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LOCATION: Mozambique
POPULATION: 20.9 million
LANGUAGE: Portuguese (official); 33 African languages; English (trade)
RELIGION: traditional African religions; Islam; Christianity
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 1: Chewa; Swahili


As is the case with the vast majority of African countries, the boundaries of Mozambique resulted from the European “scramble for Africa” and are not reflective of a single distinct cultural group. Mozambicans are a people in transition, still recovering from two recent traumatic experiences. First, from 1962 until 1975 the country experienced guerrilla warfare led primarily by the Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO) in opposition to Portuguese colonial rule; this eventually led to independence from the colonial power on 25 June 1975. From 1975 until the early 1990s, however, guerrilla forces continued to war in Mozambique as FRELIMO was challenged by the Mozambican National Resistance (RENAMO).

FRELIMO formed in 1962, and under the leadership of Eduardo Mondlane initiated an armed campaign against the Portuguese. When Mondlane was killed in an explosion in 1969, Samora Machel led FRELIMO and was appointed the first president of Mozambique after independence in 1975. Machel died in an air crash in 1986 and was succeeded by Joaquium Chissano. Since the ascendancy of Joaquium Chissano to the presidency, three multi-party general elections have been held. The ruling FRELIMO party has won each time. Just before the third election, Chissano voluntarily stepped down after almost two decades in power. Guebuza led FRELIMO to its third victory in February 2005. FRELIMO pursued Marxist-Leninist policies, envisioning a socialist country in Mozambique that would avoid the capitalist abuses of the colonial system. However, in recent years the FRELIMO government began to adopt free market enterprise with support from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. A progressive constitution is in place, which guarantees press freedom, gender equality and basic human rights.

Following independence from Portugal, the FRELIMO government of Mozambique supported the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. RENAMO was formed from neighboring Rhodesia (which became Zimbabwe in 1980) to discourage Mozambican support of the Zimbabwe nationalist movement. After Zimbabwe's independence in 1980, South Africa continued to support RENAMO's terrorism of Mozambique in order to distract FRELIMO from supporting anti-apartheid forces in South Africa. The cause of the plane crash that killed President Machel was never determined, and the Mozambique government believed that South African involvement caused the crash. A General Peace Agreement was signed between RENAMO and FRELIMO on 4 October 1992, and a general cease-fire began. In 1994 Joaquium Chissano was democratically elected president of Mozambique.

The long-term war economy in Mozambique has meant that normal activities, like going to school, were not common until recently, and that cultural identity in Mozambique is in transition. During the war years, many Mozambicans could not distinguish between RENAMO and FRELIMO forces; many could not identify the president of the country; and many did not realize that the world referred to them as Mozambicans. Part of FRELIMO's socialist strategy was to minimize ethnic and racial distinctions after independence, but most people in Mozambique continue to identify more with local and/or traditional African groups than with their nationality. The 10 major ethnic groups currently found in Mozambique include the Macua-Lomwe, Ajao, Nguni, Tonga, Chope, Shona, Maconde, Maravi, Chicunda, and the Nyungwe.

Historically, the area of present-day Mozambique was populated by the Yao, Tumbuka, Batonga, and Makua peoples. The first inhabitants of the area were Bushmanoide hunters and gatherers, ancestors of the Khoisan peoples who are presently found in South Africa, Botswana, and Namibia. Around ad 1–4, Bantu-speaking farmers and ironworkers migrated from the north into the plateau and coastal areas of present-day Mozambique. The Zanj migrated east of Lake Nyasa by the 7th century. Islamic chiefs came to the Pemba/Zanzibar coast by the 9th century, and coastal trading forts were held by Arabs as far south as the island of Mozambique. Tsonga and Ronga (later known as Zulu) were in the south of the country from the 15th century, and at about the same time Caranga (also known as Shona) peoples moved to the north.

Since peace officially came to Mozambique in 1992, civil strife and natural disasters have continued to plague the country. The aftermath of nearly 30 years of war has been intensified by recurrent drought in the hinterlands; severe drought and floods in the central and southern provinces; cyclones in the coastal areas; and desertification and pollution of surface and coastal waters due to increased migration to urban and coastal areas. Mozambique remains one of Africa's poorest countries. Indeed, many sources name Mozambique as the world's poorest country.


Mozambique is located in southern Africa between South Africa and Tanzania. Malawi, Swaziland, Zambia, and Zimbabwe all border Mozambique to the west, and the country's eastern coastline is separated from the island country of Madagascar by the Mozambique Channel. The country is slightly less than twice the size of California, with a total area of 303,037 sq mi. The climate is tropical to subtropical, and most of the country is coastal lowlands. Uplands in the center of the country rise to high plateaus in the northwest and mountains in the west. Mozambique is divided into 10 provinces. The capital, Maputo (formerly known as Lourenco Marques), has an estimated population of 2 million. The second and third largest cities are Nampula in the far north and the port city of Beira in central Zambezi Province.

With a population of nearly 20.9 million, Mozambique also has an estimated 100,000 refugees from the earlier years of civil war living in Malawi, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. By the end of 1994, 1.6 million refugees had returned to Mozambique. One million Mozambican refugees were in Malawi in 1991. In 1990, it was estimated that 3 million Mozambicans had been displaced by the war. Of the current population, 99% are indigenous ethnic groups such as Shangaan, Chokwe, Manyika, Sena and Makua; 0.06% are European; 0.2% are Euro-African; and 0.08% are Indians from India.


The official language adopted by FRELIMO is Portuguese, though only an estimated 30,000 people in Mozambique speak the language, and 27% of those speak it as a second language. The Ethnologue lists 33 languages spoken in Mozambique. Those with more than one million speakers include Makhuwa-Makhuwana (2.7 million speakers), Makhuwa-Metto (1.5 million speakers), and Lomwe (1.3 million speakers). Makhuwa-Shirima, Chopi, and Chwabo follow in popularity. In urban centers, particularly in Maputo, English is becoming popular because many neighboring countries use English as their official language.


The various ethnicities of Mozambique contribute to a rich and important presence of myths and legends in the country. Traditional African religions generally place great emphasis on the importance of ancestors. The long dependence on the use of oral tradition to pass histories from one generation to the next has resulted in a wealth of folk traditions and stories. One such legend from the Maconde people demonstrates the importance of folklore to present-day Mozambicans. The Maconde believe that they descended from one man who lived alone in the forest like a wild pig. The man wanted a family, so he carved a wife and eventually had children. The first two children were born near the river and both died. The third was born on the plateau and survived. This was taken as a sign that the Maconde should live on high ground. The Maconde, who are world-renowned for their wood carvings, believed that their carving abilities proved they could control the world of nature and communicate with ancestors and spirits. The Maconde word for woodcarving, machinamu, also means ancestors and carvers. They have traditionally produced human figures for family worship as well as masks for initiation ceremonies.


As indicated by the variety of ethnicities found and languages spoken in Mozambique, an array of religions are practiced. Roughly 60% of Mozambicans practice traditional African religions, 30% are Christian, and 10% are Muslim. Most traditional African religions believe in one supreme being who acts through spirits and ancestors. Traditional religions are not necessarily viewed as incompatible with “imported” religions such as Christianity and Islam. Many Mozambican Christians continue to practice the witchcraft, sorcery, spells, and magic associated with traditional religions. RENAMO used the traditional beliefs of Mozambicans to gain the respect of peasants and to influence soldiers. RENAMO commanders were often Ndua-speakers, among whom espiritistas (spirit mediums), curandeiros (healers), or feiticeiros (witch doctors) enjoyed great influence. Such mediums were believed to give fighters courage, and many practiced rites to make warriors “invisible” or “bulletproof.” While the Ndaus constitute less than 2% of the Mozambique population, they were well known for their use of magic.

At first, FRELIMO tried to ignore traditional African religion and discounted curandeiros and chiefs, preferring to emphasize “scientific socialism.” FRELIMO soon relaxed the party's anti-religious policies, however, and traditional beliefs influenced peace as well. Spirit mediums were believed to have created “neutral zones” by harnessing supernatural powers. Both sides in the fighting respected such areas.


In addition to the national holiday, Independence Day (June 25), many major religious holidays are celebrated in Mozambique. The Portuguese Catholic influence is very heavy among the 30% Christian population, and consequently, holidays such as Christmas and Easter are celebrated much as they are in Western cultures. Similarly, the Muslim population observes Islamic holy days.

During wartime, Independence Day was often marked by increased caution by the general public, as RENAMO often chose the holiday as a time to increase attacks.


As with most traditional African societies, rites of passage are very important to the peoples of Mozambique. Such practices, however, vary from one ethnic group to another. The Tsua, a sub-group of the Tonga, practice circumcision of boys aged 10 through 12, while the Shona (also called Caranga) do not practice initiation or circumcision for boys. The Maconde practice initiation ceremonies that integrate young people into the adult world through links with ancestors and supernatural beings. Circumcision is an important part of the Maconde passage from boyhood to manhood, and the Maconde rites of passage ceremonies include the use of masks.


As with rites of passage and religious practice, customs concerning greetings, visiting, body language, and dating vary from one ethnic group to another. Portuguese and English greetings are common in urban areas.


Life under civil war was devastating, and Mozambique has not yet truly emerged from the heavy influence of its more than 30-year struggle. The influence of colonialism also remains in many aspects of life, including housing. “Cement town” describes European-style settlements once occupied by colonists, and “cane towns” are the African settlements that surround them. Mozambican homes are often constructed of cane and mud. In the cities, high-rise apartments are crowded, with 20 people sometimes living in three-room apartments. Electricity and plumbing are often unreliable in the cities and are nonexistent in rural areas.

In 1995 there were only 3.8 radios per 100 inhabitants and in 2000 there were 0.5 television receivers per 100 inhabitants. Two television broadcasting organizations—the national state television network and another private organization—offer two television channels with an average of nine hours of programming per day. The city of Maputo contains 64% of tele-communications lines. In 1995, 69 of the 142 administrative districts in the country had no lines at all. Mozambicans have a very low awareness of computer communications, though e-mail was introduced in 1995 at Centro de Informatica Universidade Eduardo Mondlane (CIUEM). Most Internet users, however, are members of international organizations located in the country.

The war left nearly half of the country's primary healthcare network destroyed. Today, children continue to die of preventable diseases like measles and malnutrition. An estimated one million land mines remain in the country. Since 1995 in the Maputo province alone, scores of people have stepped on land-mines—many of whom were children. The current death rate is 18.97 per 1,000, and life expectancy at birth is 41.6 years.

During the war years, airplanes provided the only safe transportation mode in Mozambique. RENAMO forces destroyed railways and attacked automobiles on roadways, even those autos protected by government convoys. Many roads still have not been repaired since the war ended, nor have industries necessary for automobile maintenance been developed. Most taxis now found in Mozambique cities are many years old and in disrepair.


While Western cultures generally place equal importance on descent and kinship through both the mother's and father's side of the family (bilineal), most African cultures emphasize one more heavily than the other. In matrilineal groups, for example, not only is the family tree traced through the mother's side of the family, but property passes from one generation to the next based on matrilineal descent. Kinship ties are more important in African societies than in Western societies, in part because land ownership is usually exercised by the extended family group rather than individuals.

Both matrilineal (the Maconde and the Macua-Lomwe, for example) and patrilinial descendant groups exist in Mozambique, although men usually have a decided advantage in terms of decision-making. Men generally control issues related to ownership and access to land. Polygamy is practiced in some areas, although economic pressures have reduced the number of families with multiple spouses. Families in Mozambique continue to practice subsistence farming as a means of survival. Men traditionally perform the initial plowing or hoeing to prepare the land for planting, but women maintain the farm and are responsible for most of the harvesting. Women are also responsible for the traditional roles of taking care of children, food preparation, and home making. During the war years, women were called on to do more than their traditional responsibilities, and as a new social structure emerges in Mozambique, the roles of women are expected to change and to become less subordinate.

Children are also expected to help with farming, and most children do not attend school past the primary years. The usual pets such as dogs and rabbits are popular in Mozambique.


During the war, deslacados, people dislocated by the war, often had no clothes and covered themselves with tree bark. Clothing became a precious commodity and was often more valued than currency in many areas. In Maputo, guards were posted at clotheslines, and a shirt cost as much as a laborer could earn in a month. Western-style clothing is common, but traditional clothing such as capulanas and head scarves are still in use. Capulanas are squares of colorful cloth that can be worn as a wraparound skirt or on the upper body, where they double as baby slings.


In parts of Mozambique meat is scare, but pork and wild pig are favorite dishes and are usually prepared in a marinade. One marinade consists of Madeira (a type of wine) and wine vinegar, salt, pepper, garlic, cloves, red peppers, and bay leaf. Following as much as eight hours of marinating, the meat is fried. Just before serving it on a bed of rice, the meat is laced with orange juice and more wine. The Portuguese influence can be found in Mozambique cuisine in the use of spicy sauces such as piri-piri. Piri-piri is a sauce made of lemon juice, olive oil, red pepper, salt, and garlic. Products of the fishing industry, especially prawns and shellfish, are popular in the coastal region. The mainstay, however, in Mozambique as well as other parts of southern Africa, is maize. Mealie pie, for example, is a cornmeal mash that is a southern African staple. Many Mozambicans during the war depended on food from relief agencies, some scavenged for wild berries, nuts, and caterpillars, and many others starved.


By 1989, 52% of first-level primary schools in Mozambique had been destroyed or forced to close by RENAMO. War had so disrupted education that most students in Zambezia Province in 1988 were in the first grade, and deslocados were often too hungry to attend school. Teachers, also hungry, were targeted for attack by RENAMO.

A 1995 estimate qualified 33% of Mozambicans over the age of 15 as literate. In 1975, 97% were illiterate. A very small percentage of primary school students continue to secondary school, and the country has limited capacity for professional and academic education. Primary education is free of charge, and 40% of primary school age children enroll. Secondary education is not free. Based on 1992 statistics, of the 1.2 million enrolled in the first five-year phase of primary education, only 100,000 continue with the second, two-year phase. Of that 100,000, only 50,000 continue for secondary, professional, technical, or university education. The 1992 higher education enrollment in the country was 4,600.

During the war, school was often conducted under trees, without books or supplies. Many schools were destroyed during the war years. Mozambique has a very small educated population from which to draw teachers, and families often cannot afford the loss of labor in subsistence farming for children to attend school.
In recent years, the government has made efforts to decentralize its political and economic structures and improve social services. Schools have increased their enrollments dramatically. The net school attendance rate, only 43% in 1991, shot up to 71% in 2004, according to the UNDP Human Development Report 2006. However, the quality of education remains a challenge. Most classrooms are overcrowded with about 70 children to just one teacher, almost half of whom are unqualified. Repetition rates are high, reaching 21% in 2004. The proportion of girl pupils attending school remains lower than that of boys and literacy rates for men in 2006 were 67% compared with 38% for women.


Mozambicans practice various forms of music, dance, and storytelling. As in most of Africa, African art is used to communicate spiritual messages, historical information, and other truths to society. Thus, cultural heritage plays an important role among the various ethnic groups in Mozambique. Various groups are known for different aspects of their cultural heritage. The Chope, for example, who were believed to have come from the Vilankulu, are masters of the African piano, the mbila. The Maconde are world renowned for their wood carvings.

Many writers and artists are natives of Mozambique, including the poet Albuquerque Freire; short-story writer and journalist Luis Bernardo Honwana (also known as Augusto Manuel); and poet and painter Malagatana Gowenha Valente. Poet and artist Rui de Noronha is considered to be the “father of modern Mozambican writers,” and Noemia Carolina Abranches de Sousa (also known as Vera Micaia) is considered to be the first Mozambican woman writer. Much Mozambique literature, like other African literature written in Portuguese, is anticolonial and promotes traditional African themes.


Most Mozambicans rely on machambas, family garden plots, for survival. As much as 80%–90% of the population practice some agricultural activity, primarily subsistence farming. During the war, people sometimes had to walk one to two hours to farm their plots during the day, then return to settlements that were guarded against RENAMO bandits at night. The need for and demands of subsistence farming undermined FRELIMO's attempts to establish communal farms and villages in Mozambique following independence. The annual per capita income for Mozambicans is $90 per year, and unemployment registers at about 21%.


Soccer is the most popular organized spectator sport in Mozambique. One of the leading soccer players for Portugal in the 1960s, in fact, was Eusobio from Mozambique. Many other Western sports are played by children and adults, particularly in the urban centers.


In Mozambique's urban centers, theater and television are popular. FRELIMO tried to promote rural village theater, but the effort was disrupted during the war years and has not been reestablished. Children enjoy playing games such as hopscotch and hide-and-seek.


As previously noted, the various ethnic groups have rich cultural heritages that contribute to the art of Mozambique. For example, the Maconde, a matrilineal ethnic group of the Mueda Plateau in North of Pemba Province, are well known for their wood carvings. The carvings now reflect more recent styles. In the Shetani style, the carvings are tall and gracefully curved with stylized and abstracted faces and symbols, and most are carved in heavy ebony. “Shetani” is a Swahili word meaning “devil.” The carvings are used to translate a spirit or group of spirits. The Ujamaa-style carvings are totem-type structures showing lifelike people and faces, huts, and everyday articles like pots and agricultural tools. These carvings are representative of family. The Maconde are also known for their water pots as well as masks used in initiation ceremonies.


A vast array of social problems obviously afflict a country so recently traumatized by war. While Mozambique adopted a democratic constitution in 1990, human rights violations continue to be reported, including a pattern of abusive behavior by security forces and an ineffective judicial system. Mozambique is facing continuing uncertainty as a result of the war years, and the transition to better economic conditions, improved health care and education, and the guarantee of human rights will take time.


The Mozambican constitution enshrines gender equality and legislation has been passed to support women's rights. Unlike in other African countries, women are well represented in parliament. As of 2008 30% of members of parliament (MPs) were women, as was the prime minister and the foreign minister. But in the home women often have little negotiating power. They continue to be subservient to men. Despite the government's efforts to eliminate gender disparities in access to education, the proportion of girls attending school is significantly lower than for boys. In secondary schools only 40.7% of the students are girls. In terms of human rights, Mozambique's constitution and legal framework establish safeguards for all citizens' civil rights and liberties, but the treatment of individuals who are arrested or detained remains a concern. In addition, prison conditions are substandard, and trafficking of children and women has increased.

Homosexuality is illegal in Mozambique. Laws covering homosexual activity criminalize male homosexuality with a penalty of up to three years imprisonment in a “re-education institution” where hard labor is used to alter the prisoners “aberrant behavior.” However, the decision in South Africa to legalize same-sex marriages has had an impact on the way Mozambique looks at homosexuality. Following South Africa's decision, homosexuality got a very positive discussion in the national press in Mozambique.


Azevedo, Mario. Historical Dictionary of Mozambique. London: Scarecrow Press, 1991.

Dillon, Diane, and Leo Dillon. The African Cookbook. New York: Carol Publishing Group, 1993.

Finnegan, William. A Complicated War: The Harrowing of Mozambique. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

Newitt, Malyn. A History of Mozambique. London: Hurst & Co., 1995.

Oppong, J. and Kalipeni, E. “The Geography of Landmines and Implications for Health and Disease in Africa: A Political Ecology Approach.” In Africa Today 52, No. 1 (2005): 3-25.

—revised by E. Kalipeni

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