Mozambique’s Ethnic Groups

Swahili Women

A few weeks ago I wrote about Barrio Mafalala, a Maputo neighborhood of “wooden houses, zinc, and unpaved streets”. Mafalala emerged in the 20th century and has great historical importance – before and after Mozambique’s independence in 1975.

Makonde Mask

Mafalala’s population consists of immigrants from all over Mozambique and sometimes is called a “hybrid culture“. Within the dense, diverse barrio, ethnic groups maintain a distinct “neighborhood” identity. Neighborhoods represent:

Ndau Mask


Local languages are the standard, meaning that “not everyone within the country can communicate with each other”.


Most Mozambicans belong to the Bantu ethnolinguistic family indigenous to Southern and Central Africa. This Bantu family “makes up most of Africa’s South Saharan population“.

Mozambique Provinces and Regions
Lomwe Women
Portuguese Influence

Historically, Mozambique experienced eras of Bantu, Swahili, and Portuguese rule. Portugal was the first European power to colonize the African continent, and the Portuguese ruled Mozambique from 1498 to 1974. Colonization didn’t unite the indigenous people.

Ndau Sculpture by Zechariah Njobo


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.


Ngoni Girls – Kondwani Magombo Nyasa Times
Traditional Ngoni Dress – Pinterest

Even though Portuguese is Mozambique’s official language, it’s spoken by a quarter of the population, often as a second language. Language differences and poor transportation between regions created a lack of national identity and limited communication.

Yao Wood Carvings
Ethnic Groups

Mozambique’s primary ethnic groups include:

  1. Makua / Lomwe
  2. Tsonga / Shangaan (Shangana)
  3. Makonde
  4. Shona
  5. Sena
  6. Ndau
  7. Yao
  8. Swahili
  9. Chopi
  10. Ngoni
  11. European / Mestiço
  12. South Asian – Indian and Chinese
Ndau Dancers

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 language spoken over 1,000 years ago”. Many Makua speak Portuguese.

Makonde Woman with Face Painting

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 ancient practice of scarification is dying out but gaining popularity in today’s modern world.

Shangaan Girls
Tsonga (Shangaan / Shangana)

Tsonga live mainly in southern Mozambique. They’re a “sister tribe to the Shangaan people who live in South Africa’s Northern Provinces”.

Makonde Mask

Traditionally Tsonga are farmers. Their culture and economy focus on “mixed agriculture and pastoralism” with cassava as the main crop. Polygamy is prevalent in Tsonga culture, and the ruling king holds absolute authority.

Tsonga Dancers

Shangaan developed from a mixture of Bantu-speaking people, including Nguni, Shona, and Chopi. Some came to Mozambique after fleeing notoriously brutal Zulu massacres led by King Shaka.

Chopi Tribeswomen Dancing


Swahili dealt mainly in African ivory, gold, slaves, and Asian cloth and beads.


Chopi Woman with Baby

The Makonde in Mozambique and Tanzania are related but physically separated by the Ruvuma River. They also have cultural and language differences.

Makua Woman Wearing Musiiro Face Mask

Makonde 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.

Ndau Rights of Passage Ceremony

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, ancestors of the Shona “great stone cities in Africa”.

Shona Mbira

Zimbabwe’s “mbira” is a traditional instrument of the Shona people played for over 1,000 years at religious rituals and social occasions. The mbira has 22+ metal keys mounted on a hardwood soundboard. Musicians play the keys using two thumbs to pluck down and the right forefinger to pluck up. The Shona mbira is associated with Chimurenga – “Zimbabwean popular music that delivers messages of social and political protest through Western popular styles and music of southeastern Africa”.

Shona Women

According to calculations, there are almost two million Sena in Mozambique’s Zambezi Valley. Some believe the “Sena have Jewish ancestry and descended from one of the sons of the biblical Jacob”.

Ndau Sculpture by Zechariah Njobo

Sena were active in the independence movement resisting Portuguese Colonialism. They’re farmers who keep cattle, goats, sheep, and pigs and grow cotton, maize, mangoes, and sugar cane. Sena are skilled musicians. They practice “Kulowa Kufa where women marry another man or brother of a deceased husband”.

Mozambican Children

The Ndau of Mozambique live mainly in the Zambezi Valley, but spread all the way to the coast and Zimbabwe. The Ndau are excellent herbalists.

Yao Villagers

Storytelling plays a big role in Ndau life, including folktales and narratives told through ceramic sculpture images. Zechariah Njobo is a popular Ndau sculptor from Zimbabwe known for his carvings of animal-like birds, owls, and elephants.

Ngoni Dancers

The Yao people live 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”.

Zechariah Njobo, Ndau Sculptor

The Yao have lived in the northwestern Mozambique 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.

Chopi Woman

The Swahili are mostly in Kenya, Tanzania, and Zanzibar, but some live in northern Mozambique. They speak Swahili, follow Islam, and wear traditional Islamic dress.

Yao Women

Unlike most Africans who are rural farmers with indigenous religions, many Swahili are urban dwellers within a literate Muslim civilization. Swahili merchants often 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.

Ndau Sculpture by Zechariah Njobo

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:

Chopi Women

The Chopi of Mozambique are related to the Tonga. The elephant is the Chopi symbol. Traditionally, they lived in the southern Zavala district in Inhambane Province. Civil war and drought greatly reduced the number of Chopi. Many moved to cities far away from their family and homelands.

Ndau Midwives with Herbs


UNESCO describes 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 musical instruments like large xylophones. They’re traditional Chopi instruments that have flourished in Africa. The sound they produce is a combination of xylophone, horns, rattles, and flute. These musical instruments are an iconic symbol of Mozambique.

Praia do Tofo 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 the region’s traditional music.

Ndau Sculpture by Zachariah Njobo

The Ngoni are traced back to South Africa’s Zulus who moved north following social reorganization in their home region. Superstitions, ancestor worship, and witchcraft are part of their ethnic religion and rooted deeply in their identity.

Map Zambezi River Basin
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 Portuguese and British left the country after Mozambique gained independence in 1975. A small number remained, along with a larger mestiço population of mixed African and Portuguese heritage.

Timbila Musical Instrument
South Asian and Portuguese 

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. Portuguese were the first to engage in the transatlantic slave trade in the 16th century.

African Girl of Macau Ethnicity


By the 1800s, Indian merchants cooperating with Portuguese shippers became active in the slave trade.


Africans of Asian Ethnicity

Chinese people began settling in Mozambique in the 1870s. Portuguese colonists went to China and “recruited Chinese carpenters and unskilled laborers in Macau 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.

Chinese Mozambicans
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 just started learning about. It’s a fascinating subject, especially in Mozambique – a unique, complex, enthralling country!

Tonga Girls
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.

Map of Mozambique