Datoga people


Datoga / Mangati

Datoga  people also known as the Mang'ati in Swahili, are agro-pastoral nomadic Nilotic speaking people living in Singida and Manyara Region of north central Tanzania near  Mt. Hanang, Lake Basotu, and Lake Eyasi. The Datoga occupies, precisely, the areas around the Rift Valley in the regions of Arusha, Sangida, Dodoma, Shinyanga, Tabora and Mara. About 70% are found in the present Hanang and Mbulu district Arusha (Manyara) Region.

The Datoga consider themselves the oldest tribe in Tanzania (the Maasai and Bushmen also claim this fame). The Datoga are proud people and are first and foremost fierce warrior’s, known for their stealth ability to eliminate their enemy.

Traditionally, young men had to prove themselves by killing an "enemy of the people," defined as any human being not a Datoga, or one of the dangerous wild animals, such as elephant, lion or buffalo. Other Tanzanians and outsiders consider the Datoga primitive, because they resist education and development. They live in low standards of hygiene, and have high infant mortality.

The range of population estimates for Datoga living in Tanzania varies between 30-76,000. In the mid-1990s it was estimated that there were approximately 30,000 self-identified Datoga scattered across Tanzania and even some parts of Malawi.

Rates of fertility among Datoga are higher than among other pastoral populations, but tend to be lower than their agricultural neighbors. Borgerhoff Mulder (1989) identified seasonality in Datoga births that corresponds to rainfall, although this trend is more prevalent among semi-nomadic communities. General health is poor compared to other groups in the area, marked by a high rate of infant and young child mortality, poor growth and nutrition, and increased prevalence of infectious disease (Sellen 2000, 2003; Young 2008).

Datoga are not as well known as some of the other pastoral groups in Tanzania such as the Maasai, however their visibility has increased in recent years. Datoga have received local and international media attention, as well as increased visibility related to cultural tourism in northern Tanzania. As a result, it is now possible to find pictures of Datoga wearing traditional dress on YouTube, Flicker, as well as on many safari sites promoting trips to northern Tanzania. The impact of cultural tourism on Datoga communities is unclear at this point, however rates of alcoholism have increased in many areas where tourists are consistently present.



The Datoga people live in Tanzania. The most general name for this widely-dispersed ethnic group is Datoga, though it is sometimes spelled Tatooga. In the outside world like Tabora, Shinyanga and Mara regions, they are often known by the Sukuma name for them, Taturu or Wataturu. In Arusha, Dodoma and Singida Regions the Datoga are known as Barabaig or Mang'ati. The name Mang'ati comes from Maasai word "Ilmanga`ti" which means an "enemy." The Datoga earned this name because, according to Jacob (1979:36) they "have always... bested pastoral Maasai in their occasional bouts of reciprocal cattle raiding and small-scale wars."(Ndagala 1978:2)
The best-known and most numerous sub-tribe of the Datoga peoples are the pastoral Barabaig, who reside chiefly in that part of the northern volcanic highlands dominated by Mount Hanang (3,418 metres). The sacred nature of this mountain makes it an important theme in Barabaig myth and song. In some people lists, the Barabaig are listed as a separate people, but as speaking the Datoga language.


The Datoga language, with its dialects, is a Southern Nilote language, related distantly to the Kalenjin languages of Kenya. About 20% also speak the language of their Southern Cushitic neighbors, Iraqw. A language closely related to Datoga is Omotik, the speech of another small northern Tanzania people.

The Omotik are close in cluture and language, related genetically and linguistically to the Datoga. More distantly related to the Kalenjin cluster of Nilotic peoples, the Omotik show clear signs of being linguistically influenced by Kalenjin languages in recent history. (The Omotik are one of the groups commonly called Dorobo.) Only about 5% speak Swahili, the national language of Tanzania. This further accentuates their isolation. The Barabaig dialect is spoken by over half the Datoga. Their literacy rate is only about 1% and there is very little available in their language. Schools available are conducted in Swahili.


There is little concrete history of the Datoga people. Their migration history has been reconstructed through comparative linguistics and study of oral traditions of the Datoga and their neighbors. The Datoga are linguistically and culturally classified as Highland (Southern) Nilotes. Their origins are thought to be in the Southern Sudan or western Ethiopia highlands, probably 3000 years ago.

A gradual southward migration of their ancestral people resulted in a settlement of the highland areas of Kenya and Tanzania by speakers of Nilotic languages, herding and ultimately farming in those rich highlands by about AD 1500. These Highland Nilotes now fall into two groups, the Kalenjin cluster of peoples in Kenya, speaking several closely-related languages, and Datoga, whose language is more distantly related.

They are characteristically known for keeping to themselves. Datoga consider anyone other than Datogan an enemy. They refused to engage themselves in colonization and vehemently resent the government, making them an enemy of the state. However, their current situation has placed them in a pivotal challenge of continuing their traditional existence. An ongoing challenge has been Datoga’s poor attention to health and education but has been slowly changing. Until recently only 5% of Datoga spoke the national language Swahili. The current challenges facing Datoga are the intrusion of other tribes for tourism and investment purposes, cutting of trees for making coal, Maasai stealing their cows, and the government selling land and moving the Datoga to drier pastures. Datoga’s resistance to peace partnering with other tribes has made it difficult to create empathy for their cause.


Datoga self-identify as pastoral and place incredible cultural meaning on cattle, however, like many other people they rely on a range of economic subsistence strategies including farming, market, and wage based labor.

The extent to which Datoga rely on semi-nomadic herding strategies varies across the region, with some communities relying extensively on traditional practices and utilizing primarily a milk based diet, while other communities rely on intensive agriculture and intermarry with other ethnic groups (especially the Iraqw in Mbulu region) (Rekdal and Blystad 2000). Among pastoral Datoga, herds consist of goats, sheep, and donkeys, but cattle are by far the most important domestic animal (Sieff 1997).

They resemble the Maasai in culture. The meat, fat, blood, milk, hide, horns, tendons and cow dung of every animal have either practical or ritual purposes. They were formerly nomadic, depending largely on milk products for their diet, and moving whenever the needs of their cattle dictated. Now, however, many farm a plot of maize and sometimes beans and millet.
Datoga as farmers are specialists in onion plantations. They live a very difficult life, in semi-arid areas, where water is hard to obtain and often unclean.

Datoga Sub-tribes (Emojiga)

The Datoga comprise some 13 sub-sections (emojiga), spread out in smaller and larger enclaves over large parts of the Tanzanian mainland from the Grummeti River in Mara region in the north to Manyoni, Singida Region, in the south. Kjarby (1976;6) notes that less than 8 of the emojiga (sub-section) of the Datoga tribes retained their original identity and that most of them were being assimilated by the neighbouring peoples (Loiske 1990:79). Tomikawa (1979) lists 13 emojiga which he calls sub-tribes and like Kjarby single out Barabaig as largest, more or less homogeneous section or a separate tribe (people). Traditionally, a section "was a largest political and ritual unit in Datoga society, and consisted of autonomous territorial groups (Tomakawa 1979-15).

Between themselves members of each sections refer to each section by its appropriate names.
The following are the seven Datooga tribes:


Datoga households

Datoga households and social networks over time. Traditionally patrilineal and polygynous, wealthy Datoga men would often marry multiple wives from outside their clan and maintain multiple households to access the widest diversity of agricultural and grazing lands. In fact, it was not uncommon for a Datoga man to marry at least one Iraqw woman to gain access to farm land as well as additional cattle. Families often had an elaborate kin and community network that they could rely on in times of scarcity. Wealthy households, commonly supported poorer households in the community through herd-sharing and other cooperative forms of resource distribution.

Now, Datoga households are becoming gradually smaller and more isolated from social networks. This is particularly true in areas where Datoga continue to rely significantly on pastoral activities. The identification of this shift is documented in work by Lane (1991, 1996), Sieff (1995, 1997, 1999), and Ndagala (1991), who expressed concern about the differential impact of land degradation and privatization on more marginal groups such as Datoga almost 20 years ago.

In part, the shift in household composition is due to changes in labor activities that rely more on male labor out migration, as well as larger structural adjustment policies that increase the cost of livestock, farming products (maize, beans, rice), education, and medical care. As a result, many family sizes are shrinking, with men generally only marrying one wife, and women often being left as defacto household heads when men migrate for labor.

It is not the changes in family size and shifts to different primary economic activities that has led to the increased marginalization of Datoga households, however. It is larger structural forces such as the neoliberal movement toward privatization of land, increased pressure from agriculture (both domestic and commercial), and a history of Machiavellian state policy towards the Barabaig, that has pushed many semi-nomadic Datoga into more marginal areas. Now semi-nomadic Datoga often occupy spaces with limited access to water and arable land, as well as restricted access to basic social services. This situation is exacerbated by the breakdown of traditional social support networks. While community networks may remain fairly intact, many long-distance relationships with kin have suffered, leaving many Datoga feeling more vulnerable and uncertain about the future (Blystad 2000; Lane 1991, Ndagala 1991; Sieff 1995; Young 2008).


Attitude towards Children

In traditional Datoga society, the illegitimate child was considered to be clanless. Moreover, “[a]doption of Barabaig by Barabaig is not practised. But there is a system of adoption of foreigners into the clan and tribe” including Nyaturu who had been enlisted to help with herding, whose employers treated them as their own children, for example, by providing cattle for bride wealth (Huntingford 1953:98-99).

Klima reports that a high mortality rate in Barabaig children necessitated “the institution of sale and adoption of children from neighbouring tribes” (1970:48). This unwillingness of Datoga to foster Datoga is still reported to be a feature of the culture, and fostering of a handicapped child would be considered highly unusual in Datoga culture. An orphan would be cared for by a relative allocated for the task, but not by a neighbour.

Children are valued by the Datoga, indeed it is suggested that “Datoga men and women intensely desire children” (Blystad & Rekdal 2004:632). Children born outside marriage are considered the property of the mother‟s father. Child fostering in which a child is transferred to the care of a woman other than his natural mother, has been observed in Datoga families, for example, as company and help for a widowed grandmother, to obtain extra help with herding, or if a family is too poor to feed a child they may allow him to be fostered by a wealthier family, who benefit from the child‟s labour (Sieff 1995:21-27). A childless couple will often be given a child or two by relatives who have many children (Blystad & Rekdal 2004:633).


Views on Sexual relations and Illegitimacy

The Datoga traditionally condemned pregnancy out of wedlock (Blystad 1995:90-92). It is reported that “a child born to unmarried parents can suffer severe hardship, since he or she will lack not only a legitimate father from whom to gain a clan name, but also a category of relatives from whom to receive gifts of cattle, protection and support.

The elaborate ritual impurity customs related to premarital pregnancies and births are greatly feared … [with] long-term isolation for the mother and her child in a special hut” (Olsen 2002:122). Thus the illegitimate Datoga child was highly disadvantaged and vulnerable, and would have many obstacles to becoming an independent adult.

In traditional Datoga culture, it is acceptable to have sexual relations with specified people other than one‟s spouse. It has been reported that while many marriages lack warmth, sexual relationships between a woman and her husband‟s younger brother are common, and may have a romantic element not present in the marriage relationship. This puts the Datoga at high risk of HIV infection (Blystad 1995:92-94), which in turn affects the well-being of children by depleting family resources while paying for health care as well as producing orphans.


Social gathering and fun

For the Datoga, dancing and brewing of honey beer is associated with special occasions such as funerals (Blystad 1992:113; Klima 1970:56,102).

“With the tremendous transformations taking place in Datoga communities, not the least with the increase in contact with outside peoples who brew a large variety of brews on which there is no customary restrictions, the consumption of alcohol has increased substantially” (Blystad & Rekdal 2004:636).


Religious Belief

The Datoga supreme deity is Aseeta, “an androgynous, powerful, and inherently good deity, invested with immense creative potential” (Blystad & Rekdal 2004:630) who can be communicated with by the mediation of ancestral spirits. These ancestral spirits talk to diviners, are appealed to in prayer, and can bless or punish (Rekdal & Blystad 1999:139-145).

The majority of Datoga maintain animistic beliefs and practices, and respect ancestors. They are said to practice divination, rain-making, witchcraft and sorcery. About 1% of Datoga are thought to be Christian (Jenkins 2005a). A Datoga Bible is currently in preparation.

Many Datoga in the urban part of Haydom village are now practising Christians; the Lutheran church has the largest membership, while the Catholic church is also well attended and there are several smaller churches of other denominations, some of which are Pentecostal. The churches appear to be important and influential institutions in the village, and have helped in food distribution in times of famine. They preach the importance of helping others less fortunate than oneself, although there is currently only one small-scale organised programme to assist vulnerable individuals in society.


Cultural identity

The Datoga themselves blend in with their environment, their dress being the color of the reddish brown soil. Only on closer inspection will they appear colorful with their reddish, patched leather dresses, bead work, and brass bracelets and necklaces.

A prominent decoration is tatooing of circular patterns around the eyes. This people are part of the broad Nilotic migration from the Sudan along the Nile River centuries ago. They were cut off from other Highland Nilotes by later migrations of Bantu and Plains Nilotic peoples like the Maasai.

The Highland Nilotes are distantly related to the Plains Nilotes like the Samburu, Maasai and Karamajong-Turkana and the River Nilotes like the Luo. They were herders, but have diversified to include agriculture in recent times. The Datoga are proud people, with a reputation as fierce warriors.


Datoga traditional dress

Traditional dress for Datoga men and women is commonly seen, especially in the rural areas. Men wear a „Maasai blanket‟, often of a red colour, around their shoulders over short trousers and a shirt, and carry a stick with a widened end.

Women traditionally wear a leather cape, or a piece of woven cloth, often of a red colour. Married women are distinguished by a special skirt made of thin strips of leather. Women are often adorned with metal neck, arm, ear and ankle ornaments, and beads may be sewn on to clothes or worn as decoration (Blystad 1992:70; Blystad & Rekdal 2004:630; Huntingford 1953:101; Jenkins 2005a; Klima 1970:8-9).


Life and Life after death

Traditionally the Datoga have considerable respect for the dying, as the dead are believed to become guardian spirits. However, they fear corpses; those in contact with the dead, or who have had a miscarriage, have restricted contact with others for prolonged periods. „Ordinary‟ people may be buried in the living compound, but every year, a small number of revered elders are buried in grand communal funerals in large cone-shaped mounds (Blystad & Rekdal 2004:637).
It has been observed that Datoga value their migrating pastoral lifestyle, their traditional dances and dress, and their councils (including the „open meeting‟, „clan meeting‟, „youth meeting‟, „married women‟s meeting‟), beer drinks, and festivals when honey mead is consumed (Blystad & Rekdal 2004:630-6; Wilson 1952:39,46-7). These meetings appear to no longer occur in Haydom village; cross-cultural groups are called together to meet when a community crisis arises, such as a child getting lost, as noted in section 1.2.5 (William, P. 2007. Personal interview, 12 December. Haydom).