Nyungu ya Mawe was born in Unyanyembe near Tabora among the Nyamwezi. He was a prince from the royal family of Unyanyembe.
Nyungu ya Mawe was a praise name meaning, "pot of stone" (the pot that never breaks). Being a prince, Nyungu ya Mawe was destined to be a chief and in 1850 he became one.
However, in 1865, he deserted his people after the Arabs had beheaded another chief called Mnwa Sele.
Just like Mirambo, Nyungu ya Mawe was able to build a large empire using the services of the Ruga-Ruga mercenaries. He armed them with guns from the coastal Arabs. He also employed the fighting tactics of the Ngoni.
In 1874, he abandoned his own people and from his own capital - Kiwele, started building his empire. He attacked the Kimbu in the East and the tribes south of Tabora.
He was also able to capture the trade routes between Tabora and Ufipa. This extended his influence far and wide.
He was a brave and ruthless military strategist. He could not hesitate to risk the lives of his soldiers (he referred to them as Mapimpiti - meaning logs) to achieve what he wanted.
Unlike Mirambo, Nyungu ya Mawe created a centralized administration. He did not leave the conquered areas under traditional rulers as Mirambo had done. He replaced them with his own chiefs called Vitwale (singular Mutwale).
The Vitwale were directly appointed by him and as such answerable to him. In most cases they were his "eyes" and "ears" and most of them were his relatives. They were also charged with controlling trade in their respective areas.
Nyungu ya Mawe divided his empire. into six provinces and each was under a Mutwale directly appointed by him. This enabled him to keep the empire intact.
He created a highly disciplined army of Ruga - Ruga. This army underwent both physical and psychological training and did not wreak havoc even after his death as that of Mirambo did.
Unlike Mirambo who was a great diplomat, Nyungu ya Mawe did not bother establishing good relations with the Arabs. He heavily taxed them, which displeased them. He equally never established good relations with the Europeans .
In December 1884, Nyungu ya Mawe who had by this time become one - eyed died. He was succeeded by his daughter Mgalula. When she also died in 1893 her daughter took over. She ruled equally successfully, until the Germans attacked her capital - Kiwele and conquered it.
This marked the end of Nyungu ya Mawe's empire. The Germans replaced the Vitwale with their own chiefs called Akidas and put up a new administrative structure.
However, Nyungu ya Mawe's empire survived longer than that of Mirambo though the latter is better known. This was because he built a highly disciplined army, put up a centralized administration and avoided contacts with Arabs and Europeans.