Monday 18 September 2023

Did you know Tanzania had more than 40 precolonial states before colonization?

Tanzania is a large country by population size with 62 million people. There are over 100 ethnic groups and a similar number of languages spoken in Tanzania (c. 100 languages). Ethnicities with more than a million people include: Shambala, Sukuma, Nyamwezi, Chagga, Ha, Bena, Gogo, Haya, Dholuo, Makonde, Nyaturu, Maasai, Jita, Pare. Tanzania has one of the most beautiful views of nature on earth. The capital is Dodoma while the largest city is Dar es Salaam meaning the “city of peace”.

The two largest ethnicities are the Sukuma with 8.1 million people, and the 4 million or more Luo people (who speak a dialect called Dholuo). (Tanzanians, let me know if you disagree).

About 63% of Tanzanians are allegedly Christians and 34% are Muslims, with atheists being the third largest group making up 1.5%. (Source: "Religions in Tanzania | PEW-GRF". Archived from the original on 4 March 2021. Retrieved 8 November 2021.)

The precolonial history of Tanzania is a captivating narrative that unfolds across its diverse landscapes, showcasing a tapestry of ethnic groups, ancient civilizations, and cultural exchanges. Tanzania's rich historical heritage spans millennia and reflects the intricate interplay of societies in the region. Can you believe Tanzania had more than 40 precolonial states?

In northern Tanzania, you will find 1 million Masaai people, split between Kenya and Tanzania due to borders drawn by Britain and Germany during the Scramble for Africa. There are 2 million Masaai people in total. In precolonial times, they operated as a federation of clans with leaders selected through the age set system.

In the eastern part of Tanzania, along the Swahili Coast, early African Arab-speaking communities established coastal city-states, such as Kilwa and Zanzibar, as early as the 8th century AD. Later, Persian traders arrived and intermarried with the local populations. These city-states became vibrant centers of commerce, connecting East Africa with the broader Indian Ocean trade networks. They were known for their exquisite architecture, including coral stone buildings and intricate carvings.

Further inland, in the Great Lakes region, numerous kingdoms and societies thrived. The Kingdom of Buganda, located to the northwest of Tanzania in present southern Uganda, was one of the prominent precolonial kingdoms. Known for its sophisticated political structure and cultural traditions, Buganda played a significant role in shaping the region's history.

To the southwest, the Kingdom of Karagwe, with its cultural and political significance, was another noteworthy civilization. The region was also home to the Nyamwezi people, who were engaged in trade and known for their long-distance trading caravans.

In the central and southern highlands of Tanzania, ethnic groups such as the Chaga, Hehe, and Gogo established thriving societies based on agriculture and cattle herding. They had distinctive cultural practices and were known for their artistic expressions, including intricate wood carvings and traditional textiles.

According to legend, the Chagga people were derived from several Bantu groups that arrived through migration to the slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro around the turn of the 11th century from various parts of Africa. Despite being Bantu speakers, the Chaggas have a few dialects similar to the Kamba dialect spoken in the southeast corner of Kenya. They are linked to the Shambaa, Taveta, Pare, and Taita ethnic groups. Because history shows that migrants moved back and forth between the different groups, the Chagga people should be considered part of the larger population occupying the whole Kilimanjaro region.

Chaggaland was traditionally divided by several minor kingdoms known as Umangi. These kingdoms have a male-line descent and succession system. Irrigation on hilly terrain and oxen feces were among the traditional agriculture methods. Even though bananas constitute their primary source of nutrition, they also cultivate other crops such as beans, maize, and yams. When exported to international markets, arabica coffee is their most important agricultural export and is also the country’s principal cash crop.

Kilimanjaro’s Chagga-speaking people were calved out into 37 sovereign kingdoms known as “Umangi” in Chagga tongue a century ago. Historically, each kingdom’s residents were divided into distinct tribes. Despite their primary residence in northern Tanzania on Mt Kilimanjaro, the Chagga and other tribes migrated to different regions during the course of the 20th century. Because of extensive reorganization and the formation of the newly occupied areas on the gentle slopes of Kilimanjaro’s eastern and western slopes, the British authorities drastically reduced the number of settlements in 1946.

Over the turn of the twentieth century, the German imperial authority estimated that Kilimanjaro had around 28,000 houses. And by 1988, The Chagga population was projected to be above 800,000 people.

To the west of Tanzania, the Kingdom of Rwanda, although primarily located in present-day Rwanda, had an impact on the western regions of Tanzania, influencing cultural exchanges and trade networks.

Various ethnic groups claim they came from Egypt and Sudan, starting from the Macedonian invasion due to displacement and climate change. We will find out if the evidence supports this as academics look into this.

Tanzania's precolonial history was marked by vibrant trade routes that crisscrossed the region, connecting it with neighboring territories. Ivory, gold, and other valuable commodities flowed through these routes, contributing to prosperity and cultural exchanges in the area.

The arrival of European explorers and colonizers, including figures like David Livingstone and Carl Peters, introduced a new chapter in Tanzania's history, eventually leading to the establishment of German and British colonial rule.

As we explore Tanzania's precolonial past, we uncover a rich mosaic of civilizations, ethnic diversity, and cultural legacies that have shaped the nation's identity. This history reflects the resilience and ingenuity of Tanzania's peoples, highlighting their contributions to the cultural heritage of East Africa.

Pic: Chagga, Dangota, Masaai people

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