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ETHNONYMS: Zalamo, Zalamu, Zaramu


Identification. "Wazaramo" is the preferred name for the people who live in the coastal area of Tanzania, in the vicinity of the capital city, Dar es Salaam. "Wazaramo" refers to the ethnic group, "Mzaramo" to an individual, and "Kizaramo" to the language.

Location. The Zaramo occupy the area roughly between 6°20 S and 7°25 S. The area extends from Kisiju to the northern coast along the Indian Ocean at the mouth of the Ruvu River near Bagamoyo and west from the irregular Indian Ocean coastline inland approximately 150 kilometers. The coastal area, 15 to 50 kilometers inland, and the Ruvu River Valley are low in elevation and flat. A series of rugged hills rising to a plateau begins near the coast and extends southwest to Pugu, Kisarawe, Maneromango, and Kisangire. These 100-kilometer ranges extend to a width of 65 kilometers and reach an elevation of 450 meters at Maneromango. Five major ethnic groupsthe Kwere, Kutu, Kami, Ndengereko, and Rufijilive in close proximity to the Zaramo today. Various small settlements of Doe, Kamba, and Kyamwezi also live within Zaramo country and are considered to be clans within the Zaramo ethnic group.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Zaramo as they are known today are made up of clans that migrated from the Kutu and the Luguru around 1700. The common ancestry with the Luguru is substantiated, in that they have the same common language with only slight dialectal variations. The language of the Zaramo is mutually intelligible with those of the Jutu, the Luguru, the Kwere, and the Kami. Most Zaramo, however, speak Swahili, which is the lingua franca of Tanzania.

History and Cultural Relations

The Zaramo were not living in their present territory 200 years ago. They moved into this area later, at the time when there were raids by the Ngoni from the south and the Kamba from the north. The Shomvi, who have resided in this region much longer, called on Pazi Kilama of the Kutu for help. Pazi Kilama was known to be a brave hunter of elephants and lions. He helped to chase the Kamba away from the area, and most of them fled back to Kenya. Kamba place-names are still in evidence, however, and pockets of Kamba are still found among the Zaramo. After the war was over, Pazi Kilama sent his people to the Shomvi for payment. The Shomvi could not fulfill their promise, and they were then subjected to paying yearly tribute to Pazi Kilama. This payment was to continue forever and was eventually paid by the sultan of Zanzibar to the Zaramo.

Similarities in social structure, religious beliefs, and political organization are all indications that the Zaramo originated from the Luguru. The Luguru, the Kutu, and the Zaramo are not tribes in the organizational sense, because there is no political control over all the people. The various local clans or village groups were essentially independent politically, economically, and religiously. The binding factor was habitation within a clearly defined area of land, which was regarded as the property of a particular matrilineal lineage. As Iliffe (1979) observed, groups and identities in Tanzania in the early nineteenth century were categorized by adaptation to a specific environment. The Luguru comprise an ethnic group that lives in the Uluguru Mountains, about 200 kilometers west of Dar es Salaam. The name "Luguru" simply means "people of the mountains." The group expanded or moved down the mountains onto the plains south of the mountain area and formed the group known as the Kutu. The Kutu in turn moved farther east when they were called upon to help fight the Kamba from Kenya. Beidelman (1967), who studied the matrilineal peoples of eastern Tanzania, took matrilineality as the common denominator of these groups of people. He noted a great number of social features that were shared by the Zaramo, Kwere, Luguru, Kutu, Kaguru, Sagara, Vidunda, Ngulu, and Zigua. Besides the similarity in language, their material culture and the basis of their subsistence were practically the same.

Pazi Kilama may have been looked upon as the protector of the Zaramo for some time, but that protection did not develop into any political or organizational structure. Each village with a headman had autonomy and ruled its own affairs. There was much quarreling between headmen and clans, and no political unity developed. In 1875, however, the Zaramo mustered a large fighting force of 4,000 to 5,000 men, which marched to Bagamoyo when the sultan failed to pay his tribute. Although the sultan of Zanzibar had begun to extend his power on the mainland, he did not rule the inland tribes to any great extent. The sultan had dispatched an administrative officer, known in Swahili as the liwali, and under him lower officers, to collect taxes from trade caravans passing through the coastal towns; however, these officers did not have authority over the Zaramo. In 1879 Lieut. Henry O'Neill wrote, "Relations between the Sultan's authority of Dar es Salaam and the Wazaramo, with whom they came into contact during the late war, flavor somewhat of an armed neutrality and the soldiers are even now afraid of proceeding through the country thirty miles in the interior ... " (quoted in L. W. Swantz 1965, 19-20). Swantz further notes that there is no mention in any written reference that the Zaramo were ever under the authority of the sultan.


When the first explorers came to Zaramo country, they found it sparsely populated. In some areas, villages were few, and there were vast open plains with abundant wildlife. Early explorers described the Zaramo houses as haycock shaped and made of grass. Today all houses are rectangular, made with a framework of poles tied into place and plastered over with mud. The roof is thatched with grass or reeds or woven from coconut-palm leaves. The more prosperous Zaramo today have concrete floors, plastered walls, and corrugated iron roofs. Where people live has always depended largely on the water supply; vast areas are uninhabited because of water scarcity. Zaramo villages are small and do not give the appearance of developing into towns.


Plant life has more central significance than animal life to the Zaramo, given that their food is obtained primarily from agricultural activities. The Zaramo cultivate more fruit trees than other inland tribes do, and they transport large quantities of oranges and mangoes to Dar es Salaam markets, which brings them a considerable cash income. Coconut trees also produce fruit that is both consumed and sold. After cashew-nut processing plants were built in Dar es Salaam, cashew-nut trees became of considerable value to the Zaramo economy. During the early days of British colonial administration, the Zaramo were encouraged to raise cotton as a cash crop. Agricultural officers failed to give good instructions, however, and cotton raising failed. Instead, the Zaramo began to grow rice, which became a successful crop that is now being sold to the city.

Early explorers passing through Zaramo country mentioned the fertility of the soil. Traveling through the Ruvu River Valley, they noticed that the land was well watered. Rice, tobacco, maize, beans, sweet potatoes, pineapples, jackfruits, plantains, limes, kapok, mangoes, sugarcane, cassava, curry spices, eggplants, and cucumbers were grown in the area. Tsetse flies were prevalent, and consequently the Zaramo did not have cattle. Nevertheless, they raised sheep, goats, and chickens.

The Zaramo were involved in long-distance trade and slave trade in the nineteenth century. They demanded payment from all caravans that passed through their land, and they were themselves expert slave hunters. The Zaramo leaders not only sold slaves to Arab and Swahili traders on the coast but also kept some slaves for their own use. They also traded in ivory, salt, fish, gum copal, and rhinoceros hides.


Kin Groups and Descent. The Zaramo lineage system is based on two principles. On the one hand, there is biological descent, following the line of the mother, and, on the other hand, there is spiritual descent, following the line of the father. The Zaramo are divided into several clans, which for them encompass the concepts of kinship, ancestry, and descent family. A Zaramo clan represents those people who acknowledge common descent, tracing their lineage through the female line. These individuals possess a common clan name, which they inherit matrilineally. The clan of the mother is also that of the children. The children always belong to their mother's clan, never to that of their father. The terms for the father's clan name (mtala in Kizaramo and mtaa in Swahili) mean "a division of a town or district" and also "the residence of a wife in a polygamous household." The father's mtala derives from his mother's clan name. His children will never belong to his clan, for they can only belong to their mother's clan. The children will use their father's clan name, or mtala, only to show from which father they were born. For instance, when a child is born, he or she is given a personal name and also the father's mtala. The mother's clan name is always understood to be the child's clan name, but it is not used in a child's name. Thus, a child knows to which clan he or she belongs, that of the mother; however, he or she is called by a personal name plus the father's clan name.

Swantz found fifty-nine Zaramo clan names (L. W. Swantz 1965, 26-28). The clans are not totemic: the Zaramo do not observe common prohibitions or taboos. There are taboos and sacrifices, but these practices are transmitted through the father's line. There is no sign of common worship or sacrifice within the clan. Religion among the Zaramo has long been a family or household affair. No religious leader, chief, or headman could grow in importance or leadership because each family had different spirits, ways of sacrifice, and prohibitions.

The Zaramo lineage system may have stemmed from the time when there was clan land, when all from the same clan lived in close proximity to one another. Despite the fact that the children belonged to their mother's clan, they used their father's clan name. If all children from several sisters living in the same area used only their given names, plus their mothers' clan name, it would be very difficult to tell from which father they really were born. The mtala of the father was therefore used to make that distinction.

Marriage and Family

The traditional Zaramo marriage is exogamous, with preference given to cross cousins. Although this pattern is still recognized as the original ideal, it is no longer the preferred model. Zaramo marriage is also polygamous. Traditionally, all wives and children belonged to one man, but the mtala defined his various households. This system, however, is changing because of strong Muslim influence, which stresses the father's authority and patrilineal customs. The Zaramo allow cross-cousin marriages, providing that the spouses do not have the same taboos. This is possible because the taboos are not carried through the mother's clan, but through the father's line. For several reasons, marriages are not lasting. The marital situation is often irregular, and the children do not always live with their biological parents. Kin togetherness and support have always been characteristic of traditional Zaramo society. Even a distant kin member is part of the family and must thus be cared for.

The safe birth of a child is a great event for the family and clan concerned. The Zaramo consider it a special blessing if a girl is born because she will bring bride-wealth to the family and secure continuation of the line. The important phases of a child's life are the first cutting of hair, the giving of a name, and the appearance of the first teeth. The mother is expected to breast-feed her child for at least two years, and she is supposed to abstain from sexual intercourse for six months after the birth of the child. The Zaramo give their children the names of their grandparents. The firstborn girl is named after her grandmother, and the first boy is given the name of the grandfather, following the mother's line. This custom is not only a gesture of respect but also indicates that the newborn child somehow represents the grandparent. Bearing the grandparent's name will bestow that relative's qualities on the child.

Children in Zaramo society normally remain close to their mothers, accompanying them to communal events and festivals. This practice can be seen as a way of educating them on the matters of life around them. Girls, in particular, stay close to their mothers and to other women in the household and soon begin to imitate them. They follow their mothers to the well and balance small tins until they learn to carry large water pots on their heads. The girls learn cooking, start taking their share in hoeing, and try their skill in making hats and braiding their hair. A certain secrecy is maintained with regard to everyday realities, increasing the atmosphere of magic and belief in powers beyond the visible.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Zaramo, Luguru, and Kutu traditionally made pilgrimages to honor a spirit called Kolelo. When Sir Richard Burton passed through the Uluguru Mountains in 1857, he heard that the Zaramo came there to offer sacrifices to "Kurero or Bokero." According to Burton's account, the place was a cave where a spirit produced a terrible subterranean sound. Women came to bathe in a pool in this cave in order to obtain success in bearing children. The pilgrims had to dress in black, and what they offered had to be blackfor instance, a black goat. The social use of black may have many connotations. Black is seen as the color of death, but death is seen as a way to another life. Black is also a color of blessing when associated with the rain and the spirits that are believed to bring rain, success, and fertility. In 1935 Herman Krelle wrote a detailed account on the Zaramo and mentioned a woman called Mlamlali as the priest of Kolelo, who performed sacrifices at the cave of Kolelo. There was also another woman called Kambangwa. She was Kolelo's servant, who made journeys to the cave to pray for rain.

After harvesting the crops, the Zaramo performed harvest purification to cleanse the food. Without this rite, it was believed that the people who ate the food would become ill. The Zaramo also had a special combination of medicines to protect the harvest from thieves. This powerful charm was capable of causing disease and even death.

Among the Zaramo, the number seven is sacred and plays a part in much of their religious and social life. For example, seven knots are pulled on a rope if there is sudden throat pain, a woman is confined for seven days after the delivery of a child, and the relatives of a dead person sleep for seven days on bare ground. It is widely believed that the Zaramo concept of the number seven was influenced by the Arabs, Indians, Persians, and Portuguese.

According to Zaramo conceptions, a gust of wind or the rustling of leaves indicates that the spirits are going past; an eclipse of the moon is a war between the sun and the moon. The Zaramo also once believed in magic water that was supposed to stop bullets; thus persuaded, they participated in the Maji Maji rising against the German colonial administration. The Zaramo fear poison and witchcraft, which they hold to be the cause of practically all deaths.

The medicine man, or mganga, in his role of diviner, has the authority and position to function as the preserver of the traditional Zaramo social and religious patterns. His diagnosis and practice uphold the concepts of spirit forces, witches, powers of sorcery, and clan taboos, and also the need to keep the traditional Zaramo rituals. No other public figure in Zaramo society today represents Zaramo traditional concepts and life as does the medicine man. Despite changes in their belief system, the Zaramo basically affirm the powers of sorcerers and spirits and thus continue to consult the mganga.

Before 1890, boys' circumcisionor jando, in Swahiliwas not practiced among the Zaramo; however, the Zaramo used to put their young boys through an initiation period called kukula in Kizaramo. During this time, the boys were taught about the customs of the clan. Today, owing to Islamic influence, jando is also included in the boys' initiation rites. Following a period of seclusion and training, the boys return to their homes, and there is celebration and dancing (L. W. Swantz 1965, 39). The most significant celebrations, however, are held when the girls come out of the seclusion that accompanies their initiation into womanhood. The onset of menstruation is an important period in a Zaramo woman's life, entailing the transformation from girlhood to womanhood; she becomes a new member of society, one who can fully partake in its rites and ceremonies. While the girl is secluded, her father's sister brings the family heirlooms: a chain of pearl or iron, which is hung around the girl's neck, and a little wooden doll, called an mwananyang'hiti in Kizaramo, or a gourd doll, called an mwanasesere in Kizaramo. When not in use, these much-treasured dolls are kept in the father's family. The girl remains secluded in the house; she is not supposed to see the sun or to see any man, especially her father. She is allowed to do ordinary chores in the house. The two guardians chosen for the girl are called the kungwi and the nandi. The kungwi can be chosen from the mother's side, and the nandi comes from the father's side. Traditionally, the girl was given instruction under an mkole tree, a tree that bears small, red, edible fruits. A Zaramo girl's instructor would sing of it: "It is the tree from which you have gotten your growth." The girl then hugged the tree and was imbued with its powers of fertility (L. W. Swantz 1965, 46). Nowadays girls do not normally go to be instructed under the mkole tree. Instead, they are instructed near their homes, holding a branch of the mkole tree. At the end of the seclusion period, there is much celebration and dancing.

Today the Zaramo are predominantly Muslims, but they have not been Muslims for very long. In the period between 1857 and 1881, when explorers passed through Zaramo area, nowhere was it mentioned that the Zaramo were Muslims. Instead, they went to worship at the cave of Kolelo. The big movement toward Islam came during two periods, from around 1890 to 1900 and from 1910 to 1925. Islam accommodated itself very well to Zaramo traditional religious and social structure. Very little in the way of theology and practice had to be altered. In some respects, the Muslim teacher, called mwalimu in Swahili, simply took over the role of the mganga. Islamic amulets, medicines, and special charms took the place of the traditional ones without difficulty. Islamic magic, sorcery, power to curse, and divination all fell within traditional usage. Instead of the diviner, the Muslim teacher conducted the ordeals, using the traditional ones and introducing others. The traditional initiation rites for boys were accepted completely as they were, except for the addition of circumcision.

Although the Christian church has been established and at work among the Zaramo for the past century, its influence on and acceptance by the Zaramo have been limited.

In August 1863 Father Antoine Horner crossed over from Zanzibar to Bagamoyo with letters from the sultan giving him permission to erect a mission station there. The center was intended to be an orphanage and a settlement for former slaves that incorporated an agricultural training school. A community of over 1,000 Christians grew, mainly of former slaves. In 1888 the Benedictines of Saint Ottilien, Germany, started mission work at Pugu, 19 kilometers west of Dar es Salaam. They built the largest Catholic secondary school in the country. A congregation of the Zaramo, however, never developed as such. Through the school and through medical work, the Catholics established contact with the Zaramo, but the number of converts has been insignificant.

In 1887 a Lutheran missionary called Greiner arrived in Dar es Salaam to open a settlement for freed slaves. A 400hectare parcel of land in Magogoni, on the southeastern side of Dar es Salaam harbor, was set aside for the settlement. On the northern side of the harbor entrance, headquarters of the Lutheran Berlin Mission III and a hospital were built. In 1892 Greiner moved his work to Kisarawe, 32 kilometers inland, and in 1895 a church, a school, and a hospital were established at Maneromango, 80 kilometers inland, in the heart of Zaramo country. From three centers, about thirty-eight churches and preaching places were established, as well as two upper-primary schools, seven primary schools, and twelve bush schools. In spite of the good beginnings, the Lutheran church is comparatively weak among the Zaramo and is quite small compared to its presence in other areas of Tanzania. The Christian minority in an overwhelmingly Muslim community does not encounter enthusiastic hospitality, but Zaramo Muslims and Christians live and work together in relative peace.

There may be several factors that have contributed to the conversion of the Zaramo to Islam and not to Christianity; chief among them is the fact that Islam accommodated many of the traditional Zaramo practices whereas Christianity did not.


Beidelman, Thomas O. (1967). The Matrilineal People of Eastern Tanzania.

Forssen, A. (1979). Roots of Traditional Personality Development among the Zaramo in Costal Tanzania. Finland.

Iliffe, John (1979). A Modern History of Tanganyika. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Koponen, J. (1988). People and Production in Late Pre-Colonial Tanzania: History and Structures. Helsinki.

Swantz, Lloyd W. (1965). "The Zaramo of Tanzania: An Ethnographic Study." M.A. thesis, Graduate School of Syracuse University.

Swantz, Lloyd W. (1974). "The Role of the Medicine Man among the Zaramo of Dar es Salaam." Ph.D. thesis, University of Dar es Salaam.

Swantz, M-L. (1985). Women in Development: A Creative Role Denied? London: C. Hurst & Co.

Swantz, M-L. (1986). Ritual and Symbol in Transitional Zaramo Society. Uppsala: Scandinavian Institute of African Studies.

Vuorela, U. (1987). The Women's Question and the Modes of Human Reproduction: An Analysis of a Tanzanian Village. Finland.


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