Eras of both Bantu and Swahili rule, as well as a Portuguese colonial heritage, have been integral in shaping Mozambique, population 26 million. Here are the 12 biggest ethnic groups in the country.
Sources: PeopleGroups.org, Kwekudee-TripDownMemoryLane.Blogspot.com, MWNation.com, KrugerPark.co.za, Britannica.com, Encyclopedia.com, OrvilleJenkins.com, UNESCO.org, Academia.edu
The Makua people are the largest ethnic group in Mozambique, with 4 million-plus people. The group is dominant in the north, as well as in southern Tanzania and further east in the Republic of Congo. There are various dialects among the Makua people, but all can be distinctively traced back to one Makhua language spoken over 1,000 years ago. Many, however, also speak Portuguese, the official language of Mozambique.
According to some calculations, there are about 1,785,000 Sena people in Mozambique, predominately in the Zambezi valley. Some believe that the Sena may have Jewish ancestry, descended from one of the sons of the biblical Jacob. It is thought that some of their ancestors left Judea and settled in present-day Yemen, building a city later named Sena. From there, many traveled south in search of gold. Some settled in present-day Mozambique.
Though more numerous in Zimbabwe, approximately 173,000 Shona live in Mozambique, mainly in the Zambezi valley. They’re divided into five main clans, though there are countless other closely related groups that share common dialects. While there are huge similarities in dialects, regional differences are obvious. Each Shona dialect can be linked with other cultural differences specific to the group.
The Tsonga live mainly in southern Mozambique between the Limpopo and Save rivers, and are considered the sister tribe to the Shanhaan people in South Africa’s Mpumalanga and Northern Provinces. Counting the Tsonga people in Mozambique is difficult, as they normally count those in the Gaza Province but leave out many that are known by different names. Tsongan boys achieve manhood after circumcision in an initiation tradition known as matlala or ngoma.
The Maconde people in Mozambique are closely related to the Makonde in Tanzania, but the separation of the groups by the Ruvuma River resulted in language and cultural differences. The Maconde are a matrilineal society. Women control the children and inheritances. Men move into the women’s villages and homes.
The Yao people in Mozambique live mainly between the Rovuma and Lugenda rivers in small villages of 75 to 100 people. A traditional head man, chosen through matrilineal succession, leads each village. The Yao maintain an agricultural society, using slash-and-burn techniques for staple crops of maize and sorghum.
The Swahili people are far more numerous in Kenya, Tanzania, and the Zanzibar archipelago, but a population lives also in northern Mozambique. They speak Swahili but otherwise maintain cultural differences specific to their region. The majority of Mozambican Swahili people follow Islam, and many wear traditional Islamic dress such as the jilbab and thob.
The Tonga people live in the Inhambane Province in southeast Mozambique, making up approximately 1.1 percent of the country’s population. To differentiate the Mozambican Tonga from other tribes across Malawi, Zambia, and Zimbabwe by the same name, their language is referred to as Gitonga. The Tonga are renowned for woven baskets with unique patterns that have become a popular international export.
The Chopi of Mozambique traditionally live in the Zavala region in the south, in the Inhambane Province. The numbers of the Chopi were greatly diminished in the Mozambican civil war following the country’s liberation from Portugal, as well as by droughts that sent many into the cities and away from their traditional homelands that relied on subsistence agriculture. The mbila, a type of large xylophone, is a traditional Chopi instrument that has flourished. UNESCO in 2005 described Chopi music a “masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity.”
The Ngoni in Mozambique can be traced back to the Zulu people in South Africa who moved north following social reorganization in the region. In 1819, the Zulu army headed by Shaka defeated the Ndwandwe alliance at the Umhlatuze River near Nkandla, resulting in a widespread diaspora across southern Africa. Following the battle, a small group of Ngoni headed north, gaining numbers as they traveled using Zulu warfare techniques to conquer and integrate men and women.
The Ndau people of Mozambique live mainly in the Zambezi valley, but spread all the way to the coast as well as to eastern Zimbabwe. While some consider the Ndau as part of the Shona language family, the language is inherently different and dialects differ even within nearby Ndau groups. The Ndau are known as excellent herbalists.
The European and European-descendant population of Mozambique are integral parts of the country’s demographics. Portugal left a strong colonial legacy, and Portuguese remains the official language of Mozambique. 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.