Yao in Malawi

Main Language
Largest Religion
Progress Gauge

Introduction / History

The Yao (of Bantu origin) of southeastern Africa trace their recent history back to the hills of northern Mozambique, near what is commonly referred to as Yawo Mountain, though today the majority of Yao live in Malawi. Many Yao moved to Tanzania and Malawi in the 1800s, after either a large famine or internal tribal divisions. The Yao befriended their new Swahili-Arab neighbors (from Africa's east coast) and began trading ivory and slaves with them. Today, southern Malawi, northern Mozambique and southern Tanzania are home to more than two million Yao.

The Yao joined the Swahili-Arab traders as business partners, trading ivory and slaves (from neighboring tribes, as well as from other Yao clans) for guns and cloth. Through frequent journeys to the east coast of Africa as well as their business partner relationship with the Swahili-Arabs, the Yao were introduced to Islam. Involvement in the slave trade proved lucrative for the Yao and through their slave trading they became one of the richest and most powerful tribes in southeastern Africa. When David Livingstone explored Malawi in the mid-1800s, he witnessed the horrors of the slave trade. Following Livingstone's vivid account of the situation in Malawi, British missionaries moved to Malawi and opened mission stations with the intention of spreading the gospel in the area. Reports from Livingstone and other Christian missionaries raised awareness about the slave trade situation. Political pressure was applied and eventually Britain ended slave trade in its protectorates and colonies in 1859. The end of the slave trade put an end to the Yao's lucrative trading enterprise.

Between 1870 and 1920, the majority of Yao adopted Islam as their religion. Islam was attractive to the Yao because of its pattern of worship and its special dress codes. The Yao were also drawn to Islam because it is a religion with a book. The Yao practiced their new religion along with their traditional religion because Islam failed to fully penetrate their worldview.

Today the Yao live in Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania. Mozambique and Malawi's Yao live mainly south and southeast of Lake Malawi (Lake Nyassa). The Yao near southern Lake Malawi are largely unified in culture and language, making the divide between Mozambique and Malawi mostly one in name only. The Yao of Tanzania live across the Rovuma River and so are naturally more distant from the Yao of Malawi. There are approximately 1.7 million Yao living in Malawi, most of whom live south of Lake Malawi (Mangochi, Zomba, Chiradzulu, Blantyre, as well as Mulanje districts).

What Are Their Lives Like?

The Yao of Malawi are mainly subsistence farmers and fishermen. Common crops include maize, beans, cassava, bananas, groundnuts (peanuts) and tobacco. The staple food is ugali, a stiff porridge made from maize flour and water. Ugali is most commonly formed into large patties and served with vegetables, meat, beans or fish.

The Yao are a matrilineal and largely matrilocal society. Family leadership roles are passed down through the female's family and upon marriage, a husband moves to his wife's village, where he remains somewhat of an outsider. Divorce rates are high and polygamy is common. The Yao speak Ciyawo, a Bantu language. Many Yao also speak Cichewa, Malawi's nationalized trade language. Malawi's Yao have a low literacy rate compared to that of other ethnic groups in the country.

Respect and politeness are highly regarded among the Yao and are taught to each generation during the initiation process. Greetings are important, with many children kneeling out of respect when greeting adults. In Yao culture, it is the host (not the visitor) who initiates greetings. Children attend government schools, which are free for primary education and Yao children often attend madrassah (Muslim) schooling in the afternoons to learn Arabic.

The Yao have their own system of traditional governance, sorting out problems in local village courts, although ultimately, the Malawian government holds political and legal authority.

Perhaps due to a Christian playing a hand in ending their economic empire, the Muslim Yao have insulated themselves from Christianity.

What Are Their Beliefs?

After being introduced to Islam in the late 1800s by Swahili-Arab slave traders, the Yao converted to Islam and many began practicing Islam and their traditional religion in parallel. Today, Yao Muslims belong predominantly to one of two groups of Muslims, both of which are Sunni. One group is Sufi in belief and practice and are known as the Qadiriyya. This group combines Islam with traditional African religion, using traditional medicines and talismans for protection from sorcery and witchcraft, as well as for healing and obtaining good fortune. The other group is largely anti-Sufi and more scripturalist in their approach to Islam.

Bible studies and other outreach methods are being used to share the gospel with the Yao, though there are still relatively few Muslim background believers.

What Are Their Needs?

The Yao are a resistant people group. They have insulated themselves from responding to Christian witness. Although their Chewa neighbors have been Christianized for many years (since David Livingstone and early missionaries entered Malawi), the Yao have remained virtually unreached and have not responded to evangelism by the Chewa. In general, the Chewa have not reached out to the Yao using Ciyawo or culturally appropriate methods.

Along with deep spiritual needs, the Yao also suffer from physical needs. HIV/AIDS has been a serious problem in Malawi, though in recent years increased education, awareness and aid have proved profitable (statistically). Malaria and malnutrition are two other physical challenges the Yao face.

Prayer Points

A full Bible in Ciyawo was completed and published in late 2014. Two other translation efforts are ongoing. Pray for the Scriptures to be accepted by the majority Yao Muslims as well as other forms of Scriptures (such as audio Bibles, etc.).
There are several international mission organizations working among the Yao. Pray for God's blessing and effective methods of evangelism for those sharing God's Story with the Yao.
There are a few Yao believers. Pray for God's blessing upon them, that they would grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord.
Pray for spiritual barriers to be broken among the Yao and for God to prepare hearts to be open to the gospel.
The population of Malawi suffers from HIV/AIDS. Pray for God's work among the Yao physically as well as spiritually.

Scripture Prayers for the Yao in Malawi.

Profile Source:   Joshua Project  

The Gospel Among the Yawo of Africa


People Name General Yao
People Name in Country Yao
Pronunciation yow
Alternate Names Ajawa; Ayao; Chiyao; Wajao
Population this Country 2,604,000
Population all Countries 3,753,000
Total Countries 4
Indigenous Yes
Progress Scale 1
Unreached Yes
Frontier People Group No
GSEC 1  (per PeopleGroups.org)
Pioneer Workers Needed 52
People ID 15988
ROP3 Code 110980
ROP25 Code 308950
ROP25 Name Yao (Malawi)
Country Malawi
Region Africa, East and Southern
Continent Africa
10/40 Window No
National Bible Society Website
Persecution Rank Not ranked
Location in Country Mangochi, Machinga, Zomba, and Balaka district: bordering Mozambique, between southeast tip of Lake Malawi and Lake Kilwa; small area in Chiradzulu district.   Source:  Ethnologue 2016
Country Malawi
Region Africa, East and Southern
Continent Africa
10/40 Window No
National Bible Society Website
Persecution Rank Not ranked
Location in Country Mangochi, Machinga, Zomba, and Balaka district: bordering Mozambique, between southeast tip of Lake Malawi and Lake Kilwa; small area in Chiradzulu district..   Source:  Ethnologue 2016
Map of Yao in Malawi
Primary Religion: Islam
Major Religion Percent
0.00 %
Christianity  (Evangelical 0.50 %)
1.00 %
Ethnic Religions
0.00 %
0.00 %
99.00 %
0.00 %
Other / Small
0.00 %
0.00 %
Primary Language Yao (2,604,000 speakers)
Language Code yao   Ethnologue Listing
Language Written Yes   ScriptSource Listing
Total Languages 1
Primary Language Yao (2,604,000 speakers)
Language Code yao   Ethnologue Listing
Total Languages 1
People Groups Speaking Yao

Primary Language:  Yao

Bible Translation Status  (Years)
Bible-Portions Yes  (1880-2008)
Bible-New Testament Yes  (1898-1994)
Bible-Complete Yes  (1920-2015)
FCBH NT (www.bible.is) Online
YouVersion NT (www.bible.com) Online
Possible Print Bibles
World Bibles
Forum Bible Agencies
National Bible Societies
World Bible Finder
Virtual Storehouse
Resource Type Resource Name Source
Audio Recordings Audio Bible teaching Global Recordings Network
Audio Recordings Oral Bible stories Story Runners
Film / Video God's Story video God's Story
Film / Video Indigitube.tv Video / Animation Create International
Film / Video Jesus Film: view in Yao Jesus Film Project
Film / Video LUMO film of Gospels Bible Media Group/LUMO
Film / Video Magdalena video Jesus Film Project
Film / Video Rock International: King of Glory Rock International
Film / Video Story of Jesus for Children Jesus Film Project
Film / Video World Christian Videos World Christian Videos
General Bible for Children Bible for Children
General Faith Comes By Hearing - Bible in text or audio or video Faith Comes by Hearing
General Faith Comes By Hearing - Bible in text or audio or video Faith Comes by Hearing
General Faith Comes By Hearing - Bible in text or audio or video Faith Comes by Hearing
General I am Yawo Project General / Other
General Scripture Earth Gospel resources links Scripture Earth
General YouVersion Bible versions in text and/or audio YouVersion Bibles
Mobile App Android Bible app: Yao YouVersion Bibles
Mobile App Download audio Bible app as APK file Faith Comes by Hearing
Mobile App Download audio Bible app from Google Play Store Faith Comes by Hearing
Mobile App iOS Bible app: Yao YouVersion Bibles
Text / Printed Matter Literacy primer for Yao Literacy & Evangelism International
Text / Printed Matter Rock International: King of Glory Rock International
Text / Printed Matter Topical Scripture booklets and Bible studies World Missionary Press
Photo Source Anonymous 
Map Source People Group location: IMB. Map geography: ESRI / GMI. Map design: Joshua Project.  
Profile Source Joshua Project 
Data Sources Data is compiled from various sources. Learn more.

Joshua Project logo    Terms of Use   Privacy Policy   Contact Us   Copyright © 2024