Fipa people


Fipa / Afipa / Wafipa

The Fipa (or Wafipa) are a Bantu ethno-linguistic group based in the Sumbawanga Rural and Nkasi districts of Rukwa Region in southwestern Tanzania speaking the Fipa and Mambwe languages.

Location. Ufipa (the country of the Fipa) consists of a plateau about 1,800 meters in elevation, with some adjacent territory in the Rukwa Valley to the east and along the Lake Tanganyika shore to the west. The total land area of Ufipa is about 65,000 square kilometers. The climate alternates between a six-month wet season, beginning in November, and a six-month dry season, beginning in April.

The Fipa of Tanzania are numbering 1,010,000 (

Fipa People map


Identification. The Fipa are a Bantu-speaking people of southwestern Tanzania in East-Central Africa. The name "Fipa" appears to have been bestowed on them by nineteenth-century traders and means "people of the escarpment." It was later adopted by German and British colonial administrators as a convenient label for this people.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Fipa language clearly belongs, through its grammatical structure and vocabulary, to the great family of Bantu languages whose speakers inhabit two-thirds of the African continent. Fipa is classified by linguists as belonging to a subgroup that includes Bemba, most of whose members are to be found to the south and southwest of Ufipa, in northern Zambia. Fipa itself is divided into a number of dialects, of which the most important is called Sukuuma (with no apparent connection to the people and language of a similar name in northeastern Tanzania). Most Fipa are also fluent in Swahili, the national language of Tanzania.


History and Cultural Relations

Linguistic evidence suggests that Ufipa has been largely peopled by migrants from what is now northern Zambia and southeastern Zaire. An early center of ironworking and sacral kingship appears to have been established at Milansi, a village in the middle of the Fipa plateau. A subsequent and politically dominant form of kingship gradually developed, and a centralized and hierarchic form of administration was established. It seems that early in this process the new state divided into two entities, called respectively Lyangalile and Nkansi. About 1840 the Fipa plateau was overrun by militarily superior Ngoni invaders from the south, who ruled the country until a succession dispute ended in the withdrawal of the competing factions from Ufipa. Nyamwezi traders from central Tanzania were probably in contact with Ufipa from early in the nineteenth century, and from the 1850s onward there was increasing trade between the Fipa and Zanzibari merchants from the East African coast. The missionary-explorer David Livingstone was the first European known to have visited the Fipa, in 1872. He was followed in 1880 by the Scots explorer Joseph Thomson and the German Paul Reichard. In 1890 Ufipa was incorporated into the colonial state of German East Africa; in 1919, after Germany's defeat in World War I, that state was renamed Tanganyika and administered by Britain as a mandated territory under the League of Nations. In 1961 Tanganyika, including Ufipa, became a sovereign state, and in 1963, after the union of Tanganyika and Zanzibar, the new state adopted the name of Tanzania.



A characteristic feature of Fipa settlements is that they are strongly nucleated and widely separated from one another. Until the enforced concentration of villages that was instituted nationwide by Tanzania in 1974, the average size of Fipa settlements was about 250 inhabitants. About 700 smaller settlements, away from the major road though Ufipa, disappeared in the 1974 administrative action. In precolonial times, Fipa huts were circular, with a concentric inner corridor; today they are nearly all rectangular, although still of the same mud-and-wattle construction. Each hut is typically occupied by a nuclear family, usually with two or more children and often including one or more dependent elder kin. In 1967 the average household size was 4.9 persons.



Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Finger millet ( Eleusine corocana ) is the basic subsistence crop, supplemented by maize. The Fipa also grow lima beans, cassava, tomatoes, onions, and a wide range of green vegetables and tobacco for domestic consumption. Small livestock raised by most families include sheep, goats, poultry, and pigeons; a minority of wealthier householders raise cattle and pigs. The plateau dwellers supplement their diet with small game and with fish trapped in the numerous rivers. The Lake Tanganyika and Rukwa Valley Fipa subsist largely on fish, which they also dry and sell on the plateau. Maize and finger millet are the main cash crops of Ufipa. Before 1974, most cultivation was done with a hoe, using a form of compost mounding that is peculiar to the Fipa. With the enforced concentration of villages, however, plowing with oxen was introduced by the government and has since become the dominant means of cultivation.

Industrial Arts. Precolonial Ufipa supported flourishing ironworking and cotton-weaving industries, but these were virtually extinguished by competition from imported manufactured goods during the colonial period. Fipa women still produce pottery, woven baskets, and mats for local use.

Trade. Meat, fish, and vegetable markets are held in a few major villages. The sale of cloth, kerosene, and a variety of manufactured items is dominated by immigrant merchants, mainly East Indians, coastal Swahili, and Kikuyu from Kenya.

Division of Labor. The Fipa still generally adhere to the traditional sexual division of labor: men do the heavier work of cultivation, which today means ox plowing, and threshing, whereas women sow, weed, and winnow. Women also cook, draw water, pound and grind grain, wash clothes, and watch over children. Men build the frameworks of huts and granaries, and women plaster them. Women also brew millet beer.

Land Tenure. Before 1974, plots of land were cultivated by nuclear families and inherited by elder sons or uterine nephews upon a householder's death. With enforced villagization and the introduction of the ox-drawn plow, there has emerged a new class of rich peasants who employ wage labor.



Kin Groups and Descent. The Fipa are grouped in cognatic kindreds, each focused on an elected leader or chairperson. These are fluid groups, whose members are drawn together by a need for mutual aid and a common interest in the accumulation and distribution of wealth.

Kinship Terminology. Although descent and inheritance are bilateral, Fipa kin terms are unilineal, distinguishing father's brother from mother's brother and father's sister from mother's sister, whereas cousin terms are of the Iroquois type.


Marriage and Family

Marriage. Nearly all Fipa marriages are monogamous; polygynous unions constitute only a small percentage. Marriage is virilocal and is usually preceded by prolonged negotiations between representatives of the kindreds of the prospective bride and groom. Bride-wealth, which traditionally consisted of iron implements, is paid today in a mixture of cattle and cash. The groom is also required to work for a season in the fields of his prospective in-laws, to prove himself able to support a wife and family. A newly married wife is not supposed to speak to her parents-in-law until she has borne a child. Divorce is comparatively rare.

Domestic Unit. The nuclear family of husband, wife (occasionally wives), and children is the basic unit of social organization. All members of the family work together on a common plot and eat together.

Inheritance. Upon the death of an adult, his or her property is assigned to one or more kin at a general meeting of householders belonging to the kindred. In the case of a man, the meeting can also assign his widow to a suitable heir, usually a brother of the deceased; however, the widow has the right to refuse to be inherited and to become an independent householder in her own right instead.

Socialization. Children are raised and instructed in social norms by their parents, elder siblings, and paternal and maternal uncles and aunts. There is an egalitarian, joking relationship between grandparents and grandchildren, as there is between cross cousins. The main emphasis in child socialization is on sharing and nonviolence. Children are rarely beaten.


Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. In precolonial times, Ufipa was divided between two indigenous states, Nkansi and Lyangalile, ruled by related dynasties, who called themselves the aTwa (sing. unriTwa or Twa ), not to be confused with the similarly named Pygmy or Pygmoid peoples of Central and East Africa. These states appear to have been, to a large extent, meritocracies, in that apart from the office of the monarch and a few other and largely symbolic titles, any political office was open to able and ambitious commoners. Contemporary documents and oral traditions portray a mobile, commercially oriented, prosperous, and peaceful precolonial society. These are still basic characteristics of Fipa society today. Above the level of the domestic unit, the village remains the fundamental unit of society, pervaded by an ethos of communal solidarity and equality, notwithstanding considerable differences between householders in terms of wealth and status in the larger social world. Within the village, relative age remains the major determinant of a person's status.

Political Organization. In the precolonial order, which continued under the British system of "indirect rule" and throughout the early years of independence, each village was governed by an elected head chosen from among the constituent householders. Since 1974, this office has been succeeded by that of the local chairperson of the Tanzanian governing party, the Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM), or Revolutionary party. The long era of one-party rule in Tanzania seems set to end with the holding of multiparty elections in October 1995. The remaining political and judicial powers of the indigenous Fipa royals were abolished at the time of Tanganyika's independence in 1961 and were assigned to centrally appointed commissioners.

Social Control. The basic source of social control in Ufipa remains the pervasive ethos that powerfully inhibits most Fipa from resorting to physical violence in interpersonal relations. Any such behavior is condemned as "subhuman" and can result in the social ostracism of the offender.

Conflict. Although armed conflict appears to have been endemic early in Fipa precolonial history, by the mid-nineteenth century the people were famous in the region for their pacific nature, and this characteristic is still apparent.


Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The traditional religion of the Fipa was based on a network of territorial spirit shrines, administered by hereditary priests. These spirits were associated with prominent natural features such as hills, lakes, or large trees, and were commonly incarnated in pythons.

Today about 70 percent of Fipa are nominally Christian—most of these being Catholic—and 5 percent are Muslims. Worship of the traditional divinities has almost entirely lapsed. The most commonly invoked supernatural beings are ancestral spirits—who are intrinsically benign but may inflict sickness on erring descendants—and the intrinsically malign spirits of deceased sorcerers, creditors, suicides, and women who have died in labor.

Religious Practitioners. There are among the Fipa numerous indigenous experts in magico-medicine. Their craft centers on divining the occult causes of their clients' afflictions and dispensing treatment. These practitioners are also consulted by people who wish to obtain some benefit, such as wealth, employment, or a love partner.

Ceremonies. There was formerly an annual New Year ceremony at the beginning of the rainy season in early November, but this is no longer observed. The major ceremonial occasions observed by the Fipa today are the life-cycle rituals of birth, marriage, and death.

Arts. The Fipa have produced little or no sculptural art. Artisans formerly made a range of musical instruments, including flutes, lyres, and drums. Oral art—especially storytelling and the exposition of proverbial lore—is the major form still practiced.

Medicine. Sickness and death are attributed to sorcery or to the action of spirit agencies. Resort to the skills of indigenous practitioners is the main defense against these dangers.

Death and Afterlife. After death, a person's spirit is supposed to reside in an underworld and may decide to reincarnate in the same family after a lapse of two or more generations. After the identity of a reincarnating spirit has been established by divination, the newborn is given the name of his or her putative ancestor.