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Zimbabwe is a country in the southern section of Africa, just north of South Africa, and to the west of Mozambique. It is just over 150,000 square miles (390,000 sq. km) in area, with a population of more than 13 million. It has been an important region in Africa historically, and continues to have a great deal of influence in the world.
The country is populated primarily by the Shona people, who arrived some 2,000 years ago, displacing earlier Stone Age hunters. The name of the country means "great house of stone," and is a reference to Great Zimbabwe, the name given to the state which created hundreds of stone structures throughout the country. From roughly the 10th century to the 15th century, the country played an important role as a trading hub in southern Africa, dealing in gold and ivory. By the early 19th century, the dominant Shona people had come into conflict with several other neighboring groups of people, and were for the most part absorbed into the Ndebele, an offshoot of the Zulu people.
In the late 19th century, a British man, Cecil Rhodes, used mining rights to colonize the vast majority of modern-day Zimbabwe. By the end of the century the region was being called Rhodesia — named for Cecil Rhodes — and was being settled at a rapid rate by whites. Both Shona and Ndebele locals rebelled against these settlements, but the rebellions were all put down swiftly by the British, and colonization continued.
In 1922 the status of Rhodesia shifted from that of absolute colony to self-governing colony, and remained this way for another forty years. At last, in 1965, Rhodesia declared independence from Britain. This independent nation was led by whites — even though they made up a small minority of the country’s population — and was protested by many nations in the world. In fact, in 1970 only one nation recognized Rhodesia’s government — that of apartheid South Africa.
The situation in the country — pushed in no small part by the enormous amount of land controlled by the white minority — intensified drastically during the 1970s, with guerrilla movements throughout the country battling the white government. Two of these movements — the Zimbabwe African National Union and the Zimbabwe African People’s Union — wielded enormous control. In 1980, after the leader of the white government signed an agreement with various guerrilla factions to ensure safety for white citizens, the leader of ZANU, Robert Mugabe, was elected president, a position he continues to hold.
In the nearly thirty years Mugabe has ruled the country, numerous allegations of human rights violations, ethnic cleansing, and genocide have surfaced. The system of forced land redistribution has also led to allegations of corruption, with many claiming that land is used by Mugabe to reward those loyal to him.
Zimbabweans have a fairly low life expectancy of about 51 years for both genders. This is down from a life expectancy of 60 years in 1990, due to a number of factors, including an enormous AIDS epidemic, widespread drought, and a food crisis. Inflation spiraled out of control, up from roughly 30% to over 4000%, but drastically dropped after the country adopted a multi-currency system in the late 2000s. Although the government blames many of these problems on other governments, foreign observers have pointed to the poorly-handled land redistribution program as the primary cause.
Because of the continuing political unrest, traveling to Zimbabwe is not particularly encouraged. Although the country boasts a number of amazing attractions — among them some beautiful wildlife areas, the ruins of Great Zimbabwe, and Victoria Falls — it is definitely not a place for any but the most experienced travelers to visit. Those who do decide to visit should check carefully into the current political situation, and use the utmost care both in the cities and rural areas.