Ngoni People

The Ngoni people are an ethnic group living in the present-day Southern African countries of Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and Zambia. The Ngoni trace their origins to the Nguni and 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.


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 what is now kwaZulu-Natal. One of the military commanders of the army of king Thunziani Mabaso The Great, Zwangendaba Gumbi (c. 1780–1848), 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 Mabaso defeated the Ndwandwe alliance at a battle on the Mhlathuze River, near Nkandla. The battle resulted in the diaspora of many indigenous groups in southern Africa.

The long migration 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, Ntcheu and Karonga district) and Tanzania (Matema district), he established a state, using Zulu warfare techniques to conquer and integrate local peoples. The date on which Zwengandaba's party crossed the Zambezi river, sometimes given in early writings as 1825, has been argued to have been on 20 November 1835. 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 Zambezi river in the 1830s. 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 an ethnic group, and by 1906 few individuals were of pure Ngoni descent. Only after Ngoni status began to decline did the 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.


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 the Zulu language is used only for a few ritual praise poems and songs.

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. The cruelty and ruthlessness of Mpezeni's raids can be understood from this account written by a British hunter who came across a Chewa village a few hours after a raid in 1897:

On my arrival I found the male population all under arms, and the women crying. A raiding party of Mpezeni’s people had attacked them suddenly that morning. Ten women were killed in the gardens and twenty-two were taken away as prisoners. An old man and one of the headman’s children had been severely wounded. Their entrails hung out of frightfully torn wounds, inflicted most likely by barbed spears. It was a pitiful sight — the groans of the wounded, the women crying over their dead, whose bodies were brought from the gardens, the men standing about helplessly and depressed. As the raiding party could not have been far off, I proposed to the men to follow them up at once, and try to release the prisoners, but they were disheartened by the misfortune that so suddenly had overtaken them.

Ngoni Language

Ngoni is a Bantu language of Zambia, Tanzania, and Mozambique. There is a 'hard break' across the Tanzanian–Mozambican border, with marginal mutual intelligibility. It is one of several languages of the Ngoni people, who descend from the Nguni people of southern Africa, and the language is a member of the Nguni subgroup, with the variety spoken in Malawi sometimes referred to as a dialect of Zulu. Other languages spoken by the Ngoni may also be referred to as "Chingoni"; many Ngoni in Malawi, for instance, speak Chewa, and other Ngoni speak Tumbuka or Nsenga.

The Ngoni people are also called Angoni, Abangoni, Mangoni, and Wangoni, approximately 12 groups of people of the Nguni branch of Bantu-speaking peoples that are scattered throughout eastern Africa. Their dispersal was due to the rise of the Zulu empire early in the 19th century, during which many refugee bands moved away from Zululand. One Ngoni chief, Zwangendaba, led his party to Lake Tanganyika; the descendants of his group, the Ngoni cluster proper, are located in northern Malaŵi, in Zambia, and in southern Tanzania. Another group found its way to Mozambique.

Each Ngoni group formed a small independent state with a central administration based on patrilineal succession. It raided its weaker neighbours, and when the fertility of its own cultivated area was exhausted, the group moved elsewhere. The superior Ngoni military organization, based, like that of the Zulu, on universal conscription into age-set regiments, enabled them to capture many of the people whose lands they seized or pillaged. Some captives were sold as slaves to Arabs, but many were assimilated into the tribe, some achieving high rank in the army and administration. Despite losses from warfare, the population increased greatly, leading eventually to splits in the state and the dispersal of rival segments.

Internally, each state, at least among Zwangendaba’s people, was divided into several such segments, many of which were under the nominal leadership of queens. The settlement pattern was characterized by large, compact villages surrounding a central cattle pen. Villages were built quite close to one another and might contain 2,000 or 3,000 inhabitants. A belt of empty land surrounded the settled area, separating it from the territories of the tribes raided by the Ngoni. At the end of the 19th century, Portuguese, British, and German forces invaded the areas in which the Ngoni had been unchallenged for 50 years, and by 1910 all Ngoni had come under colonial control.

Ngoni Clans

A. Clans listed by Read (1956) as Swazi, occurring in the lists of Kuper(1947) and Bryant (1929); found in the central Ngoni area and still encountered in 1964/68:
Maseko Magagula Mlangeni
Manyoni Magaseni(given by
Read as Maganeni)
Mashabana (now Maswani)
Maziya Nqumayo(now Khumae and probably originally Nqumayi) Dube
B. Clans listed as in A but not encountered in 1964/68:
Tabete Magininda
C.Clans listed as in A, but as found in the northern Ngoni area; encountered in the central Ngoni area in 1964/68:
Thole Gama Sibande
Mngomezulu Nkambule Ndlovu
D. Swazi clans listed by Read as found in the central Ngoni area, not occurring in the list of Kuper and Bryant; still encountered in 1964/68:
Magwagwa (Ngwangwa) Ngozo Ziphondo
Gwati Nzunga Phungwako
Ndumba Mauya Likhuleni
Maile Mhlambi (now Msambi)
E. Clans listed as in D, but not encountered in 1964/68:
Nhlahla Ngqongwana Manokera
(N.B.Ngwana is still used among the praise-names of the king, the Inkosi ya Makosi).
F. Clans listed as in D, but as found in the northern Ngoni area; encountered in the central Ngoni area in 1964/68:
Nhlane (Nsani) Gausi Jele
G. Swazi clans not listed by Read, but occurring in the lists of Bryant and encountered in the central Ngoni area in 1964/68:
Ndlela (Ndila) Buyeni (Bieni) Mgabi
Ngwenya Malunga Malinga
Ndau (Ndawu) Nyati Zulu
Puti Msimang (Simango) Sitole
H. Clans claiming to be Swazi, not listed by Read, and now known by names found in the lists of Bryant not as izibongo but as izitakazelo:
Mboma (formerly Sikakane)
Bengo or Bengu (formerly Ngcolosi)
I. Additional clans, listed by Hodgson (1933) as “true Ngoni” or “Swazi” and as found in Dowa district; occurring in other contexts in the lists mentioned above:
Mafuleka (Maluleka) and Nkosi (mentioned by Read as northern and occurring in the lists of Kuper and Bryant)
Gwane (Ngwane listed by Bryant)
J. Additional clans listed by Hodgson as “Swazi” but not found in other lists; or classed otherwise by Hodgson but present in other lists:
Manyatera (just possibly identical with Manokera)
Zungu (called “Thonga” by Hodgson, but mentioned by Bryant)
K. Clans of non-Ngoni and non-Matengo origin, now accounted Ngoni:
(a) In the central Ngoni area:
Soko (Karanga) Moyo (Karanga) Shumba(Zezuru)
Khwinda (Venda) Nsangu (Safwa) Nyamazani(Tsonga)
Mlenje (Sukuma) Hara (Karanga) Thengo (Lozi)
Cisi (Sukuma) Sawa or Shaba
Nyai (Rozvi, Lozi or Sotho)
(b) In Dowa district, additional to the foregoing; listed by Hodgson:
Sambo (Thonga) Makamu (Thonga) Nthara (Sukuma)
Sungwani (Thonga) Liwinde (Sukuma) Newa (Karanga)
Chipeta (Sukuma) Honde (Karanga) Mlipo (Sotho)
Mapala (Karanga) Mphepo (Sukuma) Chizwa (Sukuma)
Cika (Sukuma) Mpumulo(Thonga) Mashatira (Safwa)

Food for Thought

Contact Us

Your message has been sent successfully.
E-mail must be valid and message must be longer than 1 character.