Defying those humble roots, Tsvangirai – until Wednesday a burly 56-year-old opposition leader – was sworn into office as prime minister in a national unity government with President Robert Mugabe.
The man who vowed for years to bring an end to "Mugabe’s dictatorship" in the once-flourishing southern African country first rose to prominence as a trade union activist.
In 1988 he was elected secretary general of what later became the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU).
Persistent criticism of the government saw him twice detained by the authorities, once in 1989 following a warning about rising state repression, then again three years later after he ignored a ban on public protests.
In December 1997 Tsvangirai emerged as a powerful force when he led the ZCTU in crippling strikes that brought the country to a halt.
An eloquent and persuasive orator, he kept up the pressure as Zimbabwe’s economic hardship deepened and in 1999 he spearheaded the creation of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), born largely from the labour movement.
‘They’ll never break my spirit’
Tsvangirai has not had it easy. He claims to have been the target of four assassination attempts including one in 1997 when he said assailants tried to throw him out of his office window.
His career almost came to a halt in 2001 when he went on trial charged with plotting to kill Mugabe in a case based on testimony from a former Israeli secret agent. He was eventually cleared.
Two years later, a second charge of treason was levelled at him for calling on party supporters to overthrow the government in a case which was chucked out of court before going to trial.
Then in March 2007 he was among dozens of opposition supporters who were assaulted as they tried to stage an anti-government rally, suffering head injuries.
"Yes, they brutalised my flesh. But they will never break my spirit. I will soldier on until Zimbabwe is free," he said in a message from his hospital bed.
Born in 1952 in Gutu, south of the capital Harare, he is the eldest of nine children and the son of a bricklayer.
Tsvangirai was forced by poverty to leave school early and earn a living to enable his younger siblings to go through school.
After working as a weaver for two years he quit to become a plant foreman at a nickel mine in Mashonaland. He was to stay there for 10 years, before making his move into national trade unionism.
Unlike most of Zimbabwe’s politicians, Tsvangirai did not take part in the Chimurenga liberation war against white colonial rule.
He was 28 years old when Zimbabwe won its independence from Britain in 1980 and soon became active in Mugabe’s victorious Zanu-PF party.
Zimbabwe’s best hope
Towards the end of the 1980s and the early 1990s he would become the president’s staunchest critic and most bitter rival.
Parallels have been drawn between Tsvangirai and Zambia’s Frederick Chiluba, also a former trade union leader.
Some see the MDC as moulded on the experiences of Zambia’s Movement for Multi-Party Democracy (MMD) which ousted Kenneth Kaunda in polls in 1991.
The teetotal, non-smoking Tsvangirai, who is from the majority Shona tribe, is widely seen as Zimbabwe’s best hope of restoring the country’s fortunes, but many are wary that he must share power with his bitter rival Mugabe.