Wednesday, June 17, 2009



Ngoni in East Africa
Ngoni from South Africa


Who were the Ngoni?

The Ngoni were Bantu-Nguni speaking people of Northern Zululand in South East Africa. They were originally Ndwandwe people under Zwides leadership. But when Shaka defeated Zwide, one part of his group, the Ngoni moved to East Africa under Zwangendaba.

In origin, the Ngoni, were close relatives of the Zulu. They were full- time warriors and cattle plunderers hence disliked by other tribes, so they forced them away. They were pushed further north and eventually reached southern Tanzania.

They were forced out of South Africa by the “Mfecane” wars led by Shaka the Zulu. They came to be known as the Ngoni having absorbed the Thonga, Shona and Cewa on their way to East Africa.

The Ngoni migration began among the Bantu peoples of South Africa, who entered into E. Africa in the 1840’s. They were the last Bantu migrants to come to East Africa. They migrated into two largest groups of the Maseko and Tuta Ngoni.

The Ngoni broke the Monomotapa Kingdom, settling respectively on the eastern side of Lake Nyasa (Malawi) at Songea, and on Ufipa plateau.

They moved to Tanzania from Natal and Swaziland between 1820 and 1840 due to the Mfecane (time of trouble). They are direct descendants of the Zulu. They are currently settled in South West Tanzania around Songea town.

The Ngoni invasion illustrates the influence of external forces on the lives of the indigenous people. The Ngoni brought innovation and changes such as military techniques, skill and weapons. A study of the Ngoni would enable students appreciate the current settlement patterns and way of the life of the people of Southern Tanzania.

The end of the topic students should be able to:


Describe who the Ngoni were and identify the area where they came from

Explain the reasons why they migrated

Describe the course of their movement and settlement

State why they were able to defeat the inhabitant of Southern Tanzania

Explain the effects of their migration on the people of East Africa.

Reasons for the Ngoni migration


It was due to fear of being absorbed into the empire of tyrant Shaka.
The Ngoni migrated due to the tyrannical and dictatorial rule of Shaka, the Zulu ruler who was everything in his kingdom. His cruelty was shown when he lost his mother, and put people under severe signs of mourning. Those who refused to cry for his mother’s death were killed,so they decided to seek refuge by migrating to other areas.


They moved because of external pressure from the British and the Boers in the South who were moving northwards occupying their land.


It was due to over population, which was caused by the fertility of soils and reliability of rainfall between Drakensberg Mountains and the Indian Ocean.


Due to overpopulation there was land shortage hence land disputes, which led to forcing them to migrate to other areas.


Some owned large herds of cattle hence moved northwards looking for pasture and water for their animals. So, they wanted to look for more fertile land for grazing their cattle.


It was also due to epidemic diseases such as smallpox and sleeping sickness that affected them.


They could have moved because of famine and drought that led to lack of food and water.


It was because of influence of men like Zwangendaba, Maputo and Zulugama who provided good leadership. This encouraged them to move on wards.


They migrated because of the spirit for Adventure.(Need to see what was beyond them).


The leaders wanted to take over power in the areas they defeated, which was not acceptable to Shaka forcing some groups to migrate to other areas.


They were fed up with the old traditional political system, which encouraged dictatorship and therefore wanted change, which could be achieved through migration.


It could also have been due to overstocking of their animals. They migrated due to their spirit of cattle rustling, i.e they had great desire to steal other people’s cattle. For example, they went on driving away and confiscating other people’s cattle during their conquest and expansionist wars.


They migrated due to the increased knowledge of military tactics by the age regiments. These were powerful military forces and dedicated to professional war, which was their livelihood. They believed that they could other territories through migration.


Ngoni in East Africa
Ngoni from South Africa

The Ngoni Migration

In twenty years they travelled over a thousand miles.

In 1818 the Nguni started to fight among themselves for land and power. Different people wanted to be in charge. It led to the Zulu Wars. They fought each other for power. The ones that lost the the battles were forced to leave the Zulu lands. This was the start of a long migration to find somewhere else to live.

Zwangendaba was one of the defeated leaders. He fled north after his defeat in 1819. Zwangendaba's followers started to use the name Ngoni. Over the next 20 years they had to find ways to survive. How could they get food to eat? One way was to steal food and cattle from villages they came across. They killed people who tried to stop them. As you can imagine, they were disliked by the tribes they stole from. None of the other tribes wanted the Ngoni to live near them, so they forced them away. Each time the Ngoni were pushed further and further north. Until, eventually, they reached Southern Tanzania.

Not much was written about the Mfecane. What we know is from the diaries of missionaries and travellers from Europe, and from the stories passed down from generation to generation.

Shaka and the Zulu Wars

It all started with troubles in South Africa. They began at the start of the 19th century, around 1800. At this time the Zulu kingdom was led by a powerful warrior called Shaka (or Tchaka). The Zulus became rich and defeated many other tribes.

Ngoni Fighting Methods

As they moved north they came into conflict. They fought the other groups who were living on the lands they crossed. Because they knew Zulu fighting methods the Ngoni could usually defeat groups that opposed them. The Zulu warriors were well trained. They planned how they were going to fight their battles. Their trick was to try and surround their enemy. They went forward to battle in a horn formation and closed around their enemy. They used assegais,which were short stabbing spears and they were trained in man-to-man fighting. Most other tribes used throwing spears. Often the Ngoni would make a mock charge, get their opponents to throw their spears and then stab them with their assegais. After the battles they would force the young men to join their army and take young girls for wives. Other people, including the old people, were often killed.

The Ngoni specialised in fighting. That was all they knew. They could not produce their own food. They had to keep moving to find new villages they could plunder. The king of the Fipa people, who lived in that area, made peace with the Ngoni. This saved his kingdom from being destroyed. Zwangendaba built his own capital called Mapupo, which means "dreams". For two more years they raided neighbouring people, the Sukuma and Msafwa, to get food and cattle. Then they settled down with their animals and families, and started to grow crops.

Break up of the Ngoni

Zwangendaba died in Mapupo in 1845. He was buried in an ox hide at Chapota, near the Nyinaluzi River. He fled from the Zulu Wars in South Africa. But he spent the rest of his life fighting other tribes for survival. He was a great warrior and leader.

After Zwangendaba's death his family fought over who should succeed him. His group divided in two. Then each of these groups split up. In the end there were 5 separate groups. Three went back to cattle raiding, in Malawi and Zambia. Two groups went north as far as Lake Victoria. There they found Arabs who were taking local people as slaves.

Effects of the Ngoni migration and the Mkecane

The Ngoni migration and mfecane caused trouble for 20 years, in central and east Africa. Thousands of people were killed by the Ngoni. Villages were destroyed and people were forced offtheir land. Many of them starved due to the lack of food.

The main problem was that the Ngoni knew only one way of life and that was fighting. The only way they could feed themselves was to plunder and kill. They even sold many of the people they captured to slave traders. This caused more misery throughout East Africa.

Eventually the groups the Ngoni fought banded together for protection. One of the Sangu chieftains, Mwakawangu, united the people to defeat the Ngoni invaders. This gave the Sangu control of the rich, farming area of the Southern Highlands. Other groups also realised that they had to be strong to protect their livelihoods.

TASK 1: Ngoni Time Line

Make a list of the important dates between 1800 and 1845 and write down what happened at each date:

Ngoni time line

1800 Shaka ruled the Zulu kingdom in South Africa

1818 The Zulu Wars


TASK 2: The Story of a Ngoni Warrior

Imagine you were a young warrior with Zangendaba.
You had been defeated in the Zulu wars and forced to leave your home.

Write a story to describe how you think you would have:

felt on your long journey of 1000 miles from the Zulu lands of South Africa to Southern Tanzania
what problems you would have faced and what dangers?
what was your daily life like and how did you survive?
why would you have been happy to settle down after 20 years of fighting and walking?
what you thought of your new home in Southern Tanzania, where there was good land and food and peace at last!

The Zulu and the Mfecane

The Zulu

The Zulu peoples were an important tribe in South Africa in the late 18th century (around 1790). They lived around the areas called Natal today. There were many small groups of Nguni, which was the old name for the Zulu. The groups lived separately and were not organised under one leader.

The Zulu were cattle herders but they also grew some crops. They came into contact with Portuguese farmers living in Mozambique. The Portuguese grew maize, which they brought to Africa from the Americas. Maize was a good crop to grow, because it produced more food from the same area of land. The Zulu also started to grow maize. This gave them more food and allowed Zululand to support more people. The Zulu became better fed and stronger and their population increased greatly.

Shaka Zulu

Shaka Zulu was the leader of one of the smaller Zulu chiefdoms. Because there was plenty of food he was able to have an army. The food for the warriors was provided by others. This allowed them to be a full-time army. They developed better weapons. One of these was the assegai, a short stabbing spear. The assegai was feared by enemies. Using his well-trained warriors Shaka took over neighbouring lands.

The Tribute System

He force other tribes to pay him tributes in exchange for protection. The tributes were gifts. They included cattle, furs, feathers, and carved wooden sculptures. He took control of all the precious metals. At this time they were copper and brass. The metal was used to make wooden clubs stronger. It was also used for ornaments, like neck rings and armbands. The more of these you had, the greater your importance in the tribe.

Drought and Crop Failure

The problems for the Zulu started after 1800. By then most of the good land was being used. As the population grew, the extra people had to fight for land in order to survive. Things were made worse by 10 years with much less rain. The period of drought meant that crops failed. This led to food shortages.

The Zulu Wars

The Zulu started to fight among themselves for land and water. This led to the Zulu Wars from about 1815 to 1820. Many people were killed and many others were forced off the land. The survivors had to move out of Zululand.

The Mfecane

This led to the great migration called the "Mfecane", which meant the "great scattering" . The Mfecane lasted from 1815 to 1840. The people could not move south, because the Dutch settlers had lived there since the 17th century. They could not move east because Portuguese farmers were there and there were also slave traders. So they moved north toward East Africa.

Zangendaba led the Ngoni group that made their way north as far as Southern Tanzania. This was what we now call the Ngoni migration.

TASK 1: Notes and pictures

Make some notes and pictures to explain:

1. Why the Zulu became important at the start of the 19th century.

2. Why they started to fight among themsleves in the Zulu Wars.

The Ngoni Migration

Do this when you have studied the whole topic of the Ngoni migration.

Make a list of the reasons why the Ngoni migrated from South Africa to Southern Tanzania.

What were the things that caused them to leave South Africa.

Why were they happy to settle in Southern Tanzania 20 years later?

The Ngoni and the Zulu

(1) Where the Ngoni live

The Wagoni are Bantu people. They live in south-west Tanzania.

They live in over 100 villages around the town of Songea.

(2) Their Zulu origins

The Wagoni have a strong story-telling tradition. Their elders tell stories about the tribe to the younger generation.

They are called "Hearing Tales". They are repeated often so the young can learn the stories. They then pass them on to their children.

This is how the history of the tribe is passed on from one generation to the next.

According to these "Hearing Tales" the Ngoni believe that the tribe is related to the Zulu.

Their stories tell of how they migrated to Tanzania from South Africa, from the area between Natal and Swaziland.

There are 12 branches of the Ngoni tribe. Other groups are in Northern Malawi, Eastern Zambia, Southern Zimbabwe and Mozambique.

(3) How the Ngoni are like the Zulu

The Ngoni in Southern Tanzania have a lot in common with other Ngoni groups and with the Zulu of South Africa.

1. Settlements. Their villages have a similar design.

Ngoni villages are built around the cattle enclosure. This is called a kraal. It is made from thorn bushes, to keep out wild animals. Cattle are the Ngoni's wealth. When they eat cow's meat they believe they are sharing with their dead ancestors.

The important buildings in a Ngoni village are the houses of the clan head, his chief wife and the hut for the boys. In the boys' hut they are trained in the Ngoni traditions. They also learn to hunt.

There is a separate area where the men of the village talk. The huts of other people are spread around the kraal. You can see from this that protecting the cattle is very important to the Ngoni. They also have some fields where they grow food crops. This settlement pattern is found in all the Ngoni groups as well as in traditional Zulu society. Below is a picture of the Ngoni men sitting inside the kraal.

2. Customs and rituals. As well as having similar settlements the Ngoni and the Zulu had similar customs and rituals.

a. Girls had initiation ceremonies where they are given sex education, taught family planning and house management.

b. Boys had similar circumcision ceremonies and they were taught to hunt, other skills, tribal beliefs and some were taught witchcraft.

c. Both boys and girls were taught the arts of painting, modelling and crafts.

d. The groups had similar traditional dances, which date back to their warrior past.

3. Language. They share many common words in their languages.

(But the languages of each group have merged with the languages of the people they live near, so they cannot any longer speak to each other in a common Ngoni language.)

4. Ngoni and Nguni. The Zulu belong to a group of tribes that are called the "Nguni" in South Africa. This is a very similar name to Ngoni, and another reason why many Ngoni believe they are related to the Zulu.

Please Note: The way of life of the Ngoni in East Africa and the Zulu of South Africa are similar. They could be related to the Zulu. On the other hand, they may have just picked up their customs after being conquered by the Zulu.


Do you believe that the Ngoni are related to the Zulu? Explain why.


  1. I am a history teacher of form two. Mr. Akonaay thank you so much for your document on Ngoni migrations. It has been very helpful for my students. I had tried several times to explain the concept of Ngoni migrations but in vain. Your document made my job very easy. Once again thank you so much. Mashare Constantine