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ALTERNATE NAMES: Shambala (Bantu people)
LOCATION: Shambaai (West Usambara mountain range—northeastern Tanzania)
LANGUAGE: Shambala, Swahili
RELIGION: Traditional Shambaa beliefs (healing the land and the body), Mufika (ancestor worship), Christianity, Islam


The Shambaa, also referred to as the Shambala, are a Bantu people found mainly on the West Usambara mountain range in Tanzania. Their language is Shambala. The homeland of the Shambaa is called Shambaai (or Shambalai). Other Bantu ethnic groups in the area include the Bondei, the Zigua, the Nguu, and the Pare.

The Shambaa were traditionally ruled by kings. The Sham-baa kingdom was made up of several descent groups with a common origin, but the kingdom was governed by a single descent group. The survival of the whole descent group and its steady increase in size were crucial. The king ruled over several chiefdoms. Growth of the kingdom led to growth in the number of chiefdoms. The chiefs were appointed by the king and received tribute from their chiefdoms as representatives of the king. All the wealth of the land was regarded as the king's. This gave him control over his subjects and the right to demand tribute from them. The king, in return, was expected to bring rain and food to his territory.

Peasants and slaves were the king's subjects. Peasants lived in village groups under a patriarchal system. The nuclear family's well-being was important for the whole village. The peasants were free to go about their daily work on the farm and homesteads. They paid tribute to the king in the form of food, livestock, and labor. Slaves lived in the king's household, where he was free to deal with them as he pleased. At times they were sold to the coastal slave traders or even killed at the king's command.

The system of chiefdoms no longer exists in Tanzania; it was abolished soon after independence. The country is now divided into regions, which are further subdivided into districts. A district commissioner (DC) is in charge of each district. Regional commissioners are appointed by the president to govern the regions.


The Usambara range is located in Tanga province in northeastern Tanzania, south of the border with Kenya. The range rises out of a plain. Shambaai is divided into two administrative districts, Lushoto and Korogwe. Muheza and Handeni are the neighboring districts.

In 2001 the Shambaa population was estimated to number 664,000 persons. Most of the people in Lushoto are Shambaa, with some Pare and Ma'a speakers as well. Korogwe is shared by the Shambaa with the Zigua and Bondei from neighboring Handeni and Muheza districts. The Shambaa are also found in the neighboring districts of Same in the northwest and Muheza in the southeast. Across the border in Kenya to the north live the Kamba, and to the east live the Wataita and the Wataveta.

The Shambaa are located in the mountain area accessible from the plains. This is an area of abundant rainfall, with thriving banana plants. The Shambaa regard the nyika (plains) as a dangerous place of disease and death, preferring instead the mountain area. Thus, the population density is high in the mountain area, where the villages are located near each other with nearly all arable land cultivated. Overpopulation is considered a problem as it affects traditional farming practices. Some Shambaa people have now moved to the nyika and to urban areas, such as Dar es Salaam and Tanga.


Shambala is the main language spoken by the Shambaa; it has three main dialect areas. Mlalo forms the center for the northern area, Korogwe for the southern area, and Lushoto for the central area. Despite these differences in dialect, the Shambaa can understand one another's speech. Shambala is mutually understandable also with the Bondei, Zigua, and Nguu languages. Lexical similarity is 75% with Bondei, 68% with Ngulu and Zigula. While Shambala is the first language of most Shambaa, it is used mainly for oral communication. Only a few people can write in Shambala at this time.

The Shambaa also speak Swahili, the national language of Tanzania, which is now having an influence on the development of Shambala, especially its vocabulary. Young people prefer to speak Swahili, and they use Swahili words in Shambala. Swahili was initially spread to Shambaai by the coastal people. Other factors affecting Shambala and its use are urbanization, the mobility of speakers, ethnicity, and intermarriage between peoples. Many Shambala speakers can switch easily from one dialect to another and to Swahili.

Shambaa children are taught Swahili in primary school. It is used in business, communications, and other places of employment. Instruction in secondary schools and universities is in English.


The story of Mbegha (or Mbega) is the most famous of Sham-baa myths. There are more than 26 versions of this myth. Mbegha was a hunter from Ngulu Hills to the south of Sham-baai. He was forced to leave his homeland after a dispute with his kinsmen over his share of an inheritance. Mbegha fled to Kilindi, where he became a blood brother to the chief's son. The chief's son died accidentally while hunting with Mbegha. This caused Mbegha to flee again, into the bush, to escape punishment from the chief. He lived in caves and camps, hunting wild animals. After crossing the Pangani River, Mbegha arrived on the southern escarpment of the Usambaras. The Ziai people saw the smoke of his campfire and approached him. Upon learning that Mbegha was a skilled pig hunter, they asked him to rid their village of pigs. He was invited to live in Bumbuli, where he grew famous as an arbitrator, hunter, and storyteller. The grateful villagers gave Mbegha a wife. Mbegha also helped the people of Vugha and was known as a lion slayer after killing a lion on the way to their village. He was made the chief of Vugha. Mbegha's son Buge grew to be the chief of Bumbuli. When Mbegha died, Buge succeeded him as king of Shambaai.


Traditional Shambaa beliefs center on healing the land and the body. Rainmakers were important people in the society, for they were believed to have the power to prevent or cause rainfall.

Mufika (ancestor worship) was important since the Sham-baa believed that ignoring one's ancestors, especially one's deceased father, was sure to lead to misfortune. A traditional medicine man was called in to perform the rites of ancestor worship, at which women were not allowed to be present. Even today, waghanga (local healers) are called in to treat illness.

The Protestant and Catholic faiths are both well established in Shambaai. The Christian influence in Shambaai was spread by missionaries through education and preaching. The missionaries learned Shambala in order to be able to communicate freely with the Shambaa; religious texts, including the New Testament and the Book of Psalms, were translated into Shambala. Congregations in all areas of Shambaai used these texts. Christianity was more influential in the northern area of Shambaai. It has brought changes to traditional Shambaa beliefs and practices, which have been weakened and adapted to the newer Christian beliefs.

Islam was spread in Shambaai by the Zigua, mainly in the trading towns.


The Shambaa observe both secular and religious holidays. The main government holidays now celebrated are New Year's Day, Union Day (April 26), Workers Day (May 1), Peasants Day (August 8), and Independence Day (December 9). Government holidays are public rest days when offices and shops remain closed. Nationwide public rallies are held in the urban areas, with military parades and speeches by government officials. Villagers generally continue with their farm work during these holidays.

Both Christian and Muslim holidays are celebrated with public observances. The major Christian holidays are Easter weekend and Christmas. The major Muslim holidays are Idel-Fitre, Id-el-Hajji, and Maulid. Religious holidays are a very special time for family gatherings. Urban dwellers visit their families in rural areas. Special dishes cooked at this time include roast meat, chapatis (flat bread), and pilau.


The Shambaa consider it very important to have children. Before the birth of his children, the father is expected to complete all his marriage rituals and bride payments. Failure to do so will mean that his children will belong to their mother's clan. When his wife is pregnant, the husband gives his father-in-law a female goat. After the birth of his child, another goat is sent to the in-laws. A cow is sent after the second child is born. The children are then regarded as the husband's. A goat is also given to the in-laws with every subsequent birth. It is the custom for the pregnant wife to leave her home and go back to her father's house to give birth. The new father does not see his child until later when he visits his wife at his in-laws' home. Traditionally, a baby may be killed by the father for various reasons, including having deformities, cutting its upper incisors first, or having been conceived in adultery.

Traditionally, the Shambaa held initiation ceremonies for both young women and young men. Initiation for boys began with the ngwaliko wa kava, in which a boy was circumcised when he reached the age of three or four years and a kungwi (mentor) was chosen for him. After circumcision, a boy was considered a wai (initiate) until all ceremonies were complete; then he was regarded as an adult. At puberty, the initiate undergoes the gao ceremony, in which he is instructed in acceptable behavior.

Now, circumcision takes place in health facilities for sanitary reasons. The initiation ceremony has been shortened but is still required before the young man takes on adult responsibilities. Young women are not circumcised, but they also go through a gao ceremony of instruction that is required before a young woman can marry or become a mother. It is scandalous for a young woman to get pregnant before the gao ceremony. In the past, a baby so conceived before the ceremony would have been killed by its grandfather.

The final rite of passage for the Shambaa is death. A man keeps a banana garden near his homestead to serve as his burial place. After a man dies, his wealth (mainly livestock) is divided among his wives and their children, with the first wife's elder son receiving the largest share. Each child inherits wealth from his or her mother. Girls may inherit household items, ornaments, and clothes from their mother and sisters. Boys inherit the land and livestock given to their mother when she married their father.


Greetings are important in Shambaa culture. When people meet for the first time, they exchange the particular greeting required for that time of day. In the morning one may say onga mahundo (“Good morning”), and may receive the reply ni vedi. Hangize wako (“Fine and yours”). Onga mshi is an afternoon or evening greeting. Ikaa wedi is said to wish someone well when leaving. Greetings may be prolonged, for it is customary to inquire after a person's family, health, and even work, and people exchange them before conducting any business, no matter how urgent or important. Younger people are expected to show respect and deference to their elders while greeting and conversing with them and to help them with their work without being asked.

Some taboos have developed from required polite behavior. These include pointing at someone, which may suggest a curse, and sitting with one's head between one's hands, which may make people think one is in mourning when no one has died.

Traditionally, men and women were socially segregated, and this has formed the basis for all their relationships. Couples do not eat together at home. Mothers usually eat with their children while the father eats alone. Persons of opposite sexes do not show any affection publicly through bodily contact; this is considered highly inappropriate. Male companions and female companions may hold hands out of friendship in public without fear of having the action misinterpreted. At social gatherings, women keep to themselves in their own clusters while eating and drinking, as do the men in theirs. This practice of segregation has extended to official gatherings and even to churches.

A person may drop in at any time for a visit and usually arrives with a gift for the host. If the person arrives at mealtime, he or she is expected to join in the meal. Refusal to eat may be considered an insult and distrust of one's host. The Shambaa normally cook an extra share so as to have food for any visitor who may drop in. Visits are normally made in the late afternoon or evening hours, when it is cooler and most of the farm work has been completed.


The Shambaa live in large villages consisting of peoples of several lineages, or family groups. Villages are usually located on upper hillsides. Banana groves separate the homesteads and protect against famine. A traditional Shambaa house is round, with thatched roof and sides. Traditionally, when household members would go out to work on their farms, they would tie a rope to the front door to show visitors and passersby that no one was at home. There are also rectangular houses in Sham-baai, with walls of wattle and mud and thatched roofs, modeled on what is called a Swahili design. Now, these houses commonly have cement walls and corrugated metal roofs.

Compared to most rural regions in Tanzania, the infrastructure network in Shambaai is better developed. Some major roads are blacktopped or all-season dirt roads. A major road-repair program is under way. Buses transport villagers to and from Tanga town, Dar es Salaam, and other regional centers. There is a railway line linking Dar es Salaam and Moshi and passing through the Korogwe district, providing a valuable link for passengers and products. Some people own small trucks and provide rides to villagers for a small fare.

The Shambaa child mortality rate has fallen, thanks to improved access to Mother and Child Health (MCH) services, which provide health education and immunization. Health centers and dispensaries are available in the rural areas, with larger hospital facilities available in the cities.


Polygamy was widely practiced by the Shambaa. A man married as many women as he could support. He also fathered as many children as possible. It was the father's duty to defend the family from all harm, including illness and hunger. Under the influence of Christianity, Christian marriages are now often monogamous.

Survival skills and material goods were handed down from father to son. The son's well-being, his family and prosperity, all depended on his father's pleasure. Incurring the father's displeasure was dreaded as it could lead to a curse (ute). It was believed that the curse could cause the son to lose all his possessions, wander about like a fool, and even die. A father had considerable authority while alive and was believed to retain some control as a ghost even after his death. Thus, all the sons are believed to share a common fate through their dependence on their father, both alive and as an ancestral ghost. The ghosts' influence over the daughters and their descendants ceased when the daughter died.

A father was required to pay the bridewealth for his sons' first wives. He was also required to pay the medicine man when any of his family members fell ill. He also provided his son with an additional garden when the son married for the first time. A Shambaa man cannot marry within his own lineage or marry a cousin from an outside lineage. He is often expected to marry within his neighborhood. Women are free to accept or reject a marriage proposal. It is the responsibility of the husband to allocate a garden to each wife as a source of food for her and her children. The children help their mother in her garden when they are old enough to do so. The garden is the sons' inheritance. For more affluent Shambaa, expectations for providing for wives and children were much higher. For example, a king provided each wife with chiefdom for her children to rule.

The wife was responsible for the daily farm work. A husband was responsible for increasing his mai (wealth). Wealth was increased mainly through acquisition of more livestock in the form of goats, cattle, and sheep. Cattle were kept mainly for bridal payments and ceremonial purposes. A person increased his status and standing in the community by lending out his livestock. This enabled the person to build a network of supporters who could help in times of need. Those who were lent cattle used the milk and were sometimes allowed to keep the offspring to build up their own herds.

An adult son was given his own farm by his father. The son could buy livestock from the sale of his harvest, but he was still dependent on his father for bridewealth.

Traditionally Shambaa families have kept dogs as watch-dogs and cats as rodent catchers. Today some animals may be kept as pets, especially in urban areas. Other animals are kept for food, transportation, or farmwork.


The Shambaa dress code has been greatly influenced by the coastal people, who are mainly Muslim and who have been influenced, in turn, by their religion and by Arab traders.

Men wear khanzus (long, flowing white robes) and a small cap, or barghashia, on their heads. Women use lengths of colorful cloth as wrappers for the body; these are called kangas and kitenges. A wrapper may be worn over a dress or used to carry a baby on the back or hip. Young women after puberty are required to wrap a kanga around their waist when working or leaving the homestead. Married women cover their heads and clothes with two pieces of kanga. Women purchase these colorful pieces of cloth from the marketplace or shops and may also take them to tailors to have them sewn into dresses and skirts. Men may also have tailors sew trousers and shirts for them. Shambaa men may be seen wearing shirts and trousers especially in the urban areas; however, for ceremonies and important events they put on khanzus.

Traditionally, women do not wear short clothes in public. Short skirts with shorts may be worn for sporting events and in military camps. Secondhand clothing (mitumba) may be bought in the marketplace and is generally worn by the poorer people.


The Shambaa plant many different food crops adapted to the climate of the area, including tubers, medicinal plants, tobacco, beans, and bananas. Banana plants are better suited to the Shambaai than to the nyika and used to be the main food crop of the Shambaa. This has changed with the introduction of maize and cassava to the area. Cassava is drought-resistant and is grown as a safeguard against famine. Maize is grown in both nyika and Shambaai in different planting and harvesting seasons. Many farmers plant maize during both seasons and are kept busy all year.

The Shambaa diet is composed of starchy foods, such as rice, maize, and sweet potatoes, usually accompanied by beans, meat, and vegetables. Dairy products are available, and sour milk is often drunk for breakfast. Meat consumption is on the increase.


Traditionally, Shambaa children have received instruction from their parents. Youths receive further instruction during the gao ceremonies in the form of songs and stories. During this time the young men are taught the tribal norms and proper sexual conduct by a shefaya (ritual leader), the youths' mentors (makungwi), and other village adults. Young women are taught their responsibilities and proper conduct by women elders.

The Christian missionaries were the first to offer the Sham-baa formal education. When the missionaries arrived, those Shambaa who were able to obtain some education rose in status in their local areas. Generally young men were sent to these schools while girls were kept at home. Those girls who went to school often dropped out earlier to get married because parents thought that it was a waste of money to educate daughters who would move to other households when they married.

The Shambaa, like other Tanzanian people, are encouraged to obtain at least primary-level education. Since 1971, the government has required that all children seven years of age and older attend primary schools for at least seven years. Primary education has been provided free for all Tanzanians, but in the early 1990s the government reinstated school fees. Four years of secondary education are required before a student can continue to high school, after passing the national Ordinary Level examinations. High school is for two years; then the student sits for the Advanced Level examinations before applying for university admission. Alternative trade and business schools provide instruction for those students unable to continue with formal education and wishing to acquire skills. Parents now have to pay more for their children's education since the government is no longer able to provide fully subsidized education. Older people, especially in the rural areas, are involved in adult literacy programs.


The Shambaa have a rich cultural heritage of songs and dances. Songs are used to instruct younger people on their history and expected behavior as adult members of the tribe. Drums were used to transmit messages of approaching danger as well as important news, such as the death of a king. Storytelling by the elder generation is a popular evening pastime with children. Storytelling serves to maintain oral history. Traditional dances are still popular, especially at wedding celebrations.

The Shambaa have shown a liking for the various types of music they have encountered through interaction with other cultures. Swahili songs produced by various Tanzanian bands may be heard frequently over the airwaves in public places. The Shambaa enjoy listening to taarab (ballads), a tradition introduced to the coastal people by the Arabs. Kwasa kwasa and other west and central African music and dance forms are also gaining popularity and may be heard during various celebrations. The younger generation of Shambaa prefers to listen and dance to Western music, including reggae, pop, and hip hop.


Traditionally, for the Shambaa work centered on the farm and was divided between men and women. The whole household was responsible for the production of subsistence food crops. Farmwork and crop yields were divided between a husband and his wives. Men were responsible for planting and tilling on the farms while women were in charge of weeding and harvesting their own farms.

With the ever-diminishing size of the land holdings and declining yields and soil erosion, the Shambaa men are increasingly forced to seek outside employment. The Shambaa have been forced to change their farming patterns because of their increased population density. Women are usually left in the homestead to tend to the farm and children while the husband seeks employment in the urban areas and on plantations, visiting his family periodically.

Educated Shambaa have better chances of finding jobs in the cities as clerks, teachers, and administrators. Previously, all Tanzanians were guaranteed employment, on completion of postsecondary education, in the civil service or parastatals (government-owned companies). Now both men and women in the urban areas compete for jobs in the private sector, for the government is no longer able to hire everyone.


Like other Tanzanian children, the Shambaa children first come into contact with sports at school. Primary-school children are encouraged to participate in interschool competitions leading to interregional level and national level championships. Popular sports at school are soccer for boys and netball for girls. All children participate in athletics. At secondary schools Shambaa youth may be introduced to other sports, such as basketball, table tennis, and volleyball.

Soccer is the most popular sport in Tanzania. The national soccer league broadcasts games, which are greatly enjoyed by the Shambaa. There is a friendly rivalry between the supporters of the two major soccer teams in the league, Simba and Yanga. On weekends, standard and makeshift soccer fields are crowded with spectators and players.


Radio broadcasts by the state-owned radio station have been the major source of entertainment. Many households have transistor radios, and people enjoy listening to music, radio plays, and sports programs. The government uses the radio station to transmit major broadcasts and matches. Shambaa men gather around a radio in public meeting places, usually with a local brew in hand. Recently the government has allowed private TV and radio stations to operate, increasing the choice and quality of programs. Many people now own television and video sets, and they may tune in to broadcasting stations in Dar es Salaam, Zanzibar, and Kenya. Television ownership has led to the opening of many video lending libraries in Tanga, where action movies are the most popular.


The Shambaa are mainly agriculturists and prefer tilling the land to craftwork. They have been fortunate to be able to obtain their ornaments and tools through trade. There were blacksmiths forging iron tools and weapons. Toymaking was a favorite pastime for children who adapted pieces of wood into objects like small spears and cooking utensils. Children still make their own toys, especially boxcars and cloth dolls, as manufactured toys are expensive.


The greatest problem facing the Shambaa today is the gradual loss of cultural identity. Interest in the norms and culture of the Shambaa is declining in the younger generation. They now prefer to adopt a national identity of being simply Tanzanian as opposed to being a Shambaa first. This decline in cultural identity may be attributed to exposure to new religions espousing the unity of humankind and formal education leading the Shambaa to accept Western culture. The use of Swahili as a national language has led to a preference for it in daily use in Shambaai. Tribal intermarriages are on the increase, no longer seen as objectionable. The Shambaa are trying to reverse the erosion by recording their cultural values and history. Younger people in the urban areas are encouraged to regularly visit Shambaai, where they may learn their traditions and converse in Shambala.

Another serious problem facing the Shambaa is a shortage of land. The reasons for this are population increase and stability among the tribes. Formerly the Shambaa could obtain new land by clearing the forests and engaging in warfare against neighboring tribes. Under colonial administration, the land to the north of Shambaai was declared a forest reserve and unavailable for cultivation. Plantation estates were also created around Shambaai for growing of sisal, further limiting land availability. This decrease in arable land in Shambaai has led to soil depletion since the land is not left to fallow. Soil erosion is also on the increase on the mountain slopes, further compounding the problem. The government is trying to introduce better crop types and farming practices into the area through its research center at Amani, Tanga. The Shambaa cannot rely on work in the sisal plantation estates, for the crop has declined sharply in value on the world market since the late 1960s. Younger people are seeking employment farther and farther from Shambaai.

Like all Tanzanians, the Shambaa face the problem of poverty. Tanzania has been experiencing economic problems since the late 1980s. By the early 1990s the government was no longer able to sustain its social services, especially in education and health. By 2002, 80% of the population was engaged in agriculture, and 36% of the population lived below the poverty line.


Shambaa culture is predominantly patrilineal, with the men controlling most aspects of the society. Although Christianity has brought about a monogamous influence on the modern Shambaa family, polygyny was widely practiced by the Sham-baa, depending on how many wives and children the husband could raise and support.

Labor among the Shambaa was also slightly divisible by gender. While the men were responsible for planting and tilling the fields, weeding and harvesting was left to the women.

The husband was responsible for increasing his mai (wealth) by tightly controlling the lending of his livestock, a practice that would eventually help to increase his wealth and social status. However, now women are usually left in the homestead to tend the farm and children while the husbands seek wage employment in the urban areas and on plantations.

Whereas there was little control over what men should wear, women's dressing and even sexuality was largely tied to social taboos and customs such as women should wear clothes that cover their full-length bodies and married women in particular were to cover their heads as a sign of subjugation.

In terms of educational opportunities, while the boys were sent to school, the girl-child was left at home to be trained on house-bound tasks and eventually get married off.


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—revised by M. Njoroge