Meet the Yao people of Malawi

Feb 17, 2014 |  Community
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As part of celebrating the Culture aspect of our 4Cs sustainability philosophy, we will be profiling different ethnic groups within Wilderness. Here we look at the Yao people of Malawi…

The Yao people trace their origins to a mountain called Yao, east of Lake Malawi. During the ninth century a famine, as well as various internal problems, resulted in a breakaway by some. Moving westward, they settled on the shores of Lake Malawi. It is estimated that two million Yao live in southern Africa; 1.5 million of these are in Malawi with another half million in Mozambique.

The Yao are primarily subsistence farmers, growing crops in the savannah areas surrounding the Lake. Many are also fishermen. Others have migrated to the cities where they find temporary work. A few are craftsmen employed in local projects such as building houses.

The primary language of the Yao is called Chiyao. In Malawi, while most of the Yao are fluent in Chiyao, only 30% are literate. 85% of Yao also speak Chichewa, Malawi's national language, and 10 to 20% speak limited English. In general, the Yao tend to be more loyal to the mother’s family than to their nuclear family.

While the Yao are a Bantu people, they converted to Islam about 150 years ago and are Sunni Muslims, mainly of the Shafi school.

By Dr Sue Snyman, Programme Director: Children in the Wilderness

Wilderness Safaris’ interpretation of ecotourism is structured around the 4Cs philosophy first identified by the Zeitz Foundation (; i.e. Conservation, Community, Culture and Commerce.

Culture to a large extent gives context to the other three Cs, as it impacts on and is affected by all the other Cs.

More than 27 different ethnic groups can be found working in our camps and offices! This cultural diversity is worth celebrating and it is also important to increase knowledge, raise awareness and enrich everyone involved by incorporating culture into our camps, offices and guest activities.

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By Sue Snyman

Sue Snyman, PhD, is the Wilderness community and culture Guru, having recently completed research on the impact of concessions on the surrounding communities in southern Africa.

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