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LOCATION: Tanzania
POPULATION: 39.3 million
LANGUAGE: Swahili; English; Arabic; 130 indigenous languages
RELIGION: Islam; Christianity; indigenous beliefs
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 1: Chagga; Luo; Maasai; Nyamwezi


The United Republic of Tanzania, or Jamhuri ya Mwungano wa Tanzania, includes the mainland of Tanganyika, Zanzibar, and some offshore islands. Zanzibar and the coast have a long history of lucrative trading, which Arabs, Europeans, and Africans each have attempted to control. In 1840 the Sultan of Omani established his capital in Zanzibar. From there the caravan trade brought the Swahili language and Islam into the hinterlands as far as what is now the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In 1885, the Germans gained control and made Tanzania a protectorate, incorporating it into German East Africa along with Burundi and Rwanda. Dispossessed of its colonies after World War I, Germany ceded control to the British, who ruled until 1946 under a League of Nations mandate. The UN made Tanzania a trust territory under British rule after 1946.

Anti-colonial sentiment grew as the British administration favored white settlers and immigrant farmers. In 1929 Tanzanians formed the Tanganyika African Association. Julius Nyerere transformed it into the Tanganyika African National Union in 1954. Nyerere's party won 70 of 71 seats in the national assembly in 1960, and he became prime minister in May 1961. On 9 December 1961, Tanzania gained its full independence.

After independence, Tanzania embarked on an ambitious, large-scale project of national self-reliance. Led by Nyerere, the teacher (mwalimu), the government promoted ujamaa (family villages), whose aim was to bring scattered families together in village cooperatives. Simultaneously, under the Arusha Declaration of 1967, Nyerere's single-party government nationalized banks, industry, schools, and transport. The main goal was to promote an African-based form of development, where villages work together and people reach decisions through discussion and consensus.

Although ujamaa made it easier to organize rural development, it did not achieve the lofty economic goals envisioned. In the 1980s Tanzania joined many African countries undergoing structural adjustment and poverty reduction programs with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Disillusioned with his program's lack of success, Nyerere became one of Africa's first presidents to resign on his own accord in 1985. His vice-president, Mwinyi, replaced him. After serving two terms, Mwinyi was succeeded by Benjamin Mkapa, and in 2005, Jakaya Kikwete was elected president. Because of its extensive patronage networks, the ruling party has never been seriously threatened at the polls.

Post-independent Tanzania has had to make nation-building a top priority. Nyerere insisted that Swahili be the common unifying language for Tanzania, and unique electoral and representational rules kept Zanzibar and the mainland under one Republic. For example, Zanzibar elects a president who is head of government for matters internal to Zanzibar, and while the National Assembly enacts laws that apply to the entire Republic and also only to the mainland, Zanzibar has its own House of Representatives that enacts laws pertaining solely to Zanzibar.


Tanzania covers 942,804 sq km (364,017 sq mi), about twice the size of the US state of California. Tanzania borders Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, and Kenya. The mainland has 1,374 km (854 mi) of coastline on the Indian Ocean. Tanzania's climate and topography relief have much variety. The highest point in Africa is at the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro 5,883 m (or 19,300 ft above sea level) and the lowest point is at the floor of Lake Tanganyika 361 m (or 1,184 ft below sea level). Temperatures range from tropical to temperate and vary with elevation. Rainfall for much of the country comes from December to May, but the central third of the country is semiarid. Sporadic rainfall makes agricultural and livestock production unpredictable.

Tanzania's physical and climatic variation is rivaled by its ethnic and cultural diversity. Its peoples belong to more than 120 ethnic groups, none of which exceeds 10% of the population. The Sukuma and the Nyamwezi are the largest, together making up about 21% of the population. Many Indians and Pakistanis live in the urban centers.

At 39,300,000 people in 2008, Tanzania is one of Africa's most populous countries, but its growth rate has slowed from 4.3% in 1995 to 2.07% in 2008. Despite its size, the population remains quite rural. On the fertile slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro, population densities reach 250 persons per sq km (402 persons per sq mi). The coastal city of Dar es Salaam had 2.5 million residents as of the 2002 census.


Tanzania, like most African countries, is composed of numerous ethnic groups each with its own language, culture, and traditions. Thanks to this diversity, the country has over 130 living languages, but successfully adopted a single African language—Swahili—for purposes of national unity. As a trade language, Swahili (or Kiswahili) belonged to no single ethnic group. It became the language of instruction in secondary education and in some university courses. It also became popular in literature. Unlike Congolese, who sing their national anthem in French, or Kenyans, who sing theirs in English, Tanzanians sing “Mungu ibariki Africa,” (“God Bless Africa”) in Swahili.

Swahili originated on the coast and became the lingua fran-ca (common language) for much of East Africa, including Kenya, Uganda, and the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Though Swahili is a Bantu language in its origin and structure, it draws its vocabulary from a diversity of sources, such as English, Arabic, and other Bantu languages. The media use Swahili in television, radio, and newspapers. English is also the official primary language of administration, commerce, and higher education. Arabic is widely spoken on Zanzibar Island.


In many Tanzanian ethnic groups, heroes are illustrious ancestors who distinguished themselves in valor, intelligence, and generosity. Younger generations become aware of these ancestors through storytelling and wedding ceremonies. In the Bahaya group, for example, the groom must research his family history and choose an ancestor whose reputation will be recalled during the marriage ceremony. It is understood that the young man will be expected to measure up to this role model. By contrast, experts in ceremonial rituals in the Masai tribe believe themselves to be descended from a boy with magical powers. According to legend, Masai warriors found the young child naked and seemingly abandoned on a mountaintop, and they decided to adopt him. They observed that he had the power to make springs gush forth, grass to grow, and pools of water to appear. Even in times of famine, his cattle were always well fed and fat.

While Tanzanian folklore largely revolves around figures associated with individual ethnic groups, as time passes it becomes more likely that characters will emerge from a national stage. It will be interesting in this respect to observe how Tanzania's first president, Julius Nyerere, will be extolled and mythologized in national folklore by future generations.


As a potentially divisive issue, religion has assumed great importance in Tanzania. Approximately 30-40% of the population identifies itself as Muslim with an equal percentage subscribing to Christianity. Zanzibar is 99% Muslim. The remainder practices indigenous religion, although an overlay of indigenous beliefs characterizes much of the country. Islamic Law may apply to Muslims in cases of domestic issues and the president of Zanzibar appoints a Mufti, who is a public servant, to settle disputes and register Islamic groups on the archipelago. Christians include Roman Catholics, Protestants, Pentacostals, Seventh-day Adventists and others, while the vast majority of Muslims (more than 80%) are Sunni.

Though relations between Muslims and Christians have generally been peaceful, at times they have been tense and occasionally violent, owing to perceptions on both sides that government favors one faith over the other in hires, public benefits, and law enforcement. Tanzania therefore has had to balance relations carefully between the two major faiths. For example, in 2005 according to an unwritten rule of Tanzanian politics requiring alternating power between the two faiths, the ruling party nominated Jakaya Kikwete, a Muslim to succeed President Mkapa, who is Catholic. In 2007 Christian groups accused President Kikwete of favoring Muslims in his political appointments.

Indigenous religion usually blends the Muslim/Christian notion of a high god with African belief in lesser, intermediate gods. For example, children usually have a Christian or Muslim name, and in addition will be named for an ancestor whose name reflects a relationship with the spirit world. One such name in a local language means “demigod,” that is, a spirit of an intermediate level who intercedes with the high god. As is common in Africa, many people resort to diviners to detect the cause of misfortune, and in case of sickness, they consult traditional healers.


In the spirit of impartiality, Tanzanians celebrate eight religious holidays—four Christian and four Muslim. Among them are Christmas, Easter, the prophet Muhammad's birthday, and the beginning and end of Ramadan. As a rule, Christian and Muslim friends invite each other to celebrate their religious holidays. On Christmas and Muhammad's birthday, children receive gifts of clothing, and everybody hopes to wear something new.

Tanzanians remember President Mwinyi for restoring several holidays in the country. Should a holiday fall on a weekend, it is moved to the following Monday. Tuesday is then declared a holiday as well to allow for a long break. Among the secular holidays are Zanzibar Revolution Day; Nane Nane (formerly Saba Saba—Farmer's Day, in August); Independence Day (9 December 1961); and Union Day (26 April 1964), which commemorates the unification of Zanzibar and the mainland.

People celebrate holidays differently depending on their occupation and location. In the village, secular holidays may offer an occasion simply to tend the fields as on most any other day. If the holiday falls on a long weekend, city people take advantage to travel to their home villages, if possible. Huge parades or party events at the stadium usually take place in the cities. On Labor Day (May 1) for example, office colleagues gather at their place of work to be ferried to government rallies at the stadium. Everyone with a radio at home just turns it on for the day, since the president may have a proclamation to make regarding pay raises or promotions. Shops close on all holidays, but hotels, restaurants, and nightclubs are open for party-goers.


Tanzanians of all ethnic backgrounds participate in rites of passage. The form and content of the rites vary according to tribal group and religious faith, but they remain important as symbolic markers of growing up, assuming responsibility, exercising leadership, protecting loved ones, and commitment to a particular faith or worldview.

To the extent that people practice traditional ways, their rites reflect the accumulated wisdom of previous generations. In the example of the Masai, all of life is seen as a conquest. Young boys leave home early to watch the calves, then the cows and other cattle. Their mission is to learn to conquer fear. They soon are left on their own, protecting their herds from lions and other wild beasts. Children of both sexes voluntarily undergo body piercing and tattooing. Incisions are made with needles and knives. Large holes in the upper ear cartilage are first made with a hot iron. Then marvelous ornamental earrings adorn the ears of young girls.

Circumcision or excision follows. This most important rite decides the self-control and bravery of the child in becoming an adult. Flinching during the ceremony would bring dishonor and humiliation to the family. On the other hand, the successful male initiate receives gifts of cattle, and the female feels prepared to undergo whatever pain childbearing entails. From this level, both males and females must prove themselves productive and cooperative members of Masai society.


People place much importance on greetings because they denote politeness, respect, and relationship in Tanzania. There-fore, greetings are usually more complex than a casual “Hi” or a simple wave of the hand, as is common in Western cultures. The type of greeting offered may depend on someone's status. A special greeting used only between married men suggests their elder status. Similarly, a younger brother uses a particular form of greeting to address his older brother. A generic but common Swahili greeting among friends is “Ujambo, habari gani?” (“Good morning, what is your news?”).

Dating and marriage in Tanzania differ considerably from European and American customs. Western-style dating is uncommon, especially in the rural areas. In the village, young people choose their spouses but their families help arrange the marriage. For example, in Kagera Province on Lake Victoria, young men ask for the hands of their fiancées indirectly through designated representatives. The envoy generally is a family relative but might be a professional marriage intermediary. In any case, the ambassador must be articulate and eloquent and must be the first to visit the father of the fiancée on the day of the request. Since Africans begin their day early, it would be unsafe to arrive later than 6:00 am. The envoy then prostrates himself before the father and creatively implores the hand of the daughter for his master. The process usually takes several visits and many cases of beer. In rural areas, the finest local brew makes its appearance, and customarily is first refused as unfit for consumption. The repartee over the quality of the drink and the qualifications of the taster goes on until the fiancée's family “gives in” and agrees to the marriage. Women dance and ululate (hoot or howl) to announce the joyous conclusion. Members of clans sharing the same totem (such as a certain animal) may not marry.


Living conditions qualify as among the most difficult in the world. The Human Development Index, which offers a broad comparison of well-being and standard of living worldwide, ranks Tanzania 159th out of 177 countries (2005). This low score reflects extremely low purchasing power (GDP per capita of $744/year), and weak economic growth due in part to the impact of HIV/AIDS on working aged people. Because the majority of Tanzanians live on less than $2 a day, there is no discretionary income to purchase extras.

Social indicators are alarming. Life expectancy at birth is 51 years, the infant mortality rate is 70 for every 1,000 live births, and the HIV/AIDS prevalence rate is nearly 9%. As children grow, malnutrition and tropical diseases such as malaria, schistosomiasis, and sleeping sickness cause illness and fatalities. Preventable diseases thrive in open sewers and latrines and uncovered garbage piles. In the villages, many people draw their water from contaminated streams, lakes, and pools. While conditions have improved in some towns, urban migration has outpaced government capacity to plan for and provide basic services. Given lack of zoning and building code enforcement, houses tend to be poorly ventilated and overcrowded, thereby contributing to ill health and low productivity.


As in most of Africa, families tend to be large and extended, but socially cohesive. Cousins are considered brothers and sisters, and nieces and nephews as children. In towns and cities, nuclear families may absorb relatives for long periods, and given the absence of social safety nets, grandparents live with their adult children in the same household. In polygynous households mothers usually live separately with their children and in the village they occupy their own huts within the same compound. The women and girls perform the household chores, while all who work outside the home are expected to help cover family expenses. Although family members may go their own ways early in the day, they typically return home to eat an evening meal together. Among some ethnic groups, women and men eat separately.

Family members have special relationships that bind them intergenerationally. Grandchildren refer to their grandmothers as bibi yangu (my wife) while grandmothers refer to their grandsons as bwana yangu (my husband). Grandmothers may tease their actual husbands by calling their grandsons banda, “rivals” of their husbands' affection.


In rural regions, Muslim men usually wear a long embroidered cotton gown, or kanzu, with a matching skull cap. Muslim women often wear a kanga consisting of two or three pieces of brightly colored fabric wrapped around them and covering their head. On the island of Zanzibar and along the mainland coast, Muslim women wear buibui, a black veiled shawl, and chador (veils), which allow them to go out while avoiding male scrutiny of their physical beauty. Few women wear more jewelry than the Masai, who adorn themselves with elaborate beaded earrings, necklace bands, rings, and headbands.

In urban areas, Western-style clothing is common. Men wear suits and ties on formal occasions; otherwise, they wear shirts and trousers. Women wear dresses. Shorts, miniskirts, and revealing clothing, considered indecent, are avoided.


The typical family meal in rural Tanzania is prepared by the mother with help from her daughters. They may cook it on a wood or charcoal fire in the open courtyard, or in a special kitchen either attached to the house or separate from it. People usually have two main meals a day, although tea is drunk throughout the day while socializing and visiting.

The most popular staple is ugali, a stiff dough made of cassava flour, cornmeal, millet, or sorghum. The coastal people prefer rice as a staple, while plantains are consumed daily in the north. Ugali is eaten with a stew of fish, vegetables, or meat from a communal bowl, using the right hand. People pass a basin of water for hand washing before and after meals.

Tastes in food vary greatly, but Tanzanians generally are fond of goat meat, chicken, and lamb. Pilau is a delicious dish of rice spiced with curry, cinnamon, cumin, hot peppers, and cloves. Vitumbua are sweet fried breads eaten between meals or accompanying tea. For breakfast, masala-spiced milk tea and freshly baked French-style bread are popular. The milk is brought to a boil, and then tea, masala, and sugar are added. The Masai diet is exceptional in that it consists of only six foods: meat, milk, blood, animal fat, tree bark, and honey.

While the marriage laws have made it more common for families to eat together, eating customs vary according to ethnic group and religious beliefs. In some groups, taboos forbid fathers-in-law from sitting to eat at the same table with their daughters-in-law. Taboos may also prohibit men from entering the kitchen. Women in some tribes abstain from eating eggs or chicken. In Muslim households, men and women usually eat separately. During the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims do not eat or drink from sunrise to sunset.


Former President Nyerere, an educator by profession, placed great importance on learning for all Tanzanians. Nyerere's self-reliance and ujamaa (family village) programs promoted literacy in the Swahili language, increasing the literacy rate to over 70% (extremely high for Africa). Literacy programs also aimed to raise consciousness about hygiene, agriculture, crafts, basic math, and personal achievement.

School completion rates are high (for Africa). About 56% of school-eligible children graduate from primary school, and about 33% from secondary (high) school. Completion rates for boys and girls are the same, reflecting Tanzania's egalitarian approach to education. Although in principle schooling is free, parents often pay for books, uniforms, and school lunches in addition to basic fees, especially beyond form two (second year of high school) where day students typically pay $15 and boarding school children $61 a year in fees. Extra-curricular activities such as art, music, and sports receive much less attention than in Europe or the U.S. and schools mostly concentrate on basic academic preparation.

To enter secondary school, students are required to pass an exam. Languages specific to ethnic groups are taught in the earlier years of schooling, then progressively Swahili and English are introduced in the educational system. The National University of Dar es Salaam has an international reputation and once belonged to the prestigious East African system, which included the Universities of Makerere (in Kampala, Uganda) and Nairobi.


Tanzania has a rich oral and written literature in Swahili. Film is less developed, but filmmaker Flora M'mbugu-Schelling's prize-winning films in Swahili portray significant social issues facing Tanzanian women. Tanzania's major music contribution is its Swahili, Arab-influenced classical music tradition. Many accomplished composers and musicians produce this unique blend of African-Arab-Indian sound.

In art, Tanzanians produce many fine pieces of jewelry and carved ivory, some for the tourist trade. Artists excel most, however, in refined wood sculpture. African art is much preoccupied with the human figure and with its moral and spiritual concerns. In particular, the Makonde people of the southeast are famous woodcarvers of statuettes and masks, which sell internationally. One of their pieces, probably produced for the European market, depicts a “tree of life” carved from ebony. The carver has surrounded an ancestor with present and past generations of people, one on top of the next, supporting each other throughout time. The motif shows the influence of traditional African thought in a modern sculpture.


Most Tanzanians are subsistence farmers, meaning that small field plots of two hectares (five acres) or less are cultivated with traditional African hoes, without the benefit of irrigation. Some of these farmers, and others—employed by large companies—produce crops for export. The slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro and Mt. Meru are extremely fertile coffee, tea, and pyrethrum (used in making insecticides) areas. Along with sisal, cotton, tobacco, cashews, fruits, and cloves (Zanzibar), they account for more than 50% of the gross domestic product.

Tanzania also has 23 export processing zones with economic free zones that provide employment in light manufacturing and assembly. More traditional industry consists of the processing of sugar, beer, cigarettes, sisal twine, and light consumer goods. Some diamond and gold mining exists as well.

Wages in the informal sector tend toward survival, but also are low in the formal sector. In 2006 the minimum wage for hotel workers was $55 per month, while workers in the mining sector made $300 per month. To pay for school fees and health care, many Tanzanians engage in side businesses such as tailoring and cooking and they send their children into the streets to peddle wares. Government employees are covered by the 40 hour per week work law, but the vast majority of people work at least 50 hours a week. Officially 35% of children ages 5–14 are in the work force, but in reality this number is far higher.


Few adults actively play sports, but men follow national African and professional European soccer teams religiously on television and radio. In rural areas it is common to see boys playing soccer on the village pitch near the school or the village square. Basketball, boxing, and running are popular, and though not as successful as Ethiopia and Kenya, Tanzania has produced several world-class long-distance runners. Although many westerners think of big game hunting on the Serengeti plains as sport, trophy hunting is reserved for foreign tourists and the locals depend on game for food and livelihood.


The daily grind of hauling water, tending herds, gathering firewood, cooking meals, caring for children, and mending huts leaves little time for leisure for most Tanzanians. Yet people find time in the evenings for the things they love, especially music and dancing, storytelling, and socializing. In cities and towns, people socialize at coffee houses and make home visits—typically unannounced. These visits are an important social custom and at the same time provide people with a low-cost form of entertainment. On the coast, people play mbao, a board game that uses small stones. Women dance the chakacha at celebrations and marriages. Tanzanians are fond of action-packed martial arts and kung fu films. Movies made in India are also popular. In addition to AM and FM radio, many urban Tanzanians now get entertainment and news at Internet cafes.


Tanzanians produce many arts and crafts of high quality. The Zaramo on the outskirts of Dar es Salaam produce conventional figures of Masai warriors, elderly men, nude women, and carved walking sticks. They carve these using only hand tools. Meerschaum pipe-carving is also one of Tanzania's international trademarks. Besides the tourist market, the Nyamwezi (in former times) carved thrones for their chiefs. The Masai make shields with intricate geometric designs. Zanzibar doorways with their geometric patterns offer a glimpse of the island's Arabic history and tradition.


Many social ills are linked to poverty, weak law and order, discrimination, and cultural beliefs such as witchcraft. The scarcity of good jobs means that husbands look for work in South Africa, girls are vulnerable to early marriage and prostitution, and children often are forced to work in conditions of servitude. Men who have worked as migrants often return home with the AIDS virus and infect their partners. Corruption on grand and petty levels undermines economic growth. Nearly 20% of the national budget is lost each year to corruption, and because of corrupt and ineffective police, people turn to street justice. In 2006 a mob burned a man who was caught stealing two chickens.

Discrimination hurts marginalized members of society such as the handicapped. Albinos are deliberately killed for their body parts, which are trafficked for their presumed powers of witchcraft. Older women are subject to accusations of witchcraft and there is low tolerance for homosexuals. Tanzania has welcomed some 600,000 refugees from Congo and Burundi, but their presence has placed additional stress on land and has caused resentment owing to differential treatment from international aid agencies. The negative impact of HIV/AIDS cannot be overstated. The disease afflicts some 3.5 million persons. The absorption of more than 2 million AIDS orphans by family and relatives has strained family life and persons living with AIDS face societal discrimination in hiring and services.


Women do most of the work, have fewer privileges under the law, and as many as 25% report physical and sexual violence since the age of 15. Wife beating is considered acceptable. Though illegal, as many as 15% of girls are subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM) often performed by Ngaribas, traditional practitioners. A concerted movement led by Tanzanian and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to end FGM has successfully reduced the practice from 18% to 15% during the period from 1995–2005.

In spite of these issues, Tanzanian women enjoy greater social status than in many neighboring countries. After the 2005 elections, women occupied 91 of 320 parliamentary seats (nearly reaching the 30% constitutional guarantee), 7 ministerial and 10 deputy ministerial posts including Finance, Foreign Affairs, and Justice. Seven women serve as justices on the High Court and one on the Union Court of Appeal. Also, many women engage in trade and keep their earnings for themselves and their children. Girls must be at least 15 years old to marry, wives must register their official approval before their husbands take a second-wife, and Muslim husbands can no longer simply declare “I divorce thee” three times before a divorce occurs. Although many women are not aware of their rights, they have recourse to a marriage reconciliation board, and they are entitled to inheritance when their husbands die.


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—by R. Groelsema