ethnic group

poptime= 1.5 million (1989)

The Nyamwezi (originally and also "Wanyamwezi") are the second-largest of over 120 ethnic groups in Tanzania. They live in the northwest central area of the country, between Lake Victoria and Lake Rukwa. The term "Nyamwezi" is of Swahili origin, and translates as "people of the moon".

Historically, there have been five tribal groups, all referring to themselves as Wanyamwezi to outsiders: Kimbu, Konongo, Nyamwezi, Sukuma, and Sumbwa, who were never united. All groups normally merged have broadly similar cultures, although it is an oversimplification to view them as a single group. The Nyamwezi have close cultural ties with the Sukuma people. Their homeland is called "Unyamwezi", and they speak the language Kinyamwezi, although many also speak Swahili or English.

It was only in the 19th century that the name could be found in literature; the term might include almost anyone from the western plateau. Travel taught them that others called them Nyamwezi, and almost all men accepted the name given to them by the coastal people indicating that the Nyamwezi came from the west. A century later, their land is still called "Greater Unyamwezi", about convert|35000|sqmi|km2 of rolling land at an elevation of about convert|4000|ft|m.


Early history

According to oral tradition, the Nyamwezi are thought to have settled in west central Tanzania (their present location) some time in the 1600s. The earliest evidence comes from the Galahansa, and confirms their presence there in the late 1600s. They were once fisherman and nomadic farmers due to the poor soil quality of the area. Their travels made them professional traders, and by 1800 they were taking caravans to the coast to trade in Katanga copper, wax, salt, ivory, and slaves. Arabian and Indian slave and ivory traders reached the Nyamwezi by 1825. They also started to acquire guns, and establish regular armies, with intra-tribal wars and some conflicts with Arabs on the coast throughout the 1800s. They could be considered an acquisitive society, often accused of thinking of nothing but how to earn money.

The Nyamwezi had long been a settled agricultural and cattle-owning people, arriving on the western plateau in the 1500s and originally living in a mosaic of small and independent chiefdoms slowly carved out by ruling dynasties which according to a Catholic missionary may have numbered over 150, each with its own councilors, elders, and court slaves. In the 1800s, they were already recognized as large slave-owners and were famous for their herds. While cattle was important it was not often part of normal life, their entire care often being left in the hands of professional herdsmen, the immigrant Tutsi.

19th century

In the early 1800 there were a number of Nyamwezi kingdoms, such as Unyanyembe, Ulyankhulu and Urambo. Unyanyembe was perhaps the most powerful, since it controlled the trading city of Tabora, and had close connections with the Arabs of Zanzibar, through the Arab community of Tabora. When Mnywasele inherited the throne of Unyanyembe 1858, the Arabs helped him expel his rival Mkasiwa, who went into exile in Ulyankhulu. When Mnywasele later tried to increase his control over the Unyamyembe trader community, these allied with Mkasiwa, which lead to a greater conflict between Unyanyembe and Ulyankhulu in 1860. The result of the conflict was that Mkasiwa gained the throne of Unyamyembe. In 1871 Unyanyembe was involved in another war, this time against Urambo, which at this time was ruled by the slaver and ivory trader known as Mirambo. 1873 the Urambo forces blockaded the ivory trade from Tabora resulting in the price of ivory rising globally. ["The Cambridge History of Africa", vol. 6] The war lasted until Mirambo's death in 1884. ["The Cambridge History of Africa", vol. 5]

In the nineteenth century, settlements were described as typically large, compact, and fortified for defense with strong wooden stockades, often in high inaccessible rocky places. When the Germans finally imposed peace, the population did not immediately disperse, but slowly, over a fifty-year period, the modern pattern of scattered settlements emerged.

German colonists controlling Tanzania from the late 1800s (calling it German East Africa), found the Nyamwezi heavily involved in trade relations with the Arabs and the island of Zanzibar, dominating as traders and porters since 1850. (While Iliffe lists a likely 100,000 people traveling to and from the coast, Abrahams lists a possible 200,000 using many of the side 'roads', some making the trip as many as 20 times.) Despite the Nyamwezi's outside contacts, Nyamwezi colonies were remarkably resistant to foreign culture. Nyamwezi colonies outside the Unyamwezi long remained culturally distinct. In Unyamwezi itself, differing lifesyles were either absorbed into the existing order, similar to the Ngoni becoming just another chiefdom, or became isolated like the Arabs of Tabora. But for all their poor relationships with the coast and their conservatism, being able to travel was considered a valuable, manly attribute. Many trade routes crossed Unyamwezi, and the Nyamwezi had access to ivory and slaves, stretching from the coast to the inland, as far as Congo. The western Nyamwezi arrived at the coast with ivory around 1800, and coastal traders soon followed this up by finally entering Unyamwezi and reaching Ujiji by 1831. A kind of California Gold Rush took place for the ivory of the Congo's Manjema to the west of Lake Tanganyika. With their deep involvement in commerce, the Nyamwezi welcomed traders. The most hospitable chiefdom was Unyanyembe, where Arab traders established the nexus of Tabora to the Lake district beyond.

Conflicts between chiefs and Arab traders lasted through the last half of the 19th century. Chiefs such as Isike and Mirambo, no longer being purely ritual, had found that the arrival of firearms enabled them to created standing armies and a new state organization. It was firearms and trade that transformed the region, for trade generated the wealth needed to obtain firearms. Chiefs were normally ritual figures who had no very rigid rules of succession. They lived very restricted lives, with the most significant duties being carried out by headmen. They were strangled when they became seriously ill (as probably happened to Mirambo while dying of cancer), for the well being of the state and its continuation was identified with chief and his subordinate administrators. A hierarchy of territorial offices came into being. There were sub-chiefs, assistant chiefs, headmen elders, ritual officials, etc., as each dynasty seized power from another. Greater Nyamwezi had become a war zone.

Unyamwesi was "pacified" by the Germans in 1893; only Chief Isike around Tabora giving any serious opposition. The German adopted a form of indirect rule in the region with chiefs becoming the administrative agents of the central government, receiving account books as a formal mark of recognition. Over time, the chiefs were expected to keep order and collect taxes. Where earlier officers welcomed their collaboration, later officers became suspicious of it, even deliberately dismantling a chiefdom.

As late as 1906, Karl Weule, a German ethnolonogist had the following to say; "Even European caravans had their porters expect to receive food and drink from native villages they passed through"

After the Germans were removed from Tabora during World War I, the British took over in 1919 and ruled until the Tanzanian independence of 1961. To combat sleeping sickness, many people were moved into new villages free from the disease. ["Nyamwezi and Sukuma." Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Vol. 9: Africa and the Middle East. Human Relations Area Files, 1995. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Group.]

ocial organization

Historically, villages were normally not kinship units and people found their relatives spread over wide areas. Spouses generally came from outside the Tembes and sons commonly moved away from their father's homestead. The core members of a "domestic group" consisted of the husband, his wife or wives, and any children who still lived with them. Sometimes relatives, such as a mother, younger unmarried brothers or sisters, and their children could be found together. The sexes usually ate separately. In general men did the heavy work, while women did the recurring tasks and much of the everyday agricultural work.

Ideally every adult person should be married, and every married woman should have her own household and bring her own household utensils. The husband is said to technically own his wife's hut, fields, and most of the household's food, but a wise husband usually listened to the wife's advice. There was little ranking between co-wives, although seniority in terms of who was first married was at times recognized. Jealously and sorcery were common, much depending on how well co-wives got along. Unlike the Wagogo, divorce was common, a large majority of persons experiencing al least one divorce by the time they were fifty years of age, which included the return of bridewealth minus the number and sex of the children born. Divorce was most often accomplished by the separation of either party. Chiefdom courts found certain reasons to automatically justify divorce: a woman's desertion, being struck by a wife, the wife's adultery, sexual refusal of the wife, and having an abortion, were all adequate reasons. Grounds for a husband to claim divorce were failure of the wife to carry out household duties, visiting a doctor without permission, and possible infertility. A wife could divorce if the husband deserted for a period of time without supporting her; if the husband seriously injured her by, for example, breaking a limb, but not simply beating her; the husband's impotence or perversions; or if her husband generally failed to maintain her and her children properly. A husband's adultery would not be one of the grounds.

It was customary for the younger brother of her former husband to inherit a widow, (a kind of "widows and orphans" security system), although it was not done against her will. Among some, inheritance of a widow by her husband's sister's son was particularly favored.

It had always been part or the Nyamwezi system for the chief to receive tribute, bring success and prosperity to the people, and play an active role in ceremonies. All land was said to have belonged to the chief and he had the right to expel witches and undesirables; abuse was checked by the general need to maintain a large population; and while no one had the right to sell land in a chiefdom, the people had considerable security in their rights to the land. Permission to clear land was not needed, but care was taken so as not to conflict with others in the area. If there was a shortage of land in an area to be inherited, a headman could insist upon other holdings. Water was free to all.


Elephant hunters have historically been one of the most prestigious occupations among the Nyamwezi, since the elephant hunters could get very rich from ivory trade. The elephant hunters were organised in a guild, which only accepted those who could pass the apprenticeship and the tests that were associated with it. Hunting had a wide variety of forms. Guild members often used lethal poison, and when they used it, in a German sergeant's words, "it worked slowly but surely."

The guildmembers believed they possessed powerful hunting medicine acquired through rigorous apprenticeships, tracking game in all types of terrain and moving swiftly and silently through thorny underbrush. The elephant hunting lead to a decrease in elephant population, which combined with the increased trade in slaves, lead to large changes in the social and economic conditions.

Nyamwezi staple food has historically been ugali, a porridge made from hominy and served with meat and vegetables. Beer made from fermented corn, sorghum, or millet was also common. Goats were used for ancestor sacrifices, but the economic value of goats and sheep lay in their meat and skins. By tradition five goats or sheep equated one bull; two bulls were worth one cow. Their year is divided into two seasons, wet and dry, with considerable variation depending on time and place.

In addition to agriculture, crafts were a part-time occupation and were not hereditary. Regionally traded products of importance were drums, ladles, stools, storage boxes for grain, and snuffboxes of horn. Iron and cloth were very important in regional networks, but the cloth industry in particular was ailing in 1857 because of severe competition from India, and over the next sixty years almost disappeared. Ironwork came from localized settlements whose products were then traded over wide areas: bows, arrows, spears, the payment of fines, and the extremely valuable hoes for bridewealth were all produced with considerable ritual by the smiths; and depending on the place that was blamed, for the heavy deforestation to obtain charcoal.


Slavery was important and chiefs and other government officials owned the largest number, sometimes well over a thousand, for as porters became more and more important, and since many men were traveling, labor for cultivation became increasingly scarce and slaves were needed more and more. Slaves remaining in the local area seem to have had a life easier and more secure than those sent to the coast. Domestic slaves often lived and ate with their owners, were allowed to work on their own, and could possess their own slaves and livestock; loyal slaves could even be given part of a chiefdom, and it was not unusual for slaves to acquire positions of great influence and power.

Even though slave trading and raiding outside of Unyamwezi was considerable, some people voluntarily became slaves as a result of debt. Before the 1800s, slavery was tolerated but looked down upon by the Nyamwezi. During the social and economic changes of the 1800s, the attitude changed, and the slave trade increased steadily. The ivory trade greatly increased the slave trade, although it had long been important in intra- and inter-regional trade. As with cattle, slaves were also needed and wanted for their prestige value, for men could gain influence and social connections, they could even make marriage payments with them. The slave was seldom used just to carry ivory. Ivory porters should be viewed as free and voluntary labor, although it is true that they were at times financially abused by their chiefs.


With the establishment of German East Africa in the 19th century, Moravian Church missionaries arrived in the Lake Malawi region of Tanganyika. Today, the Moravian Church In Western Tanzania (MCWT) has about 80,000 Nyawezi adherents and many continue to evangelize among the Sukuma people.

About 926,000 Nyamwezi speak a language of the Bantu phylum, classified as the Sukuma-Nyamwezi Group of Bantu. The Nyamwezi are predominantly subsistence farmers and cattle herders.


Most follow a traditional religion, despite conversion attempts by Islam and Christianity. They believe in a powerful god called "Likube" (High God), "Limatunda" (Creator), "Limi" (the Sun) and "Liwelolo" (the Universe), but ancestor worship is a more frequent daily practice. Offerings of sheep or goats are made to ancestors, and the help of Likube is invoked beforehand. Spirits also play an active role in Nyamwezi religious life, with "mfumu", witchdoctors, or diviners, playing the role of counselor and medical practitioner. "Bulogi" (witchcraft) is a powerful force in Nyamwezi culture, with cults forming around (for example) possession by certain types of spirit. The "Baswezi" society recruits people possessed by the "Swezi" spirit.



*cite book
last = Abrahams
first = R. G.
authorlink =
title = The Peoples of Greater Unyamwezi, Tanzania
publisher = International African Institute
date = 1967
location =
pages =
isbn = 083573207X

* Bauer, Andreus. (Street of Caravans)
* Baumann, Oscar. (Durch Massailand zur Nilquuele)
*cite book
last = Bennett
first = Norman Robert
authorlink =
title = Mirambo of Tanzania Ca. 1840-1884
publisher = Oxford University Press
date = 1971
location =
pages =

*cite book
last = Iliffe
first = John
authorlink =
title = A Modern History of Tanganyika
publisher = Cambridge University Press
date = 1979
location =
pages =
isbn = 0521296110

* Roberts, Andrew. (The Nyamwezi)
* Weule, Karl. (Kolonial-Lexicon Band III S 672 & Native Life in East Africa)

External links

* [http://www.isp.msu.edu/AfrLang/Sukuma_root.html Sukuma/ Nyamwezi Language Page] , African Studies Center at Michigan State University
* [http://www.smithsonianglobalsound.org/containerdetail.aspx?itemid=2901 Smithsonian Global Sound] , Greeting and installation songs for chiefs of the Nyamwezi people from Tabora district, Tanzania

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