Tanzania’s most fascinating tribes
When you consider that Tanzania is home to more than 100 distinct ethnic groups and tribes, meeting and understanding the cultures of all would take a lifetime. Unlike some African countries, Tanzania lacks a dominant ethnic group, with the largest tribe (the Sukuma) only representing about 16% of the population. Despite their ethnic differences, Tanzania hasn’t experienced the tribal conflicts that have impacted other parts of the continent. It’s this incredible diversity of peoples and languages that make visiting the country so special, particularly if you’re interested in ethnography.
While some tribal groups are living according to long-established traditions, others have blended into the modern world, living in some of Tanzania’s biggest cities. This means you could be interacting with them during cultural village visits on a Serengeti safarior while browsing the aisle of a downtown supermarket. There are myriad languages, folktales and music to discover with each and every encounter as you discover our shared human history.
So to give you a taste of the cultural diversity you may experience during your Tanzania safari tour, here’s an introduction to five of the most important and influential tribes in the country today.
Tanzania’s largest tribal group is the Sukuma, a Bantu group of around 5.5 million people that lives in the north of the country and around the southern shores of Lake Victoria. The name “Sukuma” actually means “north” and is used in reference to the “people of the north”. While the majority live in rural areas, some also inhabit cities, particularly Mwanza and Shinyanga where they’ve adapted to modern life.
Traditionally, the Sukuma worshipped the spirits of their ancestors, believing that they contribute to the health of living family members, however, many now practice Christianity. They’re a predominantly matriarchal society, although polygamy is still a standard practice amongst many Sukuma. The Sukuma are also renowned for their use of plants and animals in traditional medicine, believing that they’re more effective than Western medicines.
The Sukuma are divided into two distinct groups – the Kimakia and the Kisomayo – both of which speak the Sukuma language, as well as Swahili. They’re closely related to the Nyamwezi, with whom they live geographically close to and share some cultural similarities. Dancing and singing are important parts of Sukuma culture and celebration while their economy is based on raising livestock and growing crops, such as cotton, corn, potatoes and rice.
Perhaps Tanzania’s most iconic tribe is the Maasai who are famed for their blue and red-robed attire. They’re predominantly pastoralists and cattle herders, eating meat and milk that they produce themselves, although many also work in the tourism industry. Around 800,000 are believed to be living in North and Central Tanzania, with over a million if you include the Maasai over the border in Southern Kenya.
Despite the transformation of their ancestral lands into national parks and the increasing tourism in the region, the Maasai have maintained their customs and traditions. These include lively dances, songs and cultural rites of passage, as well as intricate beadwork, which many of the women use to ornament their bodies and pierced earlobes. Most tribes live in kraals that are arranged in a circular fashion and are surrounded by a fence made from acacia thorns to prevent lions from attacking their cattle.
The Maasai are monotheistic, believing in one God, Engai, who can be either kind or evil. They speak a Nilotic language known as Maa, although most will also speak Swahili. The importance of cattle, goats and sheep in the lives of the Maasai cannot be overstated, serving not only as a source of sustenance but also social status. Having cattle and children are the two most important aspects of life for the Maasai, with a traditional prayer translating as “May the Creator give us cattle and children”.
3. Hadzabe (Hadza)
The Hadzabe are one of the last remaining hunter-gatherer tribes in the world, with just 1,200-1,300 believed to live in Tanzania today. Rather than keeping livestock and tending the land, they spend their days hunting and foraging for food, maintaining a simple diet that’s changed little throughout the centuries. They inhabit caves and establish simple dwellings around Lake Eyasi, just to the south of the Serengeti National Park, and they are the only people allowed to hunt inside the borders of the Serengeti.
Gender roles are clearly defined in Hadzabe culture, with men hunting together to bring home meat for protein, as well as sourcing wild honey. They are skilful hunters, stealthily tracking their prey and sometimes luring it through the use of animal body parts, such as horns. Women, on the other hand, spend their time gathering roots, berries and fruits while looking after the tribe’s children.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the Hadzabe tribe is their unique language, which is unrelated to other tribal languages of the region. It uses clicking sounds in a similar way to the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert and (although they aren’t related through DNA), they also share similarities in their small and thin stature.
The Chaga are one of the largest ethnic groups living in Tanzania, with an estimated population of around two million. They’ve traditionally lived on the southern and eastern slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Meru where the fertile soils have allowed them to develop successful agricultural methods. They’re renowned for their work ethic and entrepreneurial instincts, which is exhibited in the remarkable irrigation systems they developed to carry water up the mountain slopes. As a result of their geographical roots, many Chaga work as guides and porters for trekkers attempting both of these peaks, so you may encounter them on your Kilimanjaro safari.
The Chaga practice a tradition known as “kihamba”, whereby a family plot is passed down between the generations along the male line. Following the introduction of coffee to East Africa in the late 19th century, this has become a primary cash crop for Chaga farmers, together with bananas, maize and a traditional homebrew made from bananas and millet that’s known as mbege.
In traditional Chaga belief systems, Ruwa is the central god and considered a liberator and provider of sustenance. However, the Chaga were one of the first tribes in Tanzania to convert to Christianity and many now also practice Islam. They speak a Bantu language known as Kichaga, which has a number of dialects that are related to Kamba (a language that’s spoken in the southeast of Kenya).