million people in Zimbabwe, more than 20 percent of people over the age of 14, were infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS. The growing number of people who contract AIDS causes increased costs to medical and social services as well as to education and training programs. In response to the epidemic, the government launched a campaign to educate people about the causes of AIDS and to encourage them to take steps to prevent its spread.

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