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.

J. C. Trevor: The Physical Characters of the Sandawe


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.



The original vegetation of Kondoa consisted of savannah woodland with small pockets of montane forest and savannah grassland (Kessy 2005). The original vegetation has been subjected to many centuries of human activities such as cultivation, grazing, fire and wood harvesting. The programme Hifadhi Ardhi Dodoma (HADO)2 intervened in 1980s and helped to regenerate natural vegetation. The natural vegetation of Kondoa supported a variety of wildlife that was exploited by hunter-gatherer societies.

The present day vegetation is dominated by savannah grassland, miombo woodland, scrub and, in a few areas, thickets. The common trees are Brachystegia sp., Pterocarpus sp., Angloensis sp., Dicanthium sp. and Baobab sp. In the valleys Acacia kirkii, Tortillis sp. and Delenix alata sp. are common trees (Aitken 1950). The ridge crests with their granite outcroppings and thin stony soil do not support much more than a handful of thorny shrubs of Preudo posoppis, Combretum, Burthia, Grewia and Bussia sp. (Aitken 1950).

Generally the climatic pattern in Central Tanzania is determined by the movement of the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) between the northern and the southern hemisphere (Christiansson 1981). On this basis Kondoa experiences a rainfall regime between 600mm and 800mm with an annual average of 640mm. The rainy season is between October/November and March/April with a short dry spell in between, in January and February (Mung’ong’o 1999). The genuine dry season lasts between six to eight months from May to October. The small rivers, such as the river Kolo at Mongomi wa Kolo, are ephemeral, flowing during and after downpours. There were seasonal swamps but these have silted up due to deposition of eroded materials from recently cleared sections of highland. Mongomi wa Kolo therefore sits in a wooded landscape with seasonal water.


Traditional origin

According to Sandawe oral history "The Sandawe entered the country (Tanzania) which they now inhabit about a century ago, most of it being then unoccupied. They came from a region called Mambaka in south-western Usandawe near Ugogo, where a few still live. The original Sandawe were lighter in skin colour than are those of today. * They were at one time hunters, without stock or agriculture, but they collected and ate wild honey as well as edible roots. Some five hundred years ago they met Nyaturu and Tatogat with cattle (humbu, a corruption of the Nyaturu ng'ombe). These the Sandawe at first took to be wild beasts and wished to hunt but did not do so when it was seen that they were tended by humans. The Sandawe were taught stock-keeping by the Nyaturu and the Tatoga, from whom they acquired cattle,sheep and goats in exchange for their women.

The bridewealth was four cattle (five in the case of a virgin) and eight sheep or goats. A sheep or a goat was eaten at the marriage feast. The Nyaturu also instructed the Sandawe in husbandry, as the Tatoga were then purely pastoral. About four hundred and fifty years ago, after the Sandawe had almost abandoned hunting, there was a severe famine, caused by failure of the rains. Perhaps half the tribe, which was smaller than it is now, left Usandawe, never to be heard of again. Those remaining had their stock stolen by the Nyaturu and the Tatoga, and they began once more to hunt and to collect honey. The famine'lasted seven years, in the course of which some Sandawe became serfs to the Nyaturu. Others, at the end of it, returned to agriculture. There have been three subsequent famines, the first, due to locusts, fifty years ago, the second at the end of the 1914-1918 war, and the third in 1942-43. Over fifty Sandawe clans (boyo) exist, some of which take their names from nearby hills. In the early days there were not chiefs but only clan councils. The Alagwa clan of Tatoga origin were rainmakers. The Elewa were half Gogo. The Bisa are a Sandawe clan speaking a language allied to Ngomvia. It is not certain who made the rock-paintings in Usandawe but " people say the Portuguese."



About 60,000 population of Sandawe people speaks one of the Africa`s click language  in the Dodoma region of Tanzania. African click languages have been classified into 5 groups: Ju, !Ui-Taa, Khoe, Sandawe, and Hadza (Ehret 2000; Güldemann and Vossen 2000). Linguists often group the Ju, Khoe, and !Ui-Taa languages into a southern African Khoisan (SAK) branch and consider the eastern African Hadza and Sandawe click languages to be more distantly related (Heine and Nurse 2000). However, recent investigations (Güldemann forthcoming) suggest that Sandawe may be related to the Khoe family regardless of the validity of Khoesan as a whole.

Language use is vigorous among both adults and children, with people in some areas monolingual. Sandawe had generally been classified as a member of the defunct Khoisan family since Albert Drexel in the 1920s, due to the presence of clicks in the language.

Sandawe has two main dialects, the differences between which are ‘slight and gradual’ (ten Raa 1970:147) and include speech speed and other pronunciation features, lexis, grammatical phenomena and the use of taboo language. Speakers of different dialects report no problems with mutual intelligibility. The two dialects are referred to here as western Sandawe and eastern Sandawe, corresponding to Dtelha (‘proper Sandawe’) and Bisa (‘uncouth Sandawe’) in ten Raa’s work (1970:131). Western Sandawe can be further divided into two sub-varieties, with one being labelled western and the other central. The differences between these two varieties are not as considerable as those which differentiate the western and eastern dialects.
Most Sandawe also speak Swahili to a level that allows basic conversation with neighbouring peoples. Swahili competency depends partly on geographical location, with the Sandawe living in more remote areas being less likely to know Swahili well, and partly on age and education level, with older and less educated Sandawe being less familiar with Swahili



The Sandawe today are considered descendants of an original Bushman-like people. They and may share a common ancestor with the Khoe speaking people of southern Africa. Sandawe people had lived in Tanzania for many years before the Iron-age Bantu people came to settle in East Africa.
Agricultural Bantu (Niger-Kordofanian) speakers, originating from West Africa, reached northwestern Tanzania ∼2,500 years ago (Newman 1995). According to Iliffe (1979), the linguistically and culturally divergent groups of Tanzania interacted extensively following their arrival in the region, and ethnic labels have been highly fluid, suggesting that there might be little genetic divergence among any of the Tanzanian populations.

The Sandawe, who currently live within 150 km of the Hadza, are the only other population in eastern Africa whose language has been classified as part of the Khoisan language family. Series of genetic  research has been performed on both mtDNA and Y chromosome variation of the Sandawe, Hadza, and neighboring Tanzanian populations.

A new genetic data show that the Sandawe and southern African click speakers share rare mtDNA and Y chromosome haplogroups; however, common ancestry of the 2 populations dates back >35,000 years. These data also indicate that common ancestry of the Hadza and Sandawe populations dates back >15,000 years. These findings suggest that at the time of the spread of agriculture and pastoralism, the click-speaking populations were already isolated from one another and are consistent with relatively deep linguistic divergence among the respective click languages.

During the mid-19th century, when Germany began to colonize sub-Saharan Africa, some Sandawe clans used their prestige as rainmakers to lay claim to chiefly status, but were never really accepted as such. Others defied European rule and the mass migrations of arriving colonists around them. The Germans were told that a man named Mtoro wielded some authority. He was officially made headman or leader of the recently established Nyamwezi colony.

The Sandawe so hated Mtoro and the Nyamwezi settlers that they threw them out in 1902, seizing their cattle. Lieutenant Kohlerman was called to keep the peace and within three days killed 800 Sandawe men, reportedly without suffering a casualty, while a second expedition then came and captured 1,100 cattle. The district commander reported 'progress':

The rock-strewn land of inhabited by a still thoroughly warlike, predatory, and unexplored mountain people whose members do not recognize German rule, live far apart and tolerate no headmen or superiors, and have hereto rid themselves in drastic fashion of those experimentally installed by the station. We now have the situation well in hand.

Encouraged, the German colony withdrew its military. But the Sandawe attacked as the soldiers left, announcing a willingness to confront a new expedition, and began harassing the Nyamwezi. In the end, the Sandawe were 'pacified', and 22 headmen were appointed chiefs, mainly from the traditional rainmaking clans. One of the headmen said, "If any one defies my order, I will appeal to the European Sergeant Linke. He is one who punishes with fetters and the whip....Therefore, my people see that you live in peace."

With the end of colonialism, however, the institution of chiefdom quickly crumbled and disappeared. In telling their stories, the Sandawe identify with small animals that use their cunning and intelligence to outwit their dangerous and more powerful enemies. As Tom von Prince understood it in his book Gegen Araber und Wahehe, "the deathly fear that must have existed to drive these people thousands of kilometers from their homes south of the equator, into the middle of countless strange tribes to find peace, can only be guessed at."



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.


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.



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.


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.


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.