Robert Gabriel Mugabe was born on 21 February 1924 at the Kutama Mission village in Southern Rhodesia's Zvimba District. His father, Gabriel Matibiri, was a carpenter while his mother Bona taught Christian catechism to the village children. They had been trained in their professions by the Jesuits, the Roman Catholic apostolic order which had established the mission. Bona and Gabriel had six children: Miteri (Michael), Raphael, Robert, Dhonandhe (Donald), Sabina, and Bridgette. They belonged to the Zezuru clan, one of the smallest branches of the Shona tribe. Mugabe's paternal grandfather was Constantine Karigamombe, alias "Matibiri", a strong powerful figure, who served King Lobengula in the 19th century. The Jesuits were strict disciplinarians and under their influence Mugabe developed an intense self-discipline, while also becoming a devout Catholic. Mugabe excelled at school, where he was a secretive and solitary child, preferring to read, rather than playing sports or socialising with other children. He was taunted by many of the other children, who regarded him as a coward and a mother's boy.
In approximately 1930, Gabriel had an argument with one of the Jesuits, and as a result the Mugabe family was expelled from the mission village by its French leader, Father Jean-Baptiste Loubiere. The family settled in a village about seven miles away, although the children were permitted to remain at the mission primary school, living with relatives in Kutama during term-time and returning to their parental home on weekends. Around the same time, Robert's older brother Raphael died, likely of diarrhoea. In early 1934, Robert's other older brother, Michael, also died, after consuming poisoned maize. Later that year, Gabriel left his family in search of employment at Bulawayo. He subsequently abandoned Bona and their six children and established a relationship with another woman, with whom he had three further offspring.
Loubiere died shortly after and was replaced by an Irishman, Father Jerome O'Hea, who welcomed the return of the Mugabe family to Kutama. In contrast to the racism that permeated Southern Rhodesian society, under O'Hea's leadership the Kutama Mission preached an ethos of racial equality. O'Hea nurtured the young Mugabe; shortly before his death in 1970 he described the latter as having "an exceptional mind and an exceptional heart". As well as helping provide Mugabe with a Christian education, O'Hea taught him about the Irish War of Independence, in which Irish revolutionaries had overthrown the British imperial regime. After completing six years of elementary education, in 1941 Mugabe was offered a place on a teacher training course at Kutama College. Mugabe's mother could not afford the tuition fees, which were paid in part by his grandfather and in part by O'Hea. As part of this education, Mugabe began teaching at his old school, earning £2 per month, which he used to support his family. In 1944, Gabriel returned to Kutama with his three new children, but died shortly after, leaving Robert to take financial responsibility for both his three siblings and three half-siblings. Having attained a teaching diploma, Mugabe left Kutama in 1945.
Teaching career: 1945–1960
During the following years, Mugabe taught at various schools around Southern Rhodesia, among them the Dadaya Mission school in Shabani. There is no evidence that Mugabe was involved in political activity at the time, and he did not participate in the country's 1948 general strike. In 1949 he won a scholarship to study at the University of Fort Hare in South Africa's Eastern Cape. There he joined the African National Congress, and attended African nationalist meetings, where he met a number of Jewish South African communists who introduced him to Marxist ideas. He later related that despite this exposure to Marxism, his biggest influence at the time were the actions of Mahatma Gandhi during the Indian independence movement. In 1952, he left the university with a Bachelor of Arts degree in history and English literature. In later years he described his time at Fort Hare as the "turning point" in his life.
Mugabe was inspired by the example set by Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah.
Mugabe returned to Southern Rhodesia in 1952, by which time—he later related— he was "completely hostile to the [colonialist] system". Here, his first job was as a teacher at the Driefontein Roman Catholic Mission School near Umvuma. In 1953 he relocated to the Highfield Government School in Salisbury's Harari township and in 1954 to the Mambo Township Government School in Gwelo. Meanwhile, he gained a Bachelor of Education degree by correspondence from the University of South Africa, and ordered a number of Marxist tracts—among them Karl Marx's Capital and Friedrich Engels' The Condition of the Working Class in England—from a London mail-order company. Despite his growing interest in politics, he was not active in any political movement. He joined a number of inter-racial groups, such as the Capricorn Africa Society, through which he mixed with both black and white Rhodesians. Guy Clutton-Brock, who knew Mugabe through this group, later noted that he was "an extraordinary young man" who could be "a bit of a cold fish at times" but "could talk about Elvis Presley or Bing Crosby as easily as politics".
From 1955 to 1958, Mugabe lived in neighbouring Northern Rhodesia, where he worked at Chalimbana Teacher Training College in Lusaka. There he continued his education by working on a second degree by correspondence, this time a Bachelor of Administration from the University of London International Programmes through distance and learning. In Northern Rhodesia, he was taken in for a time by the family of Emmerson Mnangagwa, whom Mugabe inspired to join the liberation movement and who would later go on to be President of Zimbabwe. In 1958, Mugabe moved to Ghana to work at St Mary's Teacher Training College in Takoradi. He taught at Apowa Secondary School, also at Takoradi, after obtaining his local certification at Achimota College (1958–1960), where he met his first wife, Sally Hayfron. According to Mugabe, "I went [to Ghana] as an adventurist. I wanted to see what it would be like in an independent African state". Ghana had been the first African state to gain independence from European colonial powers and under the leadership of Kwame Nkrumah underwent a range of African nationalist reforms; Mugabe revelled in this environment. In tandem with his teaching, Mugabe attended the Kwame Nkrumah Ideological Institute in Winneba. Mugabe later claimed that it was in Ghana that he finally embraced Marxism. He also began a relationship with a Ghanaian woman, Sally Hayfron, who worked at the college and shared his political interests.