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
3 million+
Regions with significant populations
 Malawi2,321,763 (2018)[1]
 Tanzania500,000 (2021)[2]
 Mozambique450,000 (2021)[3]
Chiyao, Kiswahili

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.


Yao dancing man, 1896

The majority of Yao are subsistence farmers and fishermen. When Arabs arrived on the southeastern coast of Africa they began trading with the Yao people, mainly ivory and grains 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 for the chiefdoms was the turning of the whole nation to Islam. In 1870, Makanjila III, one of the Mangochi Yao chiefs of the Nyasa area, adopted Islam as his personal and court religion. In their trade with the Arabs and Swahili, the Yao chiefs, who called themselves sultans, needed scribes who could read and write. Islamic teachers were employed, and in the Yao villages made a significant impact on the people, offering literacy, and the social, religious and economic influences of the Muslim coastal areas.[5] 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.

In Mozambique[edit]

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.

At least 450,000 Yao people live in Mozambique. They largely occupy the eastern and northern part of Niassa province and form about 40% of the population of Lichinga, the province capital. They keep a number of traditions alive, including working with wild greater honeyguides to find honey. The Yao use tools like axes and smoke to harvest the honey and leave behind the wax for the honeyguides, which can digest it. A 2016 study of the Yao honey-hunters in northern Mozambique showed that the honeyguides responded to the traditional brrrr-hmm call of the honey-hunters. Hunters learn the call from their fathers and pass it to their sons.[6] The chances of finding a beehive were greatly increased when hunters used the traditional call. The study also mentions that the Yao consider adult and juvenile honeyguides separate species, and that honey hunters report that the former but not the latter responds to the specific honey-hunting call.[7]

Outside Mozambique[edit]

The Yao moved into what is now the eastern region of Malawi around the 1830s,[8] 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). A particular example of Yao involvement in the resistance extended to the coastal areas of Kilwa Kivinje, Mikindani and Lindi on the southern coast of Tanzania in 1888, when the German East Africa Company officials attempted to take control of the coastal areas previously under the Sultan of Zanzibar.[9] The Yao continued to defend their lucrative trade route from the Makanjila domains in southern Nyasa to Kilwa Kivinje in the following years, leading to the execution of one of the more prominent raiders, Hassan bin Omari, an associate of the Makanjila, in Kilwa Kivinje in 1895. On the other hand, by 1893, Harry Johnston, with his British forces, was able to declare that he had practically conquered all the Makanjila territory on the shores of Lake Nyasa.[10] 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. In Zimbabwe the Yaos came as immigrants and have established a society in Mvurwi under the leadership of the Jalisi clan also known as Chiteleka or Jalasi. They were among the first to bring Islam to Zimbabwe on the great dyke mountains. The Yao also played a major role in the Maji Maji Rebellion in German East Africa.


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).[11]

Notable people[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "2018 Malawi Population and Housing Census". www.nsomalawi.mw. Retrieved 2021-03-17.
  2. ^ "Tanzania Language Focus: What Do You Know About the Language Spoken in Tanzania?". www.tomedes.com. Retrieved 2021-07-23.
  3. ^ "About the Yawo People – The I Am Yawo Project". Retrieved 2021-07-23.
  4. ^ Steere, Edward (1872). "On East African Tribes and Languages". The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. 1: cxliii–cliv. doi:10.2307/2841297. JSTOR 2841297.
  5. ^ Msiska, Augustine W.C. (1995). "The Spread of Islam in Malawi and its Impact on Yao Rites of Passage, 1870-1960". The Society of Malawi Journal. 48 (1): 49–86. JSTOR 29778728.
  6. ^ Saha, Purbita; Spottiswoode, Claire (2016-08-22). "Meet the Greater Honeyguide, the Bird That Understands Humans". National Audubon Society. Retrieved 2020-08-14.
  7. ^ Spottiswoode, Claire N.; Begg, Keith S.; Begg, Colleen M. (22 July 2016). "Reciprocal signaling in honeyguide-human mutualism". Science. 353 (6297): 387–389. doi:10.1126/science.aaf4885. PMID 27463674. S2CID 206648494.
  8. ^ Bone, David (2021). Introduction to Islam for Malawi. Mzuni Press. p. 145. ISBN 978-99960-60-90-8.
  9. ^ Akinola, G. A. (1975). "The East African Coastal Rising, 1888-1890". Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria. 7 (4): 609–630. JSTOR 41971217.
  10. ^ Johnston, H. H. (March 1895). "The British Central Africa Protectorate". The Geographical Journal. 5 (3): 193–214. doi:10.2307/1773928. JSTOR 1773928.
  11. ^ Dicks, Ian (2012). An African worldview: the Muslim Amacinga Yawo of Southern Malawi. Kachere Series. ISBN 978-99908-87-51-8. OCLC 794906947.[page needed]
  • J. Clyde Mitchell, The Yao Village: A Study in the Social Structure of a Malawian Tribe Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1956, 1966, 1971