Ngoni people

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For other uses, see Ngoni (disambiguation).
Regions with significant populations
Malawi: 758,000, Tanzania, Zambia
Tumbuka, Ngoni, 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 southeast-central Africa. The Ngoni trace their origins to the Zulu people of kwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. The displacement of the Ngoni people in the great scattering following the Zulu wars had repercussions in social reorganization as far north as Malawi and Zambia.


An Ngoni dancer from Tanzania

The rise of the Zulu nation to dominance in southern Africa in the early nineteenth century (~1815–~1840) disrupted many traditional alliances. Around 1817, the Mthethwa alliance, which included the Zulu clan, came into conflict with the Ndwandwe alliance, which included the Nguni people from the kwaZulu-Natal. One of the military commanders of the Ndwandwe army, Zwangendaba Gumbi son of Nonyanda ka Ziguda Jele according to the information given by the original Gumbi clan in Kwazulu Natal and not kaHlatshwayo as other researchers stated, (c1780–1848), was the 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 Zulu army under Shaka defeated the Ndwandwe alliance at a battle on the Umhlatuze River, near Nkandla. The battle resulted in the diaspora of many indigenous groups in southern Africa.

Long walk north

In the following decades, Zwangendaba led a small group of his followers north through Mozambique and Zimbabwe to the region around the Viphya Plateau. In this region, present-day Zambia (Chipata district), Malawi (Mzimba and Karonga district) and Tanzania (Matema district), 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.

While the Ngoni were primarily agriculturalists, cattle were their main goal for raiding expeditions and migrations northward. 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.


An Ngoni dancer from Tanzania

While the Ngoni have generally 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.

The Ngoni people of Malawi

The following Ngoni groups live in Malawi:

  • Jere Ngoni of Mchinji under Paramount Chief Mpezeni of Zambia (see below)
  • Jere Ngoni of Mzimba under Paramount Chief M'Mbelwa
  • Maseko Ngoni of Dedza under Paramount Chief Kachindamoto and Kachere
  • Maseko Ngoni of Ntcheu under Paramount Chief Ganya
  • Maseko Ngoni of Thyolo under Paramount Chief Vumbwe

In the Mfecane, the Nguni mixed with the peoples 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).

Change in social organization

The Ngoni transformed part of today's Tanzania, particularly the southern part, where the Sangu and Hehe, who then showed little difference in weapons or dress.

One Ngoni reached the modern Songea district early in the 1840s, while the other divided. Of the divided group, described by the explorer Oscar Baumann as the Watuta Ngoni, moved north to Runsewe roughly 90 miles (140 km) northwest of Tabora, upsetting the Germans. The remaining groups raided as far to the west as Uha before returning to Songea in about 1858.

The Ngoni were raiders and cattle herders, but their experience during the Mfecane and the long walk north gave them a remarkable organization extending across the entire society. The youth, previously under the control of a local chief, were formed into regiments of bachelors and armed with the assegai, a short, stabbing spear whose use by disciplined formations made warfare bloody and ruthless. 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 Southeast 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, and the destruction and plundering of food supplies was not to be dismissed. Some tribal groups made accommodation respectable, even virtuous. In the 1870s, the Ngoni warriors raided north and west. By 1882, they raided east.

The German colonial period in Tabora

A Ngoni warrior c.1875-1940

By the 1880s, 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 spear men rather defending heavily palisaded tembes as the Nyamwezi did, although they and the Nyamwezi were regularly allied. The two tribes seldom actually fought together, for their tactics differed. The Germans, however, still referred to them as one: the Wangoni.

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

Lieutenant Langheld quotes Lieutenant 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 remained in camp, also very ill.

Usongo, October 17, 1890

"I have the honor to inform your excellency 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 the 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 peaceful, 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 Lieutenant Langheld at Sosya and settled in the Runsewe region. The Ngoni's Wanyamwezi allies from Tinde were also 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 Lige as 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 4,000 warriors, Mpezeni rose up against the British, who were taking control of Nyasaland and North-Eastern Rhodesia, and was defeated. Mpezeni 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.

See also


  1. "Among the Wild Ngoni" Page 18, 1899
  2. The Northern Rhodesia Journal online at T W Baxter:"The Angoni Rebellion and Mpeseni." Vol I, No. 2, pp. 14-24 (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

  • The revival of Malawian Chingoni, by Pascal J. Kishindo
  • Ngoni history in Tanzania
  • Ngoni People

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