Mozambique Ethnic Groups

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In many parts of the world, ethnic conflicts are not just a simple matter of the past. In this lesson, we'll look at the history of Mozambique, and see what ethnicity means in this nation today.


Portugal was the first European power to start seriously colonizing Africa, as they launched a wave of exploration around the world. One of their first colonies was a coastal region of Southeast Africa now called Mozambique. Portugal ruled Mozambique from 1498 to 1974. That's almost 500 years, but colonialism did nothing to bring the various peoples of Mozambique together.

There was never an ethnic group in Mozambique that controlled this region. The Portuguese brought a series of diverse groups under their control, but did little to unify them. After Mozambique achieved its independence in 1975, it broke into a protracted civil war that lasted from 1977 to 1992. So, Mozambique's history has been one of instability. But, it is also one of diversity.


Ethnic Groups in Mozambique

Mozambique is home to a diverse range of ethnic groups. There are four major groups, each of which can be divided into smaller regional and ethnic groups, but for the most part Mozambicans belong to the Bantu ethno-linguistic family. Bantu ethnicities are ancestrally indigenous to South and Central Africa, and make up the majority of the population south of the Sahara Desert. Still, each group within this family is distinct. Sometimes they get along, and sometimes they don't.

Ethnic distribution in Mozambique

This diversity is important to Mozambique because the prolonged wars and instability have resulted in an extremely low sense of national unity. Most Mozambicans see themselves primarily as members of their ethnic group, and only marginally as members of the nation.

In fact, while Portuguese is the official language of Mozambique, it's only spoken by less than a quarter of the population, and even then is generally a second language. Local languages are the standard across Mozambique, meaning that not everyone within the nation can communicate with each other. Not that they have many opportunities to, as transportation between the regions is limited. So, ethnic identification is important here.

Makhuwa Ethnicity

The first of the four ethnic groups of Mozambique are the Makhuwa, who are found in both Mozambique and Tanzania. They live in the tropical forests and work primarily in agriculture. A large number of rural Makhuwa still live in traditional mud-brick houses and rely on small-scale subsistence farming, growing just enough for them and their families. They are a matrilineal society, with lineage passing through the mother's side, and most follow a traditional animist religion.

Makhuwa society is generally matrilineal

Tsonga Ethnicity

Another major ethnic group in Mozambique are the Tsonga, who are found through Southern Africa. The Tsonga people make up the majority of the population in southern Mozambique, where they have lived for centuries. Many Tsonga in Mozambique also fled here to escape the apartheid policies of South Africa in the late 20th century.

Traditionally, most Tsonga were pastoralists, but now many work as agricultural laborers for large farms. In recent years, a new form of low-tech electronic dance music produced by Tsonga musicians has been gaining lots of attention across Southern Africa.

Lomwe Ethnicity

Next, we've got the Lomwe people, who are closely related to the Makhuwa, and together these two groups make up roughly 40% of the population. They are also mostly subsistence farmers who live in remote and rural areas. During the Mozambique Civil War, many Lomwe fled to Lomwe communities in nearby Malawi, but most have since returned. Traditionally, the Lomwe practiced a form of body modification called scarification, in which symbolic designs were scarred onto the body, but this practice is dying out.

Sena Ethnicity

The last of the major four ethnic groups in Mozambique are the Sena. The Sena were more urbanized by Portuguese colonization and, as a result, were more connected to the independence movement. Many major leaders in Mozambique's independence were Sena. Still, this group claims that new government and economic policies are excluding them from the recent national growth.

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