LOCATION: Mozambique

POPULATION: 18 million

LANGUAGE: Portuguese (official); 33 African languages; English (trade)

RELIGION: Traditional African religions; Islam; Christianity


Mozambicans inhabit primarily Mozambique, a nation in southern Africa that was colonized by Portugal. However, Mozambicans cannot be described as a single distinct cultural group. When Europeans scrambled to colonize Africa, they drew country boundaries that often enclosed many different ethnic groups. The first inhabitants of Mozambique were hunters and gatherers, ancestors of the Khoisan (Bushmen) now found in South Africa, Botswana, and Namibia.

Mozambicans are a people in transition. They fought for and won their independence from Portugal in 1975. From 1975 until the late 1990s, however, opposing factions continued to fight for control of the government. A peace agreement was signed between the two main warring factions on October 4, 1992, and a general cease-fire began.

Natural disasters have also plagued the country. Mozambique has experienced recurrent drought, flooding, cyclones, water pollution, and desertification (the process by which land loses its nutrients and becomes desert). Mozambique remains one of Africa's poorest countries.


Mozambique is located in southern Africa between South Africa and Tanzania. The country is almost twice the size of California. The climate is tropical to subtropical, and most of the country is coastal lowlands. The capital city is Maputo.

Mozambique's population is nearly 18 million people, and experts estimate 3 million more Mozambicans were forced to leave their homes during the fight for independence and internal fighting that followed. Some refugees were still living in Malawi, Zimbabwe, and South Africa in the late 1990s, although 1.6 million refugees had returned to Mozambique.


There are thirty-three languages spoken in Mozambique. The official language adopted by the government is Portuguese. However, only an estimated 30,000 people in Mozambique speak the language, and 27 percent of those speak it as a second language. In urban centers, particularly in Maputo, English is becoming popular because many neighboring countries use English as their official language.


The various ethnic groups of Mozambique contribute to a rich variety of myths and legends in the country. Traditional African religions generally place great emphasis on the importance of ancestors. The longstanding use of storytelling to preserve history has resulted in a wealth of folk traditions and stories.

One such legend from the Makonde people demonstrates the importance of folklore. The Makonde, who live in northern Mozambique and southern Tanzania, believe that they descended from one man who lived alone like a wild pig in the forest. The man wanted a family, so he carved a wife out of wood and eventually had children. The first two children were born near the river and both died. The third was born on the plateau and survived. This was taken as a sign that the Makonde should live on high ground. The Makonde are world-famous for their woodcarvings, of both human figures for family worship and masks for initiation ceremonies. Traditionally, they believed that their carving abilities proved they could control the world of nature and communicate with ancestors and spirits.


Roughly 60 percent of the population practice traditional African religions, 30 percent are Christian, and 10 percent are Muslim (practice the religion of Islam). Most traditional African religions believe in one supreme being who acts through spirits and ancestors. Traditional religions are not necessarily viewed as incompatible with religions imported from Europe and northern Africa such as Christianity and Islam. Many Mozambican Christians continue to practice the witchcraft, sorcery, spells, and magic associated with traditional religions.


In addition to the national holiday, Independence Day on June 25, many major religious holidays are celebrated in Mozambique. The Portuguese Catholic influence is very heavy among the 30 percent who are Christians. Consequently, holidays such as Christmas and Easter are celebrated much as they are in Western cultures. Similarly, the Muslim population observes Islamic holy days.


As with most traditional African societies, rites of passage are very important to the Mozambicans. Such practices vary from one ethnic group to another. Some groups practice circumcision of boys aged ten to twelve to mark their passage into manhood. Others do not practice initiation or circumcision for boys. The Makonde practice initiation ceremonies that integrate young people into the adult world through links with ancestors and supernatural beings. Makonde rites of passage ceremonies include the use of masks.


Customs concerning greetings, visiting, body language, and dating vary from one ethnic group to another. Portuguese and English greetings are common in urban areas.


Mozambique has not yet emerged from the heavy influence of its more than thirty-year struggle for independence. The influence of colonialism also remains in many aspects of life, including housing. "Cement town" describes European-style settlements once occupied by colonists. "Cane towns" are the African settlements that surround them. Mozambican homes are often constructed of cane and mud. In the cities, high-rise apartments are crowded, with twenty people sometimes living in three-room apartments. Electricity and plumbing are often unreliable in the cities and are nonexistent in rural areas.

The war left nearly half of the country's primary health care network destroyed. This resulted in many children dying from preventable diseases like measles. Starvation was widespread. An estimated one million land mines remain in the country. From 1995 to 1997, in the Maputo province alone, ninety-eight people stepped on landmines—sixty-eight of whom were children.


Most African cultures emphasize one side of the family tree—father's or mother's—more heavily than the other. In matrilineal groups, for example, the family tree is traced through the mother's side of the family. In addition, property passes from one generation to the next based on matrilineal ties. Kinship ties are more important in African societies than in Western societies. This is so in part because land is usually owned by and passed down within the extended family group. Both matrilineal and patrilineal descent groups exist in Mozambique. However, it is common for men to control issues related to ownership of land.

Mozambicans continue to practice subsistence farming (farming that provides for the family's needs with little left over for marketing) as a means of survival. Men traditionally perform the initial plowing or hoeing to prepare the land for planting. Women maintain the farm and are responsible for most of the harvesting. Women are also responsible for the traditional roles of taking care of children, food preparation, and homemaking.


During the war, deslacados —people dislocated by the war—often had no clothes and covered themselves with tree bark. Clothing became a precious commodity and was more valued than currency in many areas. In Maputo, guards were posted at clotheslines. A shirt cost as much as a laborer could earn in a month. Western-style clothing is common, but traditional clothing such as capulanas and headscarves are still in use. Capulanas are squares of colorful cloth that can be worn as a wraparound skirt or on the upper body. They can also serve as baby slings.

12 • FOOD

In parts of Mozambique, meat is scarce, but pork and wild pig are favorite dishes and are usually prepared in a sauce. The Portuguese influence can be found in Mozambique cuisine in the use of spicy sauces. Products of the fishing industry, especially shrimp and shellfish, are popular in the coastal region. The mainstay, however, in Mozambique as well as other parts of southern Africa, is maize (corn). Mealie pie, for example, is a cornmeal mush that is a southern African staple. During periods of violent conflict, Mozambicans depended on food from relief agencies; some scavenged for wild berries, nuts, and caterpillars; and many others starved.


During the war, school was often conducted under trees, without books or supplies. By 1989, 52 percent of first-level primary schools in Mozambique had been destroyed or forced to close. In addition, families often cannot afford the loss of farm labor to allow children to attend school. In 1988, conflict had so disrupted education that most students in Zambezia Province had not progressed beyond the first grade. People forced to leave their homes— deslocados— were often too hungry to attend school.

Perhaps one-third of Mozambicans over the age of fifteen are literate (able to read and write). Primary education is free, and 40 percent of primary school age children enroll. Secondary education is not free. Only a tiny percentage of primary school students go on to secondary, professional, technical, or university education.


Mozambicans practice various forms of music, dance, and storytelling. African art is used to communicate spiritual messages, historical information, and other truths to society. Distinctive cultural heritage plays an important role among the various ethnic groups. The Chope, for example, are masters of the African piano, the mbila. The Makonde are world-famous for their wood-carvings.

Many writers and artists are natives of Mozambique. Poet and artist Rui de Noronha is considered the father of modern Mozambican writers. Other influential writers and artists include poet Albuquerque Freire; short-story writer and journalist Luis Bernardo Honwana (also known as Augusto Manuel); and poet and painter Malagatana Gowenha Valente. Noemia Carolina Abranches de Sousa (also known as Vera Micaia) is considered to be the first Mozambican woman writer. Much Mozambique literature, like other African literature written in Portuguese, is anticolonial and promotes traditional African themes.


Most Mozambicans rely on machambas, family garden plots, for survival. As much as 80 to 90 percent of the population practices some agricultural activity, primarily subsistence farming. The annual per capita income for Mozambicans is $90 per year. Unemployment registers at about 50 percent.


Soccer is the most popular organized spectator sport in Mozambique. One of the leading soccer players for Portugal in the 1960s was Eusobio from Mozambique. Many other Western sports are played by children and adults, particularly in the urban centers.


In Mozambique's urban centers, theater and television are popular. The government tried to promote rural village theater, but the effort was disrupted during the war years and has not been reestablished. Children enjoy playing games such as hopscotch and hide-and-seek.


The Makonde of Mozambique are known for their woodcarvings. In the Shetani style ( Shetani is a Swahili word meaning "devil"), the carvings are tall and gracefully curved with stylized and abstracted faces and symbols. Most are carved in heavy ebony. Another style of woodcarvings (called Ujamaa or tree of life) are totem-type structures. They show lifelike people and faces (representative of family members), huts, and everyday articles like pots and agricultural tools. The Makonde are also known for their water pots, as well as masks used in initiation ceremonies.


A vast array of social problems afflict a country so recently traumatized by war. While Mozambique adopted a democratic constitution in 1990, human rights violations continue to be reported. These include a pattern of abusive behavior by security forces and an ineffective judicial system. The transition to better economic conditions, improved health care and education, and the guarantee of human rights will take time.


Azevedo, Mario. Historical Dictionary of Mozambique. London: Scarecrow Press, 1991.

Dillon, Diane, and Leo Dillon. The African Cookbook. New York: Carol Publishing, 1993.


Government of Mozambique. [Online] Available , 1998.

World Travel Guide. [Online] Available , 1998.

User Contributions:

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I am born of a South African mother. My father was born in South Africa but his parents were from Mozambique. My grandmother's maiden name was Langa (her name was Madibalwana)and her father's surname was Modjadji from Inharime. The were Chope. I am looking to link up with relatives from bothe sides. I do not know much about my grandfather except that his name was Marangeni Mandlazi (Msemane). Some people say he was Tsonga and others say he was Chope. It is very important to me to know my origins and for my children to be Please assist if you know because I want to compile a family tree and know my roots. Please e-mail me at if you have any information that I can use.
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