Published on December 7th, 2015 | by lawilink


By Gervasio Ngumbira



Archaeologists around the world have affirmed that Africa is the cradle of all human races; meaning to say that it was in Africa that God created man and from Africa man went to settle all continents in the world. The old research archaeological human remains that support this fact were discovered by Dr. Louis Leaky at the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania in the early 1960s. In Malawi such archaeological findings have been discovered up north at Uraha, Malema and Mwanganda sites in Karonga dating back to 2.5 million years ago. Given the above evidence the earliest inhabitants of Malawi appeared about 2.5 million years go. These earliest occupants are called Hominids; humans beings who look like apes.

hominids & proto-humans

Hominids & Proto-Humans

Human Evolution
Human Evolution-from Hominids to Modern Man


Archaeological excavations have revealed that up to about 10,000 and 8,000  BC there were people in Malawi who were short-statured than modern people. They made their way westwards from the rain forests of the central Congo basin. They are called the Pre-Bantu group of people because they occupied the country before the Bantu Speaking groups. They survived mainly on hunting and gathering and used stone stools of which they skillfully made. Some of the Stone implements with which they used have been unearthed at Mount Hora in Mzimba, Mwana wa Chencherere in Dedza and Mikolongwe in Thyolo.The common local names used for these people are Kafula, Batwa or Mwandionereakuti. Today some isolated Batwa groups still survive in parts of central Africa, including Malawi.


Between third andnineteenthcentury different Bantu speaking ethnic groups began to settle in Malawi. These were the Iron Age communities who brought with them the art of metallurgy, a distinctive pottery type, mixed farming, settled village life and organized political systems. The first groupsto arrive were that of the Maravi from third century, and were led by mere clan leaders and not chiefs. They settled in the central region and dispersed partially into southern Malawi. As they made their way into the country they defeated and drove out the pygmies or Akafula from their lands. The Tumbuka, Tonga, and other people of Northern Malawi such as the Ngonde migrated into Malawi in the early eighteenth century and populated much of the northern regionAll these groups left Zaire due to population pressure, accusations of witchcraft, and discrimination in the appointment of people to the noble positions.

The period from 1846 to the 1870’s saw the Ngoni arrive in Malawi. They came into two groups, the northern Ngoni led by the paramount chief Zwangwedaba, and the southern Ngoni led by Maputa. The Ngoni had originally come from South Africa by Zwangwedaba who fled from the wrath of Shaka Zulu in1822.After his death at Mapupo on the Malawi –Tanzania boarder in 1888 his kingdom split and some groups moved on into Malawi and settled in Kasungu and Dedza around 1855.

The Yao arrived in Malawi from Mozambique at bout seventieth century. From eastern side of the Lake Malawi they came as slave traders. They were well received by the Mang’anja and shown were to settle. Later they migrated to all parts of southern Malawi. The departure of the Yao from Mozambique was attributed to wars by the Lomwe slave traders. Constant attacks from the Lomwe people and followed by famine forced the Yao to move on to the land of the Mang’anja and Nyanja in Mangochi, Machinga and Blantyre. Their leading chiefs were such as Jalasi, Mponda, Msamala, Kawinga and Liwonde.

By the late nineteenth and early twentieth century the Lomwe tribe entered Malawi from the eastern side of Lake Chirwa and east of Mulanje. This group was called the Manguru by the Mang’anja people who had already settled in the area, because they had come from the East (from Mozambique). These newcomers belonged to a variety of clans who called themselves by the common name Lomwe. They came to settle among the Mang’anja in Mulanje, Thyolo, Chiradzulu, and Zomba to escape from the harsh Portuguese rule


Dr. David Livingstone was originally born at Blantyre in Scotland in 1813. Though he always wanted to be a missionary he found himself more of an explorer. Through his series of travels many people in Europe began to know about unknown parts of Africa. Livingstone made many long journeys one of which led Livingstone to Lake Chirwa and Lake Malawi in 1859. This was his second journey into Africa and it is popularly called “Zambezi Expedition”. Primarily Livingstone’s mission was to find the interior route into Central Africa for missionaries, traders and planters. The mission however failed because he was stopped by the Kebrabasa rapids. He then turned his attention to the Shire River which led him into the inland of modern Malawi. It was here in Malawi therefore that the greater explorer found what he was looking for; healthy and suitable places for the missionaries, traders and planters. Livingstone was much disappointed with unpopular slave trade perpetrated by some Yao, Ngoni chiefs and Arabs. He wanted to replace it by introducing commerce and Christianity.*although Livingstone viewed the locals as inferior and certainly not as an equal, it could well be argued his ideas were no better than the slave traders he disliked and the trade needed to be under control in order for the British to achieve there rule in the area to exploit the Malawi’s resources.

Dr. David Livingstone, Missionary and Explorer

Dr. David Livingstone, Missionary and Explorer

Two years later after he visited Lake Malawi Livingstone brought in the first missionaries of Universities’ Mission to Central Africa (U.M.C.A.); today it is called Anglican Church. Their first mission station was established at Magomero in Chiradzulu. But in 1863 the mission was withdrawn back to Zanzibar because the place was unhealthy and the Yao-slave traders occasionally attacked the mission. The explorer made his journey in 1866 through Mozambique and following the Ruvuma River. Livingstone died of Malaria in 1873 at Chitambo Village in the IIala District of modern Zambia; exhausted from all hardships of travels. The UMCA’s failure did not hamper Livingstone’s appears for missionary work in the country. Two years later after the death of Livingstone two missions were sent forth to Malawi; the Free Church of Scotland and the Established Church of Scotland. The Free Church of Scotland led by Lt.E.D. Young was the first to come and was established at Cape Maclear in Mangochi in 1875. Today it is called Livingstonia Church, named after Livingstone. The latter followed in 1876 and opened its first mission in Chief Kapeni area by Henry Henderson, now Blantyre Mission, named after birthplace of Livingstone in Scotland. *It should be remembered that Christian missioners although well meant lead to an erosion of the cultural values of the indigos population. 

The move to establish a colonial rule was made on 14th May1891 when John Buchanan, the then Acting Consul declared the land as British Protectorate of Nyasaland. They are perhaps two main reasons why Britain decided swiftly to consolidate its powers over the land. Firstly Britain feared would lose the land at the hands of Germans who were fighting from the north, and Portuguese who fought from the south. Secondly it wanted to protect the large population of missionaries, traders and planters working in Nyasaland. On 10th September, Harry Johnston was appointed the first Consul General and Commissioner.He is the Governor who abolished slavery in 1895, after defeating Mlozi, the last formidable Arab slave-trader at its stronghold in Karonga. Since then there have been successionsof Governors up until 1964 when Malawi gained its independence from Britain, and Dr. Kamuzu Banda become the first president. The Kamuzu thirty one year’s autocratic rule was flushed out in 1994 when the majority of Malawians voted for multiparty regime, and Dr. Bakili Muluzi became the first democratic president.

Sir Harry Johnston  Kamuzu Banda

Sir Harry Johnston, first Consul General and Commissioner (left), and Kamuzu Banda (right)





Religion:The Chewa people just like any other African tribes do believe in the existence of God. They call Him the Great Spirit. They do not worship Him directly but do so through the spirits of their ancestors. They use women as prophetesses or mediums. The woman who is used as a medium is called chauta, and she is not supposed to marry an ordinary person but a snake. Chauta has a special and highly exalted position and officiate at the making of various sacrifices and conduct communal prayers.  All the priests in the Chewa beliefs submit to prophetess called Makewana (Mother of the Children) at Msinja Shrine. In times of calamities affecting the tribe such as drought, famine, and plagues the living people ran to Msinja for public prayers and supplications.

Marriage System: The Chewa practice matrilineal system of marriage; meaning a husband lives at the home of his wife. Just like the Yao and Lomwe all the children belong to the matrilineage. However, after sometime men may receive permission from their in-laws to move to their villagers with the entire family, but still the children continue to belong to the mother’s side.

Nyau and Rituals: One of the unique attributes of the Chewa is its culture expressed in music and dance. The tribe’s main form of ritual entertainment is the Nyau songs and dance. This dance is called Gule Wamkulu meaning the Grand Dance. It is exclusively performed by men while wearing masks. The Nyau (mask) dance according to oral tradition originated in the land called Phokera. Starting as a dance,Nyau extended its performance at funerals and initiations.

Gule Wamkulu Dancers wearing Masks

Witchcraft or mfiti: According to oral traditions the belief in witchcraft is deeply rooted in the Chewa society. It continues to influence their way of life today. Among the Chewa, a person is deemed a witch or wizard when he/ she possess supra-human powers either for good or bad intentions. Apart from evil acts, witchcraft indirectly maintains the moral norms laiddown by the ancestors. In Chewa there are two categories of witchcraft namely true witch and sorcerer.A true witch is believed to eat human flesh. They kill mainly to eat the human flesh. On the other hand a sorcerer is said to have weapons with which they can use from a distance to cause a number of evil deeds. For example, a sorcerer can cause illnesses, sterility, and other calamities.  In the Chewa beliefa person only gets rich if he or she is a sorcerer.

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Counselors from a Yao

Religion: The Yao like the rest of ethnic groups in the country believe in God whom they call Mlungu. They regard Him as the creator of the world, the giver of seeds, the Supreme Being, unapproachable, the giver of rain, and the one who receives the spirits of the dead.

Marriage System:The Yao family system is matrilineal meaning their decent is through the mother. All the children born in the family belong to the mother’s side.When a man marries a woman he stays at the wife’s home and he is called Mkamwini, which may be translated as a son-in-law.

Initiation:The Yao just like the Lomwe initiate their boys and girls when they reach puberty age under the consent from theparents. Jando is the boys’ initiation, while Nsondo is the girls’ initiation. The initiations for both boys and girls take place mostly in the bush, and they stay there about six weeks. While in these secluded places the initiates are given instruction on the customs, beliefs, and traditions of the society, acceptable personal morals and family life. When they come out of these secret places the initiates are accepted again into the society now as mature aged groups.

Traditional dances:Popular dances among the Yao are Likwata, Beni andMasewe.Likwatais a very old Yao dance which has become popular in Mangochi, Machinga and other districts where the Yao are found. The dance originally is performed at initiations ceremonies for boy and girls as a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood. Likwata is also practiced at the installation of a chief and as funeral dance.

Beni is the best known traditional dance among the Yao since the advent of British rule. The dance takes its origin from the Yao men who served in the Nyasaland Army known as King’s African Rifles. In the army they were taught to march and sing in bands. Upon return to their villages they decided to introduce the dance disguised in military life and uniform. They called this dance Beni.

Beni dancers in action

Masewe is a dance for men only among the Yao. Originally it was performed at the funeral of the chiefs, but today it is performed mainly for entertainment. The dancers are men of all ages and they all perform following instructions from the leader. The players shake and twist their bodies, beautifully dressed in grass skirts, beads, bangle and other decorations.

Witchcraft: Another element that constitutes the Yao culture is their belief in the existence of witchcraft. Yao just like the Chewa believe that some individuals control some magic powers with which they use to cause calamities in the society.  A witch or wizard (msawi) is believed to cause strange sicknesses among people. Whenever a person is bewitched, relatives of the victim with help from the village headman hire a witch-finder to trace the witch responsible. Today the belief is gradually dying out due to theinfluence of Christianity.



Religion:Traditional religion of the Ngoni is similar to other ethnic religions. Ngoni have a God who is believed to be the Great Devisor, the Original Source, the Greatest of all and the Owner of all things. They approach their God through ancestral spirits who are intermediaries between the world of the living and the world of the dead. During the time of crises like droughts, plague, floods they offer sacrifices to their God to take these calamities away from them.

Dances:The Ngoni people are best identified by a traditional dance called Ingoma or Ngoma. Both terms are correct according to the Ngoni people. The terminology Ingomasimply means song and dance. It is the oldest traditional dance among the Ngoni ethnic group. Ngoma originally started as a pure entertainment dance. But as time passed on the dance was performed to celebrate the battlefield victories during the time of Shaka Zulu. Today Ingoma is performed for entertainment. It is typically a male dominated dance accompanied by female singers and hand clappers.

Ngoni women dancing the Ingoma

Marriage system: The Ngoni just like their neighbours, Tumbuka are a patrilineal society and patrilocal. After marriage a wife goes to live with her husband at his village. All the children born in the family belong to the father’s clan. Ngoni trace their decent through patrilineage. They are an ethnic group that introduced Lobola in the northern Malawi from South Africa where they originated. Lobola is called a bride price. It is paid by parents of the bridegroom, often cattle, to the parents of the bride as a token of compensation and appreciation for taking good care of their daughter until a marriage age.



Religion:The Lomwe just like any other Bantu- Speaking groups believe in all-powerful deity called Namalenga, the Creator. They offer sacrifices to Namalenga through their ancestral spirits whenever calamities, epidemics or flood befall them. This offering called Nsembeinvolves well prepared beer which is poured into a hole under mpoza (Custard apple) tree. Basically a sacrifice is made to propitiate the wrathful ancestors.

Spirit Possession: The Lomwe ethnic cultural group also believes in spirit possession. Sometimes the ancestral spirits possess a person as punishment or as means of warning the community of immediate catastrophes for their disobedience. In the south among the Lomwe and Yao it is called mutu;waukulu, majini,natanngwe or mpesa. In the central the Chewa and Ngoni is referred as Mazangazime, Malombo; and in the north among the Tumbuka and Ngonde it is called Vimbuza.

Marriage system:The Lomwe people are matrilineal and just like the Yao they trace their decent through the mother’s lineage. Customarily the husband resides at the home of his wife, and all the offspring belong to the mother’s clan.

Initiation: Lomwe traditions do not differ drastically from that of Yao. One of the attributes of the Lomwe people is initiation ceremony involving boys and girls. The Lomwe initiate boy and girls under the parents’ consent, as a rite of passage from one stage in life to another.

Traditional dances:TheLomwe people perform various traditional dances. The notable ones are Mchopa, Likwata and Masewe, and they both involve the beating of drums. These dances are basically performed for entertainment.

Mchopa dance

Witchcraft belief:The Lomwe people just like the Yao and the Chewa believe in witchcraft as well.  In Lomwe witches or wizards are real. It is these witches or wizards that cause frequent deaths, illness and accidents. Witchcraft is also connected totsemphoamdmtayoamong the Lomwe.Tsempho is a disease of swelling up of the body alarmingly, which starts when one has broken the old customs. Thus, if a man commits adultery and puts salt in the relish, everyone who eats that food is subject to the disease. Similarly, Mtayo is disease which a man gets when he sleeps with a woman who has just miscarried. Both diseases are beyond biomedical treatment. They can only be cured by herbalists.


Religion:The Tumbuka people just like any other African cultural groups believe in the existence of supernatural being who created all things on earth including mankind. They call this creator, Chiuta or Leza. Whenever they encounter problems like drought or plague, they offer sacrifices to Chiuta through their ancestral spirits and calamities vanish right way.

Marriage system: According to the oral traditions originally the Tumbuka were a matrilineal just like the Chewa. They became patrilineal by the influence of the Ngonde and the Nyakusya who came from further north. Lobola is a well-known marriage custom among the Tumbuka, but they were not the people who introduce it. They basically adopted the custom from the Ngoni who settled among them and intermarried with them.

Traditional dances: The Tumbuka people are also identified with their traditional dances popularly known as; Malipenga and Vimbuza. Malipenga is performed by a group of five or seven men who sing and dance following the beat of the drum. While dancing they put on Khaki uniform like that of the police officers. They also carry handkerchief in their left hand and a gourd in their right hand. The dance is mainly performed for entertainment especially during the daytime toward the harvesting season. Basically Malipenga is the modern dance for men. The dance is believed to have started by ex-servicemen who developed it from the old military parades of the King’s African Rifle about 1900.

Tumbuka men dancing the Malipenga

Tumbuka men dancing the Malipenga

Vimbuza is performed for entertainment and healing.Vimbuza healing is mainly attributed to the patients suffering from Vimbza. It is a mental, physical and social disease.In Vimbuza the dancers put on some very old pieces of cloth around their waist plus some pieces of iron in their legs, which make a lot of noise. The dance is said to have originated from Northern and Southern Rhodesia.


Religion: Ngonde people believe in Kyungu as both ruler and semi-god whose headquarters is at Mbande hill. He is a supreme leader and doubles the role of a priest-king. Kyungu is the only higher authority who divinely communicates with ancestors spirits on behalf of the people. He contacts the ancestral for the well- being of his people and land.

Marriage system: The Ngonde people just like the Tumbuka are patrilineal and patrilocal; meaning a wife lives at her husband’s home. Their descent is traced through the father’s lineage. All the children belong to the father’s clan.

Traditional dances:The Nkhonde have various traditionaldances but the best known ones areNdingara,UzambaandChioda. Ndingara is a popular dance among the Nkhonde. Formerly the dance was performed at the installation and death of Kyungu, territorial rulers and the counselors. Today it has gone a lot of transformation such that it is performed at weddings, national events and party meetings. Men and women both are involved in the dance.

Uzambais performed both by men and women who dance together following each other. It is performed during daytime or at night provided there is beer. Uzamba is mainly danced for entertainment among the Ngonde.

Chiwoda:According to oral traditions the Chiwoda originate inNkhata-Bay. From Nkhata Bay Chiwoda spread to various parts of Malawi, including Karonga the sea of the Ngonde people. Chiwoda is a female dominated dance and emerged as the female counterpart of Malipenga. When first created it was known as gulewaanthuakazi. Chiwodais often performed at the political party rallies in support of the current leadership.


Religion:The Sena people also believe in the existence of higher God whom they approach through their ancestral spirits. They make offerings to Him whenever the society is in difficult situations; such as drought, famine and disease.

Marriage system:The Sena people are a patrilineal and they trace their decent through the father’s clan.

Dances: Likhuba and Ngololombe are the two popular traditional dances among theSena of Nsanje and Chikwawa. Likhuba dance was formally performed at funeral and installation ceremonies of chiefs. But today it is danced for entertainment at the weddings and tribal events. Likhuba is typically a fast dance and is often performed by a large numbers of girls escorted by a few men. Although male and female dance close to each, they do not embrace each other. About nine to ten drums and other instruments are played which make a lot of noise around, hence spicing up the celebrations.

Ngololombeis another best known traditional dance among the Sena of Chikwawa and Nsanje. Ngololombe just like the Likhuba was originally performed at funerals and installation of chiefs, but now is danced at weddings, party meetings and at national celebrations. In Ngololombe both sexes participate and there is no age restriction whatsoever. The commonly used instruments are drums and flutes-like Ngololombe




Malawi despite being a landlocked country is endowed with natural and cultural resources. It is country which lies in the southern part of Africa. Today the country has about 17 million people. According to archaeologists the Bantu Speakers are not the earliest inhabitants of the land but the last human race. The so called hominids were already in Malawi at about 2.5 million years ago, and followed later by the Pygmies between 8,000 and 10,000 BC. Dr. Livingstone, a Scottish missionary and explorer travelled to Malawi in 1859 and influenced Britain to colonize Malawi in 1891. The colonial rule lasted for nearly 70 years up until 1964 when Malawi attained its independence, and Kamuzu Banda was appointed the first president. This one-party dictatorial rule endedin 1994 when a democratic political party was overwhelmingly ushered into office, with Bakili Muluzi as its president elect.  Malawi is a multicultural society with various ethnic groups spreading in all the three regions; south, central and north. Some of the notable ethnic groups are the Chewa, Yao, Tumbuka, Sena, Lomwe, Ngonde and the Ngoni. All these groups are identified by their beliefs, customs and traditional dances.



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SA, African Institute of SA

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District. Karonga, CMCK

Kayuni, S.W. 2001.A Historical Study of Karonga and Ngonde People: Political,

Economic, Cultural and Social Aspects. Karonga: CMCK

McCracken, J. 2012. History of Malawi 1850-1966. UK: James Curry

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Pachai, B. et al. 1971. Malawi Past and Present. Blantyre: CLAIM

Pachai, B.1972.The Early History of Malawi. 1st.ed. London, Longman

Phiri, D.D. 2004. History of Malawi from Earliest Times to the year 2015.

Blantyre, CLAIM

Rafael, B.R. 1985. A History of Malawi. 3rd. ed. Limbe: Montfort Press

Tattlersall, D. 1982. The Land of the Lake. Blantyre, Blantyre Periodical Ltd

Van Breugel, J.W.M. 2001. Chewa Traditional Religion. Blantyre, CLAIM



Author: picture No. 9 picture No. 10

Deeprootsmalawi.wordpr. picture No. 8

Earth picture No. 6 picture No.2 picture No.1

Society of Malawi: pictures No. 3, 4, 5 and 7

google maps




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  1. Ada Chirwa says:

    So the Tonga aren’t worthy of any detail?

    • lawilink says:

      Hi Ada thank you for your comment, would you like to write a paragraph on the Tonga people we will add it to the article and if you know of any others the writer focused on the largest tribes in Malawi. I thank you 🙂

  2. chukny says:

    I said I want the history of the akafula

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