Yao people


Yao / Wa Yao

The Yao (also called Wayao) are an East African people that reside along Lake Malawi in Malawi, Mozambique, and Tanzania.

They are a predominantly Mus­lim group. with a strong sociocultural identity that transcends national boundaries. Rich and influential Yao kingdoms emerged in the region in the fifteenth century, as the people participated in the Arab trade, exchanging slaves and ivory for guns and clothes on the southern African coast. Yao chiefs and merchants controlled large areas, initially through trade and later through warfare.

The Yao people ranged freely during this period, first in Niassa Province ot Mozambique, then trading along the banks of Lake Malawi, before finally moving into present day Malawi and Tanzania.

Yao people map

As a result of their relations with the Arabs, Islam took hold among the Yao and became widespread. Yao chiefs employed Islamic teachers to reach (Arabic) writing, and those teachers, in turn, introduced Islamic culture, especially its religious practices, architecture, and sartorial tradition. Clothing made of raffia palm cloth soon gave way to Western-style clothes, and square houses replaced round huts.

The arrival and establishment of the Niassa Company by the Portuguese in Mozambique’s Niassa Province during the early sixteenth century dealt a blow to the Yao kingdom. As soon as the Portuguese settled, they began founding cities and towns, where they built trad­ing posts, forts, and ports, turning the once prosperous slave economy into a production-based one.

As Portuguese-run agricultural plantations expanded, so did Christianity, and many Yao were forced both to work for the Portuguese and to become Christians. The introduction of wage labour (albeit forced), Western education, and colonialism combined to put some Yao in a position to benefit from accepting Christianity. At the same time, Yao Muslims resented the imposition of Christianity, and clung even more tenaciously to their Muslim identity and beliefs.

The impact of Arab culture on the Yao people was so strong that when European abolitionists and colonists, including the British, the Germans, and the returning Portuguese, arrived in the I880s, the Yao joined with the Arabs to mount a resistance against them. Attempts by British abolitionists to halt the slave trade by attacking and arresting Yao slave caravans near the coast were interpreted as attempts to convert the Yao to Christianity. German colonists in south-eastern Africa fought pitched battles with the Yao people, who were open to trade but refused to submit to German colonial authority. After many years of engagements, however, the Yao finally surrendered to German forces in 1890.

Although Christianity and Islam have played and still play important roles in Yao society, traditional practices such as initiation and circumcision have persisted. A majority of the nearly 2 million Yao people of Malawi, Mozambique, and Tanzania are bilingual, speaking both their national language—English in Malawi. Portuguese in Mozambique, and Swahili and English in Tanzania— and a Bantu language called Chiyao.

Yao people


The Yao speak a Bantu language known as Chiyao (chi- being the class prefix for "language"), with an estimated 1,000,000 speakers in Malawi, 495,000 in Mozambique, and 492,000 in Tanzania. The nationality's traditional homeland is located between the Rovuma and the Lugenda Rivers in northern Mozambique. They also speak the official languages of the countries they inhabit, Swahili in Tanzania, Chichewa and Chitumbuka in Malawi, and Portuguese in Mozambique.



Illnesses in Yao culture are believed to originate through physical reasons, curses or by breaking cultural taboos. In such situations where illness is believed to come from the latter two sources (folk illnesses), government health centers will rarely be consulted. Some folk illnesses known to the Yao include undubidwa (an illness affecting breastfeeding children due to jealousy from a sibling), and various "ndaka" illnesses that stem from contact that is made between those who are not sexually active with those who are (cold and hot).