Customs and Cuisine of Zimbabwe
By Vinola V. Munyon
Location: The Republic of Zimbabwe is a landlocked country in Southern Africa located in between South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, and Mozambique.
Name Origins: Known previously as Southern Rhodesia (1898), Rhodesia (1965), and Zimbabwe Rhodesia (1979), its current name was first recorded in 1961. The name Zimbabwe is derived from “dzimba dza mabwe” meaning “great stone houses” or dzimba waye meaning “esteemed houses,” a reference to the stone-built capital of the Rozwi Shona dynasty.
Population: Estimates from July 2020 peg the population of Zimbabwe at 14.5 million.
Religion: A majority of the population (85 percent) are of the Christian faith. Among Christians, protestants constitute the largest group (75 percent). As with other African nations, ancestral worship is often practiced along with and considered compatible with practicing Christianity. Muslims constitute only 0.5 percent of the population.
Language: Shona, Ndebele, and English are the official languages with Shona being the most widely spoken language. Ndebele is the second most widely spoken, while English is traditionally used for official business.
CLAIM TO FAME/INFAMY
For the first half of its recorded history Zimbabwe was associated with its fight for independence. For the latter part of its history, it has been, some would say, almost synonymous with President Robert Mugabe. Independent Zimbabwe’s first prime minister and its only President until he was forced to resign in November 2017, Mugabe has been the face of Zimbabwe. His iron-fisted, authoritarian rule and poorly designed policies and plans crippled Zimbabwe during his regime and continue to prevent recovery even today years after he was made to leave his position of power. A poorly executed land redistribution campaign begun in 1997 resulted in an exodus of White farmers and its ripple effects were felt in the large-scale shortages of commodities and in the economy tanking.
In 2005, Mugabe’s administration launched Operation “Murambatsvina” (literal translation: move the rubbish), also officially named “Operation Restore Order.” The operation was presumably a project to restore order and vitality to blighted urban areas. What it was in execution was a clearing of informal settlements and the forcible evacuation of those who lived and worked there, people who coincidentally opposed the administration. While estimates vary, some suggest that the homes and businesses of over 700,000 were damaged or destroyed and close to 2.4 million were indirectly affected.
In November 2017, the 93-year-old Mugabe was “detained” by the military purportedly “…for the constitution and the sanity of the nation…” per the public announcements of the ruling party, which emphasized that Mugabe owned neither Zimbabwe nor the ruling party. While seen around the world as a military coup, the ruling party and the military strongly denied that this was a hostile takeover and more a restoration of democratic processes. Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who had been fired by Mugabe a scant week earlier, was elevated to the position of head of the ruling party and inaugurated as President days later. Elections were held in 2018, as promised by Mnangagwa, and won by him in a close contest.
Zimbabwe has not fared much better under Mnangagwa. Inflation rates continue to increase and were close to 300 percent by the end of 2019. The Mnangagwa regime continues the same practice of using force to squelch any protests or opposition.
A recent crisis is the case of physicians going on strike due to the lack of resources and compensation. In a country where physician density is 0.19 physicians/1,000 population (2017) and that has 1.4 million (2019 est.) people living with HIV/AIDS, this is a crisis that is bound to contribute to greater mortality.
The people of Zimbabwe, the Zimbabweans, are predominantly of African ethnicity with almost 99.4 percent identifying as African and a scant 0.4 percent identifying as other. Of these, the Shona constitute the largest ethnic group with Ndebele being the second largest. Zimbabweans live in largely rural settlements with only 32.2 percent of the total population (2020 estimates) living in urban areas. The major urban area is the capital city, Harare, with a population of 1.52 million.
Marriages are customary or civil. Customary marriages are restricted to Black Zimbabweans and permit polygyny. They do not, however, permit divorce. Civil marriages are monogamous and do permit divorce. Among the Shona, Ndebele, Shangaan, and Venda ethnicities, inheritance is patrilineal, and in rural areas, the newly married couple takes up residence with the groom’s family. The Tonga people are matrilineal, and the newly married couple typically takes up residence with the bride’s family. Bride price is traditionally paid by the groom to the bride’s family and is a way of gaining “possession” of the bride and any offspring that might result from the union.
Men are considered the head of the household and are often the voice of authority and decision making in the household. Deference is paid to age, so the eldest male in a household often wields considerable influence over decisions. Infant and childcare is vested solely in the women in the household.
Roles are very gender oriented and while women and girls constitute 52 percent of the population, they are not proportionately represented in the commercial economy. Women and female children continue to be the ones fetching water for household use, with 84 percent of those doing so, over very long distances, being women and female children. Violence against women and children is also gendered, with women and female children being victims of sexual violence at home and at school while male children are usually victims of physical violence.
The cuisine of Zimbabwe is rooted in traditions of African cuisine but tempered by influences of having been a British colony. Thus, unlike the cuisine of its neighbors that bear strong influences of Portuguese cuisine in the liberal use of chili peppers, Zimbabwean cuisine is less heavy on chili peppers and spices and rather mild in flavor. The popularity of tea and bread is another nod to its history as a British colony. The Portuguese influence is seen in the use of peanuts or peanut butter as an ingredient in some of the main dishes.
Maize and corn remain staple grains supplanted by millet, sorghum, rice, and wheat. A quintessential Zimbabwean dish is sadza. Corn is pounded into flour known as mealie-meal. The mealie-meal is slowly cooked until it reaches a porridge like consistency known as sadza. A big communal bowl of sadza is had at almost every meal. Little amounts are scooped from the communal ball and rolled into balls with the right hand (the left is considered unclean. It serves as an edible utensil to dip/scoop up stews and vegetables. Bota is another porridge made with cornmeal, milk, peanut butter and occasionally jam.
Muboora is a traditional Zimbabwean stew made of pumpkin leaves that are thoroughly washed and then boiled with tomatoes, onions, salt, and soda bicarbonate. Mubaoora is served with sadza and a relish. A dash of cream, if available, is occasionally added to the dish. When peanut butter is stirred into the muboora it is known as muboora une dovi.
Dovi is a peanut stew made of okra and vegetables such as carrots and potatoes stewed in stock with crushed peanuts. Meat, either chicken, goat or lamb, if available, can be added. Dovi is served with sadza, rice, or mashed potatoes.
Mupunga unedovi is a one pot dish of long grain rice and peanut butter. When the rice is almost coked and has absorbed almost all the water that was boiled in, the peanut butter is swirled in and cooked a little longer until it is completely combined and creamy. Mupunga unedovi is usually served with meat.
Sun-drying and dehydrating food (think jerky) serves the purpose of preserving meats and seafood when there isn’t the possibility of refrigerating them. Kapenta are small freshwater fish found in Lake Tanganyika that are sundried and added to a stew of tomatoes, onions, and greens.
Mealie-meal is not just used to make food it is also used to make beverages like maheu. Naturally sour tasting, thick and creamy in consistency, maheu is sometimes sweetened with sugar. When fermented, it is an alcoholic beverage.
Mopane worms, that get their name from being found on the mopane tree, are a popular high-density source of protein. They are eaten fried, crispy like a snack, or added to stews.
Popular snacks are fried cakes, potato chips, popcorn, and dried fruit. Wild loquats, a yellow citric fruit known locally as Mazhanje, are a popular fruit eaten fresh, when in season, at the end of a meal.
Some taboos about food persist, while some have fallen out of favor. Eggs were thought to cause infertility in women and were to be avoided, a taboo less in practice these days. Those belonging to the Ndebele ethnicity avoid eating corn out of the season that it is harvested in. A lot of ethnic groups do not eat animals or plants that are on their family totem or that their family name is based/derived from.
THE ZIMBABWEAN WAY OF LIFE
Zimbabwe is home to many natural wonders. From Lake Kariba on the Zambia-Zimbabwe border that forms the world’s largest reservoir by volume (180 cu km; 43 cu mi) to the magnificent Victoria Falls, the world’s largest waterfall, to the nature preserves that are home to the rare “big five” (the African lion, the African leopard, the African elephant, the Cape buffalo, and the rhino) Zimbabwe has been a draw for tourists for its wondrous natural features and wildlife.
But life in Zimbabwe for the average Zimbabwean is less wondrous. The World Health Organization estimates that a quarter of the country’s population is “food insecure.” With 72.3 percent of the population being recorded as under the poverty line (2012 estimates), an estimated four million Zimbabweans are dependent on aid rations just to survive. Unable to pay for schooling and supplies, parents are increasingly keeping their children home.
Zimbabweans fleeing poverty in the rural regions continue to flock to the urban areas and take up residence in informal settlements (slums). Newer estimates suggest that one in four of the country’s urban population (close to 1.25 million) live in slums. However, with the nation already at a housing shortfall to the tune of 1.3 million housing units, there is little hope that this would be a temporary setback.
With Mugabe gone, change was promised. There was the promise of less corruption, more opportunities for the average Zimbabwean and a better quality of living. But as the currency crisis looms, inflation soars, and jobs disappear, Zimbabweans are faced with more of the same, only under a new administration.
However, some still hold out hope that this is rock bottom and that there is nowhere else to go but up. Enough is enough, they say, “things have to get better as we, the Zimbabweans are strong people.”
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