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Nyakyusa and Ngonde

Nyakyusa and Ngonde



Identification. The Nyakyusa of southwestern Tanzania have been ethnographically studied since 1934 and are known from missionary and traveler's records since the beginning of European contact with the East African interior in the 1870s. The Nyakyusa are especially noted for their system of "age villages," a residential segregation of generations in adjoining communities, and both the Nyakyusa and the Ngonde, a closely related people of northern Malawi, are known for the "divine" powers of their former chiefs.

Location. The Nyakyusa inhabit the coastal plain at the north end of Lake Malawi and the section of the East African Rift Valley extending northward up the southern flank of Mount Rungwe, an extinct volcano; the Ngonde are found on the northwestern coastal plain immediately across the border in Malawi, separated from Tanzania by the Songwe River. Rainfall is distributed throughout much of the year, with a concentration in March and April; it exceeds 250 centimeters per year on the slopes of Mount Rungwe and is around 100 centimeters per year on the lake plain in Ngonde country. BuNyakyusa (the country of the Nyakyusa) is dissected by rivers, which contributed to its relative isolation and political fragmentation in precolonial times. The lakeside locale of the Ngonde, which was accessible to trade routes, allowed the rise of a centralized chieftaincy in the nineteenth century but also increased their exposure to slave raiding.

Demography. In 1931 the Nyakyusa population was approximately 195,000, and by 1966 it was about 360,000. In 1967 its estimated natural rate of increase was 2.4 percent. The Ngonde in the same period had grown by at least an equivalent amount, from 83,000 in 1945 to 137,000 in 1966. There is a preponderance of women over men, largely brought about by wage migration. Increasing pressure on the land and the absence of men has obliged many women to fend for themselves because of diminishing agricultural resources.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Nyakyusa and Ngonde speak closely related Bantu languages. The Nyakyusa of the Mount Rungwe uplands and those of the lake plain exhibit minor dialectal differences.

History and Cultural Relations

Tradition recalls that Nyakyusa/Ngonde chiefs and commoners were of different stock. The ancestors of the "commoners" are remembered as hunters and honey gatherers who came from the mountains surrounding the Rift Valley or from the vicinity of Lake Rukwa to the north. The ancestors of the "chiefs" were related to the aristocracy of the Kinga, a neighboring (although otherwise unrelated) people in the mountains east of the lake. The chiefs came "ten generations ago," bringing cattle, cultigens, fire, and iron, and found the commoners eating their food "raw." The chiefs arrived not as conquerors, but as culture bringers with power over rain and fertility. They are remembered as being "pale" and the commoners as "black," but there has been intermarriage for as long as anyone remembers, and no physical difference is discernible in their descendants. This myth of migration and settlement resembles many others from Africa concerning the origins of the complementary relationship between rulers and the ruled.

Whereas the Nyakyusa were relatively isolated because of their geographical situation, the Ngonde were incorporated into an extensive precolonial ivory-centered trade network. English and German missionaries, traders, and explorers arrived in the 1870s. The initial phase of contact was soon followed by elimination of the slave trade and the establishment of European colonial regimes; the Ngonde ended up in the British Protectorate of Nyasaland (called Malawi upon independence), and the Nyakyusa were incorporated in the German colony of Tanganyika. With the defeat of the Germans in World War I, control of Tanganyika passed to the British, who assumed the territory under a League of Nations mandate and administered it until independence.

Scots missionaries established themselves in Ngonde territory, and Lutherans and Moravians, followed by Catholics, settled in BuNyakyusa. The missionary presence resulted in challenges to the values of precolonial society (e.g., polygyny), a division of the population along religious lines, and a withdrawal of Christians from participation in traditional communal ceremonials. Wage migration has taken many men out of the country to work for various periods in the mines of the Rhodesian (now Zambian) Copper Belt or in South Africa. The introduction of cash cropping and private land has further enhanced these individualistic tendencies. The overall effect of such changes has been a transition from a society based on kinship to one based on the nuclear family and voluntary association.


The Nyakyusa have preferred to live in nucleated settlements and are best known for their system of "age villages," whereby new generations of young men set themselves up in residential communities separate from those of their fathers. This separation is not strictly an "age set" system composed of named grades (as among many East African herding societies), but rather an outgrowth of the idea that the sexual activities of the generations should be kept separate and that contemporaries make the best neighborsthat they provide "good company" for one another. There was a powerful avoidance between fathers-in-law and daughters-in-law. The germ of a new village would form as boys reaching adolescence set up huts on the edge of a parent village; this new village recruited for perhaps five years, and then closed its membership. The fundamental principle of residential affiliation was therefore not kinship but age (kin often lived in the same village, however, or at least in the same "side" of the chiefdom).

Although there were no named age sets, each generation had a corporate identity in that it went through a collective transition ritual called a "coming out." Seniors were supposed to "move aside" in a comprehensive redistribution of land within the chiefdom. At this time new chiefs were also brought out, as were commoner headmen, the headmen of the villages newly elevated to senior status. Ideally, the chiefdom would also split, dividing between the two senior sons of the old chief. The system can be seen as an institutional way of handling a natural process of growth and fission, but the way in which it actually worked remains somewhat obscure. In any event these arrangements were dependent on an ample supply of vacant land; with the onset of colonial rule and an increasing population, it began to fall apart. The last recorded "coming out" in Ngonde occurring in 1913, the last in BuNyakyusa in 1953. By 1969, the establishment of age villages had also ceased, and the system itself was scarcely remembered.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The ample rainfall of the region makes possible a stable mixed economy of banana, plaintain, and grain cultivation, accompanied by cattle herding. Shifting cultivation is not practiced; the land is kept in condition by fallowing and green manuring. The cash cropping of rice, coffee, and tea has had a profound effect on the local economy and, because land has now acquired commercial value, contributed greatly to the demise of communal land tenure and the institution of the age village. Subsistence cultivation, however, remains the norm. With the exception of the marketing of cash crops, there is slight commercial activity.

Industrial Arts. Blacksmiths were present in precolonial society, but the iron was smelted by the Kinga (from whom the Nyakyusa chiefs were thought to be derived). Pottery making was in the hands of a non-Nyakyusa specialist group residing on the northeastern lakeshore.

Trade. In precolonial times there was regional traffic in iron, cloth, pottery, and salt and, among the Ngonde, participation in the ivory trade to the coast, an activity that enhanced the power of the Ngonde chief through the extraction of tribute. The giving and receiving of salt and iron (in the form of hoes) were important markers of social relationships. Salt came in from the Tanganyika plateau to the north. Rice from the lowlands near the lake is currently exchanged for highland produce such as groundnuts.

Division of Labor. There is ideally a gender-based division of labor: men and boys hoe and herd; women cook and attend the household. A son was expected to hoe for his father. Likewise, a son-in-law was expected to hoe for his father-in-law; in the absence of cattle for bride-wealth, this service was the only way a poor man could acquire a wife. Skill at hoeing was once a primary masculine virtue. Now, because of the absence of the many men who are pursuing outside employment, women have increasingly been obliged to hoe and tend the home fires.

Land Tenure. The age village was the landholding unit, and allotment of land was determined at the coming-out ceremony. The allocation of land within the village was its own concern, and there was much flexibility in practice. Villages of fathers and sons were usually close to one another, and, before the general redistribution, sons would often take over plots tilled by their fathers. With the collapse of the age-village system, land tenure became the affair of the nuclear family; even as early as the 1930s private ownership had been established over valuable plots in old volcanic craters. By the late 1960s, a substantial landless class had emerged.


Kin Groups and Descent. A person was both a member of an agnatic kin group and an age village. With the exception of the chiefly lines, lineage groups were unnamed, genealogically shallow, and residentially dispersed because of the age-village system. The corporate political significance of lineages was therefore limited. Their main relevance emerged in judicial proceedings, inheritance, and ritual; kin had greater legal responsibility for one another's behavior than did age mates. Marriage between descendants of a common great-grandfather was frowned upon, but marriage between descendants oí a common grandfather was considered "impossible." Unlike many peoples of the region, cross-cousin marriage was not considered permissible, although in other respects cross cousins behaved familiarly and had mutual obligations in the ritual of kinship.

Kinship Terminology. Father, father's brothers, and their structural equivalents were terminologically equated, as were mother, mother's sisters, and so forth. Father's sister and mother's brother were distinguished. Parallel cousins and cross cousins were distinguished in Iroquois fashion. Grandparents and grandchildren used a self-reciprocal term for one another. Wife's sister and husband's brother were addressed by the same term as one's spouse. Lineal features in the terminological system are relatively undeveloped.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage ages once differed markedly for men and women, the former marrying at an average age of 25, and the latter near puberty, having been betrothed by their fathers even earlier. In the 1930s as many as 70 percent of married women lived in polygynous households, but as many as 70 percent of adult men were either unmarried or monogamous. There was "a premise of inequality" between men and women. Marriage was virilocal except in cases where a husband without cattle was incorporated into the household of his father-in-law by virtue of bride-service; children from such a match became part of the father-in-law's lineage. Transfer of cattle was therefore an essential part of contracting an honorable marriage; "kinship is cattle," it was said. Men with such resources translated them into polygynous marriage. Even so, in the interval between the 1930s and the present, women began marrying at a later age, and polygyny underwent a relative decline, particularly among Christians. Tanzanian national family law has promoted the autonomy of women with respect to marriage and property rights.

Domestic Unit. The basic unit is the nuclear family. In polygynous households each wife has her own house, or in former times a separate room in a long house; each household is allotted its own land, which the husband helps cultivate.

Inheritance. A brother traditionally inherited the farms and wives of a deceased sibling and raised children in the latter's name. Failing this, an elder son was the legitimate heir. Presently, father-to-son inheritance is the norm, another function of the privatization of economic life and the breakup of wider kinship units. Widows, rather than being inherited, now are likely to live in the household of a son unless they remarry.

Socialization. Young boys were expected mainly to socialize with age mates and eventually to live with them in age villages. Sharing within the group was a paramount value, and those who did not incurred much animosity, culminating in witchcraft accusations. Girls were taught the virtues of deference.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The social organization of contemporary Nyakyusa and Ngonde society is oriented around the family, individual agricultural production, national politics, and the churches. In former times the age village was the center of social life; the wider community came into play via war, the power of chieftaincies, and the enactment of collective ritual.

Political Organization. In the 1930s there were at least a hundred chiefdoms in Nyakyusa country, each with a chief descended from the original Kinga immigrants. The commoners, for their part, had powers of witchcraft as well as of defense against it, and provided wives for the immigrants. Commoners also played an essential role in the installation rituals for the chiefs and were symbolically associated with the chief as woman is to man; the exercise of the complementary powers of chiefs and commoners ensured fertility and protection against evil. There were several Nyakyusa figures who transcended ordinary chiefs to the point that they have been labeled "divine kings." It was widely believed that formerly, when their powers began to wane, they were killed lest they take their powers into the grave with them; however, these "kings" had no political power as such, whereas an equivalent figure among the Ngonde, the kyungu, became paramount administrative chief of his domain. Tanzania deprived all such chiefs of their powers, and replaced them with elected local authorities.

Social Control. Social control is, for the most part, exercised informally, often through witchcraft accusations or fear of them, and by threat of the mystical powers of senior relatives to discipline wayward kin. Village headmen had the responsibility to arbitrate disputes. The obstinate were subject to banishment, and were also susceptible to "the breath of men," a mystical projection of dislike or dissatisfaction resulting in illness. Headmen had innate powers to combat witches by engaging in dream combat with them at night, but might be accused of witchcraft themselves if they misused their offices. In extreme cases of suspected witchcraft, a poison ordeal could be administered as a kind of lie-detector test.

Conflict. Small-scale warfare and cattle raiding were once endemic between adjoining chiefdoms; occasionally a chiefdom would be subsumed by another because of defeat in war. The most violent period in local history occurred in the late nineteenth century, when a coastal slaver set himself up in Ngonde countryan activity brought to an end by British intervention in 1895.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The precolonial Nyakyusa/Ngonde cosmology was nontheistic. It focused on the powers of the founding heroes and their chiefly descendants, on the powers of commoner headmen to combat witches, and on the ability of deceased relatives to affect the fortunes of the living. Since then Christianity has made very substantial progress, although not equally in all areas. In 1955 Moravians, Lutherans, and Catholics comprised some 14 percent of the total population, with significant numbers in other sects such as the Pentecostal Holiness, Assemblies of God, Watch Tower (Jehovah's Witnesses), Seventh Day Adventists, and a number of indigenous sectarian groups.

Religious Practitioners. Descendants of the "divine kings" (the Lwembe of Nyakyusa, the Kyungu of Ngonde) performed important rituals for the well-being of the country at large, such as ceremonies of national purification. There were also commoner priests and diviners, who worked together with the chiefs to avert misfortune, officiate at communal ceremonials, and preside over the grave sites of dead chiefs.

Ceremonies. The "coming out" was the most impressive and important of the collective ceremonials. Sacrifices at the burial groves of chiefs were important in times of misfortune. Kinship rituals, particularly the elaborate burial service, were the most common type of ceremony; there were also rituals accompanying puberty and marriage, and normal and abnormal birth (e.g., the birth of twins).

Medicine. "Medicines" were used to enhance the powers of chiefs and village headmen; they were administered to nourish the "python in the belly," the source of mystical power. The actual content of the medicines is uncertain, although some were composed of ground stone and others of vegetable substances, the latter type being of particular importance in strengthening a pubescent girl.

Death and Afterlife. The shades of the dead were of great importance. Neglect of the proper form in funeral services could lead to illness. The main function of funeral ceremonial was to produce a certain distance between the living and the dead. The shades of past kings and agnatic ancestors were frequently consulted when interpreting or attempting to avert misfortune.


Charsley, Simon R. (1969). The Princes of Nyakyusa. Nairobi: East African Publishing House.

Gulliver, Phillip H. (1958). Land Tenure and Social Change among the Nyakyusa. East African Studies, no. 11. Kampala: East African Institute of Social Research.

McKenny, Michael G. (1973). "The Social Structure of the Nyakyusa: A Re-Evaluation." Africa 63:91-107.

Wilson, Godfrey (1968). The Constitution of Ngonde. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Wilson, Monica (1950). "Nyakyusa Kinship." In African Systems of Kinship and Marriage, edited by A. R. Radcliffe-Brown and D. Forde, 111-139. London: Oxford University Press.

Wilson, Monica (1951). Good Company. London: Oxford University Press.

Wilson, Monica (1957). Rituals of Kinship among the Nyakyusa. London: Oxford University Press.

Wilson, Monica (1959). Communal Rituals of the Nyakyusa. London: Oxford University Press.

Wilson, Monica ( 1977). For Men and Elders: Change in the Relations of Generations and of Men and Women among the Nyakyusa-Ngonde People, 1875-1971. London: International African Institute.


(with thanks to Donna Robertson)

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