The Makhua Shirima People


We know very little about the pre-Portuguese Mozambique. The only sources are a few archaeological finds and oral traditions. “…the reconstruction of human history in the millennia prior to Portuguese contact and settlement is in an embryonic stage” (Henriksen, 1978:3).

According to recent studies of the history of Mozambique, the Khoi and San people groups were the first inhabitants of at least the central and Northern parts of Mozambique (Martinez, 1988: 43). Some of the so-called “cave-drawings” that are found in other parts of Africa and are ascribed to the San people, are also found in Mozambique. “In nomadic bands of a few dozen people, these Stone Age folk hunted and gathered food instead of herding and cultivating” (Henriksen, 1978: 3).

Axelson (1972) deducts that since there were archaeological items that were found in Zambia and Zimbabwe that date to 100 AD and 300 AD respectively, it is reasonable to suppose that parts at least of Mozambique were also occupied early in the Christian era by iron users, who were doubtless Bantu-speaking Negroes. Early immigrants would have included the Zimba, Tawara, Tonga and Sena people groups. That Karanga establishes the renowned Mwene Mutapa (monomotapa) kingdom, perhaps as early as the 10th century AD. This kingdom covered a large part of today’s Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

The Makhuas formed part of the first “Southern Bantu” groups that emigrated out of central Africa. This migration took place during the first five centuries AD. The Makhuas progressively occupied the fertile planes next to the rivers in Northern Mozambique (Martinez, 1988: 44). The establishment of the Makhuas in Mozambique during the 4th to the 8th century was a slow but sure process. This process was also at the same time a transformation from a nomadic existence to a more stable and permanent setup. During this time the focus was upon settling, food and defense (Martinez, 1988: 45).

The 9th to the 14th centuries mark the migration of new/other Bantu tribes to the Southern parts of Africa. These migrations also directly affected the Makhuas and led to adjustments and changes. New commercial alliances were formed and the need for defense against frequent attacks from raiders increased. It was also during this time that the Arabs appeared on the Mozambican scene. According to Axell (1972: 607) there are recordings of a visit that dates as far back as 922 AD from Arabs to Sofala. The Arabs, local tribes and the Portuguese (when they appeared on the scene) all took part in the slave trade. Tribes like the Yao and Makhuas provided the Arabs and Portuguese of slaves on a big scale. The Arabs and Portuguese in turn sold the slaves to the slave ships (Van Aswegen & Verhoef, 1982: 11).

Because the economic and trade activities of the Arabs increased so much (especially along the coast), there came into existence what Martinez (1988: 46) called “Estados afro-asiáticos independentes” or “coastal independent states”. These “coastal states” were very inviting to the Makhuas. The Arabs introduced exchange trade with the Makhuas on a grand scale. The Makhuas were moreover exposed to more modern agricultural techniques.

The Makhuas started to group themselves together into confederations in order to have a better defense and to keep control over the ivory and slave trade. These confederations each consisted of a number of families/clans. The Makhua Meto group formed part of such a confederation in the Lúrio valley.

The Portuguese first set foot on Mozambique at the end of the 15th century. At that stage, they did not penetrate the areas where the Makhuas lived. The true occupation of these territories would only start at the beginning of the 20th century. In the 18th century the renowned headman Mucuto-Muno from the Namarróis confederation became famous for the way he organized raids and carried away slaves. He also imposed high taxes on the caravans that came from the interior (Newitt, 1995: 399).

The most significant event of the 19th century was probably the migration of the angoni people from Zulu land in South Africa to Mozambique and other countries in Southern Africa. In the middle of the 19th century they reached the Rovuma river which forms the border between Mozambique and Tanzania. As they migrated, they waged war with the groups they encountered. From Tanzania they moved south to Niassa and Cabo Delgado at the end of the 19th century after being defeated by the Germans.

During the Berlin Conference (1884 – 1885) Britain and Portugal finally reached an agreement over the boarders of Mozambique. After this, Portugal started to formally and systematically occupy the Makhuas’ territories. By means of different campaigns lasting from 1890 to 1920 and with the collaboration of some of the headmen that were in conflict with headmen from the coast, the Portuguese consummated the occupation of Makhua territories (Martinez, 1988: 49). The administration and commercial exploration of these occupied territories of Niassa and Cabo Delgado was assigned to an English company, dubbed the “Niassa Company”. It was constituted in 1893 and exercised all political, juridical, administrative and commercial authority (vergelyk Newitt, 1995: 372 – 373).

During the first World War, there were some military activities in the areas where the Makhuas lived and lives. Maúa is the nearest village/town from our mission station. It is about 30 kilometers from Muapula to Maúa as the crow flies. In February 1918 a German general (Von Lettow) marched with 5 companies through Maúa. In April of the same year, an English battalion progressed to Maúa in their march against the Germans. After a fierce battle, the English took over the barracks (Botelho, 1936: 694 – 697).

In 1938 the Niassa Company handed the regions under its control back to Portugal. On the 25th of June 1962, FRELIMO (Frente de Libertação de Moçambique) was founded by dr. Eduardo Chivambo Mondlane. This step introduces the final phase of the history of Mozambique and the Makhua Xirima - that of the struggle for independence. FRELIMO took up arms on the 25th of September 1964. Portugal agreed to hand over the government of Mozambique to FRELIMO in April 1974 (Cravinho, 2001: 789) and on the 25th of June 1975 the official proclamation of national independence was decreed.


The Makhuas live in an extensive area that covers the northern parts of Mozambique and includes the Cabo Delgado, Niassa, Zambézia and Nampula provinces. This area stretces from the Rovuma river in the North to the Licungo river in the South (in the vicinity of the Zambezi river) and from the Indian Ocean in the East to the Lugenda river in the West. As far as the Maúa district is concerned, it forms part of Northern Niassa and covers an area of approximately 10 000km2 .

There is no uniformity amongst the few sources available when it comes to the population numbers of the Makhuas. According to Africa South of the Sahara 2001 (789, 805), the population of Mozambique in 2000 was 17 242 240. The biggest ethno-linguistic group is the Makhua-Lomwe group which comprises about 40 percent of the total population. Moseley & Asher (1924: 296) estimate the Makhua-Lomwe speakers to be in the vicinity of 7 653 000. Dalby (1998: 386) is of opinion that there are about 3 500 000 of these that speak Makhua ( as opposed to Lomwe speakers). The Pittman & Grimes Ethnologue of 2000 estimates that there are approximately 900 000 Makhua Xirima speakers. This is definitely an over estimation. There are probably not more than 300 000 Makhua Xirima speakers.


The Makhuas are mainly peasants that are making a living by planting maize and other produce on their little pieces of land. The so-called subsistence farming which characterize so many parts of Africa is also typical of the Makhuas. Other forms of economical activities include hunting and fishing. In the Maúa District maize is produced on a large scale and it is their main source of food. It is planted when the first rains announce the rainy season (“eyita”), usually in the middle of December. Other vegetables that are planted are pumpkin, sweet potato and rye. Some families and especially certain areas also plant cotton, rice or beans. A lot of people in the Maúa District plant sunflowers these days because of the press and factory on the mission station in Muapula.

Some products that are planted and produced are used for barter and some to be sold for money. Each adult member is allocated a piece of land (“ematta”) by the headman of the area. The first phase is then to clear the land (“Mphelelo”). All the trunks and roots are taken out during the dry season (“elimwe”) that last from April to November. The man chops down the trees and the woman dig up the ground. The second phase starts with the sowing (“waala”). The rainy season is critically important to the Makhuas for their survival. Sowing is mainly the woman’s task and from the sowing time until the harvest time, the main task is to clean their lands (“olima”). Towards the end of the rainy season it is time to harvest, the third phase (“ohepha”). The whole family takes part in the harvesting. The harvest is put into a “bush silo” (“ntatha”) that stands on wooden poles. The Makhuas basic diet consists of maize that are stamped (othita) by the woman and are cooked to make “eshima” or a type of maize porridge without salt.


The majority of the Makhuas are animists in the sense that they worship their forefathers. Even most of the Muslims and Catholics among them are still in essence animists, since they still uphold all the animistic practices and rites (like in the case of funerals for example). They believe in a God (“Muluku”) who created the whole world and are almighty, but who is also remote and not involved in the ordinary daily things of humans. The forefathers are treated as intermediaries between them and God. They have a saying in Makhua: “Muluku mukumi, makholo murette” : God is life, the forefathers are medicine. This is a very significant saying. God is life – He is the author of life. We have already received life. What is now needed from time to time is not life, but medicine – we need the forefathers during our lives, but God to give life.

God is far away. In the Makhuas culture, the more important people are often left alone and are not frequently disturbed by “ordinary” people with less important matters. They are left alone to live peacefully (Martinez, 1988: 231). In a certain sense they have the same attitude towards God. His distance from man does not imply however that He is ignorant of man’s activities. Some of the Makhua sayings underline the opposite:

Muluku mukwatapari: onneetta awehaka
God is like an eagle: He goes about looking down.

Muluku onnathokorera
God is watching over us.

But God is certainly not a father in the traditional Makhua understanding of the concept “God”. In fact, in the Makhua culture, the relationship with the uncle is more important than with the father. Muluku is the author of life and the creator of all things. He is also almighty and knows everything. But he is aloof and not involved. He is not associated with love in the first place. It takes the God of the Bible, the Father of Jesus Christ to explain to them Immanuel – the God who came near and lived amongst us when the Word became flesh. It takes the stories of Adam and the prodigal son to explain to them that the reason why Muluku is far, is because man walked away because of sin. It takes the cross to explain to them the way back.

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