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Regions with significant populations
Malawi: 758,000, Tanzania, Zambia

Tumbuka, Chewa, Zulu


Christian, African Traditional Religion

Related ethnic groups

Nguni, Zulu

The Ngoni people are an ethnic group living in Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania and Zambia, in east-central Africa. The Ngoni trace their origins to the Zulu people of kwaZulu-Natal in South Africa.



An Ngoni dancer from Tanzania

In the early nineteenth century, a period of political instability in southern Africa known as the mfecane saw the rise of the Zulu nation and the creation of a number of other groups. The creation and destruction of political allegiances led to a number of northward migrations of Nguni people from the kwaZulu-Natal region in South Africa.

In around 1817, the Mthethwa alliance (which included the Zulu clan) came into conflict with the Ndwandwe alliance. One of the military commanders of the Ndwandwe army was Zwangendaba kaHlatshwayo, (c1780-1848), head of the Jele or Gumbi clan, which itself formed part of the larger emaNcwangeni alliance in what is now north-east kwaZulu-Natal.

In 1819, the Ndwandwe alliance was defeated by the Zulu army under Shaka at a battle on the Umhlatuze River, near Nkandla. Many of the Ndwandwe fled, and over a period of about 20 years Zwangendaba led a small group of his followers north through Mozambique and Zimbabwe to the region around the Viphya Plateau, between what is now Zambia (Lundazi district), Malawi (Mzimba and Karonga district) and Tanzania (Matema district). In this region he established a state, using Zulu warfare techniques to conquer and integrate local peoples.

Following Zwangendaba's death in 1848, succession disputes split the Ngoni people. Zwangendaba's following and the Maseko Ngoni eventually created seven substantial Ngoni kingdoms in Tanzania, Zambia and Malawi.

The Ngoni people of Malawi

In Malawi, there are the following Ngoni groups:

  1. Jere Ngoni of Mchinji under Paramount Chief Mpezeni of Zambia (see below)
  2. Jere Ngoni of Mzimba under Paramount Chief M'Mbelwa
  3. Maseko Ngoni of Dedza under Paramount Chief Kachindamoto and Kachere
  4. Maseko Ngoni of Ntcheu under Paramount Chief Ganya (Successor of Chief Gomani)
  5. Maseko Ngoni of Thyolo under Paramount Chief Vumbwe

The Mfecane was generated by the wars fought by King Shaka Zulu. The Ngoni groups were a mixture of Nguni and the people they defeated on their way north. They brought their own military organization and strategies with them and reached eastern Africa between Lakes Tanganyika and Nyasa (today's Lake Malawi), after mixing with conquered peoples on the way, and effecting Africa as far away as Lake Victoria Nyasa.

There had been no unit larger than a clan-chiefdom in east Africa before the Ngoni arrival, and it was they who transformed a good part of today's Tanzania, particularly the southern part with the Sangu and Hehe, who then showed little difference in weapons or dress.

One group reached the modern Songea district early in the 1840s, while the other divided, one section moving northward to Runsewe roughly ninety miles northwest of Tabora upsetting the Germans and having Oscar Baumann the explorer calling them the Watuta Ngoni). The remaining sections raided as far to the west as Uha before returning to Songea about 1858.

The Ngoni were raiders and cattle herds, but their experience during the Mfecane and the long walk north had given them a remarkable organization. The youth were formed into regiments of age group bachelors no longer under the control of a local chief, extending across the entire society and armed with the assegai, the short stabbing spear whose use by disciplined formations made war bloody and rughless and no longer a game. The Ngoni were a people with a mixed farming heritage of agriculture and herding, who had evolved extraordinary military tactics and organization.

The Ngoni brought this general arrangement to East Africa, for they had at one time been Zulu and their reputation of inspiring terror could not be disputed. The fear of burning homes, separation and death, all food destroyed or plundered was not to be dismissed, so that some tribal groups made accommodation respectable, and some even a virtue. In the 1870s, the Ngoni warriors raided north and west. By 1882, they raided east.

The German colonial period

By the time Bismark nationalized East Germany and decided to dominate the main caravan route, the Ngoni group northwest of Tabora had begun blending into the general population of the Nyamwezi. They spoke the Nyamwezi language but tended to use the original Zulu military tactics of a mass frontal attack of spearmen rather defending heavily palisaded tembes as the Nyamwezi, with whom they were regularly allied, The two tribes seldom actually fought together, for their tactics differed. The Germans, however, still referred to them as the Wangoni.

Why did the Ngoni go north? 1. According to John Reader in his book Africa the Portuguese introduced maniac (Cassava) and corn to Africa which revolutionized agriculture, probably stimulating the production of food, pushing the number of mouths to be fed. During drought people began elbowing and fighting one another for this food, bringing new forms of military organization as far as East Africa. 2. Portuguese raiding for slaves inland from Delago Bay, Mowsambique supplied the labor for the sugar plantations of Brazil and sent waves of refugees as far as East Africa in the form of the Ngoni.

While the Ngoni were primarily agriculturalists, cattle were their main goal for raiding expeditions and migrations northward. (According to the ethnologist, Alice Werner, they never ate fish.) Their reputation as refugees escaping Shaka is easily overstated; it is thought that no more than 1,000 Ngoni crossed the Zambesi River in the 1820s. They raided north, taking women in marriage and men into their fighting regiments. Their prestige became so great that by 1921,in Nyasaland alone, 245,833 people claimed membership as Ngoni although few spoke the Zulu dialect called Ngoni. The Ngoni integrated conquered subjects into their warfare and organization, becoming more a ruling class than a race and, by 1906, few individuals were of Ngoni blood alone. It was only after Ngoni status began to decline that tribal consciousness of the component groups began to rise along with their reported numbers. In the early 1930s, the Ngonde, Nyasa, Tonga and other groups once again claimed their original tribal status.

The Germans did not have an easy time dominating the 'Street of Caravans', but hired Charles Stokes and Emin Pasha and assigned Lt. Langheld, Lt. Sigle, and Sergeant Bauer to the task. Lt. Langheld became ill, intending to meet Emin Pasha in Bokuba but joined Charles Stokes, Lt. Sigl and Sergeant Bauer by Usongo.

Lt. Langheld quotes Lt. Sigl's description of the Battle with the Tinde(Wanyamwezi) and the Wangoni in Zwanzig Jahre in Deutschen Kolonien, during which, for a time at least, Sergeant Bauer remains in camp very ill.

Usongo, October 17, 1890 "I have the honor to inform your excallency that necessary military action has taken place in Tinde against the friends of the Wangoni with the cooperation of Lt. Langheld and his section of 21 men, my section of 14 men strong, and aside from these regular troops, Mitinginja provided a Ruga-ruga of about 700-800 men armed for the most part with muzzle-loaders, led by his son Mumbi. We left Sumaji at 6 o'clock in the morning and arrives at Tinde at 9:30. We observed people running towards Tinde in order to give proper warning of our arrival." "As soon as we left the Pori, shots were fired at us from a great distance out of the Tembe, which had raised the red flag (Sultan of Sanzibars flag). We formed two skirmish lines, one of soldiers, the second of Ruga-ruga on a broad front. We advanced under fire from the opponents until at about 250 meters from the Tembe the soldiers fired salvos at it. We then charged the wall and fired further salvos directly at it, for the enemy had still not been silenced." "Lieutenant Lanheld, I and a few soldiers forced ourselves in through the gate, but were fired upon from so close a distance that retreat was in order. A quick charge by the soldiers through such a passage was unthinkable." "Enclosed in the Tambe were all of the animals, women, and children, and their cries and roaring were deafening.... Free again outside, salvos were again given while th gates and roof were set afire. Part of the enemy tried to escape out the rear gateway but were shot down with well-aimed fire." "Our soldiers on the roofs were still being fired on from the Tembe; the red flag had gone up in flames while many soldiers fired from the roofs at the people packed among the animals. The firing on us became weaker and weaker. We were masters of the situation. Suddenly everything changed. On the edge of the scene thousands of enemy appeared, as though created out of the earth, firing on us successfully. Our Ruga-ruga, without using their loaded weapons, ran away, thereby giving the enemy fresh courage.... Gone to winds and hills; the cowards!" "Relative quiet set in and we were able to grasp that our people had suffered severely and that the ammunition was not longer sufficient to continue attacking the Tembe. The ammunition was then divided equally, as were the wounded, and a completely pwaceful, orderly retreat took place; the enemy, however, had to repeatedly be confronted with rear-guard action by us. Only after Lt. Langheld shot the son of the Tembe of Tinde did the enemy stop."

Further research indicates the Watuta Ngoni were defeated later by Lt. Langheld at Sosya and settled in the Runsewe region. The Ngoni's Wanyamwezi allies from Tinde were also involved and defeated. Sergeant Bauer, Lt. Sigl, and Charles Stokes all participated in the campaign; particularly the Sergeant is listed as bringing the retreat of Lt. Langheld's new recruits to a halt and giving the Lieutenant much needed support. The Lieutenant continues to refer to Bauer as participating in the battle to subdue the Tinde Wanjamwezi in their area of control,by the village of ligeas late as December 9, 1890.

The Ngoni people of Zambia

Mpezeni (also spelt Mpeseni) was the warrior-king of one of the largest Ngoni groups, based in what is now the Chipata District of Zambia, and was courted by the Portuguese and British. The British South Africa Company of Cecil Rhodes sent agents to obtain a treaty — Alfred Sharpe in 1889, and Joseph Maloney in 1895, who were both unsuccessful. In 1897 with over 4000 warriors Mpezeni rose up against the British who were taking control of Nyasaland and North-Eastern Rhodesia, and was defeated. He signed the treaty which allowed him to rule as Paramount Chief of the Ngoni in Zambia's Eastern Province and Malawi's Mchinji district. His successors as chief take the title Paramount Chief Mpezeni to this day.[1]

Present day

An Ngoni dancer from Tanzania

While the Ngoni have largely retained a distinct identity in the post-colonial states in which they live, integration and acculturation has led to them adopting local languages; nowadays Zulu is used only for a few ritual praise poems.

See also


  1. ^ The Northern Rhodesia Journal online at T W Baxter:"The Angoni Rebellion and Mpeseni." Vol I, No. 2, pp14-24 (1950). Website accessed 29 April 2007.


  • Ngoni by Nwankwo T. Nwaezeigwe (The Heritage Library Of African Peoples)
  • Mpezeni's Ngoni of Eastern Zambia, 1870-1920, Ph.D. dissertation by William Eugene Rau, 1974
  • Bauer, Andreus. Street of Caravans.
  • Iliffe, John. Modern History of Tanganjika.
  • Mankind, the Illustrated Edncyclopedia of'
  • Reader, John. Africa, a biography of the Continent.
  • Tew, Mary. People of the Lake Nyasa Region.

External links



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