Yao people (East Africa)

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Initiation ritual of boys in Malawi.jpg
9- to 10-year-old boys of the waYao tribe participating in circumcision and initiation rites (March 2005).
Total population
(2 million)
Regions with significant populations
Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania
Chiyao, Chichewa, Chitumbuka, Swahili, English, Portuguese

The Yao people, Wayao, are a major Bantu ethnic and linguistic group based at the southern end of Lake Malawi, who played an important part in the history of Southeast Africa during the 19th century. The Yao are a predominantly Muslim people of about 2 million spread over three countries, Malawi, northern Mozambique, and in Ruvuma Region and Mtwara Region of Tanzania. The Yao people have a strong cultural identity, which transcends the national borders.


The majority of Yao are subsistence farmers. When Arabs arrived on the southeastern coast of Africa they began trading with the Yao people, mainly ivory, grains, and slaves in exchange for clothes and guns. Because of their involvement in this coastal trade they became one of the richest and most influential tribes in Southern Africa. Large Yao kingdoms came into being as Yao chiefs took control of the Niassa province of Mozambique in the 19th century. During that time the Yao began to move from their traditional home to today's Malawi and Tanzania, which resulted in the Yao populations they now have. The most important result of the chiefdoms was the turning of the whole nation to Islam around the turn of the 20th century and after World War I. Because of their trade with the Arabs and Swahili, the Yao chiefs (sultans) needed scribes who could read and write. The Islamic teachers who were employed and lived in the Yao villages made a significant impact on the Yao people because they could offer them literacy, a holy book, religious clothes, and square, instead of round, houses. Furthermore, the Yao sultans strongly resisted Portuguese, British, and German colonial rule, which was viewed as a major cultural and economic threat to them. The British tried to stop the ivory and slave trade by attacking some of the Yao trade caravans near the coast. The Yao chief Mataka rejected Christianity, as Islam offered them a social system which would assimilate their traditional culture. Because of the political and ritual domination of the chiefs, their conversion to Islam caused their subjects to do likewise. The Folk Islam which the Yao people have embraced is syncretized with their traditional animistic belief system.

The Yao in Mozambique

The Yao originally lived in northern Mozambique (formerly Portuguese East Africa). A close look at the history of the Yao people of Mozambique as a whole shows that their ethno-geographic center was located in a small village called Chiconono, in the northwestern Mozambican province of Niassa. The majority of Yao were mainly subsistence farmers, but some were also active as ivory and slave traders. They faced social and political decline with the arrival in today's Niassa Province of the Portuguese, who established the Niassa Company, and settled in the region founding cities and towns, destroying the indigenous independent farm and trade economy and changing it to a plantation economy controlled by themselves. The expanding Portuguese Empire had established trading posts, forts and ports in East Africa since the 15th century, in direct competition with the diverse influential Muslim political forces: Somali, Swahili, Ottomans, Mughals and Yemeni Sufi orders to a limited extent, and increasingly Ibadi influences from independent Southeastern Arabia. The spice route and Christian evangelization were the main driving forces behind Portuguese expansion in the region. However, later in the 19th century, the Portuguese were also involved in a large slave trade that transported African slaves from Mozambique to Brazil. The Portuguese Empire was by then one of the greatest political and economic powers in the world. Portuguese-run agricultural plantations started to expand, offering paid labour to the tribal population. The Yao increasingly became poor plantation workers under Portuguese rule. However, they preserved their traditional culture and subsistency agriculture. As Muslims, the Yao could not stand domination by the Portuguese, who offered Christian education and taught the Portuguese language to the Muslim ethnic group. Currently, there are a minimum estimated 450,000 Yao people living in Mozambique. They largely occupy the eastern and northern part of Niassa province and form about 40% of the population of Lichinga, the capital of this province.

The Yao outside Mozambique

The Yao moved into what is now the eastern region of Malawi around the 1830s, when they were active as farmers and traders. Rich in culture, tradition, and music, the Yao are primarily Muslim, and count among their famous progeny two former Presidents of the Republic of Malawi, Bakili Muluzi and Joyce Banda. The Yao had close ties with the Swahili on the coast during the late 19th century and adopted some parts of their culture, such as architecture and Islam, but still kept their own national identity. Their close cooperation with the Arabs gave them access to firearms, which gave them an advantage in their many wars against neighbouring peoples, such as the Ngoni and the Chewa. The Yao actively resisted the German forces that were colonizing Southeast Africa (roughly today's Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi). In 1890, King Machemba issued a declaration to Commander Hermann von Wissmann saying that he was open to trade but not willing to submit to his authority. After further engagements, however, the Yao ended up surrendering to German forces.


The Yao speak a Bantu language known as Chiyao (chi- being the class prefix for "language"), with an estimated 1,000,000 speakers in Malawi, 495,000 in Mozambique, and 492,000 in Tanzania. The nationality's traditional homeland is located between the Rovuma and the Lugenda Rivers in northern Mozambique. They also speak the official languages of the countries they inhabit, Swahili in Tanzania, Chichewa and Chitumbuka in Malawi, and Portuguese in Mozambique.


Illnesses in Yao culture are believed to originate through physical reasons, curses or by breaking cultural taboos. In such situations where illness is believed to come from the latter two sources (folk illnesses), government health centers will rarely be consulted. Some folk illnesses known to the Yao include undubidwa (an illness affecting breastfeeding children due to jealousy from a sibling), and various "ndaka" illnesses that stem from contact that is made between those who are not sexually active with those who are (cold and hot).[1]

Notable people


  1. ^ Ian Dicks, The African Worldview: The Muslim Amacinga Yao of Southern Malawi Kachere Series, 2012
  • J. Clyde Mitchell, The Yao Village: A Study in the Social Structure of a Malawian Tribe Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1956, 1966, 1971
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