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. The 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 ethnic family “makes up the most of Africa’s population south of the Sahara“.

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 only spoken by about a quarter of the population, and 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.

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 in Mozambique but gaining popularity in the modern world of body art in the U.S. and other countries.

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 “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.

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 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”.

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 representing all 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 can be 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 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.



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. The 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

Central Maputo Moçambique

President Samora Moises Machel Independence Square

After a few days in Maputo, I wondered if a month was too much time in Mozambique. I’ve felt like that about other places in my travels, only to shed a tear when it was time to leave. Maputo isn’t an easy city. There are challenges – sketchy public transportation and infrastructure, poor signage, a significant language barrier, and hot, humid tropical weather. Adjusting is difficult, but Mozambique is worth the effort.

Our Lady of Conception Cathedral

It’s exciting to get out of your comfort zone and see life from another perspective. It takes several days to acclimate and find your way around a new city. In a month, there’s time to get comfortable with the environment and dig deeper. Each day brings a better understanding of a new culture but getting around has been challenging.

Most Maputo taxi drivers don’t speak English and communication is difficult. They can misunderstand your destination unless it’s a well-known place or you have a card with the printed address. Many are illiterate and cannot read. Buses packed like sardines are potentially dangerous, not to mention learning the sketchy pickup and drop-off points.

Vista Portuguese Fort

Maputo Tour Groups and Guides

For the past few days, I’ve explored the city concentrating on major attractions in central Maputo. Different guides have taught me about local culture and history. In turn, some have picked my brain about difficulties experienced as a tourist in Maputo.

Hair for Sale Central Market

One local group – Maputo a Pé – is knowledgeable and well-connected with local clubs and expat organizations like the French and American cultural centers and the Club of Mozambique. Their office is in the information center near the entrance to Tunduru Botanical Gardens. I’ve appreciated their help and plan to go on an “art safari” and barrio walks to learn more about Mozambique.

Relief of Portuguese Soldiers and King Ngungunhane

Walking on concrete pavement for extended periods of time takes its toll. To make things worse, Maputo’s pavement is a mass of cracked, crumbling, chunky cement. People park their cars on the sidewalks forcing pedestrians to walk in the street until they can divert to a safe, unobstructed walkway. It’s dangerous, but slowly I’m getting accustomed to it. Maputo’s reckless drivers assume the right-of-way, disregarding vulnerable pedestrians. The police don’t do much about the parking or bad driving……….but I’m digressing…

Central Market

One of my guides – Hendy Mario of Maputo Free Walking Tour – specializes in Maputo’s historical sites. Hendy is Mozambican. His wife is from Georgia USA. Hendy grew up on the Island of Mozambique, a remote fishing village on a “crescent-shaped coral island” in northern Mozambique. The island is noted for its mixture of European, Arabic, and Indian cultures. For centuries it was a Portuguese trading post on the route to India and considered the “capital and trading centre of Portuguese East Africa“.

Hendy Mozambique Free Walking Tour


“The entire Ilha de Mocambique is barely two miles long and a few hundred yards wide. It’s been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.”


Maputo Central Market

Hendy’s tour was set up like those I enjoyed in Prague. You aren’t obliged to pay a set fee. Instead, you pay the guide what the tour was worth to you. I learned much from Hendy and my time was well spent.

Walkway Maputo Train Station

We walked the central area where he pointed out notable buildings and talked about their history. Many of them are described in Phillip Schauer’s book Maputo Architectural and Tourist Guidea valuable reference when the dull brain fails.

Portuguese Monument to the Great War

Hendy’s tours concentrate on major historical attractions, some I’d visited previously on my own. His narrative provided more insight and taught me about African ethnic culture in Mozambique – the subject of a separate blog post to follow soon. Despite ethnic and linguistic differences, “there is little conflict among various Mozambican groups”.

Local Art from Civil War Remnants

There are twelve major ethnic groups in Mozambique:

  1. Makua – largest ethnic group
  2. Sena
  3. Shona
  4. Tsonga / Shangaan
  5. Makonde
  6. Yao
  7. Swahili
  8. Tonga
  9. Chopi
  10. Ngoni
  11. Ndau
  12. European, South Asian, Chinese, Mestiço (mixed races)

Wood Carving Portuguese Fort


“The greatest cultural disparities are those dividing the north from the south. Because they’re far from the capital and other urban centers, northern groups show less influence from the Portuguese.”


Wood Carving Portuguese Fort

Central Maputo Attractions

Hendy and I met at Hotel Pestana Rovuma’s café near Independence Square, and our first stop was Nossa Senhorha da Conceicao (Our Lady of Conception). The beautiful Roman Catholic Cathedral is a well-known landmark in Maputo with a tall single spire and stained-glass interior. Portuguese architect Marcial Simões de Freitas e Costa built the cathedral in 1944.

French Cultural Center

There was a large funeral gathering at the cathedral with government cars parked outside. I didn’t think it appropriate to walk inside but will return later to see the interior artwork and stained glass.

Across the street from the cathedral we visited City Hall, a French “Beau-Arts” building. The architects were Carlos Cesar do Santos, Franz Keindl, and Arnaldo Pacheco Pereira Leite. Completed in 1947, the words of the former President of the Portuguese Republic Americo Tomas – “Aqui e Portugal” (This is Portugal) – were inscribed on the building but removed after Mozambique’s independence.

An imposing Statue of Samora Machel – 30 ft. tall weighing 4.8 tons – dominates Independence Square. Machel was a follower of Eduardo Chivambo Mondlane, the assassinated leader and founder of The Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO). During the 1960s, he spent time with Mondlane in Tanzania where FRELIMO was founded. Machel was Mozambique’s first President from 1975 to 1986. He died in an air crash in South Africa under suspicious circumstances. His statue was “designed and constructed in North Korea by the Mansudae Overseas Projects, an arm of the Mansudae Art Studio“.

Wooden Coffin of King Ngungunhane

His widow, Graça Machel, later married South African President Nelson Mandela. She’s an international advocate for women’s and children’s rights. In 1997 she became a British dame for her humanitarian work and now lives in Maputo.

King Ngungunhane


Graça Machel is the only woman in history to have been first lady of two separate republics, serving as the First Lady of Mozambique from 1975 to 1986 and the First Lady of South Africa from 1998 to 1999.


Mozambican Wood Artists

Built by the Portuguese, after Mozambique gained independence in 1975, the square’s name changed to Praça da Independência. Samora Machel’s statue replaced that of Portuguese cavalry officer Joaquim Augusto Mouzinho de Albuquerque. Albuquerque’s statue was moved to the old fort with other remnants from the era of Portuguese rule.

Wood Carving Portuguese Fort

Wood Carving Portuguese Fort

We passed the Iron House near the botanical gardens and designed by an associate of Gustave Eiffel in the late 19th century. Intended to be the governor’s residence, the house’s metal-plated exterior was unsuitable for tropical weather. Inside there was a display of interesting pieces by local artists – all made from bullets and remnants of Mozambique’s civil war.

Wood Carving Portuguese Fort

I’ve visited Tunduru Botanical Gardens a few times to escape the heat and busy city streets. Trees and plants in the park are a magnificent haven. Hendy pointed out a colony of fruit bats that made the park their home. You can see them literally hanging in the trees.

Avenida Buildings

On the way to the fort we passed interesting architecture including the Avenida Buildings which burnt down in 1990 and were never restored.  In a prime central location, they were constructed in the 1900s for Gerard Pott, a South African and Honorary Consul of Transvaal.

Graça Machel

Another interesting building that has seen better days is the TAP (Portuguese National Airline) or Montepio (Portuguese Savings Bank) building. There’s a colorful abstract mosaic painted on the façade. It’s had many uses and now is an apartment building.


We continued to restored Fortaleza da Nossa Senhora da Conceicaothe Portuguese fort built it in the mid-19th century and surrounded by fragrant frangipani trees. The fort’s museum houses “remnants from the era of early Portuguese forays to the area”. The sealed, carved wooden coffin of King Ngungunhane – “final ruler of the famed kingdom of Gaza” – is on display in one of the side rooms.

Montepio Building

In another area of the museum, local Mozambican artists and master wood carvers crafted beautiful detailed wooden carvings. They depict scenes from Vasco da Gama’s arrival in 1498 and the Portuguese take over up until Mozambique’s independence in 1975. The hard-fought battle for independence was fierce and brutal. Africans fought on foot using primitive weapons, while the Portuguese had horses and guns!

Inside Maputo Train Station

We ended the tour at CFM Railway Station. The beautiful Victorian building was designed in 1920 by an associate of Gustave Eiffel. It has a wrought iron roof dome and marble pillars and is considered one the most beautiful train stations in the world.

Local Art from Civil War Remnants

A Monument to the Great War stands in front of the CFM station. It represents the “efforts of the Portuguese and Mozambicans in the World War I”. The statue is considered a Portuguese memorial “representing Portuguese sacrifices repelling the German invasion of northern Mozambique”. Portugal “conscripted thousands of Mozambican men to fight for the Allies”.  “More than 130,000 Mozambicans died in the war,” resulting in an uprising in 1917.

Local Art from Civil War Remnants

After Mozambique gained independence in 1975, the Minister of Transportation wanted to destroy the Monument, but the “multi-ton hunk of steel-reinforced concrete made that difficult”. Today it remains as a somewhat neglected monument to Mozambique’s “territorial integrity”.

Old Engine Central Train Station

“Legend states that the female figure in the Monument to the Great War honours a courageous woman who rid the area of a deadly cobra (rising up from her feet), which killed many people. The notorious creature met its match when plunging to its death into a boiling cauldron of porridge balanced on her head.”

Iron House

After visiting the station, I thought about taking the train from Maputo to Cape Town in March. When talking with several locals, I realized it would be a long, uncomfortable trip. With frequent stops, it could take up to 7+ days. I’ll fly instead.

Cine África

This central tour merely scratched the surface of the many interesting buildings in Maputo – each with its own unique story. Another favorite is Cine África on Avenida 24 de Julho. The beautiful Art Deco building was once a theatre that “disseminated films produced in Africa,” but it’s now closed.

Portuguese Fort Vista


“Inhaca Island reefs are among the most southerly in the world. Since 1976 parts of the island and surrounding waters are a marine reserve with over 300 different species of birds.”


Maputo Beach

Nature Reserves, Inhaca, Ponta do Ouro

Some of Mozambique’s nature reserves are closed during the rainy season from November through March. I’m planning a snorkeling trip to Inhaca island in Maputo Bay and perhaps Ponta do Ouro. Inhaca is a marine research center known for remarkable coral reefs. Ponta do Ouro is a popular area near the South African border. Getting to both locations can be complicated and involves ferries and booking in advance.