I recently wrote a post about Barrio Mafalala, a Maputo neighborhood of “zinc, wooden houses, and unpaved streets”. Mafalala emerged in the 20th century and has had great historical importance both before and after Mozambique gained independence.
Mafalala’s population consists of immigrants from all over Mozambique. Within this dense, diverse barrio, each group maintains a distinct “neighborhood” identity. These neighborhoods represent the major ethnic groups throughout Mozambique and the smaller regional categories within each group.
Local languages are the standard, meaning that “not everyone within the country can communicate with each other”.
Historically, Mozambique experienced eras of Bantu, Swahili, and Portuguese rule. Portugal was the first European power to colonize Africa. The Portuguese ruled Mozambique from 1498 to 1974. Colonization clearly didn’t unite the indigenous people.
Mozambique’s fight for independence followed by a long civil war resulted in ethnic groups identifying within themselves, not as part of a united country.
Even though Portuguese is Mozambique’s official language, it’s only spoken by about a quarter of the population, often as a second language. Mozambique’s language differences combined with poor transportation between regions helped create limited communication and a lack of national identity within the country.
Mozambique’s primary ethnic groups are listed below:
- Makua / Lomwe
- Tsonga / Shangaan
- European / Mestiço
- South Asian – Indian and Chinese
The Makua are the largest ethnic group in Mozambique. They’re dominant in northern Mozambique, southern Tanzania, and the Republic of the Congo. There are “various dialects among the Makua, all traceable to one Makua language spoken over 1,000 years ago”. Many Makua speak Portuguese.
The Lomwe and Makua are related. Together they make up almost forty percent of Mozambique’s population. The Lomwe practice a form of “body modification called scarification”, where they “scar symbolic designs into their bodies”. The Lomwe’s ancient practice of scarification is dying out in Mozambique but gaining popularity in the modern world of body art in the U.S. and other countries.
Traditionally the Tsonga are farmers. Their culture and economy focus on “pastoralism and mixed agriculture” with cassava as the main crop. Polygamy is prevalent in Tsonga culture, and the ruling king holds absolute authority over his people.
Swahili dealt mainly in African ivory, gold, slaves, and Asian cloth and beads.
They have a matrilineal society where women control the children and inheritances. Men move into women’s villages and homes. The Makonde are master carvers and sell their carvings throughout East Africa.
Most Shona live in Zimbabwe, but some make their home in Mozambique’s Zambezi Valley, South Africa, Botswana, and Zambia. Over a thousand years ago, Shona ancestors built “great stone cities in Africa”.
Sena resisted Portuguese Colonialism and played an active role in Mozambique’s independence movement. They’re farmers who keep cattle, goats, sheep, and pigs and grow cotton, maize, mangoes, and sugar cane. They’re skilled musicians and practice “Kulowa Kufa where women marry another man or brother of a deceased husband”.
Story telling plays a big role in Ndau life, including folktales and stories told through ceramic sculpture images. Zechariah Njobo is a Ndau sculptor from Zimbabwe known for his carvings of animal-like birds, owls, and elephants.
The Yao people in Mozambique live mainly in small villages between the Ruvuma and Lugenda Rivers. A “head man, chosen through matrilineal succession, leads each village”. The Yao maintain an agricultural society, “using slash-and-burn techniques for growing their staple crops – maize and sorghum”.
The Yao have lived in the northwestern Mozambique’s Niassa Province for hundreds of years. When Arabs first arrived in Africa, they traded with the Yao in exchange for clothes and guns. Their involvement in trade made them one of the richest and most influential groups in Southern Africa.
The Swahili people are more numerous in Kenya, Tanzania, and the Zanzibar Archipelago, but some live in northern Mozambique. They speak Swahili, follow Islam, and wear traditional Islamic dress.
Unlike most Africans who are rural farmers with their own indigenous religions, the Swahili are also urban dwellers with a literate Muslim civilization. Swahili merchants live in elaborately designed and furnished houses. Unlike merchants, Swahili farmers and fishermen live in coastal villages where they build towns around a central mosque attended by the men (women are not allowed to enter mosques).
For centuries, the Swahili People were merchants in the ancient commerce between the interior of Africa and the countries of the Indian Ocean. Swahili identity is unique, but not always the same. The Swahili have “never formed a single ‘polity’ but are a cluster of groups each with its own occupation, way of life, and ranked position”. These Swahili groups include descendants of the original merchants:
- Arab rulers of the 18th century Sultanate of Zanzibar from Oman
- Arab colonists from the 19th and 20th centuries
The Chopi of Mozambique are related to the Tonga. Their symbol is the elephant. Traditionally they lived in the southern Zavala district in Inhambane Province. Mozambique’s civil war and droughts greatly reduced the number of Chopi. Many moved to cities far away from their homelands.
UNESCO described Chopi music as a “masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity”.
Chopi were part of the Sofala and Gaza Empire founded by the Nguni traditional ruler Chief Nxamba. Mbila and timbila (plural of mbila) are similar to large xylophones. They’re traditional Chopi instruments that have flourished in Africa. The sound is a combination of xylophone, horns, rattles, and flute. These musical instruments are an iconic symbol representing all of Mozambique.
In August an annual Timbila festival takes place in the Zavala District’s beach town of Tofo, a UNESCO world heritage site. The festival is “supported by the Gil Vicente live music venue and the One Ocean New Year’s Music festival “. The festival opens and closes with traditional music of the region.
The Ngoni can be traced back to South Africa’s Zulus who moved north following social reorganization in their home region. They practice an ethnic religion deeply rooted in their identity, including superstitions, ancestor worship, and witchcraft.
European, European-Descendant, Mestiço Population
The European and European-descendant population of Mozambique is a big “part of the country’s demographics”. Portugal left a strong colonial legacy in Mozambique, and Portuguese is the official language. Many British and Portuguese left the country after Mozambique gained independence in 1975, but a small number remained, along with a larger mestiço population of mixed African and Portuguese heritage.
South Asian – Indian and Chinese
India’s links with Mozambique go back “over half a millennium”. Indian Muslim traders from Malabar “plied the Indian Ocean trade routes”. Vasco da Gama found Hindu traders in Mozambique during his first visit in 1499. The Portuguese were the first to engage in the transatlantic slave trade in the 16th century. By the 1800s, Indian merchants cooperating with Portuguese shippers became active in the slave trade.
Chinese people began settling in Mozambique in the 1870s. Portuguese colonialists went to China and “recruited Chinese carpenters and unskilled laborers in Macao to work on railway construction”. Asian migration “halted in 1899 due to an outbreak of plague, blamed on Indians”. Many Asians started as carpenters but moved into shopkeeping. They established community associations and educated their children in Chinese-language schools.
Tribalism in Africa
Tribalism in Africa is a heady subject – at least for me. I’ve traveled throughout Africa for many years. During each trip I learn more about the countries, their history, strengths, contributions, and economic / social issues. Tribalism is something I’ve started learning about. It’s a fascinating subject, especially in Mozambique – a unique, complex, and enthralling country!
Back to Cape Town
I’m happy to be returning to Cape Town tomorrow! In Africa, it’s the closest thing to home for me, and there will be people to visit and interesting things to do.