Hehe people


Hehe / Wahehe

The Hehe (Swahili collective: Wahehe) are a Bantu ethnolinguistic group based in Iringa Region in south-central Tanzania, speaking the Bantu Hehe language.

Peoplegroups.org estimates (2022) one population of 1,655,000.

Historically, they are famous for vanquishing a German expedition at Lugalo on 17 August 1891 and maintaining their resistance for seven years thereafter under the leadership of their chief Mkwawa

Hehe people Map

Identification and Location. The Hehe occupy portions of the Southern Highlands of Tanzania, at about 8° S in the Iringa and Mufindi areas of the Iringa region. The northern border lies along the Great Ruaha River at an elevation of about 2,460 feet (750 meters). The country rises through rolling grasslands to a southern border with elevations over 5,900 feet (1,800 meters) along the Kilombero-Uzungwa scarp.

Demography. It is difficult to estimate the current population because ethnic affiliation was not included in the first postcolonial census. In the last colonial census (1957) the Hehe totaled about two hundred thousand. The 1988 census indicated an Iringa region total of just over one million. This number fits the national estimated growth rate of 2.8 percent year but does not include the Hehe alone.

Linguistic Affiliation. Hehe is a Bantu language selfidentified as KiHehe and closely related to the neighboring KiBena, with which it is generally mutually intelligible. Kihehe and KiBena are clustered together with the Sangu, Kinga, Wanji, and Kisi languages.

History and Cultural Relations

Western reference to the Hehe began with Richard Francis Burton's brief mention of the group in 1857. This was hearsay, since he and John Hanning Speke traveled north of Uhehe along the central caravan route. Hehe traditions begin with migrations from the southwest at an unknown date, involving several different groups that are named for their leading families. They spoke a common language but maintained political independence. It is likely that they were affected by the northward movement of the Ngoni, who reached southwestern Tanzania in the early 1840s. The highly predatory organization of Ngoni age regiments and the incorporation of defeated peoples generated a broad reorganization of warfare and politics in the area. The Sangu were the first of the newly consolidated states that resulted from this impact.

Sangu power created a reaction in the Iringa Plateau, where the Muyinga clan under Munyigumba (also called Muyugumba and Mui'gumbi) consolidated a centralized and aggressive Hehe state around 1860. Wars of consolidation among the Hehe and against the Sangu and the Ngoni became a way of life and continued under Mkwawa (also known as Mahinya), the son of Munyigumba, who succeeded his father in about 1879. The organization of the Hehe seems to have been patterned on the Sangu version of Ngoni social and cultural forms, including age regiments under the command of local leaders. The age regiments were named, possessed praise names (certain of the earliest names are Sangu), were armed with short spears and shields, and fought in highly disciplined close formations. The ambitions of Mkwawa and his lieutenants made the Hehe a powerful force in the region by 1890, when German incursions began. German authorities sent troops to end Hehe raids on caravans in 1891. The defeat of those troops led to a war that lasted until the death of Mkwawa in 1898.

Hehe people

Hehe people

The incorporation of the Hehe into the German colony followed. The role of the Hehe in a stable colonial administration was not lost on the British when they took control of Tanganyika in 1919. When the British introduced indirect rule in 1925, the Hehe state received recognition through the installation of Sapi, a direct descendent of Mkwawa, as "Chief" or head of the Hehe Native Authority, with and the Vanzagila (Lords) as "Sub-Chiefs," a set of native courts corresponding to those jurisdictions, and a native treasury with the power to collect a head tax.

Sweeping political and administrative changes were instituted after independence in Tanzania in 1961. Chiefship was abolished, and tribal affiliation lost the key role it had played in the administrative system of British colonial rule. Those affiliations have not been forgotten, and the Hehe language has not been abandoned, although Swahili is the language of the schools. Age regiments had disappeared long before independence, and the initiation of young men, many marriage forms, and a host of mortuary customs have been abandoned or are considered oldfashioned or rural by many people.



Nineteenth-century European travelers described the Hehe region as lightly occupied and dominated by cattle keeping and temporary settlements. By 1990 the central regions were nearly fully occupied by fields and homesteads, pasture, and fallow lands. A goal of the government during the mid-1970s was to create compact communities everywhere to facilitate the delivery of services and increase political participation. After that initiative settlements varied from house rows to scattered farmsteads, depending on government planning, terrain, and proximity to streams, main roads, and urban areas, among other factors. Regardless of their form, these settlements are often called villages in the literature.

The old-style house is rectangular in form and built of mud, consisting of three to four rooms connected by interior doorways. It may grow as a family grows, adding an ell at each end to form a U shape. If a family is very large, it may form a square with a central courtyard. Conical granaries of wattle and daub construction, an open-sided kitchen, an enclosure for livestock and a small house for adolescent boys complete the homestead. Such homesteads were the center of diversified family farms in the past and served as an expression of the development of those families. Population growth, economic change, and migration have led to variations that depart greatly from this pattern.



Subsistence. Mixed farming and stock keeping have been the primary goal of most Hehe since the beginning of the colonial era. Travelers described them as cattle herders in the late nineteenth century but noted that the women cultivated millet and suggested that raiding rather than breeding kept up the herd sizes. Farming ranges from bare subsistence in areas where rainfall is very low to good returns in well-manured fields in areas where rainfall is higher and livestock is kept. The most important change has been the engagement of men in all aspects of cultivation. Manuring of fields is now a major purpose of livestock keeping. Maize became more important than millet by 1930, and many other crops have become important in certain ecological zones.

Industrial Arts. Blacksmithing is said to have been learned from the Kinga, and iron was smelted in Ubena and traded. Smiths were also woodworkers, making hafts for metal tools and weapons. Weaving of mats and baskets and cordage making are widely practiced. Pottery making was important in areas where suitable clay could be found, but pottery has been displaced by the use of plastic and metal containers.

Trade. Salt and iron are said to have come from Ubena, and salt also was obtained from the north. Travelers in the middle of the nineteenth century complained about the difficulties of traversing the highland country and obtaining supplies there and attributed that situation to a Hehe lack of grain and lack of interest in exchanging the little grain they had for the goods of the travelers. Nevertheless, Mkwawa conducted military campaigns against the caravan route along the Ruaha River.

Division of Labor. Traditionally, there was a gender-based division of labor in which men and boys did the herding and milking while women cultivated and did the cooking, grain milling, and brewing. Men lopped the trees and brush, piled the cuttings, and burned them; women planted millet, beans, and squash in the ashes. Although men still cut trees in areas where there is land to be cleared, both sexes have cultivated for many years. Work parties for house building and field opening once were common but have become rare.

Land Tenure. Traditions assert that the king allocated all land, although in practice he delegated that power to his subchiefs. In that system sons might expect to be given land by their fathers at marriage, but that required witnessing by the subchief to formalize the gift. Under colonial rule the subordinate of the subchief, termed in Swahili the Jumbe, allocated land or witnessed suballocations. As land became scarce in favored locations, lending of land between friends without the presence of witnesses grew. Disputes between friends or the sons of friends made those transactions perilous. Rental of land (with witnesses) is widespread, particularly as a means for non-Hehe to gain land use. Women are allocated land by their husbands and have full rights to the harvest from that land. Standing crops and planted trees belong to the person who planted them. Land sale occurs in areas where lands were alienated under colonialism.



Kin Groups and Descent. A person is a member of both an agnatic kin group (Mulongo ) and a localized bilateral kindred (Lukolo ). Patrilineages are relatively shallow with the exception of chiefly lineages. Their main functions are ritual enactments such as marriage and mourning, avoidances connected with totemic animals and plants, and, in the past, judicial proceedings. Cross-cousin marriage is considered desirable but is no longer common. The mother's brother has obligations to the sister's son, and this bond emerges in the local group.

Kinship Terminology. The father, the father's brother, and more distant structural equivalents are grouped. The father's sister and the mother's brother are distinguished. The mother, the mother's sister, and structural equivalents are grouped. Parallel cousins and own siblings are grouped but are distinguished by seniority. Cross cousins are terminologically grouped and distinguished from siblings, and no seniority is denoted. The wife's sister and the husband's brother are addressed by same terms used to address spouses. Grandparents are grouped and differentiated by gender only.


Marriage and Family

Marriage. In the past, betrothal was arranged at an early age for girls and for some boys but cohabitation often was delayed for many years. Polygyny was common, and the marriage age was late for men. Residence is virilocal and often is in the neighborhood (lukolo ). The transfer of livestock at marriage was practiced only by chiefly families until the death of Mkwawa in 1898. Inflation in such transfers and then the replacement of stock by money followed. Brides are not incorporated in the groom's lineage and usually are called by the name of their own lineage with the feminine prefix Se. Cross-cousin marriage, although favored, required an extra payment "to cut the family." The levirate and the sororate once were practiced but have become virtually extinct.

Domestic Unit. The nuclear family is the primary unit. Full marriage traditionally required payments between the lineages, the construction of a house, and the allocation of fields to the bride. In polygynous marriage separate rooms in a longhouse rather than a separate house was deemed acceptable. Cohabitation over a long period without payments between lineages is accepted as a marriage form that legitimates children and establishes rights of inheritance.

Inheritance. Land was not inherited in the past but it was the prerogative of chiefs to allocate as they saw fit. As land scarcity increased in some areas, chiefs simply witnessed allocations that fathers made to their sons. Father-to-son inheritance became common by the 1950s, with precedence established by birth order, although residence on the land privileges a younger son in relation to an absent older son. Movable property, including livestock, is inherited one item at a time by birth order among the sons. In a family without sons, daughters inherit, and daughters inherit the property of the mother, including livestock.

Socialization. Infants are carried by their mothers and gradually are placed under the care of older siblings. Daughters usually take on these duties, but in a family without daughters, sons are expected to provide that care. Children begin visiting their grandparents at an early age, and grandmothers have a special bond with grandchildren and a substantial responsibility for their training and instruction, often through songs and stories with didactic content. Since independence, schools have become more important, but boys begin herding duties at about age ten. All aspects of the former age regiments have disappeared, but abbreviated initiation ceremonies still exist for both boys and girls. These formerly elaborate and lengthy rituals of instruction have gradually attenuated as formal, secular schools have been developed.


Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The military discipline of the nineteenth century is echoed in a strong interest in police and army careers. For most people, however, the family and the round of agricultural tasks are the center of social life. Local and national politics, church, and school have replaced the chiefly order and the ritual and instructional role of gender and age initiations. Nevertheless, traditional chiefly rank and descent from captives are still known and are reflected in educational attainment over several generations, access to a wider range of jobs, and informal types of status differentiation.

Political Organization. The power and charismatic authority of Hehe kings drew the area into an intensely centralized but simply organized state at the end of the nineteenth century. Colonialism transformed the area into a hierarchy of bureaucratic chiefs who served as administrators, judges, and tax collectors. The independent government of Tanzania replaced that system with elected local authorities and a national structure of democratic participation.

Social Control. The power of Hehe kings was direct, personal, and absolute. No man in Uhehe has exercised such power since 1898. Men had authority over women and children, but abuse was mitigated by the right of a wife's patrilineage to intercede in domestic conflicts. National law gives more rights to women than did the older practices. Many local disputes were arbitrated by chiefs aided by influential elders under colonialism. Witchcraft is combated by diviners and curers who use both natural materials and supernatural action. Accusations of witchcraft serve as a powerful means of informal control. However, making an accusation of witchcraft can lead to countersorcery and court action. National law prohibits all such actions, and these charges may lead to heavy fines.

Conflict. Warfare and cattle raiding were endemic in the second half of the nineteenth century, when all nearby groups were targets. The warfare of that era appears to have been motivated by territorial objectives as well as the desire for booty as goals, but there is also evidence of the use of personal representatives to make peace. Marriages arranged between the kingly lineages of adjoining states were utilized to stabilize relations. These techniques never led to lasting peace and did not result in alliances against German military pressure. Land disputes and domestic violence are common sources of conflict.


Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The relationship between the living and their ancestors is a focus of prayer and ritual. Small groves often surround burial places and are the site of offerings of water and porridge and a yearly ritual of weeding, drumming, offerings, and singing. Some men of the royal lineage were thought to have rain powers, but that power was not always inherited and there were nonroyal elders who also had it. The duty to conduct yearly rain prayers at the royal burial groves was delegated if the king lacked those powers. There is a concept of a creator god, but that god has little interest in daily affairs and it is not clear that the belief did not come from early Christian and Muslim missionaries. Christianity and Islam have been widely accepted.

Religious Practitioners. Rain priests, especially the king if he had the power, performed rituals to ensure rainfall in this relatively dry area. Diviners serve as diagnosticians and refer people to both herbalists and magicians for appropriate treatments. Witches are thought to inherit their power but must engage in evil actions to enhance it. Magicians may be beneficial or evil and are considered dangerous. A famous oracle has existed for several generations and is widely consulted through its "servant," a man thought to be chosen by the oracle to serve its needs. Christian and Muslim clerics are given respect and leadership roles.

Ceremonies. Rain ceremonies at royal burial sites were formerly an annual observance. Coming of age rituals for girls are said to be ancient, whereas such rituals for boys are felt to have emerged with the age regiments that regulated life during the late nineteenth century. All these rituals have declined with the rise of schools, the end of the Hehe monarchy, and the influence of Christianity. Rituals of mourning for the dead are probably the most common forms of enactment. There are also rituals of marriage and birth, especially the birth of twins.

Arts. Music is a major form of expression. Singing, drumming, and the playing of stringed instruments, both plucked and bowed, are widely practiced. There is little graphic or plastic art aside from minimal decoration of pottery and the carving of wooden stools.

Medicine. Herbalists have a wide knowledge of plants, and combinations of plants are used to treat almost all illnesses, including those thought to be caused by witchcraft and sorcery. Herbalists gain knowledge through apprenticeship and work closely with diviners in treating disorders. Some treatments are almost entirely mystical and involve drumming, trances, and singing, but herbal decoctions nearly always figure in treatment. Ingestion is the most common delivery method, but bathing and the making of small incisions into which medicine may be rubbed also are practiced. Islamic amulets are widely worn, and injections have become a popular form of treatment, using Western medications obtained at pharmacies.

Death and Afterlife. The spirits of the dead are extremely important in the affairs of the living. Neglect of the proper treatment of a corpse, the funeral ritual, or periodic offerings can lead to illness, misfortune, or death. The aim of most ceremonies is to help the dead leave the day-to-day world. Prayers for help and advice from the ancestors are also common and involve spitting water or pouring libations. Much of the oral history of the great warrior-king Mkwawa involves accounts of his visits to the graves of his father and grandfather to seek advice or interpret misfortune. It is said that the German commander had those graves destroyed to combat Mkwawa's power.