The Tsonga people – consisting of the Shangaan, Tonga, Thonga and smaller groups – are spread throughout southern Africa, numbering in excess of six million in Mozambique, Zimbabwe and South Africa, where they live mainly in Limpopo, Mpumalanga and northern KwaZulu-Natal.
Before the widespread warfare and chaos that characterized the early 1800s, during which the nations of southern Africa spread out to new regions to escape the growing Zulu might, the Tsonga people fished the eastern coastline, grew their crops and generally lived peaceful, insular lives.
Large groups of Tsonga then moved inland, to settle in what is today Limpopo and Mpumalanga. Another group, the Tsonga-Shangaan, remained strong in Mozambique and northern KwaZulu-Natal. The Tsonga and Shangaan languages, however, are quite distinct from one another.
During the Apartheid era, the Shangaan and Tsonga people were concentrated in the ‘homeland’ of Gazankulu, to the west of the Kruger National Park. Since the first democratic elections in 1994, however, Gazankulu has been integrated into Limpopo province.
In Tsonga culture a traditional village is composed of a few houses surrounded by fields and grazing areas. Because a man can marry more than one woman, and have many children, it is easy for a village to consist solely of one family.
Many huts with large thatched conical roofs filled the land. They played a role in the formation of several small and independent chiefdoms where inheritance by brothers rather than sons was the defining feature of the social system.
Men in traditional Tsonga culture are dominant, and spiritual beliefs are centered on a Supreme Being, as well as respect, reverence, and belief in the power of the ancestors found in many African cultures.
Another distinct feature of the Tsonga tradition is face scarring. It had its origin in deterring Arab slave traders, but became an element of physical beauty. Just as important is the enjoyment of music, with various stringed, wind and percussion instruments widely used.
The Tsonga drum is shaped like a tambourine, and drumsticks are used. Only the men play on these drums, which are used in various spiritual rituals.
Both the Tsonga and Shangaan traditions feature story-telling, and the keepers of the community legends are usually the older women, whose job it is to pass on the history of these fascinating peoples.