The Ngoni historical background

The Ngoni, originally known as the Nguni, emigrated from Natal and Swaziland in southern Africa. They left their homeland before the Zulu and the Swazi Kingdoms took final form. The Nguni moved north and changed their name to Ngoni after crossing the Zambezi river. The Nguni are an offshoot of Zulu-Swazi.


They were two main groups; the northern Ngoni (also known as the Jere) led by the paramount chief Zwangendaba, and afterwards by Mbelwa, whilst the southern Ngoni (also known as the Maseko) led by Mputa and afterwards by Chidyaonga and Chikusi. From these two divisions of the Jere and Maseko Ngoni respectively, a number of offshoots, settled at different times in the nineteenth and early twentieth century's in various parts of the country. These branches from the northern group include chief Chiwere and Msakambewa in Dowa and at one time Vuso Jere in Nkhotakota district.

Within the southern group they are Kachindamoto and Kachere in Dedza district, Gomani in Ntcheu, Masula in Lilongwe, Simon Likongwe in Neno, Kanduku in Mwanza and Bvumbwe in Thyolo district. Apart from these two, there are also two other Ngoni chieftainships in Malawi. These are Zulu and Mlonyeni in Mchinji, offshoots of the Mpezeni paramountcy present Chipata district in eastern Zambia. Generally, Mpezeni was the elder son of Zwangendaba, who broke from the Ngoni in Malawi a few years after his father's death and moved into the Bemba country. By 1886 he was already settled in the present Chipata district.

The Maseko group, nicknamed "the stones supporting the pot", entered into Malawi in 1842. They continued through to Tanzania before coming back and settling in central Malawi in 1878.

In 1878, the Maseko were dominant in both the east and west of Ntcheu and Dedza; the bulk of their dominance being in the Portuguese territory of Mozambique. For various reasons, the Maseko became divided after Chidyaonga's death. Chikuse then succeeded to the paramount chieftainship which had been vacant since his father Mputa had died in Songea country (present day Tanzania). However there were some who wished to consider Chifisi, the son of Chidyaonga as the successor of a worthy father, as he was certainly a good warrior and a loyal regent. From this point in time the Maseko were divided into two political entities, the line of Mputa and Chidyaonga. The former was held by Chikuse (1878-1891, son of Mputa), Gomani I (1891-1896, Chathamthumba, son of Chikuse), Mandala (Regent 1896-1898), Gomani II (1921-1954, Philip son of Gomani I), Gomani III (1966-2006, Willard son of Philip), Rosemary Malinki (Regent 1995-2008, daughter of Willard), Gomani IV (2008-2009, Kanjedza son of Willard). The reign of Gomani IV was short. He died on the 19th September 2009 and was buried on 26th of the same month. During his funeral, Kanjedza's son, Prince Mswati, a 13 year old boy, stood on the leopard skin, showing those assembled that he is the rightful heir to his father and should be crowned as Gomani V once reaching the proper age. Meanwhile, Rosemary Malinki is acting as a regent. The latter was held by Chifisi (1879-1891, son of Chidyaonga), Kachindamoto I (1891-1899, Pasekupe/Dzithenga), Nyatheyi (1899-1912), Kachindamoto II (1912-1931, Abraham son of Dzithenga), Kachindamoto III (1933-1954, Matapira Kummaani, son of Dzithenga), Kachindamoto IV (1956-1976, Samson, son of Abraham), Kachindamoto V (1978-1987, Enock Zonyera, son of Abraham), Kachindamoto VI (1988-2001, Justino, son of Matapira), Sunduzeni (Regent, 2001-2003). Currently there is Kachindamoto VII, Thereza, daughter of Samson who was installed in 2003.

It must also be acknowledged that before the nineteenth century ended, the Maseko Ngoni were established at their headquarters at Lizulu in Ntcheu as well as a number of other places. Unlike the Jere Ngoni who were concentrated in a single district (presently Mzimba), the Maseko Ngoni were spread out over a wider region.

The history of the Malawi Ngoni starts with forced migration resulting from the intertribal wars of the Nguni tribes of Kwa-Zulu Natal and the surrounding areas. Instigated by Chief Dingiswayo, the wars reached their peak under Shaka Zulu (1787-1828). Ngwana (King Ngcamane Maseko II) was a leading Swazi King (son of King Maphanga) at this time. He had given a shelter to Nyaba, one of the three generals who joined forces against Shaka Zulu.

The Ngoni political system

On the top of the hierarchy, there is Inkosi ya Makosi (The King of Kings) who is the commander and chief of the army even if he himself did not go out to fight. The King of Kings worked through two leading office barer: the war Induna for planning the campaign and selecting the regiments for the various tasks and the "doctor/diviner" who administered the medicine to the army.

Below the Inkosi ya Makosi come the Inkosi who are presently called Traditional Authorities. Below the Inkosi are the Alumuzana and Amakosana of which presently can be referred to as Group Village Heads. At the very bottom of the hierarchy are the Village headmen who are subordinate to the Alumuzana and Amakosana, Inkosi and the Inkosi ya Makosi. In addition to that the political system was based on aristocracy in which the King of Kings (Inkosi ya Makosi) occupied the head as he belonged to the royal clan.

Furthermore, other important people include the Queen mother (Ndhlovukazi, who is either the widow of a former King of Kings or the mother of the existing ruler), Big wife (Inkosikati, who is the first wife of the ruling King of Kings and the mother of his heir) and the Royal sister (Dadakazi who is the sister of the Inkosi ya Makosi and was the only woman who belonged to the royal clan) who lived in the Big house.

The Ngoni world view

i. Believe in God (Umkulumqango)

The Ngoni believe in God to whom they call Umkulumqango. He is also regarded as the Great Spirit (Umkulu Ikakulu). He is the creator of all things, the giver of rain, health, strength and success in war. He delivers from pestilence. They perceive his personality as male, hence regarded as the Father of humankind. They also regard him as the unseen, invisible and therefore unapproachable. God, is also seen as the Lord of the Sky (Inkosi Yaphezulu), living in the sky which was believed to be just above the clouds.

ii. Believe in Ancestors (Amadlozi)

The Ngoni also believe in ancestors (Amadlozi). They believe that the ancestors who are nearest to the living generations have less power than those remote generations, whose names have been forgotten. In addition to that, they are the direct ancestors of the Paramount (Inkosi), clan (chibongo), house (indlunkulu) and family group. They are the guardians of the whole nation. People pray to them at the time of the incwala or first fruits war, epidemics, droughts, the illness of the Paramount or of someone from the royal clan, or when other important issues affect the clan or the house. The Ngoni believe they cannot approach God and their ancestral spirits except through their cattle.

The Ngoni life crisis rituals

i. Birth Rituals

When a Ngoni wife realised she was pregnant, she did not tell her husband. She tried to hide it from her husband as soon she found out about the pregnancy. Ngoni culture also forbade the wife from telling her mother-in-law about her condition. The pregnant wife has to rely on her female friends, often a co-wife or a servant of the household.

During delivery the husband is not allowed to enter the house, as a result they removed his belongings such as spears, axes or even clothes for fear of contaminating them. Basically, delivery was left in the hands of senior women. In addition to that, the placenta was buried in a hole in the floor of the hut. The baby was washed by a senior woman and rubbed with castor oil. The navel cord was tied with thread and then the baby was given thin porridge of fried and ground finger millet to eat and to throw up. In the Ngoni's understanding of birth is that all items used in the delivery are seen as ritually unclean. The hut, the belongings inside it, the mother and the child are also understood to be unclean. In this regard, no woman was allowed to cook or to sleep together with other family members. This is done away by a ritual of cleansing/purification rite. During this ritual the hut was swept and the floor was smeared with fresh and wet cow dung. Through this ritual, the house was made safe for the husband to sleep in. This was followed by the coming out ceremony. During this ceremony the baby's head was shaved together with the mother and anointed with sweet smelling leaves. This is done when the navel cord had shrivelled and fallen off. This was followed by the Mbereko ritual. This is at the time of naming, whereby the father or more often the father's father, presented a carrying skin to the mother to help her carry the child.

ii. Girls' Puberty Rites

The puberty rituals were a private and personal affair. This was done when a girl had her first menstruation. This time of seclusion, which lasted from a few weeks to three months, consisted of various physical endurance tests, instruction in traditional hygiene and in the facts of life. At the end of her first period, she was escorted in procession to the women's bathing place by her father's sisters and his other female relatives. There, her face and body were painted with white flour. The white colour on the face and body of the initiate signified their spiritual and physical separation from the community. After returning and reintegrated into the community the girls change thier status from mabuthu to izintombi or anamwali.

iii. Boys' Puberty Rites

This is done when a boy reached his first nocturnal emission (had his first wet dream), his age mates informed an older boy in the boy's dormitory (laweni). Later, when the boy's voice began to break, he was given the unchewed cud from the stomach and mixed it with the bitter root uludengele which is prepared in a pan over the fire. When the mixture was boiling, the boy was told to dip the tips of his fingers in the pan, one after the other, and lick each one quickly. At the same time, he kept jumping over the fire and striking his elbows against his sides. Senior men ensure that all the performances are observed because it is believed that the mixture not only improved physical strength, but also prevented impotence. This last rite also recalled the rite of purification that the warriors underwent after killing their enemies in battle. Through this rite, the boy cleanses himself from evil and restores his innocence. When such a rite was performed for the heir of the chief, it was followed by a war dance in the cattle kraal, surrounded by the warriors.


There are several steps that are followed for the Ascension of the Paramount to the Throne. These include;

a) The decision regarding succession to the throne is made by senior men and women.

b) The kuimika, the installation of the new successor by crowning him with the nyongo (gall bladder).

c) The instruction given by senior men and women.

d) The administering of medicine (Tonga) to strengthen the new Paramount.

e) The burning of the nyongo after two or three months of the new Paramount's rule.

Funeral Rites for the Ngoni Paramounts

Basically, the funeral rites consists of three main stages i.e. the burial, first shaving ceremony and last (second) shaving ceremony.

i. The burial ceremony

This ceremony consists in the proclamation of death, digging of the graves near the cattle kraal, the preparation of the body in a sitting position, the disposal of the corpse and the possessions of the deceased paramount through the burial and the mourning with Libugo (the war dance).

ii. The first shaving ceremony

The day after, the kraal is extended over the grave so that the cattle could trample on it. The purification of the mourners through shaving of their heads takes place and the widows put on their mourning hat (zitambo) to signify their grief. In addition to that, a beast is ritually slaughtered as a sacrifice of the community and then shared in the family.

iii. The last (second) shaving ceremony

This involves calling the spirit of the paramount in order to be in touch with the newly selected/ appointed chief. A new fire is made for brewing sacrificial beer and a calabash of beer is offered to the spirit of the deceased paramount. They then slaughter an animal, and offer it to the spirit of the deceased paramount which was believed to be coming back.

During this ceremony all the mourners are shaved again as an ultimate purification. They then remove the Zitambo and burn their shaved hair near the river. The ashes are disposed off and the mourners batted before sharing the ritual.

The Ngoni Dances

i. The Ngoma/Ingoma Dance

The ngoma is a male and female ceremonial dance. The movement is that of vigorous stamping of the feet for men and leisurely circumnavigation of the men by the women. No spears and musical instruments are used for this dance except iron bells (manjerenjeza) which are tied to the ankles of the men that rattle with every stamping motion. The Ngoma dance plays an important part in the social life of young people, especially during the period after the harvest and before the next rains. The youth organise themselves on a village team basis. Among the northern Ngoni (the Jere) under the leadership of Mbelwa this dance is called Ingoma.

ii. The Mthimba or the Mbuweni Dance

The mthimba or mbuweni dance is a women's dance and part of a marriage ceremony. The young girls who accompany the bridal party perform it. The girls who perform the mbuweni wear beads across their bare chests.

iii. Msindo Dance

The msindo or the umgonxo dance is performed by women at the pre-marriage rite of the daughters of rich or important people who belong to the Swazi aristocracy.

iv. The Ligubo Dance

The ligubo is a war dance, which characterised the Ngoni as a nation bearing arms. The ligubo dance provided the warriors with the right skills and discipline for joining the army. It was mainly danced before (imigubo) the warriors went to fight or upon their return (imhubo) from the war.

Ngoni clothing code


1. Ngoni Women's Dress

i. Hairstyles

A woman who approached the time of marriage was entitled to wear the isihlutu hair style. Women did not shave their hair unless they became a widow.

ii. Ear Piercing

Ear piercing was practised for both men and women before puberty. The piercing of the ear symbolised the opening of the mind, meaning that a grown person is someone who is able to listen.

iii. Clothing and Ornaments

Royal women used to wear coils of brass wire (amasongo) and strings of beads (izipote) around their necks, arms and ankles. Their clothing consisted of kilts of soft dressed leather (isidwaba) that covered them from the waist to the knee.


2. The Ngoni Ceremonial Dress Code for Men

i. The Headdress (Nyoni)

Nowadays, the headdress (nyoni) is made of feathers from various birds. This is supported by a head ring which is covered with colourful skins. This is called ntini.

ii. The Kilt (Chibbiya, Njobo)

It is made of twisted straps of skins that look like dangling tails. The most common skins used for making them are baboon, mongoose and genet.

iii. Chikwi

This thick, black woven ropes made of wool used to signify different ranks within the military hierarchy.

iv. Chihhata

These are the white belts made of goat skin, worn by warriors who have been replaced by a very elaborate 15 to 20 cm wide belt made of beadwork. The choice of colour and pattern of the beads, worn by women, is an expression of the depth of their feelings for their husband.

v. Beadwork

The early beads were made of wood, shells, quills or metal. Glass beads were introduced by the Arab traders as early as the 11th century. In addition to that, certain types of beadwork on a special type of apron, cape or kilt signified that a woman was married or a virgin. White beads for instance would express a state of transition for an initiate (to puberty), a bride or a diviner. Unmarried girls wore more beads than married women in order to attract suitors.

vi. Majerenza

These are metal bells are tied to the ankles of a dancer. The original bells were not made of metal but the shells of wild fruits.


i. The Fly Whisk (Lichowa)

The Lichowa is carried by Ngoma or Ingoma dancers on their right hand during performance. These fly whisks are made of wild animal tails like that of the wildebeest. Today, cow tails are used instead. Fly whisks symbolize prestige and authority (the late Malawi president Kamuzu Banda always carried one).

ii. The Knobberry (Chibonga)

This is a wooden carving with a handle and large round or oval shaped ball, acting as the head. It symbolises the cattle head, and is used as a weapon.

Ngoni War Dress

i. The Head-Ring (Cidlolo/ntini).

ii. The Headdress (Nyoni).

iii. Ornaments.

iv. The Weapons.

Ngoni Musical Instruments

i. Igubu

The Igubu is a Ngoni stringed bow musical instrument to which a calabash is attached to echo the sound from the strings. This instrument was commonly used by the northern (Jere) Ngoni kingdom and the Central (Maseko) Ngoni kingdom. It is played at the time of burial adding to the solemn atmosphere with its sad and plaintive sounds.

ii. Mkangala

The mkangala is played by girls and young women whose boyfriends or husbands are on a journey away from home. This instrument is played in solitude as a remedy to stress and sadness.

iii. Mkhwendo

These are played by both men and women as they sing and dance together. Originally, the mkhwendo was a mourning dance performed at funerals while the dancers accompanied the mourners to the grave and back to their homes after the burial.


i. The Ingcwembe; The Ritual Dish

It was used to carry roasted meat which was shared amongst the community. It was also believed that, in the ingcwembe, the ancestors would eat with them and give their blessings to all those who resided in the homestead.

ii. Umcamelo: Head Rest

They were used by both sexes as a sort of pillow and were particularly helpful to women who had to protect their elaborate hairstyles while sleeping or to men who wore the head-ring (cidlolo).

iii. Mbokholo: Grinding stone for beer brewing

It was used to pound or grind maize or finger millet (lipoko) which was used for beer brewing.

The Ngoni Society and Organisation

The Ngoni society was divided into three main groups. These include, the pre-warrior phase, the warrior phase and the post warrior phase.

1. Pre warrior Phase: The childhood

i. The pre warrior phase: "the boy`s dormitory"

This phase was intended to remove them from the influence of women by which they could be spoiled with much attention and ease. The dormitory was used to facilitate their training and their psychological growth. To the Ngoni, the laweni was a sort of pre-regiment school. The boys slept and lived together, learned to defend themselves and taught how to obey orders. Discipline was the rule they had to put up with and they also had to accept irregular and inadequate feeding. In addition to that, they were also taught how to care for cattle and they developed a sense of guardianship for property such as repairing the kraal and other buildings. .It is also where they learnt practical skills like tanning skins, cutting out regalia and shields for themselves. Boys were also taught how to carve wooden spoons, wooden meat dishes (ingcwembe ), head rests for pillows (umcamelo) shafts for spears, knives and musical instruments.

ii. The pre warrior phase: "the girls circle"

It is made up of girls between seven and fourteen. Unlike the boys, they had neither common residence nor eating place. They washed, dressed their hair, anointed their skin or learnt skills like beadwork (headband and wristlets). They did basketry, made brass ornaments; they learned how to upkeep the house such as the polishing of the floor with cow dung and various food dish preparation. In addition to that, it was opened to the formation of dance groups generated by individual initiative.

2. The warrior phase

i. The warrior phase: Majaha

Around the age of twenty, the senior heads were called from time to time to form a new regiment (libandla).Their military training was geared to acquire strength, discipline and self-control. They had to manifest hard work and persistence as well as develop tactics of war that were effective. Above all they had to struggle for togetherness that guaranteed them success in their achievement.

ii. The warrior phase: Married men and married women

In addition to that, they are encouraged and ordered to take their head ring. It is a phase where a husband and wife would have to learn what it meant to be parents and care for children of a patrilineal extended family.

3. Post warrior phase (Madoda and Manina)

These are people with the ages of forty and above. The Madoda (married men) and the Manina (married women) were selected on the account of being trustful, respectful people, men and women of good character, gentleness and able to carry responsibilities. They were also equipped with a sense of hierarchy. In addition to that they play a role as advisors and keepers of peace. They are also regarded as sources of wisdom and judgement; hence they assisted the Induna by showing a good sense and understanding of the tribal ways.

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