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ETHNONYMS: Chaga, Dschagga, Jagga, Wa-caga, Waschagga (sing., Mchagga; contemporary self-designation)


Identification and Location. In the nineteenth century the Kichagga-speaking people on Mount Kilimanjaro were divided into many small, autonomous chiefdoms. Early accounts frequently identify the inhabitants of each chiefdom as a separate "tribe." Although the Chagga are principally located on Mount Kilimanjaro in northern Tanzania, numerous families have migrated elsewhere over the course of the twentieth century.

Demography. Around the beginning of the twentieth century, the German colonial government estimated that there were about 28,000 households on Kilimanjaro. The 1988 Tanzanian census counted 744,271 individuals. (With very few exceptions, only Chagga live on Kilimanjaro.) Obviously, the mountain population has increased at a rapid rate during the twentieth century, and the high rate of increase seems to be continuing.

Linguistic Affiliation. Kichagga is a Bantu language. There are significant dialectal differences in the Kichagga spoken in the easterly, central, and westerly divisions of Kilimanjaro. The inhabitants of Ugweno, which was once the northernmost chiefdom of the Pare Mountains, speak a language related to Kichagga.

History and Cultural Relations

Bantu peoples came to Kilimanjaro in a succession of migrations that started at least five or six hundred years ago. It is likely that there were other peoples on the mountain for hundreds of years before they arrived. Reliable written historical accounts of the Chagga date from the nineteenth century. The first European to reach the mountain was a missionary, Johannes Rebmann, who arrived there in 1848. At that time, Rebmann found that Kilimanjaro was so actively involved in far-reaching trading connections that a chief whose court he visited had a coastal Swahili resident in his entourage. Chagga chiefdoms traded with each other, with the peoples of the regions immediately surrounding the mountain (such as the Kamba, the Maasai, and the Pare), and also with coastal caravans. Some of this trading was hand to hand, some of it at markets, which were a general feature of the area. Many chiefdoms had several produce markets largely run by women, just as they are today.

As far back into local history as the accounts go, Chagga chiefdoms were chronically at war with one another and with nearby peoples. Various alliances and consolidations were achieved through conquest, others through diplomacy, but the resulting political units were not always durable. Alignments changed and were reorganized with the ebb and flow of the fortunes of war and trade. Presumably, the fighting between the chiefdoms was over control of trade routes, over monopolies on the provisioning of caravans, over ivory, slaves, cattle, iron, and other booty of war, and over the right to exact tribute. Outlines of the process are known from the eighteenth century onward. As large as some of the blocs of allies became, at no time in the precolonial period did any one chiefdom rule all the others. That unitary consolidation was not achieved until the German colonial government imposed it.

Initially (i.e., before the German conquest), various Chagga chiefdoms welcomed missionaries, travelers, and foreign representatives as they did traders; in the 1880s, however, when the Chagga gradually lost their autonomy, they became more hostile. In 1886 Germany and Britain divided their spheres of influence in East Africa; Kilimanjaro was allocated to the Germans. Some Chagga chiefs became German allies and helped the Germans to defeat old rivals in other Chagga chiefdoms. Sudanese and Zulu troops were also brought in when some strong chiefly resistance to German control manifested itself. By the 1890s, all the Chagga had been subjugated.

Chagga society experienced a radical change. Taxes in cash were imposed to force Africans to work for Europeans from whom they could receive wages. A native system of corvée was expanded for the benefit of the colonial government. A handful of armed Germans successfully ruled a hundred thousand Chagga by controlling them through their chiefs. The chiefs who cooperated were rewarded with more power than they had ever known. The resisting chiefs were deposed or hanged, and more malleable substitutes were appointed in their stead.

Warfare came to an end and, with it, Chagga military organization, which had been a system of male age grades. Christianity spread, and, eventually, most Chagga became, at least nominally, Christians. The churches, Catholic and Lutheran, were allocated religious control over different parts of Kilimanjaro. As part of their mission, they introduced schools and coffee-growing clinics. Thus, a Western religion was imposed on the Chagga, along with a Western medicine, Western education, and a cash crop. These developments parallel the major political reorganization effectuated by colonization and the fundamental change in the local economy. Long-distance trade became a European monopoly. Coffee growing spread rapidly over the mountain.

This general economic transformation was well under way when the colonial government passed from German hands into those of the British in 1916. Arabica coffee remains a major cash crop produced locally. Since 1961, Tanzania has been an independent nation and, among other products, relies on coffee exportation for foreign exchange.


There are no nucleated villages on Kilimanjaro. Each household lives in the midst of its own banana-coffee garden, and the gardens, one next to another, stretch all over the mountain. The gardens are, for the most part, ringed with living fences that mark their boundaries. In the older areas of settlement, male kin tend to own and reside in contiguous homestead gardens, forming localized patrilineal clusters. Because of the enormous expansion of the population and the consequent land shortage, there are no large expanses of uncultivated or unoccupied land in the banana belt. It was otherwise in earlier times. Photographs and accounts from earlier in the twentieth century show that there were open fields between the localized clusters. Such residential arrangements were not static. A household, or several together, could break away from the localized patrilineage of which they had been members. There being no land shortage, they could, with the consent of the local chief or district head in the new location, establish themselves elsewhere and even found a new patrilineal cluster. As available land became more scarce, many households moved downmountain, and some moved up, pushing back the boundary of the forest. Thus, there are older and newer settlements on the mountain, older and newer patrilineal clusters, and substantial areas where the majority of residents are from unrelated households. Gradually, as the open land has filled up, the mobility of households has been increasingly restricted.


In the nineteenth century the Chagga were cultivators and cattle keepers. They grew many types of bananas, which were their staple food. Bananas are generally male property but are (with permission) traded by women in the markets. The Chagga also grew millet, maize, beans, finger millet (Eleusine corocana ), cassava, sweet potatoes, yams, sugarcane, paw paws (Carica papaya ), pumpkins, squashes, and tobacco. Many of the annual vegetable crops were grown by women and were women's property. The Chagga made (and continue to make) beer out of bananas and eleusine. In most of the populous parts of the mountain, a few stall-fed cows were kept by each household. In areas where there was more pasture, large herds of cattle were grazed. Some men owned considerable numbers of animals, but others had none. Milk was a highly valued food, as was meat. Local lineages held slaughtering feasts several times a year. There was a system of cattle lending whereby many households tended animals that were not their own. In return for caring for an animal, the borrower received the milk and the manure and, eventually, when the animal was slaughtered, was entitled to a portion of the meat. Lineage slaughtering feasts are still held today, both to coincide with major life-cycle rituals and on more ordinary occasions.

In precolonial times, in addition to production for domestic consumption, the Chagga produced food, animals, and other items for trade and tribute. Having no domestic source of iron or salt, nor an adequate supply of clay, the chiefdoms of Kilimanjaro were dependent on trade with neighboring peoples for these essential materials. They needed iron for weapons and agricultural tools, salt and clay pots for cooking. Allusion has been made to the local regional and long-distance trades in which the Chagga were actively involved in precolonial times. Warfare also played an important role in the precolonial economy. War yielded booty for the winners and often was the basis for the exaction of tribute from the losers. Moreover, the protection of traders and trade routes had military aspects.

In the colonial and postcolonial periods, the economy has changed drastically. The cropping of coffee, the advent of land shortage, the development of many small businesses, and the inflow of the wages and salaries of the many Chagga employed on and off the mountain have altered the local economic picture considerably. A subsistence dimension of the banana-vegetable-animal domestic economy persists in the household gardens, but it operates in an entirely different context from that of former times. Like banana plants, coffee bushes are male property. Access to cash is thus much more restricted for women than it is for men, even though women do more of the agricultural and domestic labor and bear the fundamental responsibility for feeding the household.

In precolonial times land was regarded as male property, inherited patrilineally by males from males or transferred inter vivos by males to males. Widows and women in other relationships to men could occupy, hold, and use land but could not obtain a transferable interest. That pattern of landholding continues, although, formally speaking, the law has changed.


Exogamous patrilineages are the basic building blocks of the kinship system. These are sometimes called "clans" in the colonial literature. They vary in size from a few households to many dozens. Marriage is virilocal, and many lineages are localized because of the link between kinship and land tenure.

Marriage and Family

In pre-Christian days, polygynous marriage was legitimate. Over time, the churches have discouraged this practice, and monogamy (although sometimes in the form of a series of monogamous marriages) now prevails. Marriages used to be negotiated by the parents of the couple. Bride-wealth was paid and an elaborate series of ceremonies held. Some of these ceremonies persist, but indigenous cultural forms are mixed with Christian rituals. Formerly, both males and females were ritually circumcised before they were considered fit for marriage. Modified versions of these practices persist, less commonly for females than for males. Traditionally, a widow was inherited by her husband's heir. Today the husband's heir becomes the "guardian" of the widow and often takes control of whatever property rights she might have, ostensibly in her interest. Although intestate inheritance of land and most other economically significant property is from male to male, succession to such property is not just from father to son or elder to younger brother. It is complicated by the life interest of widows, by various preferred forms of primogeniture and ultimogeniture, and by the discretionary power held by the lineage over the distribution of the property of the dead.

Domestic Unit. The composition of the precolonial household changed over its life cycle and differed in polygynous households from monogamous ones. After marriage, the initial domestic unit was that of a husband, wife, and, eventually, young children. The husband later built a hut of his own, which he shared with his older sons, the wife keeping her own hut with unmarried daughters and very young sons. Households often had other single relatives (e.g., widows and widowers) attached to them. Today households are of variable composition. Many young men leave wives and children on their plots of land on Kilimanjaro while they search for salaried jobs elsewhere.

Sociopolitical Organization

Precolonial organized groups were founded on kinship, locality, age, and gender. Localized patrilineages formed the subunits within a district, and chiefdoms were composed of several districts. Chiefs were chosen within the chiefly lineage. Chiefs appointed the district heads. Lineages were led by the senior male, who was the ritual head, and also by a "spokesman," or political representative for external relations. A system of male age grades crosscuts lineages and districts. Women were also grouped in age grades. From the start of the colonial period, other organizational entities became prominent. The churches were first; later, a coffee cooperative emerged. Since independence, party (the Tanganyika African National Union, later renamed the Revolutionary party [Chama cha Mapinduzi]) and government administrative units have replaced earlier chiefs and chiefly councils. Tanzania has now introduced multiparty politics, and doubtless this will bring further changes in the future.

As coffee production gradually expanded, coffee sales became a major source of local tax revenue, enhancing local administrative resources and becoming the economic basis for secondary local institutional development. Over time, increasing numbers of Chagga received formal education. In the 1920s, with British administrative encouragement, the Chagga organized their own sales cooperative to market their coffee and regulate production. The cooperative was owned by the Chagga but managed by a European who was their employee. Despite some political ups and downs, the cooperative was, in general, very successful. An economically sophisticated and educated Chagga elite began to form. By the mid-twentieth century, political parties had taken hold that challenged local chiefs for internal political control of the mountain. The British administration periodically reorganized local administrative bodies in response to this development. In 1951, in a development that further diminished the power of the local chiefs, who by then were fairly unpopular, a paramount chief of all the Chagga was elected, backed by the Kilimanjaro Citizen's Union. The paramount, in his turn, became unpopular when he tried to make his office permanent and hereditary and sought excessive personal power. By 1961, when the British left Tanganyika (renamed Tanzania in 1964, following its union with Zanzibar), the paramount had been displaced. In any case, the new independent government abolished chieftainship; hence all the local chiefs also lost their powers. Needless to say, this move was not unwelcome in many quarters on Kilimanjaro. Local political reorganization ensued as the socialist government designed new structures. Despite considerable innovative efforts from above, however, many preexisting relationships, such as powerful kinship groupings, continued to be locally effective on Kilimanjaro.

Before 1900, conflict between chiefdoms was resolved either through chiefly diplomacy or warfare. Subsequently, colonial officials dealt with such matters administratively. Conflicts between individuals were resolved either within the lineage, between lineages, within an age grade or an irrigation consortium, or by the district heads or the chiefs. Hearings took place at every level. Fines were imposed, and persons could be expelled from whatever group was trying the case. Individuals were sometimes killed. Elements of social control were thus manifest in every group milieu. This localized control persists, with some major modifications, in the modern setting. Since the beginning of colonial times, there has been a government-designated system of officials and courts formally charged with dispute settlement and law enforcement.


In indigenous Chagga cosmology, all human activities have potential spirit-worldly significance. Thus, the seen and the unseen worlds are closely linked. Dead ancestors care how their descendants behave. Living persons are capable of invoking God or the spirits for benign or malign purposes. Incurable illness, infertility, or other misfortunes are considered likely to have been caused by human or spirit agencies. Spells, curses, amulets, and witchcraft were (and are today) commonplace, both to defend and to harm. Diviners could (and can) be consulted. Rituals mark all life-cycle events. Christian ideas and rituals are closely intertwined with indigenous conceptions and ceremonies.


Gutmann, Bruno (1926). Das Recht der Dschagga. Arbeiten zur Entwicklungspsychologie, edited by Felix Krueger, vol. 7. Munich: C. H. Beck. Translated by A. M. Nagler. New Haven: Human Relations Area Files.

Moore, Sally Falk, and Paul Puritt (1977). The Chagga and Meru of Tanzania. Ethnographic Survey of Africa, East Central Africa, 18. International African Institute.

Moore, Sally Falk (1986). Social Facts and Fabrications: "Customary" Law on Kilimanjaro, 1880-1980. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


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ALTERNATE NAMES: Chaga, Waschagga, Jagga, or Dschagga

LOCATION: Kilimanjaro region in northern Tanzania


LANGUAGE: Kichagga; Swahili

RELIGION: Christianity; Islam


On the southern slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa's highest mountain, live the Chagga people. They are also called Chaga, Waschagga, Jagga, or Dschagga.

Traditionally, the Chagga belonged to different clans (groups of people of common descent) ruled by mangis (chiefs). The area was divided into independent chiefdoms. The chiefs sometimes warred with each other. Other times, they formed alliances to try to increase their power. After Tanzania won its independence in 1961, the system of chiefdoms was abolished throughout the country.


Mount Kilimanjaro has two peaks, Kibo and Mawenzi. Vegetation on the mountain is varied. The lowest plains form the bushland, where maize (corn), thatch grass, and fodder (miscellaneous plants to feed farm animals) are grown. Next lies the coffee and banana belt. Each Chagga family has its own homestead in the middle of a banana grove. This is known as a kihamba (the plural of this word is vihamba ).

The Chagga population rose steadily from 128,000 in the 1920s to over 800,000 in the 1990s. Overpopulation has forced some Chagga people to move to the lowlands and to urban areas.


The main language spoken by the Chagga people is Kichagga. It has various dialects spoken by Chagga in different regions. Despite these differences in dialect, the Chagga people can understand each another.

Almost all Chagga people also speak KiSwahili, the national language in Tanzania. KiSwahili is the language of instruction in primary schools and is used in the work-place. English is the language of instruction in secondary schools and institutions of higher learning.


Chagga legends center on Ruwa and his power and assistance. Ruwa is the Chagga name for their god, as well as the Chagga word for "sun." Ruwa is not looked upon as the creator of humankind, but rather as a liberator and provider of sustenance. He is known for his mercy and tolerance when sought by his people. Some Chagga myths concerning Ruwa resemble biblical stories of the Old Testament.

In the past, chiefdoms had chiefs who rose to power through war and trading. Some famous past chiefs include Orombo from Kishigonyi, Sina of Kibosho, and Marealle of Marangu.


Christianity was introduced to the Chagga people in the middle of the nineteenth century. By the end of the nineteenth century, both Protestants and Catholics had established missions in the region. With the adoption of Western religions, traditional Chagga beliefs and practices have been reduced or adapted to the new Christian beliefs.

Islam was introduced to the Chagga people by early Swahili caravan traders. Islam brought a sense of fellowship not only with the Chagga of different regions, but also with Muslims of other ethnic groups.


The Chagga people celebrate both secular (nonreligious) and religious holidays. The main government holidays are New Year's Day (January 1), Union Day (April 26), Workers' Day (May 1), Peasants' Day (August 8), and Independence Day (December 9). Offices and shops close on these holidays. Government rallies, held around the country, include military parades and speeches.

The major religious holidays of both Christianity and Islam are celebrated. The major Christian holidays are Easter weekend and Christmas. The major Muslim holidays are Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha. Eid al-Fitr is a three-day celebration that comes after a month of fasting called Ramadan. Eid al-Adha commemorates the willingness of Abraham to obey God's command and sacrifice his son Isaac. After religious ceremonies are over, families gather for celebration and merrymaking.


A Chagga proverb that translates directly as "He who leaves a child lives eternally" illustrates the Chagga belief that people live through their descendents. Children are taught to do small chores around the homestead as soon as they can walk. Girls' duties include grinding corn and cleaning out cattle stalls. The boys' main duty is to herd cattle. A rite called Kisusa is carried out when a child is about twelve years old. This rite is performed to curb unruliness in a child. An elder woman and already initiated youths sing songs about good morals and talk to the initiate about good behavior. This is followed by sacrifice of a goat and, one month later, by a purification ceremony.

In the past, both young men and young women were circumcised. Female circumcision is now discouraged.

Traditionally, before male youth were allowed to marry, the Ngasi (male initiation) ceremony, took place. A young man went to live in the forest. He received instruction in manhood, went hunting, and endured various ordeals. The Shija (female initiation) ceremony was performed after the young women were circumcised. All initiated young women were instructed in Chagga rituals, sexuality, procreation, and menstruation. Initiation ceremonies were abolished by the Germans, who controlled Tanzania from 1885 to 1946.


Greetings are important in Chagga culture. There are different greetings depending upon the time of day. Younger people are required to show respect to the older generations. It is believed that the more senior a person is, the closer his or her contact with ancestors.

Specific behavioral norms are maintained between various persons in Chagga society. These are based on a show of respect, non-hostility, or distance. A newlywed woman covers her head and squats in the presence of her father-in-law, thereby showing respect to and distance from him. The father-in-law is similarly required to avoid the daughter-in-law. A wife is required to always face her husband on approach lest she be accused of cursing him.

Public show of affection through bodily contact between the sexes is considered highly inappropriate. Traditionally, men and women were socially segregated.


The traditional Chagga house was cone-shaped, with a roof thatched with dried grass. Another type of dwelling, also commonly built, was a house with a roof thatched with banana leaves. Because these houses tended to be large, they were built with the assistance of other villagers.

By the end of the nineteenth century, Swahili houses were introduced, initially constructed by chiefs. These houses were rectangular, with walls made of wattle (interwoven sticks) and mud, and thatched roofs. Today, these houses are more commonly built with cement walls and corrugated metal roofs.


Traditionally, the Chagga marriage ceremony was a long process, starting with betrothal proceedings and continuing long after the couple was married. Bridal payments were made over the wife's lifetime. Today, Christian couples are married in churches. There is much drinking and feasting throughout the marriage negotiations and celebrations.

The groom builds the house where he will live with his wife after marriage. After the birth of the first child, the husband moves into a tenge (hut), and the mother lives with her children. Chagga couples have an average of six children. Great importance is placed on having a son to continue the lineage.


Traditionally, Chagga clothing was made of cowhide. With contact with the outside world, the Chagga started to wear imported bead ornaments and cloth wraparound garments. These colorful pieces of cloth are called kangas and kitenges. They may be worn over a dress, or may be used to carry babies on the back or hip.

School-aged boys wear shorts, but adults (both male and female) and young women generally do not wear shorts in public except during sports. Mitumba (secondhand clothing from overseas) is sold at the marketplace and is in great demand by low-income people.


The staple food of the Chagga people is bananas. Bananas are also used to make beer, their main beverage. The Chagga plant a variety of food crops, including bananas, millet, maize (corn), beans, and cassava. They also keep cattle, goats, and sheep. Due to limited land holdings and grazing areas, most Chagga people today are forced to purchase meat from butcher shops.

Pregnant women eat a diet of milk, sweet potatoes, fat, yams, and butter; these are considered female foods. Bananas and beer are considered male and are not to be eaten by pregnant women.


The initial classroom education available to the Chagga was in the Christian missions. Boys often outnumbered girls in the education facilities because education was not considered as important for girls. After Tanzania's independence, all Chagga people were encouraged to attend at least primary level education. By 1971 primary education was provided free by the government. All children seven years of age and older were required to attend primary level education for at least seven years. Those who passed a qualifying examination went on to secondary education. Private secondary schools, trade schools, and business schools are also available.


Traditional Chagga instruments include wooden flutes, bells, and drums. Dancing and singing are part of almost every celebration. With exposure to other ethnic groups and Western culture, the Chagga have shown a liking for various types of music. These include Swahili songs produced by various Tanzanian bands, and West and Central African music and dance forms. Reggae, pop, and rap are popular with the youth.

The Chagga have rich oral traditions and have managed to record most of their history. They have many legends and songs. Proverbs are used to guide youth and convey wisdom.


Traditionally, Chagga work has been centered on the farm and is divided by gender. Men's work includes feeding goats, building and maintaining canals, preparing fields, slaughtering animals, and building houses. Women's work includes firewood and water collection, fodder cutting, cooking, and cleaning the homestead and stalls. Women are also in charge of trading in the marketplace.

Many Chagga young people work as clerks, teachers, and administrators, and many engage in small-scale business activities. Women in rural areas are also generating income through activities such as crafts and tailoring. The Chagga are known for their sense of enterprise and strong work ethic.


Chagga children first encounter sporting events at school. Primary school children are encouraged to participate in interschool competitions that often lead to interregional and national championships. Favorite sports at school are soccer, netball (similar to basketball), and athletics (track and field). At secondary schools, Chagga youth may be exposed to sports such as basketball, table tennis, and volleyball.

Following the national soccer league is a pastime greatly enjoyed by the Chagga. On the weekends, proper and makeshift soccer fields alike are crowded with both spectators and players.


For many years there were no television stations in Tanzania. Radio broadcasts were a major source of entertainment. Many households have transistor radios, and a favorite pastime is listening to radio plays and sports programs. On occasions of major broadcasts and matches, the Chagga often gather around a radio in a public meeting place, usually with a local brew in hand.

In the past, only the wealthy Chagga could afford television sets. Now many Chagga people own televisions and VCRs. This has led to the opening of many video lending libraries in the town of Moshi.


Traditionally, the Chagga made their own utensils, mainly from wood. These items included small bowls, huge beer tubs, spoons, and ladles. Iron items included bells, ornaments, hoes, and spears. The Chagga also made their own weapons and animal traps. Chagga musical instruments include wooden flutes, bells, and drums. Basket weaving was also common. This art is now dying out as more items are bought at local stores.


Tanzania has undergone a period of economic hardship, limiting the government's ability to provide adequate social services. Public schools and health facilities are run down. As a result, many private schools and health facilities have opened in the Kilimanjaro region.

Lack of adequate farm land is forcing Chagga youth to seek work away from the kihamba (family homestead). This has led to a breakdown in social values and an increase in sexual promiscuity. An increasing number of children are born out of wedlock. The occurrence of sexually transmitted diseases, especially AIDS, has risen. AIDS awareness programs have been initiated to help deal with the problem. Loss of Chagga culture is another consequence of outside contact.

The political scene has changed in Tanzania from a single party in 1965 to multi-party politics in 1992. This has encouraged more Chagga to be politically active. There is an increasing cohesion of the Chagga people along party lines and a renewed sense of cultural identity.


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Houston, Dick. Safari Adventure. New York: Cobblehill Books, 1991.

Kaula, Edna Mason. The Land and People of Tanzania. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1972.

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McCulla, Patricia E. Tanzania. New York: Chelsea House, 1989.

Reader, John. Kilimanjaro. New York: Universal Books, 1982.

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