Nyiha people



The Nyiha are an ethnic and linguistic group based in Mbeya Region, Tanzania and northeastern Zambia.

In 2009, approx­imately 306.000 Nyiha lived in Tanzania; including all of the surrounding areas, the total Nyiha population was 662,000.

The Nyiha are scattered widely through East Africa but are found mostly in clusters near the corridor of land between lakes Nyasa, Rukwa and Tanganyika, around Mbozi, and in the general area of the Lyagalile district of Ufipa.

Nyiha, means "grasslands" or "plains,".

Nyiha people map

The Nyiha, whose name means "grasslands" or "plains," form an ethnic group residing primarily in north eastern Zambia and south western Tanzania. Though they live throughout East Africa, the Nyiha are concentrated near Lakes Nyasa, Rukwa and Tanganyika. In 2009. approx­imately 306.000 Nyiha lived in Tanzania; including all of the surrounding arcas, the total Nyiha population was 662,000. The Western Nyiha are descendants of immigrants from Unyiha the present-day Tanzania, and many were absorbed into the local community through intermarriage.

The Nyiha are linguistically and culturally similar to their geographic neighbours. The Nyiha language is closely related to Safwa and Malila, which are spoken by people living in the east and southeast of Tanzania. The Nyiha s livelihood is tied to agriculture. Their main source of livelihood is finger millet, a type of cereal grain, which they produce using slash-and-burn farming methods. The Nyiha participate in animal husbandry and fishing, and they practice cotton weaving, pottery making, mat and basket weaving, and metallurgy. They trade extensively with nearby people.

The Nyiha are organized into a variety of clans, with the men having different levels of responsibility based on a system of age grades. Ironsmiths occupy a high status in the clans because of their skill in making axes, knives, and other metal items, which bolster the local economy and trade. According to tradition, a man must obtain permission from a woman's father in order to marry by working in the father’s garden.

Throughout their history, the Nyiha have been slaves and warriors. In the mid-1800s, they were sold as slaves in the Middle East, which reduced the population and destroyed the surrounding area. Slave raids by groups such as the Sangu and Ngoni caused the Nyiha to resettle. In the late nineteenth century, the Germans restored the Nyiha to their original homeland. The Nyiha people then began to use ivory as a resource, trading it to obtain guns and build stronger living structures.

During the twentieth» century, coffee cultivation took hold in the Mbozi District and in the Mbeya region where the Nyiha live. This development gave many Nyiha jobs, but it also brought an influx of non-Nyiha workers to the area, creating the multiethnic society that exists today.



In 1915, the Nyiha consisted of fewer than 10,000 people, but by 1957 their population had risen to over 55,000 people. They were divided into eleven or twelve unrelated chiefdoms, with the chiefs being referred to as Mwene.

The Nyiha had reputations not only as warriors, but also as elephant hunters. Blacksmiths, who had considerable status in the society, created hoes, axes, and knives, and also wire for jewelry and traps. Over the course of time, however, the smiths lost their considerable prestige as iron from Germany became cheaper.

Cotton weaving was common, as was pottery-making by women. Mat- and basket-making, iron-working by the men, and collecting salt from the Lake Rukwa area for barter were all means of their livelihood, although they thought of themselves as being primarily communal hunters. Despite all of these activities, however, their main means of livelihood was the agricultural cultivation of finger millet, facilitated by the slash and burn method.