Tanzania is home to over 51 million people who co-exist peacefully and positively and with more than 120 different languages spoken and around 125 ethnic groups, the country is a lively mixture of culture, religion and cuisine.
Some of Tanzania’s tribes are better known than others – so let’s take a very quick tour of Tanzania’s most famous tribes.
Hadzabe: one of the world’s last hunter-gatherers
The Hadza, or Hadzabe, tribe have kept to their hunter-gatherer way of life for thousands of years and today are one of the last remaining hunter-gatherer tribes on the planet. With fewer than 1,500 tribe members, the Hadzabe live a nomadic, decentralised existence around the Yaeda Valley and nearby rocky scrub hills, in northern Tanzania.
Hunting daily and existing on a diet of meat, honey and roots, the Hadzabe live in harmony with their eco-system, refusing to hunt with dogs as this would disrupt the balance. With little or no protection from the encroaching modern way of life with its tradition of land ownership, the tribe’s very existence is threatened. Some of the tribe interact with travellers, so you may get a chance to see them in hunting action, knowing that what you are witnessing is a rare culture on the cusp of disappearing forever. It’s a sobering thought and one which should inform how we think about land ownership and management.
Chagga: the tribe of Kilimanjaro
In contrast to the Hadzabe, the Chagga people are numerous – the third largest ethnic group in Tanzania. If you’re planning an ascent up Kilimanjaro, you’re bound to meet with a Chagga on your travels as they generally live on the south and eastern slopes of the mountain near Moshi, the town from where you’d usually start your ascent.
The Bantu-speaking Chagga are agriculturalists, growing crops such as yams, beans, maize and bananas. They are also known for their coffee, and you can spend a day on a Chagga coffee plantation and learn about the crop from bean to the final steaming cup of coffee – and even make your own blend!
There are no centralised villages in Chagga culture – each family lives in their own coffee and banana plantation which creates a pretty and perfumed patchwork effect across the slopes of Kilimanjaro. The Chagga history is one of chiefdoms aligning, disintegrating, fighting and re-aligning – not quite Game of Thrones, but certainly a very colourful track record!
Sukuma: The Northwesterners
The Sukuma – meaning ‘people of the North’ – are the largest ethnic group in Tanzania and live in northwestern Tanzania. They’re closely related to the country’s second largest group, the Nyamwezi, and they are mostly millet and sweet potato farmers and cattle-herders.
The Sukuma have a highly developed hierarchy based on age groups, with committees of people of the same age deciding the division of labour; this means most families will have representation throughout village activities. Although many Sukuma are Christian, there is still a deeply held belief in animism, which attributes souls to all living things and natural phenomena. Tourists can meet Sukuma and watch traditional dancing and drumming displays at the Bujora Sukuma Cultural Centre at Kisesa near Mwanza.
Maasai – the most famous tribe in Tanzania
If you recognise one Tanzanian tribe, it’ll be the Maasai. Maasai territory includes the more famous and protected safari lands of Tanzania – the Serengeti, Ngorongoro and of course the Maasai Mara – which more recently has prevented the tribe from living freely on this land.
They’re a semi-nomadic people with cattle at the heart of their economy; they use cattle and its by-products for everything from food to building materials. Some Maasai communities live around kraals, an enclosed village, and they share grazing and water during the dry seasons. Like other tribes, the Masaai are rich in their individual culture and this includes crafts such as intricate beadwork, with beads produced from local materials such as clay, seeds and bone – and a wide array of hairstyles that articulate the wearer’s position and stage of life. Many Maasai welcome tourists into their kraals, to meet them, display their dance and song and give travellers the opportunity to buy hand-crafted jewellery.
These are only four of the tribes of Tanzania – the country is a patchwork of different peoples with rich histories and cultures that you can’t do justice to in only a two-week visit. So why not stay for a month? There’s so much to learn!