Mozambique’s Ethnic Groups

Swahili Women
Barrio Mafalala

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 significant historical importance – both before and after Mozambique’s independence in 1975.

Makonde Mask

Mafalala population consists of immigrants from all over Mozambique and is sometimes called a “hybrid culture“. Within the dense barrio, distinct “neighborhood” identities represent:

Ndau Mask


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


Cassava Root Mozambique’s Main Tropical Root Crop
Bantu Ethnic Group

Most Mozambicans belong to the Bantu ethnolinguistic family indigenous to “several hundred groups in sub-Saharan Africa“. Bantus are spread over a vast area across Southern and Central Africa, and the 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. The Portuguese ruled Mozambique from 1498 to 1974, and their colonization didn’t unite the indigenous people.

Ndau Sculpture by Zachariah 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 only spoken by a quarter of the population, often as a second language. Language differences and marginal transportation between regions created a lack of national identity and poor, 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, and many speak fluent Portuguese. They’re dominant in northern Mozambique, southern Tanzania, and Republic of Congo. There are “various dialects among the Makua, all traceable to one single language spoken thousands of years ago”.

Makua Women – 4SEE Photographers
Makonde Woman with Musiro Facial Painting

The Lomwe and Makua are related. Together, they make up forty percent of Mozambique’s population. The Lomwe practice a form of “body modification called scarification”, where they “scar symbolic designs into their bodies”. This ancient practice is dying out among the Lomwe.

Shangaan Girls
Tsonga, Shangaan

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”. Cassava is the most important crop and a major source of dietary energy. It’s known to be the highest producer of carbohydrates among staple crops. Polygamy is prevalent in Tsonga culture, and Chieftaincy is followed giving the ruling king absolute authority.

Tsonga Dancers

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

Chopi Tribeswomen Dancing


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


Chopi Woman with Baby

Makonde living in Mozambique and Tanzania are related but physically split apart by the Ruvuma River. Makonde living in the two countries are further separated by cultural and language differences.

Makua Woman Wearing Musiiro Face Mask

The Makonde are master carvers and sell their carvings throughout East Africa. Makonde have a matrilineal society where women control the children and inheritances. Men move into women’s villages and homes.

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 built “great stone cities” in Africa.

Shona Mbira

Zimbabwe’s “mbira” is a traditional musical instrument of the Shona people played for over 1,000 years at religious rituals and social occasions. The mbira has 22 or more 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 music about the struggle for human rights, political dignity, and social justice”.

Shona Women

Almost two million Sena live in Mozambique’s Zambezi Valley. Some believe the Sena have Jewish ancestry and may be descended from biblical Jacob’s sons.

Ndau Sculpture by Zechariah Njobo

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

Ndau Woman –
Yao Villagers

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

Ngoni Dancers

Yao live in small villages between the Ruvuma and Lugenda Rivers. A “head man, chosen through matrilineal succession, leads each village”. They maintain an agricultural society and use “slash-and-burn techniques for growing their staple crops – sorghum and maize”.

Zachariah Njobo, Ndau Sculptor

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 successful involvement in trade made them one of the richest and most influential ethnic groups in Southern Africa.

Chopi Woman

Swahili live mostly in Kenya, Tanzania, and Zanzibar, with some inhabiting areas of northern Mozambique. They speak Swahili, follow Islam, and wear traditional Islamic dress.

Yao Women

Unlike rural farmers with indigenous religions, many affluent Swahili merchants are urban dwellers living in elaborate houses within a literate Muslim civilization. Swahili farmers and fishermen also live in coastal villages where they build towns around a central mosque.

Ndau Sculpture by Zechariah Njobo

For centuries, the Swahili were merchants in the ancient commerce between the interior of Africa and Indian Ocean countries. Unique Swahili identity is not always the same, because the Swahili have “never formed a single polity“. There are clusters 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 Tsonga. The elephant is their symbol, and traditionally Chopi lived in the southern Zavala district in Inhambane Province. Civil war and drought greatly reduced Chopi population and forced survivors to move 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 instrument are like large xylophones. They’re part of traditional Chopi instruments that flourished in Africa.

Maconde Woman –


The sound produced by Chopi mbila and timbila instruments 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 features traditional music.

Ndau Sculpture by Zachariah Njobo

The Ngoni are traced back to South Africa’s Zulus who moved north after 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, Mestiço, European-Descendant

Mozambique’s European and European-descendant population is a major “part of the country’s demographics”. Portugal left a strong colonial legacy, and Portuguese is Mozambique’s official language. Some Portuguese and British left after Mozambique gained independence in 1975. A small number remained, along with a 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 Indian Ocean trade routes”. Vasco da Gama found Hindu traders during his first Mozambican visit in 1499. During the 16th century, Portuguese were the first to engage in the transatlantic slave trade.

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 settled in Mozambique in the 1870s. Portuguese colonists went to Macau China and “recruited Chinese carpenters and unskilled laborers to construct railways”. Many Asians started as carpenters but later moved into shopkeeping. They established community associations and educated their children at Chinese-language schools. After an outbreak of plague in 1899 was blamed on Indians, Asian migration halted.

Chinese Mozambicans
Tribalism in Africa

Tribalism in Africa is a heady subject – at least it is to me. I’ve traveled throughout Africa for many years. During each trip I learn more about the countries, their history, culture, strengths, contributions, economic / social issues and challenges. Tribalism is something I’m learning about. It’s a complex subject, especially in diverse, enthralling Mozambique!

Tonga Girls
Back to Cape Town

I’m happy to return to Cape Town tomorrow! In Africa, South Africa is the closest thing to home for me, and there are people to visit and many interesting things to do!

Map of Mozambique