Tanzania’s Ethnic Groups – A Visit with IST Graham Mercer

As part of our ongoing investigation of different cultures, Grade 2 invited Mr. Graham Mercer to give a slide presentation on the different ethnic groups of Tanzania.

The Maasai, because of their colourful and interesting culture and the fact that their traditional lands often coincide with major tourist routes, are perhaps, the best-known of Tanzania’s various peoples. Yet they are far from typical, in numbers or in lifestyle. They represent only about 1% of the country’s 120 or so ethnic groups.

The great majority of Tanzanians are Bantu-speaking tribes that moved into what is now Tanzania from the south-west, some hundreds of years ago, whereas the relatively few pastoralists, such as the Maasai and Datoga, came from the north. Bantu tribes include the Sukuma (Tanzania’s largest tribe), the Chagga, the Makonde, the He-He, the Go-Go, the Haya and the Nyamwezi.

Among the other ethnic groups are the Swahili, descendants of Arab settlers from the Gulf who intermarried with African women. Swahili means “coast” and most Swahili still live by the sea, on the mainland and in Zanzibar. They are not a distinct tribe but they have much in common, not least their first language, which of course bears the same name.

Another non-Bantu, non-pastoralist tribe is the Iraqw, who live and farm on the plateau between the Rift Valley and the Crater Highlands. They originated from the Horn of Africa or maybe even the Yemen.

Pastoralists include not only the Maasai but the Datoga (a cluster of clans and former enemies of the Maasai). Until fairly recently the young Datoga men would sometimes prove their manhood by killing a neighbouring tribesman and cutting off his hands or fingers etc as trophies, with which to impress their girl-friends. This habit was of course frowned upon and stopped by the government, though the Datoga “warriors” still kill lions occasionally, as the Maasai do, using only spears.

Like the Maasai they live mainly on milk – cattle are at the very centre of their lifestyle – though their family settlements and huts are very different from those of their former enemies. They live south of Ngorongoro around Mount Hanang.

The real indigenous people of Tanzania are the hunter-gathering Hadzabe, who live, as some Datoga do, along the southern shores of Lake Eyasi, south of Ngorongoro. Small in number, they are one of Tanzania’s most fascinating peoples. Hunting with immensely strong longbows and poisoned arrows, they can kill animals up to and including the size of elephants. They don’t build huts, have no chiefs, and their favourite food is baboon meat, which they say is “sweeter than chicken”. They sleep in the open or even in trees and caves, and have little time for the trappings of civilisation as we see it “We have our bows and arrows and the bush – everything else is taka-taka [rubbish]”. They speak a click language and have a disconcerting habit of changing their names when they feel like it.

Mr. Graham Mercer has been teaching at IST since 1977. He has long been fascinated by Africa’s wildlife and wild places. Born in Lancashire UK, Mr. Mercer first visited East Africa as a sailor in Britain’s Royal Navy. Mr. Mercer spends his leisure time traveling with his wife Anjum through Africa and the Indian subcontinent.

Please feel free to leave comments and questions for Mr. Mercer. He is more than happy to answer questions you may have about Tanzania’s ethnic groups.

One Response to Tanzania’s Ethnic Groups – A Visit with IST Graham Mercer

  1. Gary van Wyk says:

    Mr. Mercer,
    I recently studied your pie chart of Tanzania’s ethnic groups with interest. Who are the Kuramo?
    I also compared you chart with the data at: http://www.joshuaproject.net/countries.php?rog3=TZ, which provides quite different counts.
    Eagerly awaiting your answer.
    Gary van Wyk

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