Sandawe people



The Sandawe are an indigenous  hunter-gathering  and click-speaking ethnic group of Southeast Africa, residing in the Kondoa district of Southeast Arusha in the Dodoma Region of north-central Tanzania.

They have lived predominantly between the Bubu and Mponde rivers for eons before Europeans colonized Africa in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Sandawe population is currently estimated to be 60,000.

Sandawe ethnic map



The Sandawe people are a small group living in north central Tanzania in Kondo District, near the town of Kondoa, between the Mponde and Bubu rivers.



The Sandawe are racially different from the surrounding tribes.  Whereas most of the tribes in Tanzania are Bantu people, and the nearby Maasai are Nilotic, the Sandawe speak a San language.  Some Sandawe have features more like the San people of southern Africa, while others look more like their Bantu neighbours.

They have a coppery brown skin and tend to be smaller than the surrounding peoples.  Photos show some Sandawe to have knotty hair like that of the Bushmen, commonly referred to as peppercorn hair.  They are reported to have the epicanthic fold of the eyelid (like East Asian peoples) common to the Bushmen.

The Sandawe are a remnant of the earlier inhabitants of the area, thought to have once covered all of eastern and southern Africa.  Another related people in Tanzania are the Hatsa (or Hadzapi).  Some think the pygmies in Rwanda, Burundi and Zaire are related, though they now speak the Bantu language of their neighbors and have more Bantu features.

Sandawe People


The Sandawe are a small remaining group of a race of people that originally lived over much of Africa.  The San, called the Bushmen by the Dutch in South Africa, were the first people we know of in the Rift Valley.  As they came under pressure from invading and immigrant peoples, the non-aggressive hunter-gatherers often moved away or were absorbed by intermarriage, or more often were killed off.  The San as a group are considered to be the oldest human lineage in the world.

Southern Cushites then Eastern Cushites were followed by the Highland Nilotes (Kalenjin Cluster), then the early Bantu.  Oral traditions of the Kikuyu of Kenya refer to the Athi (the ground people), whom the Kikuyu paid for the right to move into their land.  The Athi are thought to be the original San people of the area.

Some San peoples seem to be in existence now speaking the Bantu language of their dominant neighbors. The herding and tilling of the immigrant peoples, with their metal implements and weapons, upset the Sandawe way of life and sources of food.



The Sandawe language includes click sounds as consonants and is also tonal.  Totally unrelated to other languages around them, it is difficult to learn.  The language is related to the languages of the Bushmen (San) and Hottentots (Khoi) of southern Africa and is classified as a Khoisan language.  It is considered to constitute a separate branch of the Khoisan family of languages.

The Hadzapi, also in northern Tanzania, are the only other aboriginal people in Eastern Africa still speaking a Khoisan language.  Their language is also so different that it likewise constitutes aseparate branch of Khoisan.  Comparative linguists theorize from comparison of the Sandawe and Hadzape languages with other San languages that the point of origin of San speech was here in Eastern Africa.

Sandawe People


The Sandawe are known as a monogamous people, in contrast to the traditional practice of their neighbours.  Some sources, however, comment that they have recently adopted polygamy from their Bantu neighbours.  They have been associated with rock art that is very similar to the rock art of the southern San peoples, but with some unique features.  See links at the end of this profile for more on this topic.

They have traditionally been hunters and gatherers of food, moving their portable shelters wherever there was game.  In the past generation, the village-based development program of the Tanzanian central government has encouraged the Sandawe to develop a more sedentary lifestyle based on farming.  Maybe one-fourth of the Sandawe have migrated to the areas around the towns of Arusha and Dodoma.

The Sandawe now own cattle and cultivate with metal hoes instead of their original wooden digging sticks, but still maintain their hunting, including pig and elephant.  The men also still gather wild honey and women gather wild fruits and vegetables and dig roots with sticks.

Because of their healthy lifestyle and wide diet, the Sandawe have a much higher level of health than their Bantu neighbors.  They do not suffer the kwashiorkor or other deficiency conditions of their neighbors.  During the 20th century, the Sandawe have shifted from their traditional movable structures called sundu, to more solid rectangular houses of the tembe type of their Bantu neighbors.

Sandawe hold all-night dances to the music of drums in the moonlight.  The Sandawe have a great musical and dance tradition, with beer-drinking at their celebrations.  There are celebrations for each area of life, each with its own music: hunting, hoeing, circumcision, etc.  Curing rituals have their own music.  Their instruments are musical bows and a trough zither.

The elders tell the children stories of the past, conveying their history, traditions and wisdom.  They also value riddles and have an art of humorous insult.  In many of their traditional stories the Sandawe identify with the small animals whose cunning and intelligence gives them victory over their more powerful enemies.  Men today commonly wear the Muslim brimless hat, called kofia, common to other peoples in central Tanzania.

Sandawe People


The Sandawe are hunter-gatherers. They cultivate the soil with a mattock, fertilize with manure, and keep cattle, sheep, and goats. The men clear the land, tend the animals, and hunt, while the women do the cultivation and food gathering. The staple food is millet, supplemented with fat, milk, and butter, meat being rarely eaten.


Socio-political and Cultural practices

For some 30,000 years, archaeological evidence indicates they were the only human inhabitants of Tanzania along with Hazabes. They lived in small family groups of about 25 men, women and children. Households, each comprising a nuclear family, are organized into patrilineal exogamous clans that form the basis for autonomous local communities.

They hunted with bows and arrows tipped with deadly poison that enabled them to kill very large prey, such as giraffe and eland and even displace large carnivores from kills to scavenge flesh from the carcasses. Smaller game was caught in traps or snares. However, sixty to eighty percent of their diet consisted of a wide variety of seasonally available plant foods. Large animals required cooperative communal hunts. When one was killed, the hunter whose poisoned arrow penetrated deep enough to permit the poison to work, owned the kill. It was then his responsibility to oversee its distribution amongst the rest of the hunters and the community. Sharing and gift-giving were strongly emphasized.

Anthropologists classify them as a “band society” in which there are no elected leaders, chiefs, or spokespersons. Social determined by the general consensus of all adult or near-adult members, irrespective of sex. The status of women was relatively equal to that of men.

Many aspects of their culture show the influence of their Bantu neighbours. Their isolated wooden houses with roofs of clay are built in the lee of the wind. Their traditional clothes were of hika-grass, feathers, and hides, and the dominant cosmetic practices include shaving of hair, earlobe piercing, and face tattooing.

Marriage, which is monogamous and requires bridewealth, is forbidden with parallel cousins and preferred with the maternal uncle’s daughter. Residence is patrilocal, often after an initial period near the wife’s parents.

Sandawe People

Religious Belief

The Sandawe believe in a Supreme being and Creator God known as Warongwe, who was so abstract, distant, and unrelated to the well-being of normal life that it was rarely prayed to or given sacrifices. Their religion consisted of a long line of ancestors and a strongly-knit extended family system that mediated between living beings and a very remote all-powerful God.

Spirits are still believed to occupy rock shelters and shallow caves in the hills and are respected and even feared. So as not to disturb these spirits, the rock shelters were avoided by all but their shamans; no animals were herded there, and no wood cut or twig broken. Once a year the Wasandawe would go to the caves to sacrifice in order to make sure the spirits would not be spiteful and interfere with the general well being. In the hills, groups of people would shout prayers to the spirits, assuring them that no one had come to disturb them, but had come to pay their respects.

These prayers were shouted as loudly as possible, to make sure that the spirits could hear them. The Sandawe show great reverence for bees, honey, and also respect for small cunning animals who outwitted larger enemies. Part human-part animal figures representing transformed shamans (called “their anthropes”) are quite common in Kondoa.

A number of cultural attributes of the Sandawe are similar to those of the southern San. This included the Sandawe girl’s puberty ritual (the phek’umo) and the southern San eland bull dance. Both rituals involved women bending over and suggestively bearing their buttocks to attract the male dancers. According to anthropologist Eric ten Raa, what the Sandawe women were in fact doing in this ritual, was re-enacting “the role of the moon in the basic creation tradition, according to which, the moon entices the sun into the sky for the first celestial copulation.

The whole rite is held under the aegis of the moon and has the explicit purpose of ‘making the country fertile.’’ It is also believed to control the fertility cycle in women. There are other Sandawe beliefs that venerate the stars and the seasons. Like the San, they also revered the praying mantis who was considered the divine messenger of god.

The Sandawe simbo rituals involves violent trance experience as well as certain beliefs and metaphors, like transformation into a lion.” The majority of Sandawe shamans induced trance (also known as altered states of consciousness) through vigorous all-night ritual dancing, sometimes lasting up to twenty-four hours, accompanied by the singing and clapping of women. Eventually the dancers suffered the effects of this activity in the form of dehydration and hyperventilation that led to stiffening of the muscles and, finally, bodily collapse. At that point, shamans are said to have left their bodies, transformed into animals and traveled to the spirit world that existed beneath and above the real world. This enabled them to acquire supernatural potency and negotiate with deities, their deceased ancestors and battle evil spirits for the benefit of their communities.

Returning to the material world with their newly acquired power, they were able to cure sickness, make rain, control the movements of game animals so their hunters could successfully ambush them, restore and maintain harmony in their communities, and perform other vital tasks. Upon recovering from trance, they painted their cosmological experiences on the walls of rock shelters.

Sandawe People

Political Situation

The traditional living patterns of the Sandawe left them isolated from other peoples.  They were pressed by immigrant groups for millennia.  Into modern times they were outside the political and social mainstream.  The socialist Tanzania government forced the Sandawe to limit their movement and settle down.  As they lost their hunting areas, their sources of food diminished, but they found it hard to make a transition.  Their experience with farming and herding has resulted in economic disaster.