Tonga people (Malawi)

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The Tonga (also called Batonga, Lake Shore Tonga or Nyasa Tonga) are an ethnic group living in northern Malawi on the shores of Lake Malawi in Nkhata Bay and northern part of Nkhotakota. They are to be distinguished from the Tonga people of Zambia and Zimbabwe, whose language belongs to a different branch of the Bantu family.


Tradition says the Tonga came from the north, perhaps from the Maravi people or the Tumbuka. Until the coming of the Ngoni in 1855, they had been a matrilineal people and had never possessed a centralized government.

Defeated by the Ngoni, older inhabitants remained on the land while the young were incorporated into the Ngoni fighting regiments. In 1876, some Tonga revolted against the Ngoni and won. Survivors lived in villages on piles in Lake Nyasa or stockades on the lakeshore. As of 1993, about a quarter of a million people were Tongas.


The Tonga were primarily a fishing people with cassava as their staple food. Through mission education, they were able to earn higher wages during colonial times and worked primarily as porters, skilled or semi-skilled workers, and armed auxiliaries.

The Tonga people pay lobola (bride price) in the form of money, with kin liable for further payments if a child or wife falls ill. Males could not divorce their wives without a hearing of public repudiation, while she and her family, however, could dismiss him without formality, unless he had a wealthy or otherwise powerful family. The kin of a woman dying away from home could also demand burial permission and heavy payment from the husband.

The Tonga in Chintheche are known by the surname Chirwa; some other names in Tonga are Kaunda, Ngema, Longwe, Ng'oma, Manda, Mzumala and Mhone.


The Tonga believed in a supreme God who remained vague and almost forgotten, for the Bantu had primarily a religion of the dead. They worshipped ancestral spirits, believed in consulting diviners, spirit-possession, and sought out those who predicted the future and were supposed to receive messages from ancestors. Spirits of the dead were recognized, honored, and propitiated. The Batonga of Lake Nyasa say that by taking certain medicines, a person can ensure his changing after death into whichever animal he wishes.


There are more than 170,000 speakers of the Malawi Tonga language.[1]

(Note that the Tonga language in Zambia is also classified as of the Bantu language family, but belongs to a completely different type.[2][3])

The language is called chiTonga. The 'chi' means 'the language of the', like 'ki' in kiSwahili or 'se' in seTswana.


  • Bauer, Andreus. "Raising the Flag of War".
  • Davidson, Basil. "African Kingdoms".
  • Tew, Mary. "People of the Lake Nyasa Region".
  1. ^ Tonga at Ethnologue (17th ed., 2013)
  2. ^ Bryan, M.A., compiler, The Bantu Languages of Africa. International African Institute / Oxford University Press, 1959.
  3. ^ Brelsford, W.V., The Tribes of Northern Rhodesia. Government Printing Office, Lusaka, 1956.