Tanzania's Tribal Kaleidoscope
Issue 17
With a staggering 120 different ethnic groupings, Tanzania has one of the greatest concentrations of anthropological diversity in Africa. Graham Mercer introduces us to some of the country's more fascinating peoples.

Although Tanzania's population of 32 million consists predominantly of Bantu people, it is often the non-Bantu pastoralists or hunter-gatherers who catch the visitor's eye and imagination. All the purely "indigenous" peoples of Tanzania have probably been absorbed by other cultures, but at least two of the country's 120 different "tribes", the Sandawe and the Hadzabe, could claim to be heirs to this distinction.

The Sandawe are said to be the oldest of all Tanzania's ethnic groups, but although they speak a Bushman-like "click" language, they are these days cattle-owners and cultivators, having been influenced by neighbouring tribes. The Hadzabe, however, remain hunter-gatherers, and although they too are becoming absorbed into the lifestyles of those around them, they are one of Tanzania's most fascinating peoples.

They live in appropriately compelling landscapes: the dry, rock-strewn country south of the Crater Highlands, and the more lenient (but no less wild) bush and open grassland east of Lake Eyasi. With few needs, they are at home throughout these lands. Sometimes they sleep in trees, but more often on the bare earth, unafraid of wild animals and unimpressed by the huts and bomas (enclosures) of their pastoral neighbours or by the trappings of the tourists who sometimes visit them. In appropriate areas, they will braid the living wild euphorbia of the rocky hillsides into intricate shelters to mollify the sun's heat, like colonies of giant, ground-nesting weaver birds.

The Hadzabe don't look unusual. Women sport simple, sun-bleached shifts; men wear faded shorts. Their only adornments are rudimentary necklaces or bracelets of beads, made by women and girls from plastic bottles melted down over small open fires (lit by twirling an arrow shaft in a block of wood primed with natural tinder). But this commonplace appearance is misleading; few sensitive outsiders come away from meeting the Hadzabe without feeling that they have encountered something rare from their own ancient past.

Not that the Hadzabe are Noble Savages; they are neither noble nor savage. They admit to loving bhangi (marijuana), smoked in spindle-shaped pipes of light stone, to the accompaniment of much coughing (largely ritual, though tuberculosis is common). And they love drinking "whisky" made from sugar cane. They are a contented people, at ease with themselves and their environment. They have no huts, chiefs or politics, no ambitions but to be left to their simple, ancient way of life. All else, they will tell you, is "takataka" (Swahili for "rubbish").

They are largely gatherers rather than hunters, living on wild fruits such as the orange grewia berries that are gathered by the bowlful and devoured in a collective feeding frenzy. Edible roots, fungi, insects, grubs and birds' eggs, and occasionally wild honey, supplement this diet.

When the men do hunt (most often in the dry season), they use longbows with a pull of 45kg, strung with buffalo tendons. This is the equivalent of lifting two fully loaded suitcases one metre off the ground (the length of an arrow) with two fingers. The arrows are straightened over flame and flighted with vulture or eagle feathers. For large game they are fitted with steel heads, varying in size and shape depending on the scale of the intended prey. A tar-like poison is pasted over the tips, which are wrapped in leather strips until required. The poison can bring down an elephant within two hours, and a massive, malicious buffalo in much less.

Meat from an elephant keeps seven or eight families happy for a week. The hunter-gatherers love meat and will eat almost anything that moves, except fish, snakes, crocodile and hyaena. They even eat the big cats, relishing the flesh of the powerful forelegs, but their favourite meat is baboon - apparently "very sweet". They claim that other meat eventually satisfies them, but "we can eat baboon without stopping."

The Hadzabe share their homelands with an equally captivating but very different people, the cattle-herding Datoga, a cluster of related clans. They are one of the few former Maasai enemies that the latter greatly respected - with good reason, for the Datoga warriors were as fearless as their own, and perhaps more easily aroused to anger.

There are no wars these days, though cattle raids and skirmishes still occur, and young men still spear lions to death to impress Datoga women, who are highly excitable when a "lion-killer" visits their boma. They may offer him a favourite piece of jewellery, or much more besides. The hero's sexual prowess is discussed after his departure, with much jocularity. The "warriors", obviously highly-motivated, will also spear elephant to win female attention. This might seem rather drastic, until one appreciates that until recently things were even more extreme. Ritualistic killings involved human victims (bits of whom would be presented to the women) at least into the early 1980s, much to the chagrin of the Tanzanian government.

Datoga girls are worth impressing, beautiful by any standards in their traditional, long-fringed leather skirts and sleeveless tops, elaborately decorated with multi-coloured beads, their necks ringed with brass coils and their arms encircled with bracelets cut from discarded white plastic bottles. They have anatural grace and poise, and would look equally at home on the catwalk as they do among their cattle.

However there is competition nearer home, for the Maasai girls of the adjacent highlands and Masai Steppe are equally elegant, with statuesque proportions and fine features that reveal their Nilo-Hamitic origins. Like all the pastoralists, whose diet relies heavily on milk (their male counterparts occasionally mix it with blood taken from a living cow), they have perfect teeth and disarming smiles. However their lives, like those of most African women, are not always conducive to smiling. Maasai society is very much male-dominated and female life can be relentlessly hard.

Both women and men are circumcised at puberty, without anaesthetic. Young men are expected not to flinch or cry out. Such stoicism is inculcated from infancy. Boys and girls have their two lower incisors knocked out in early childhood to allow them to be fed milk in the event of lockjaw (once a common threat) and all children earn their keep. Boys as young as five might be given responsibility for smaller livestock, even in areas where potentially dangerous game exists, and girls soon learn that life as a Maasai woman is relentlessly demanding.

Yet there are many compensations. Young "warriors" and girls (some of whom would seem shockingly young to western mind-sets) spend much of their time living in special camps, or manyattas, enjoying each other to the full. Maasai society is remarkably tolerant and democratic, and a visit to a Maasaienkang, or family encampment, leaves most outsiders feeling that they have been among a generally cheerful, well-balanced and dignified people. And although the days of the ritual lion hunts and the thrills of cattle raiding are largely over, the Maasai warrior still looks striking as he strides out across the almost sacred grasslands, crimson or red-chequered shuka wrapped loosely around his lithe frame, long-bladed spear glinting in the sun.

The young men of the Sukuma, Tanzania's largest tribe, also used to kill lions to prove their manhood, but their lifestyles today are quite different from those of the Maasai or Datoga. They are Bantu, and were traditionally cultivators as well as cattle-herders. Many of them now grow cotton around the south-eastern shores of Lake Victoria, where they are based. But old traditions endure. Like other Tanzanian peoples, the Sukuma practise elaborate ancestor worship, and love dance and drumming (their museum outside Mwanza contains great tribal drums said to be two centuries old). Their most famous dances involve snakes, including deadly species and huge pythons which are wrapped about the gyrating dancers and which sometimes (unsurprisingly) try to escape, much to the alarm of onlookers.

Another Bantu tribe famous for dancing is the Makonde, though the dancers use masks and stilts rather than snakes to dramatize their skills, spinning and twisting with remarkable co-ordination high above the ground. Reputedly aloof and superstitious, the Makonde file their teeth to points and decorate their faces and bodies with patterns of scars, or cicatrices. Their most notable achievements, however, are not in dancing or body ornamentation but in woodcarving. The best of their black-wood (African ebony) sculptures, traditionally erotic or disturbingly animistic, are recognized worldwide as outstanding works of art.

Once you begin to delve beneath the surface, the variety of peoples coexisting in Tanzania is staggering. Each has its own story. Along the coast, the Swahili are a laid-back mixture of Arab and African blood, who have given Tanzania its national language and Islam a particularly tropical African interpretation. The business-minded Chagga live on Kilimanjaro; the Hehe once defied the military might of colonial Germany; the Nyamwezi ("People of the Moon") were once porters for the slave and ivory caravans; and the last Kilindi sultan, alive until recently, was invited to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. That still leaves 109 intriguing peoples. Tanzania remains an anthropologist's dream.

Graham Mercer is a freelance travel writer, photographer and guidebook author. He lives in Dar es Salaam.

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