Bena of Southwestern Tanzania

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Bena of Southwestern Tanzania

ETHNONYMS: Wabena or Bena. The core of this name, "Bena," is used to designate a variety of different things connected with being Bena. The prefix "Wa-" is the plural so "Wabena" refers to more than one group member including the group as a whole, while a single individual is an Mbena. Other prefixes are used, so their territory is Ubena, and their language is Kibena.


Identification and Location. The Wabena, hereafter called "Bena," dropping the prefix as is conventional in the literature, are Bantu-speaking hoe agriculturalists who live in two different eco-zones. One is a high plateau where a large majority of the Bena live and the other is a plain, occupied by a relatively small minority. An uninhabited broken escarpment, difficult to traverse on foot and just short of impassable by car, separates the two zones.

Demography. In both eco-zones settlements are nucleated villages rather than the scattered settlement pattern characteristic of virtually all other East African agricultural societies. Population size cannot be reported with any confidence. In 1967 the District Officer's office in Njombe, the administrative center for Benaland, reported that there were 140,000 Bena. In 1988 the Summer Institute for Linguistics estimated the Bena population as almost 600,000, which seems far too high but, as with the earlier, lower figure, there is no published basis for a confident count.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Bena speak a Southern Bantu language of the Niger-Congo language family. Kibena is not mutually intelligible with the languages of the neighboring societies, but speakers say they learned the languages of their neighbors even if they had lived in their areas for as little as a few months.

History and Cultural Relations

Before the colonial peace was established, each village (kaya) was ruled by its own hereditary and independent ruler called mutwa, or "king." Each king viewed all other villages as enemies whose raids could be expected at any time. The raids were aimed at capturing slaves, getting grain, cattle, and such other valuables as might be found. If a kaya was captured, all the males, including male babies and young children, were killed. This was because the men would be dangerous if left alive and the babies and children might be taught by their mothers that the new rulers killed their father and, when grown, take vengeance. Some of the women might be kept as wives, but most were sold to other groups or to slave trading Arabs who traveled from area to area looking for slaves to be sold on the coast for resale in the Persian Gulf area.

In the pre-colonial era, the Hehe, a fierce group on the northeast border of Benaland, conquered the Bena together with the first Bena conquerors, the Sangu, their neighbors to the northwest. Unlike the Bena's intervillage wars, the objective of the neighboring groups was not to pillage villages in hit and run raids but to make Benaland a tributary source of taxes and labor. The Sangu installed members of their own royal family, responsible to the Sangu king, as chiefs in each Bena village. When the Hehe conquered the Sangu and with them their Bena subjects, they replaced Sangu village chiefs with their own "royals" responsible to their king.

The pre-colonial period ended with German rule reaching Benaland in the late 1890s. A Bena king, who unlike other kings, aimed at conquest rather than pillaging, had been successful in defeating and bringing under his control a number of other villages. He decided to leave the high plateau and lead his people into the lowlands in order to avoid German control. The sparsely populated lowlands had a few residents from other ethnic groups who had found refuge there from the turmoil in the south associated with the expansion of the Ngoni peoples. These earlier residents, according to several lowland Bena elders, gladly joined the newcomers under the authority of the Bena king.


The Bena live in nucleated villages rather than in scattered households. Currently villages are all made up of separate houses a few yards apart, not the single structure of pre-colonial times. The walls of the houses are formed of the soil in the vicinity of the house, although some householders use earth from the banks of any nearby river where the clay content of the earth is greater. Fathers and sons often build their houses close to one another where, usually, there are the houses of other kin, mainly agnates, in what might be called a patrifocal grouping. This kin-based unit is a central part of village social organization, but after the father dies the sons often move away to new houses in other parts of the same village. In some cases this is due to the fact that the fraternal relationship is quite hierarchical, with older brothers demanding respect from their juniors whose interests they are supposed to protect.

The Bena did not always live in freestanding houses. In the pre-colonial era all the residents of a village were housed in a single building. This structure was built as a hollow rectangle with single walls facing the courtyard and the outside with a door from each suite to the courtyard. A single gate gave access to the outside. One existing ruin of such a structure was about a hundred yards long and thirty-five yards wide on all four sides. Each nuclear family had its own set of rooms, usually two, with each room attached to the next in the family suite by an internal door and with a single door from the suite to the courtyard.


Subsistence. The plateau Bena raise corn as their dietary stable but also grow sorghum and millet as insurance against pest and disease damage to the corn crop. It is a rare meal for the plateau Bena that is not based on cornmeal. The lowland Bena favor dry-land ricea rare luxury in the highlandsas their staple, and eat corn only if the rice crop is insufficient. Both the lowland and plateau groups grow a variety of other food crops, especially beans of various sorts as well as potatoes, onions, and leafy vegetables. Cash crops such as pyrethrum and caster beans are also grown in both eco-zones.

Chickens, ducks, goats, sheep, and cattle are raised, as is the occasional donkey, but animal husbandry makes only a very minor contribution to subsistence. Cattle are mainly used in bride-wealth payments, as are sheep and goats. Sometimes a cow is killed for a funeral or wedding and, in strapped times, for cash to buy food, pay debts or taxes and school fees. Eggs, although not taboo to most clans, are rarely eaten. Chickens are killed for important occasions, or to honor particularly important guests, but the other animals are very rarely slaughtered. Extremely long hours and hard labor are required for a spare living in both of the Bena eco-zones and even that is uncertain in the frequent years of draught or excess rain.

Commercial Activities. Some cash is essential in the Bena economy. Cash for school fees, unlike the personal tax, are optional, but most parents treat these fees as necessary, since education is the sole means of escaping the endless poverty of subsistence farming in an area of infertile soil and undependable rain. The few clothes they own are purchased. Most villages have a duka, a little shop that is usually part of the owner's house, selling a limited inventory of such things as kerosene, matches, charcoal, salt, soap, cigarettes, rubber flip-flops, and inexpensive, brightly colored cloth used for the main female garment. Another commercial activity is hunting, or, more accurately, poaching. The single shot twelve-gauge shotguns hunters use provide dried or smoked meat to be sold in the village for low prices. The most consistently profitable activity for women in rural villages is selling home-brewed beer. Some Bena women weave baskets of all manner and sizes for their own use or for sale, but it is by no means as profitable as selling beer.

Industrial Arts. Most Bena women can make clay pots of the strictly utilitarian sort that was once the main cooking, eating, and drinking vessel. Every sizable village has a locally-trained carpenter and many villages also have a tailor whose foot powered sewing machine sometimes repairs torn clothing but mainly makes new clothing to order.

Trade. Most trade outside the group was in agricultural products. Prior to independence the buyers were ethnically Indian businessmen, but with independence the Tanzanian government took over the trade, with the initial result that for some time Bena cash crops could not be sold at all. When the government finally resumed trade, the prices paid were far below those of the independent buyers.

Division of Labor. Bena women's work focuses around childcare, and growing and preparing food and cash crops. Men cleared new fields of heavy stones and the stumps of trees and participated in the arduous task of bringing new or long fallow fields into production. Men are responsible for house-building, although women sometimes help. The main responsibility of men is providing money, usually by getting paying jobs outside the village Consequently, often the only males in residence in villages are boys and old men.


Kinship Groups and Descent. The Bena kinship system emphasizes patrilineal descent to some extent, although there are no lineages in the sense of localized, corporate kin groups. The clans all have food taboos, but there is no understanding that the taboo article, whether a plant or an animal, had a special relationship with the clan or its founders. Some clans have the same taboo as others but this is not taken as an indication of a special relationship between them. The main functions of the clans are to provide hospitality for members who find themselves in distant villages and to serve as a basis for a relationship with strangers who share a clan membership. There are a very large number of clans; the names of almost two hundred were recorded in 1963, but even then many younger men and women did not know what clan they belonged to or what it was clan membership did not allow them to eat. The most socially important kin group, after the nuclear family, is that made up of a father and his sons and, only rarely, the father's brothers and their sons.

According to the Bena, their fraternal relationships are close and strong; however, no one is surprised when one brother accuses another of assault by witchcraft. Disagreements about inheritance and about who has use of incoming bride-wealth are said to be the main sources of trouble. Envy and the eldest brother's exerting his authority as the dead father's successor in the family also serve as sources of fraternal conflict.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage only takes place after the father of the would-be bride accepts the groom's bride-wealth payment, usually consisting of livestock and cash. A major source of the groom's bride-wealth comes from the bride-wealth a family obtains when marrying off a daughter or sister. Bena men often marry later than they want to because of difficulty in getting the bride-wealth together. Bena women, however, marry early and, on their first husband's death, marry again leveratically. If the widow refuses to marry her dead husband's brother, the original bride-wealth must be returned.

Around 20 percent of the men in the village practiced polygyny. One of the reasons older women accept, even initiate, their husbands' taking of additional, usually younger wives is that post-menopausal women are believed to be seriously harmed by coitus. Also older wives recognize that an additional hoe in the hands of a young co-wife makes a contribution to the polygynous family as a whole.

Domestic Unit. Most houses are occupied by spouses and their unmarried children, but some contain other kin as well, generally unmarried or widowed, of either the wife or the husband. Some prosperous individuals build several houses together with the walls of the houses forming a rectangle. This sort of arrangement is most commonly built by polygynists, with each wife and her children having their own house, but some monogamists also build in this way, providing separate domiciles for each wife of the father and of his married sons.

Two principles are central to the hierarchy of the domestic unit: males are superior to females and seniors are superior to juniors. Fathers are superior to sons and daughters and mothers are superior to daughters, but they have rather mixed relationships with their sons. The oldest brother is superior to other siblings, with the rest ranked according to age, although with less difference between them than between them and the oldest. When the father dies, the eldest son assumes his paramount position of authority in the domestic unit. All brothers are superior to their sisters, with the partial exception that among practitioners of the traditional religion, the oldest sister may have a special status. If she is the oldest surviving member of the senior generation she is the only acceptable link to the ancestors and, as such, enjoys considerable authority and prestige in relations with all her siblings, male and female. Relations among sisters follow age hierarchy but actual dominance in their relations with one another is far less pronounced than in the relationships between brothers.

Inheritance. In most cases a woman's possessions include nothing of great value. Upon her death, these possessions are divided into parts, with each sister and each daughter getting some. Following the same procedure used for men, the goods are spread out on the ground and each item's heir is announced by a senior man related to but not an heir of the deceased. The same procedure is used for men. If the intended recipient is dissatisfied with the object displayed, and says something to the effect that other heirs need it more, he or she is urged to accept it. A refusal to accept what is offered is very serious and other kin may take the refuser to a settlement session and demand to know what prompted the refusal. Some say that the concern about a relative rejecting an inheritance is based in the fear that the refuser may resort to witchcraft.

The crops on the deceased's field are inherited, although the land is not. However, an heir who wishes to continue using the field needs only to inform the village chief and, barring the highly unlikely possibility that somebody else has told the chief he wants it, the chief will tell the heir to continue using it.

Socialization. From the hour of birth until an infant can walk, he or she is with the mother twenty-four hours a day. When the mother returns to the fields after giving birth, she takes the infant with her in a cloth sling on her back. The breast is always available for nursing and at the slightest indication of hunger the infant is moved to the mother's front. At night she takes the infant to bed with her, a choice made easy by the fact that the postpartum sex prohibition removes her husband from their bed. This situation, however, lasts only until the child can toddle, at which point the mother returns to full-time hoeing and leaves the child in the charge of his siblings. The siblings, mainly sisters who may be only a few years older than their charge, feed the child a corn and water gruel, rice and water in the lowlands or, since the 1960s, prepared baby formula. Although the child-minding children do tease and neglect the toddler, this behavior does not seem to be severe or frequent. Little girls help their mothers with all their work, including pounding corn to flour and cultivating with the heavy hoe against the adamantine soil. Little boys have no strenuous or difficult work, but they are put in charge of grazing cattle, which they must keep from straying and return them to their krall at dusk.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The largest social unit whose members are in frequent interaction with one another is the village, with its social organization based in a combination of kinship and neighborhood ties under the authority of a chief and, if large enough, headmen. The kinship ties used in forming groups larger than the nuclear family are those between a father and his married sons. These men and their wives often live in adjacent houses and sometimes carry out joint and cooperative activities. The cluster does not usually include the father's brothers and their sons, since each of the brothers forms his own cluster when his sons marry and have children. Although there is no rule demanding that it be so, the great majority of marriages are between residents of the same village. This promotes kin based bonds within villages and reduces bonds between villages in a way weakly reminiscent of the pre-colonial kaya.

Political Organization. In the pre-colonial kaya, when all Bena lived on the high plateau, every village had its own king whose interest in other villages was limited to raiding them and being raided by them. When a raid was successful, the result was not conquest and the addition of a village and people to the winning king's domain, but rather the destruction of the losers' village and the enslavement of its people. According to available evidence, the king had unlimited authority, but it did not extend beyond his own kaya. This did not apply to the lowlands where a single king ruled a number of different villages, rather than only one as in the highlands.

With the coming of the British colonial administration after World War I, the Bena political system in the highlands changed to a single ruler. A hereditary village chief was selected and installed in the newly-created office of Paramount Chief under whose authority were the new offices of District Chief, Village Chief, and Headman. After independence, the government changed this administrative system by abolishing hereditary succession and shifting authority to the office of Area Secretary and a new popularly elected office, Member of Parliament.

Social Control. When someone exhibits behavior others find unacceptable, such as rudeness, theft, assault, or failure to return love, the offender and the person or persons bothered discuss the matter publicly in what is called a baraza. Solutions are proposed at any time in the discussion and the matter is considered settled if the litigants both accept a solution. If such acceptance is not achieved, the matter must be considered further until it is. There is no means of enforcing the solution save returning the matter to the baraza for further consideration.

Conflict. The most common sources of conflict since the end of warfare and raiding are usually between close kin. For example, it is considered wrong for a father or a senior brother to use the bride-wealth received for a daughter's or sister's marriage to take another wife when a son or junior brother is still unmarried. This does not happen frequently, but when it does, a rupture in the father-son or older brother-younger brother relationship can occur, and become permanent, if publicly declared at a baraza.

The relationship between spouses is also hierarchical. Husbands are expected to direct many aspects of their wives' activities. If a wife displeases her husband, he is considered not only within his rights but well advised to beat her without causing injury, and the same is true for parents as concerns their children. This is because the beating "teaches," as Bena say, in a way no amount of talking can.

In general, conflicts are to be avoided. The baraza is used to end conflicts when they arise and is remarkably effective in achieving at least superficial solutions. One of the reasons for this is that many group members emphasize the virtues of peaceful relationships and view conflict as something to be avoided even at the cost of loss of prestige or material goods. The fact that the ideal person is one who visits neighbors and kin often and "talks a lot and laughs a lot," suggests the powerful informal forces in social relations that contribute to curbing the extent, duration, and intensity of conflict.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. By the 1960s, after three-quarters of a century of missionary activity, the Bena were overwhelmingly Christian. The Protestants constituted the majority in the highlands and Roman Catholics the majority in the lowlands. Islam was only beginning to win serious numbers of converts in the early 1960s, mostly in the highlands. An important appeal of Islam, sometimes mentioned by Bena Muslims who have converted from Christianity, is its acceptance of polygyny.

Religious Practitioners. A sizable proportion of Christian missionaries and ordinary clergy, both Protestant and Catholic, are Bena. Another sort of practitioners, called waganga (singular, mganga) are healers and providers of medicine used to cure illness and bring good fortune. Despite this, waganga are almost always suspected of also being wachawi (singular, mchawi), or witches. Witchcraft and witches are an almost obsessive concern. Witches afflict people who have offended them, even if the offense is a fairly minor one. Also, witches kill close relatives because they are envious of their victim's success.

Ceremonies. Church services and funerals constitute the few public rituals. A traditional ceremony consists of a yearly report by the head of the kin group to the dead grandfather and father on the food supply, births, deaths, marriages, divorces, and serious illnesses. What the forebears want is an understanding of how their descendants are faring and if they think it wise to do so, they have the ability to influence the rains and the crops, which they can use to benefit their living kin. If no news-giving ritual is held, their beneficial influence may not be forthcoming.

Arts. The Bena show little interest in the arts. Some men are skilled in wood carving, but this seems to be used only in making three-legged stools from a single log which, though actually quite handsome in their unadorned simplicity, are regarded as things to sit on and nothing more. Women make pottery, which, like the stools, is purely utilitarian. As of the 1960s, there was no dancing other than adolescents dancing to rock music. It is unknown if there were previous traditions of dancing.

Medicine. Naturally-caused illness is treated by the patient him- or herself, family members, or by a waganga. Medicines from an impressive list of local plants are used. Witch-caused illnesses are treated by a waganga making counter magic, or by identifying the witch causing the illness and making him stop the action of his medicines.

Death and Afterlife. Christian and Muslim understandings about the afterlife became widespread and accepted in the 1960s. Traditional understanding of the afterlife is evident in the continued interest in the supernatural powers of deceased kin.

For other cultures in Tanzania, see List of Cultures by Country in Volume 10 and under specific culture names in Volume 9, Africa and the Middle East.


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(1977). "Legitimacy and Coercion in Bena Politics and Development." In L. Cliffe, J. S. Coleman, and M. R. Doornboch (eds.) Government and Rural Development in East Africa. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.