Yao in Malawi

Photo Source:  The I Am Yawo Project 
Map Source:  People Group location: IMB. Map geography: ESRI / GMI. Map design: Joshua Project.
People Name: Yao
Country: Malawi
10/40 Window: No
Population: 2,538,000
World Population: 3,653,600
Primary Language: Yao
Primary Religion: Islam
Christian Adherents: 1.00 %
Evangelicals: 0.50 %
Scripture: Complete Bible
Online Audio NT: Yes
Jesus Film: Yes
Audio Recordings: Yes
People Cluster: Bantu, Makua-Yao
Affinity Bloc: Sub-Saharan Peoples
Progress Level:

Introduction / History

The Yawo (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 Yawo live in Malawi. Many Yawo moved to Tanzania and Malawi in the 1800s, after either a large famine or internal tribal divisions. The Yawo 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 Yawo.

The Yawo joined the Swahili-Arab traders as business partners, trading ivory and slaves (from neighboring tribes, as well as from other Yawo 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 Yawo were introduced to Islam. Involvement in the slave trade proved lucrative for the Yawo 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 slave trade put an end to the Yawo's lucrative trading enterprise.

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

Where Are they Located?

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

Among other African countries, Malawi is known for its warm climate, the friendliness of its people and its political peace. It is, however, one of the world's poorest, most densely populated countries and its people suffer from regular periods of hunger, malaria and HIV-AIDS.

What Are Their Lives Like?

The Yawo 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 Yawo 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 Yawo speak Ciyawo, a Bantu language. Many Yawo also speak Cichewa, Malawi's nationalized trade language. Malawi's Yawo have a low literacy rate compared to that of other ethnic groups in the country.

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

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

What Are Their Beliefs?

After being introduced to Islam in the late 1800s by Swahili-Arab slave traders, the Yawo converted to Islam and many began practicing Islam and their traditional religion in parallel. Today, Yawo 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 Yawo, though there are still relatively few Muslim background believers.

What Are Their Needs?

The Yawo are a resistant people group. They have insulated themselves from responding to Christian witness by maintaining their unified language, cultural and religious differences. Although their Chewa neighbors have been Christianized for many years (since David Livingstone and early missionaries entered Malawi), the Yawo have remained virtually unreached and have not responded to evangelism by the Chewa. In general, the Chewa have not reached out to the Yawo using Ciyawo or culturally appropriate methods. Along with deep spiritual needs, the Yawo 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 Yawo 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 Yawo Muslims as well as other forms of Scriptures (such as audio Bibles, etc.).
There are several international mission organizations working among the Yawo; pray for God's blessing and effective methods of evangelism for those sharing God's Story with the Yawo.
There are a few Yawo believers. Pray for God's blessing upon them, that they would grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord (2 Peter 3:18).
Pray for spiritual barriers to be broken among the Yawo 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 Yawo physically as well as spiritually.

Text Source:   Anonymous