Tradition recalls that Nyakyusa/Ngonde chiefs and commoners were of different stock. The ancestors of the "commoners" are remembered as hunters and honey gatherers who came from the mountains surrounding the Rift Valley or from the vicinity of Lake Rukwa to the north. The ancestors of the "chiefs" were related to the aristocracy of the Kinga, a neighboring (although otherwise unrelated) people in the mountains east of the lake. The chiefs came "ten generations ago," bringing cattle, cultigens, fire, and iron, and found the commoners eating their food "raw." The chiefs arrived not as conquerors, but as culture bringers with power over rain and fertility. They are remembered as being "pale" and the commoners as "black," but there has been intermarriage for as long as anyone remembers, and no physical difference is discernible in their descendants. This myth of migration and settlement resembles many others from Africa concerning the origins of the complementary relationship between rulers and the ruled.
Whereas the Nyakyusa were relatively isolated because of their geographical situation, the Ngonde were incorporated into an extensive precolonial ivory-centered trade network. English and German missionaries, traders, and explorers arrived in the 1870s. The initial phase of contact was soon followed by elimination of the slave trade and the establishment of European colonial regimes; the Ngonde ended up in the British Protectorate of Nyasaland (called Malawi upon independence), and the Nyakyusa were incorporated in the German colony of Tanganyika. With the defeat of the Germans in World War I, control of Tanganyika passed to the British, who assumed the territory under a League of Nations mandate and administered it until independence.
Scots missionaries established themselves in Ngonde territory, and Lutherans and Moravians, followed by Catholics, settled in BuNyakyusa. The missionary presence resulted in challenges to the values of precolonial society (e.g., polygyny), a division of the population along religious lines, and a withdrawal of Christians from participation in traditional communal ceremonials. Wage migration has taken many men out of the country to work for various periods in the mines of the Rhodesian (now Zambian) Copper Belt or in South Africa. The introduction of cash cropping and private land has further enhanced these individualistic tendencies. The overall effect of such changes has been a transition from a society based on kinship to one based on the nuclear family and voluntary association.