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Column by Dr. Timi GASPARI
anthropologist and specialist of the peoples of Mozambique

The Macua people, consisting of at least 4 million people, is the largest ethnic group in Mozambique (as a curiosity, think of the current president, Nyussi, who is a Macua) and it is present mainly in the north of the country, where , particularly in Cabo Delgado and Niassa, coexists with the Maconde, the Nyangia and the Yao.

DSC_1882It is not an entirely homogeneous ethnic group and various subgroups can be distinguished: in Palma, for example, there are the Macua of  the Coasts, known as Macua Enahara. Despite the wide geographical distribution and the different dialects spoken,  it can be stated that there is a basic unity among the Macua: that is in the cosmogony – the collection of myths that explain the origin of the world – the same fundamental myth can be found in all Macua subgroups: the myth of Mount Namuli, a mountain in the province of Zambezia.

According to the myth, the Namuli seems be the center and the primordial place of origin of the Macua. According to a version of this myth, the Macua seem to have been  created in the caves of Mount Namuli by God, and they procreated on the mountain until they descended to explore new lands; one day they came across the river Malema, they built a bridge of ropes and began to cross it, but the bridge give way when only half of the group had crossed the river. The people left behind, believing that the bridge had fallen for other reasons, deeper ones,  were afraid to rebuild it. The two groups were thus separated and those who had crossed the river continued their way. This incident of crossing the river happened again and again, and different groups of Macua appeared  right from these separations .

This myth changes from region to region, but the common point is always that their  origins are in  Mount Namuli. The expression “I come from Namuli” is used by all the Macua to mean “I am / We are not ordinary people, we know where we come from, we know our origins and we know where we are going, we have a purpose in life.” It is a recurrent myth  told during  initiations, treatment rites, funerals and it is present in many proverbs.

The Macua are predominantly Muslims in coastal areas; in inland areas the percentage  of Christians and Muslims is almost the same. But regardless of their present creed, everyone continues to practice their traditional religion at the same time with the other two. So those who believe in Allah also believe in the  ancestors. There is coexistence and harmonious syncretism of religions.



The regions now inhabited by Macua were formerly inhabited by the Khoi and the San peoples, who developed an elementary hieroglyphic writing and practiced the typical neolithic agriculture.

The Macua date back to the early Bantu groups in the south that had migrated  southwards on the continent setting off from the Central African region of the Great Lakes (Lake Victoria and its vicinity). It is believed that these migrations took place in the first five centuries A.D., and it is in this period of time that the Macua probably settled in the north of Mozambique.

At that time the Macua relied mainly on hunting, gathering wild fruits and on archaic agriculture. Texts of a Greek author of the first century A.D. and of Claudio Ptolemy testify that travelers from Southeast Asia had commercial contacts with the inhabitants of the region even in that period. It is important to know that the idea that sub-Saharan Africa was isolated until 1400 is a big hoax: there had been continuous contacts with Indians, Chinese, Arabs and Malagasy for centuries; this is testified by the tenth generation of Chinese minorities and by the many people who have slightly lighter complexion  than others who are descendents of the intercross with Indians, Arabs and Chinese people

From  the 4th to the 8th century the nomad Macua people became sedentary, they lived without a centralized territorial political authority, but they were organized in small groups of clans which were relatively self-sufficient, based on family farming, hunting and gathering wild fruits (and this is still the fundamental structure of the family economy in rural areas in Mozambique even today). The manufacture of iron and the production of oil and baskets was also present.

Between the 11th and 12th century there were more Bantu migrations that increased the density of the population, it enhanced  trade and the various groups began to organize defense against wars and assaults by other groups. Persian Gulf Arabs settled along the coast, creating commercial enterprises that controlled trade in the region for a long time. It was the Arabs to introduce among the Macua the trade on a large scale, new species of plants and the trafficking of slaves and ivory, which then continued for centuries.

Between the 15th and 18th century several other Macua states were formed on Arabian  initiative in the coastal areas of the Afro-Asian states (caliphates) and a little more inland, the confederations of the  Macua clan. These were formed to defend against external attacks and to establish control over trade. All these small states had blocked the expansion of the Portuguese in the inner country for centuries; until about 1890, the Portuguese had in fact control only of some parts of the coast and very few inland administrative posts. They tried many military expeditions going up rivers, but most of them ended in disaster.

In the 19th century the Anguni people arrived  from South Africa, they crossed all Mozambique arriving to/In Tanzania, this was the result of the large migrations triggered by the conquests of Shakazulu. Small isolated Anguni groups exist in Niassa and Cabo Delgado even today. In addition to this stage there was also a war between the Macua and the Yao, who eventually contributed greatly to the spread of Islam from the coasts, where it had already been present for centuries, to the inner and remote areas of the region.

After the Berlin Conference in 1884 Portugal intensified its efforts to get real possession of the territories of which, until then,  it had  controlled  almost nothing: therefore, from 1890 to 1920 there were many military campaigns, victorious partly thanks to the cooperation with local leaders who were in conflict with other coastal groups and who  considered their interest to ally with the Portuguese. Nevertheless, Portugal did not have the means to govern its own territory, and thus it gave it to companies in order to manage it ; until 1930 Niassa and Cabo Delgado had been administered by the British Royal Company of Niassa, that controlled the export of manpower to South Africa, Kenya and Zaire, collected the taxes from locals and forced them to strictly maintain family farming. The company was almost an independent state, with administrative,  legal and commercial power. During the First World War there were several  German raids from Tanzania (which was a German colony) to Cabo Delgado, and after the war many German settlers migrated from Tanzania (of which Germany was expropriated as payment for war and which was assigned to England) to  Cabo Delgado, where they built farms and plantations. Sometimes you can still meet  old Macua  people who can speak a few German words (I have personally met two).

From 1930 onwards, Portugal took over the management of these areas and the era of the companies ended. It tried to introduce the forced cultivation of cotton among Mozambicans, failing miserably because the locals continuously sabotaged the harvests. The colonial state secured control over the population by ingratiating itself with traditional leaders and strengthening their power. That is why after the independence of Mozambique, traditional leaders were all disclaimed, I would say banished, and it is for less than ten years that the state has agreed again to formally recognize their existence and to acknowledge their responsibilities and rights. However,  it is to be remembered that traditional leaders are a historically recent reconstruction: the region had been organized into small autonomous states for centuries, and the colonialism wanted to eliminate them (since these were strong and dangerous enemies) undermining them at the base by strengthening small leaders, who earlier had fewer privileges or influence.

During the war of liberation and right from its beginning , Cabo Delgado was the scene of clashes between FRELIMO and the colonial government, but it was also one of the first liberated regions. The base of FRELIMO was in the south of Tanzania, close to the border with Mozambique, and thus fighters progressively freed the country from north to south. In these liberated areas  certain  principles of government started to be outlined  and applied which were adopted later by the Mozambican state, aligned with scientific socialism of  Marxist-Leninist inspiration. Independence was achieved in 1975; we are one of the few African countries that won its independence by  fighting and winning. It took thirteen years and most of the fighters were Maconde (of Cabo Delgado); it seems that the number of  the Macua was far less significant, and therefore they were often accused of being a people aligned with colonialism, fearful and toadies, while forgetting the centuries of stubborn resistance to the Portuguese at least until the 19th century.

In 1979 the war of destabilization began which was declared to  Mozambique by white Rhodesia and South Africa with the help of RENAMO, countries that were unwilling to agree to  have a neighboring state ruled by blacks and which was mostly socialist (the embodiment of their worst nightmares). Over the years the war turned into a civil war which lasted until 1992 and caused massive devastation: a million dead people (of which 45% were children), the country strewn with landmines with the consequent result of deaths and amputees, about 25,000 child soldiers, 250,000 orphans, 300 per thousand mortality of children between 0 and 5 years (that means that a third died), 4.5 million internally displaced persons, 1.5 million refugees abroad, half of the road network destroyed, half of health units destroyed. The center and the north of the country are the parts which have suffered most from the war, and the memories of the people are still very much alive; the consequences of the war will be felt even for decades, since today we have not yet  been able to completely bring back the infrastructure to the conditions in which they were before the war.

Since the declaration of peace and up today there have been three presidents: Chissano, Guebuza and Nyussi. Chissano is the one who had the task to make the transition from socialism to democracy following the peace agreements, and to rebuild the country. To do this, he completely yielded  to the dictates of the IMF and of the World Bank, opening Mozambique to international markets without any kind of protection, cutting funds for education and health, following a series of agricultural policies that have not brought great benefits . I do not think he had much choice: the international community blackmailed the country to give in to the neo-liberal policies and the country was in such bad conditions that I do not see what else could have been done. Maybe resist a bit more, negotiate more, that could have been useful. Guebuza is the one who wanted to introduce Mozambique in the circuits of the international market by attracting as many foreign investors as possible, giving way to the selling off of the country. He also made several positive things (for example dramatically increased the number of schools and health centers), but several studies indicate that Mozambicans living in rural areas (about 85% of the population) live like ten years ago or worse. All operations and development efforts have had little success.