Mozambique - Background information

Natural history
People and culture


Abridged from the History section in Mozambique: the Bradt Travel Guide

Independent Mozambique

Three factors were to prove critical in shaping Mozambique during the first two decades of independence: the mess left behind by the colonisers; the leadership of Frelimo; and the destabilising policies of South Africa’s nationalist government.

It would be easy enough to see the first 15 years of Frelimo government as typical of the sort of Marxist dictatorship that has characterised post-independence Africa. It would also be rather simplistic. Frelimo assumed a dictatorial role through circumstance as much as intent – there simply was no viable opposition in the decade following independence – and its progressive, humanitarian ideals were a far cry from the self-serving, repressive policies enacted by many of its peers. Frelimo’s undeniable failures can be attributed partly to unfortunate circumstance, but most of all to its intellectual and interventionist policies – idealistic grand schemes which failed to take into account the importance of ethnicity, tradition and religion in rural African societies, and which ultimately alienated the peasantry.

The party’s most notable successes were on the social front. In the first few years of independence, primary school attendance doubled and enrolment at secondary schools increased sevenfold. The new government attempted to combat the appalling literacy rate of less than 5% at the time of independence by initiating an adult literacy scheme that benefited hundreds of thousands of Mozambicans, and sought to undermine the problem of ethnicity by spreading the use of Portuguese as a common language. Despite there being fewer than 100 trained doctors in the country in 1975, Frelimo launched an ambitious programme of immunisations, praised by the World Health Organization (WHO) as one of the most successful ever initiated in Africa. The scheme reached 90% of the population in the first five years of Frelimo rule, resulting in a 20% drop in infant mortality. Frelimo’s emphasis on sexual equality was underscored by the fact that 28% of the people elected to popular assemblies in 1977 were women – a higher figure than almost anywhere else in the world.

Fortaleza de São Sebastião on Ilha de Moçambique, Mozambique by Ariadne Van Zandbergen, www.africaimagelibrary.comIlha de Moçambique has some of the oldest surviving buildings in the southern hemisphere, such as Fortaleza de São Sebastião © Ariadne Van Zandbergen,

Frelimo’s critical failing was on the economic front which, while caused partly by its own policies, was undoubtedly exacerbated by the situation in which the newly independent country found itself. Mozambique’s economy, never the most developed in southern Africa, was further damaged by emerging in the middle of the global depression following the 1973 oil crisis. The crisis not only damaged Mozambican businesses but also led to the South African gold mines laying off two-thirds of their Mozambican workers in 1976, with a resultant loss of significant foreign earnings.

Portuguese settlers, faced with a choice between immediate repatriation or enforced Mozambican citizenship, chose mass exodus, stripping assets as they went. The loss of capital and expertise caused the collapse of many of the country’s secondary industries, most of which remain moribund. Frelimo attempted to abate this outflow by nationalising a number of industries, but at a pace that only caused the situation to spiral, and which gave many Portuguese settlers a pretext for destroying anything that they couldn’t take out of the country. Meanwhile Frelimo’s ambitious agricultural schemes were obstructed by climatic factors: disastrous floods hit the main agricultural areas in the summer of 1977/78, followed by four years of nationwide drought.

Frelimo’s most notable successes were on the social front. In the first few years of independence, primary school attendance doubled and enrolment at secondary schools increased sevenfold.

Lastly, Mozambique was surrounded by hostile countries. South Africa and Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) were still white-ruled and feared independence movements that had proved so effective in neighbouring countries springing up in their own backyards. Malawi, while nominally independent, adopted a heavily pro-Western approach and actively supported the activities of the white minority governments.

The remainder of the 1990s was characterised by an uneasy peace and the jostling for political power that invariably follows a protracted civil war. After the 1994 parliamentary election, Renamo asserted the right to the governorships in the provinces where it had won majorities, a claim that was swiftly rejected by Chissano Frelimo further bolstered its authority in the May 1998 local elections – boycotted by Renamo and 16 other opposition parties – in which it won almost everything up for grabs. It came as little surprise, then, that in general elections held in December 1999, Chissano was re-elected president for a further five-year term, Frelimo won an outright majority of parliamentary seats, and Renamo contested the result on the basis that the voting had been fraudulent.

Although international monitors declared that the election had been free and fair, Renamo threatened unilaterally to establish a parallel government in the central and northern regions unless the vote was recounted or new elections held. As Mozambique moved into the new century, however, it continued to be governed by a single authority which, although by no means perfect, could at least claim to exercise effective and legitimate control in a country where such a feat has never been easy to achieve.

Fisherman, Ilha de Moçambique, Mozambique by Eric Lafforgue, A fisherman in Ilha de Moçambique – fishing is an essential part of the economy in Mozambique © Eric Lafforgue,

The 21st century

Although Mozambique has enjoyed a high level of stability since the civil war ended, the peace has been punctuated by episodes of localised violence, such as the aforementioned Renamo attacks in 2013. Prior to that, in September 2010, Maputo experienced a two-day standstill after police opened fire on a mass protest against an official rise in bread prices, leading to widespread vandalism and looting, and at least 14 deaths. The riot did encourage the government to announce a subsidy on bread prices, and Maputo had all but returned to normal within 48 hours of the riots starting. Nevertheless, growing public dissatisfaction at rising living costs (30% inflation expected) seems inevitable in a country ranking 180 out of 188 for human development, where 66% of the population is under 25 years of age, the unemployment rate hovers around 40%, food production has yet to reach subsistence levels since the agricultural sector collapsed in the civil war and recent years of drought, and the currency has depreciated against that of its major trading partner (South Africa) to the order of more than 50% in 12 months.

Natural history

Refurbished Gorongosa National Park is showing the potential to become as important an attraction in the future as it was in the colonial era, when it was known as the Serengeti of southern Africa. 

Unlike most other countries in sub-equatorial Africa, Mozambique is not primarily or even secondarily a safari destination. Although more than 10% of the country has been designated as some form of protected area, little of this land is readily accessible to visitors, and the once-abundant wildlife was severely depleted during the long years of civil war and associated poaching (the elephant population, for instance, dropped from around 65,000 to 15,000 between 1970 and 1995, though it has increased steadily in subsequent years).

However, facilities in certain reserves and parks have improved greatly in the past few years, and Mozambique does now offer a few decent wildlife-viewing opportunities, most notably at the rehabilitated and relatively accessible Gorongosa National Park. Also worth considering are the vast Niassa Reserve (for self-drivers), the much more accessible Limpopo National Park (a Mozambican extension of South Africa’s famous Kruger Park), the Maputo Special Reserve south of the capital, and (especially for backpackers) the Chimanimani National Reserve.

Today, the country has seven national parks, of which Quirimba and Bazaruto are primarily marine reserves, while Zinave and Banhine have very limited facilities and support little wildlife. There are also eight national or special reserves, but again most of these are remote and poorly developed.


Several useful field guides to African mammals are available for the purpose of identification. What most such guides lack is detailed distribution details for individual countries, so the following notes should be seen as a Mozambique-specific supplement to a regional or continental field guide.


A firm safari favourite, the lion, Africa’s largest cat, is a sociable animal that lives in family prides of up to 15 animals and tends to hunt by night, favouring large and medium-sized antelopes. Though widespread in Mozambique (a recent survey suggests a national population in excess of 2,000), it is likely to be seen by visitors only in Gorongosa National Park and, to a lesser extent, the Niassa Reserve.

The smaller, solitary and more secretive leopard, with its distinctive black-on-gold rosetted coat, is also still widespread in Mozambique, and far more numerous than the lion, but sightings are very uncommon. As far as we are aware, the more streamlined cheetah, a plains dweller with distinctive black ‘tear marks’ running down its face, is more or less extinct in Mozambique. Several smaller species of cat, such as caracal, serval and African wild cat, occur in Mozambique, but they are rarely seen on account of their nocturnal habits.

Catch a glimpse of the African hunting dog in Mozambique, which is one of the most important strongholds for this rare and endangered creature.

The largest indigenous canine species, the African hunting dog, is unmistakable on account of its blotchy black, brown and cream coat. Hunting dogs live and hunt in packs, normally about ten animals strong. The introduction to Africa of canine diseases such as rabies has caused a severe decline in hunting dog numbers in recent years, and this endangered species has been on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Animals since 1984. Mozambique is one of the most important strongholds for this rare creature, which is still quite numerous in the northerly Niassa Reserve and Quirimba National Park. The more lightly built side-striped and black-backed jackals, mostly nocturnal in habit and generally seen either singly or in pairs, are widespread in brachystegia and acacia habitats respectively.

The spotted hyena is a large, bulky, widespread predator with a sloping back, black-on-brown lightly spotted coat and dog-like face. Contrary to popular myth, it is not a type of dog, nor is it exclusively a scavenger or hermaphroditic. The Viverridae family comprises a group of small predators that includes mongooses and the cat-like civets and genets. At least ten mongoose species have been recorded in Mozambique, most of which can be readily observed in the right habitat.

The African civet, tree civet and large-spotted genet are all present too, but they are rarely seen except on night drives in Gorongosa National Park or the Niassa Reserve. Four representatives of the Mustelidae family occur: the  honeybadger, Cape clawless otter, spotted necked otter and striped polecat.


The most common primate in Mozambique is probably the vervet monkey, a small, grey animal with a black face and, in the male, blue genitals. Vervet monkeys live in large troops in most habitats except desert and evergreen forest. The closely related samango or blue monkey is a less common and more cryptically marked species associated with evergreen and riverine forests, as well as coastal thicket. The yellow baboon is common in northern Mozambique, while the greyer chacma baboon occurs in the south, with the population in Gorongosa possibly representing an intermediate form. The wide-eyed bushbaby, a small nocturnal primate that is heard more often than seen, can often be located at night by tracing its distinctive, piercing call to a tree and then using a flashlight to pick up its eyes.


With Vincent Parker, Keith Barnes and Josh Engel

Eastern double-collared sunbird, Mozambique by Ariadne Van Zandbergen,

The exact number of birds recorded in Mozambique is open to debate, with various sources listing between 750 and 800 species, a discrepancy attributable to various controversial taxonomic splits as well as one’s acceptance of vagrant and uncorroborated records. A useful checklist can be found online at and a good field guide will help identify most of the birds you see.

This list includes one full endemic, the Namuli apalis, along with the olive-headed weaver, which of all the bird species resident in southern Africa has possibly been seen by the fewest birdwatchers (a patch of tall brachystegia woodland just south of the town of Panda, 60km inland of Inharrime in Inhambane Province, is the only locality in the region where the birder has a chance of seeing it).

(Photo: More than 250 species have been recorded on Mount Gorongosa and its immediate vicinity, including an isolated population of sunbird which may in fact be an endemic species © Ariadne Van Zandbergen,

Mozambique is an important destination for southern African birders. Of the 850-odd bird species that are resident in or regular migrants to Africa south of the Zambezi, roughly 30 have been recorded only in Mozambique or else have their main concentration there. Some of the birds fitting into one of these categories are the Madagascar squacco heron, eastern saw-wing swallow, Bohm’s bee-eater, palmnut vulture, silvery-cheeked hornbill, green tinkerbird, green-backed woodpecker, green-headed oriole, tiny greenbul, stripe-cheeked greenbul, white-chested alethe, Swynnerton’s robin, East Coast akalat (Gunning’s robin), Chirinda apalis, black-headed apalis, moustached grass warbler, Robert’s warbler, mashona hylotia, yellow-breasted hylotia, black-and white flycatcher, Woodward’s batis, pale batis, Livingstone’s flycatcher, Achieta’s tchagra, chestnut-fronted helmet-shrike, red-headed quelea, cardinal quelea, olive-headed weaver, lesser seedcracker, yellow-bellied waxbill and lemon-breasted canary.

Northern Mozambique is particularly alluring to birders, since many areas have yet to be thoroughly explored.

Visitors to southern Mozambique seldom stray far inland. Among the exciting birds to be found along the coast are crab plovers, which are seen regularly in and around the Bazaruto Archipelago in summer, and occasionally as far south as Inhaca Island near Maputo. One of the rarest raptors in the world, Eleanora’s falcon, has been seen at Vilanculos and Pomene. Vast flocks of migrant waders include bartailed godwit, terek sandpiper and greater sandplover. The rarely seen gull-billed tern has recently been spotted at freshwater lakes in three localities. Indigenous woodland is scarce along the coast, having been largely replaced by exotic coconut palms and cashew trees. However, the red-throated twinspot, Livingstone’s turaco and brown scrub-robin can still be found near Xai-Xai and in Maputaland.

Other exciting birds to be seen in the brachystegia woodlands of the Mozambican interior south of the Save River include chestnut-fronted helmet-shrike, rackettailed roller, mottled spinetail, Rudd’s apalis, Livingstone’s flycatcher, plain-backed sunbird, Neergard’s sunbird and pink-throated twinspot. In central Mozambique, two localities of great interest to birders are Gorongosa Mountain (near Gorongosa National Park) and the forests north of Dondo. Species that cannot be seen elsewhere in southern Africa include green-headed oriole and East Coast akalat.

With over 750 recorded species, the visiting birdwatcher will be spoilt for choice in both the southern and northern parts of the country.

Northern Mozambique is particularly alluring to birders, since many areas have yet to be thoroughly explored and birdwatchers are likely to find species new to the Mozambique list – and possibly even new to science. Birders in northern Mozambique will certainly encounter species that are not included in southern African field guides, so they will need to refer to a second field guide.

Some of the birds that are known to occur in northern Mozambique but not in southern Africa are pale-billed hornbill; brown-breasted barbet; mountain, little, grey-olive, Fischer’s and Cabanis’s greenbuls; Thyolo alethe; central bearded scrub-robin; evergreen and red-capped forest warblers; Kretchmar’s longbill; white-winged apalis; long-billed tailorbird; white-tailed blue flycatcher; mountain babbler; red-and-blue and eastern double-collared sunbirds; Bertram’s weaver; Zanzibar red bishop; African citril and stripe-breasted canary.

Marine life

Uniquely in southern and eastern Africa, Mozambique is better known and more often visited for its wealth of marine wildlife than for the terrestrial creatures that roam its relatively underutilised game reserves. For much of its 2,470km length, Mozambique’s Indian-Ocean coastline is protected by a succession of offshore coral reefs that offer sublime conditions for snorkelling and diving, along with dozens of small islands such as those that make up the Bazaruto and Quirimbas archipelagos, both of which are protected within national parks.

Clown Fish Inhambane Mozambique by Fiona Ayerst, Shutterstock The coast around Inhambane is a brilliant place to view marine life such as this clown fish © Fiona Ayerst, Shutterstock

To truly experience the diversity Mozambique has to offer, make sure to utilise its extensive coast and the wealth of marine life.

There are dozens of established dive and snorkel sites along the coast, and many more that remain undeveloped for tourism, but the main centres for viewing marine life are Ponta Do Ouro (known for reef fish and ragged-tooth sharks), the coast around Inhambane, Tofo and Závora (where ocean safaris offer snorkellers and divers the opportunity to swim with marine giants such as whale-shark, manta ray and dolphins), Vilankulo and the nearby Bazaruto Archipelago (a huge diversity of reef fish and the one place where snorkellers regularly encounter turtles, also with very occasional dugong sightings) and the Quirimbas (superb for reef fish but less good for larger marine creatures).

People and culture


Over 99% of the people in Mozambique are African, which stands to reason. The remainder of the population is made up of Europeans (mainly Portuguese), Indians, east Asians and mestiços (people of mixed African–European ancestry). As in most of Africa, the tribes living in Mozambique share cultural and linguistic similarities with their counterparts in neighbouring states.

The basic tribal pattern in Mozambique is a result of pre-19th-century migrations from the north and west, and the fleeing of people in the early 19th century from the violent Zulu Kingdom in South Africa. This has left a north–south split, with the Zambezi River as the dividing line. The tribes north of the Zambezi are predominantly agriculturists and have matrilineal societies. The two largest tribes, the Macua and the Lomwe, who are concentrated in Zambézia, Nampula, Niassa and Cabo Delgado provinces, together make up about 35% of the total Mozambican population. Another northern tribe worth knowing is the Makonde, famous for its art and its wooden statues and masks, who live on both the Mozambican and Tanzanian sides of the Rovuma River.

Excluding the desert countries of Namibia and Botswana, Zambia is the only country in the region more thinly populated than Mozambique.

African girl of Macua ethnicity by gaborbasch, ShutterstockBeautiful African girl of Macua ethnicity. The Macua is one of the largest tribes north of the Zambezi River © gaborbasch, Shutterstock

The tribes south of the Zambezi River are mainly cattle-rearing and have patrilineal societies. The most important is the Thonga, the country’s second largest ethnic group, who are concentrated in the area south of the Save River and make up around 23% of the population. The majority of Africans in Maputo are Thonga. Meanwhile, most of Sofala and Manica provinces are inhabited by Shona, a tribe whose numbers have grown due to migrations into Mozambique of Shona from Zimbabwe and South Africa. In addition to the tribal differences north and south of the Zambezi River, a third distinct region is formed by the Zambezi Valley itself, which 1 has historically been influenced by the Portuguese and Arabs who used the river to access the interior.

The population of Mozambique was estimated at 28 million in 2016, and is expected to exceed 30 million by 2020. The average life expectancy is around 55 years. Approximately 67% of the population live in rural areas, but there is an ongoing trend of gravitation to the cities.

Mozambique has one of the lowest population densities in southern and eastern Africa, currently standing at roughly 35 inhabitants per km2. Excluding the desert countries of Namibia and Botswana, Zambia is the only country in the region more thinly populated than Mozambique. It has been suggested that the low population density was due to the protracted civil war. In fact, the interior of Mozambique has always been sparsely populated, and the population has increased more than 2½ times in the 40-plus years since independence. The most densely populated provinces are Zambézia, Nampula and Maputo.

Minority population groups include Indians and Pakistanis, particularly around Nampula, and Portuguese, who are concentrated in the cities of Maputo and Beira.

Women carrying their luggage, Mozambique by EcoPrint, ShutterstockBrightly dressed local women transporting luggage and supplies © EcoPrint, Shutterstock



Maputo was a hotbed of artistic creativity in the decade following independence, a scene centred upon the Centro de Estudos Culturais. Artistic activity was stifled during the long years of war that followed, and it has never picked up in quite the same way again, though the best of the Makonde-influenced artworks sold at craft markets throughout the country are of a far higher standard than the tourist tat available in most African countries. There are also many quality murals in the country’s larger towns and cities, often depicting events from the liberation or civil wars. It seems Mozambique is on the verge of an artistic resurgence once again, especially with the opening of the Chinese-financed National School of Visual Arts (ENAV) in 2010.

Visitors interested in the visual arts should visit the Museu Nacional das Artes, the Cultural Franco-Mozambicain and Núcleo de Arte in Maputo, as well as the house of the late Alberto Chissano in nearby Matola. Born in 1934, Alberto Chissano is arguably the finest sculptor to have worked in Mozambique, a former soldier and miner who first exhibited at the Núcleo de Arte in 1964 and won several awards for his wood and stone sculptures prior to his death in 1994.

His contemporary Malangatana Ngwenya, a politicised painter and poet who mostly exhibited under his first name only, was born in the far south of the country in 1964 and studied art in Lisbon in 1971 following 18 months’ imprisonment by the colonial secret police for his involvement in Frelimo. Malangatana painted several of the war murals that adorn Mozambique’s cities, and in more recent years he was the founder of the Mozambican Peace Movement and several cultural institutions prior to his death in Portugal in January 2011.


Mozambique has long suffered from a lack of professional recordings of its music, but this is thankfully beginning to change. Long a crossroads of culture, trade and customs, traditional Mozambican music is as diverse as the country itself, with the Swahili-influenced north, Shona central regions and Tonga south all deeply connected to their neighbours by culture and kin. Thus, as is often the case in Africa, Mozambique’s musical styles don’t correspond neatly with its national borders, and many of Mozambique’s favourite musicians have deep ties to other countries in the region (ie: South Africa), or throughout the Lusophone world, such as Brazil and Angola. For aspiring ethnomusicologists and fans of traditional styles, pioneering field recorder Hugh Tracy visited Mozambique in the course of his African travels where he collected countless hours of folk and traditional music, some of which is now available on CD. Southern Mozambique showcases indigenous styles typical of the region, including the magnificent xylophone orchestras of the Chopi, an ethnic group native to Inhambane province. Forgotten Guitars from Mozambique chronicles the acoustic stylings of itinerant miners returning from South Africa in the 1950s with a new instrument under their arms, and a new beat in their hearts – one that would soon conquer Mozambique’s airwaves and dance floors.

Many of Mozambique’s favourite musicians have deep ties to other countries in the region.

That style was marrabenta, and it quickly became Mozambique’s most beloved popular music, its guitar-based groove somewhere between Congolese soukous, Zimbabwean sungura and the Tonga roots of its practitioners. Marrabenta traces its origins to early-to-mid 20th century Lourenço Marques (now Maputo), and though the style has changed a great deal since then, it’s still popular in urban centres throughout the country. Commercially available marrabenta recordings are sadly few and far between, though, and the early years of the style are largely unavailable, save on locally released 7” records that occasionally pop up as collectors’ items on eBay.

Perhaps the most striking example of this paucity of recordings is Dilon Djindji, one of the ‘grand old men’ of marrabenta, who despite performing since the age of 15, released his first studio album, Dilon, in 2002, at the tender age of 75! The Rough Guide to Marrabenta Mozambique is an excellent introduction to the style, containing classics as well as new songs recorded for the collection. Other artists to look out for include Orchestra Marrabenta Star de Moçambique, Wazimbo and Fany Pfumo.

Pandza is perhaps Mozambique’s newest style, incorporating elements of marrabenta, dancehall reggae, kuduro and more into an eminently danceable melange that’s been keeping butts shaking across Mozambique for the past several years.

What you’re really likely to hear on the streets of Mozambique today, though, is a variety of styles from southern Africa, namely South Africa and Angola. From across the border in South Africa, you’ll encounter kwaito and house, interrelated genres of pulsating electronic music popular with DJs throughout Mozambique for their soulful vocals, floor-shaking beats and danceable tempos. Pushing the beats per minute even higher is kuduro, a massively frenetic dance craze out of Angola known for its blistering tempos, acrobatic dance moves and rowdy chanted lyrics.

Kizomba is another popular genre in Lusophone Africa, but considerably more smooth and sensual than its kuduro cousin, taking its cues from Latin styles such as bachata and zouk. Finally, pandza is perhaps Mozambique’s newest style, incorporating elements of marrabenta, dancehall reggae, kuduro and more into an eminently danceable melange that’s been keeping butts shaking across Mozambique for the past several years. Keep your ears open for MC Roger, Mr Cizer Boss, Ziqo, Gabriela, Lizha James, Anita Macuacua or Mr Bow, or simply ask any of Maputo’s countless CD vendors which tracks you should be checking for this month.

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