Nyamwezi people



The Nyamwezi, or Wanyamwezi, are one of the Bantu groups of Southeast Africa and the second-largest ethnic group in Tanzania. The Nyamwezi people's ancestral homeland is in parts of Tabora Region, Singida Region, Shinyanga Region and Katavi Region. The term Nyamwezi is of Swahili origin, and translates as "people of the moon" on one hand but also means "people of the west" the latter being more meaningful to the context.

Historically, there have been five ethnic groups, all referring to themselves as Wanyamwezi to outsiders: Kimbu, Konongo, Nyamwezi, Sukuma, and Sumbwa, who were never united. All groups normally merged have broadly similar cultures, although it is an oversimplification to view them as a single group. The Nyamwezi have close cultural ties with the Sukuma people.

Nyamwezi People Map

Their homeland is called Unyamwezi, and they speak the language Kinyamwezi, although many also speak Swahili or English.

It was only in the 19th century that the name could be found in literature; the term might include almost anyone from the western plateau. Travel taught them that others called them Nyamwezi, and almost all men accepted the name given to them by the coastal people indicating that the Nyamwezi came from the west. A century later, their land is still called "Greater Unyamwezi", about 35,000 square miles (91,000 km2) of rolling land at an elevation of about 4,000 feet (1,200 m).

Nyamwezi people


Unyamwezi is located in the western plateau area of the Tanzanian provinces of Tabora and Shinyanga. Much of the land is covered by a dry woodland with strings of ridges and granite outcroppings. Most of Unyamwezi is not considered prime agricultural land. Water is often scarce.
Tanzanians of various ethnic groups live in Unyamwezi. Also present are Arabs as well as Asians whose ancestors came from India and Pakistan. About 30 percent of the Nyamwezi live and work outside Unyamwezi, mainly in Tanzania's commercial and agricultural centers. The Nyamwezi make up about 4 percent of the Tanzanian population and number about 1.6 million.


Myths (Creation)

“The Nyamwezi people of Tanzania in East Africa worship Mulungu as the god who created all things and who watches over the earth. Although he created the world, Mulungu is a very distant god with no personal relationship with living beings. According to legend, Mulungu once lived on earth. He left and went to live in heaven because some people set fire to the landscape, causing devastation and killing many other people. Unable to climb the tree that linked heaven and earth, Mulungu asked Spider to help him travel up to the sky. Spider climbed up, spun a thread, and let one end of the thread fall to earth. Mulungu followed the thread up to heaven.”



Nyamwezi speak Kinyamwezi, a western Bantu language belonging to the larger Niger-Congo language phylum. The dialects inlude Galaganza, Mweri (Kiya, Konongo, Sumbwa), Nyanyembe, Takama (Garaganza). Lexical similarity: 84% with Sukuma [suk], 61% with Sumbwa [suw], 56% with Nilamba [nim]. it has a dialectical continuum with Sukuma.

Nyamwezi people


Nyamwezi are part of the Bantu people that introduced Iron technology to East Africa during the Great Bantu migration from West Africa. According to oral tradition, the Nyamwezi are thought to have settled in west central Tanzania (their present location) some time in the 17th century. They were once fisherman and nomadic farmers due to the poor soil quality of the area. Their travels made them professional traders, and by 1800 they were taking caravans to the coast to trade in Katanga copper, wax, salt, ivory, and slaves. Arabian and Indian slave and ivory traders reached the Nyamwezi by 1825. They also started to acquire guns, and establish regular armies, with intra-tribal wars and some conflicts with Arabs on the coast throughout the 19th century. They could be considered an acquisitive society, often accused of thinking of nothing but how to earn money.

The Nyamwezi had long been a settled agricultural and cattle-owning people, arriving on the western plateau in the 16th century, and originally living in a mosaic of small and independent chiefdoms slowly carved out by ruling dynasties which according to a Catholic missionary may have numbered over 150, each with its own councilors, elders, and court slaves. In the 19th century, they were already recognized as large slave-owners and were famous for their herds. While cattle were important they were not often part of normal life, their entire care often being left in the hands of professional herdsmen, the immigrant Tutsi.

In the early 1800 there were a number of Nyamwezi kingdoms, such as Unyanyembe, Ulyankhulu and Urambo. Unyanyembe was perhaps the most powerful, since it controlled the trading city of Tabora, and had close connections with the Arabs of Zanzibar, through the Arab community of Tabora. When Mnywasele inherited the throne of Unyanyembe 1858, the Arabs helped him expel his rival Mkasiwa, who went into exile in Ulyankhulu. When Mnywasele later tried to increase his control over the Unyamyembe trader community, these allied with Mkasiwa, which led to a greater conflict between Unyanyembe and Ulyankhulu in 1860. The result of the conflict was that Mkasiwa gained the throne of Unyamyembe. In 1871 Unyanyembe was involved in another war, this time against Urambo, which at this time was ruled by the slaver and ivory trader known as Mirambo. 1873 the Urambo forces blockaded the ivory trade from Tabora resulting in the price of ivory rising globally. The war lasted until Mirambo's death in 1884.

In the 19th century, settlements were described as typically large, compact, and fortified for defense with strong wooden stockades, often in high inaccessible rocky places. When the Germans finally imposed peace, the population did not immediately disperse, but slowly, over a fifty-year period, the modern pattern of scattered settlements emerged.

German colonists controlling Tanzania from the late 19th century (calling it German East Africa), found the Nyamwezi heavily involved in trade relations with the Arabs and the island of Zanzibar, dominating as traders and porters since 1850. (While Iliffe lists a likely 100,000 people traveling to and from the coast, Abrahams lists a possible 200,000 using many of the side 'roads', some making the trip as many as 20 times.) Despite the Nyamwezi's outside contacts, Nyamwezi colonies were remarkably resistant to foreign culture. Nyamwezi colonies outside the Unyamwezi long remained culturally distinct. In Unyamwezi itself, differing lifesyles were either absorbed into the existing order, similar to the Ngoni becoming just another chiefdom, or became isolated like the Arabs of Tabora. But for all their poor relationships with the coast and their conservatism, being able to travel was considered a valuable, manly attribute.

Many trade routes crossed Unyamwezi, and the Nyamwezi had access to ivory and slaves, stretching from the coast to the inland, as far as Congo. The western Nyamwezi arrived at the coast with ivory around 1800, and coastal traders soon followed this up by finally entering Unyamwezi and reaching Ujiji by 1831. A kind of California Gold Rush took place for the ivory of the Congo's Manjema to the west of Lake Tanganyika. With their deep involvement in commerce, the Nyamwezi welcomed traders. The most hospitable chiefdom was Unyanyembe, where Arab traders established the nexus of Tabora to the Lake district beyond.

Conflicts between chiefs and Arab traders lasted through the last half of the 19th century. Chiefs such as Isike and Mirambo, no longer being purely ritual, had found that the arrival of firearms enabled them to created standing armies and a new state organization. It was firearms and trade that transformed the region, for trade generated the wealth needed to obtain firearms. Chiefs were normally ritual figures who had no very rigid rules of succession. They lived very restricted lives, with the most significant duties being carried out by headmen. They were strangled when they became seriously ill (as probably happened to Mirambo while dying of cancer), for the well being of the state and its continuation was identified with chief and his subordinate administrators. A hierarchy of territorial offices came into being. There were sub-chiefs, assistant chiefs, headmen elders, ritual officials, etc., as each dynasty seized power from another. Greater Nyamwezi had become a war zone.

Unyamwesi was "pacified" by the Germans in 1893; only Chief Isike around Tabora giving any serious opposition. The German adopted a form of indirect rule in the region with chiefs becoming the administrative agents of the central government, receiving account books as a formal mark of recognition. Over time, the chiefs were expected to keep order and collect taxes. Where earlier officers welcomed their collaboration, later officers became suspicious of it, even deliberately dismantling a chiefdom.

As late as 1906, Karl Weule, a German ethnolonogist had the following to say; "Even European caravans had their porters expect to receive food and drink from native villages they passed through"

After the Germans were removed from Tabora during World War I, the British took over in 1919 and ruled until the Tanzanian independence of 1961. To combat sleeping sickness, many people were moved into new villages free from the disease.



Elephant hunters have historically been one of the most prestigious occupations among the Nyamwezi, since the elephant hunters could get very rich from ivory trade. The elephant hunters were organised in a guild, which only accepted those who could pass the apprenticeship and the tests that were associated with it. Hunting had a wide variety of forms. Guild members often used lethal poison, and when they used it, in a German sergeant's words, "it worked slowly but surely."

The guildmembers believed they possessed powerful hunting medicine acquired through rigorous apprenticeships, tracking game in all types of terrain and moving swiftly and silently through thorny underbrush. The elephant hunting led to a decrease in elephant population, which combined with the increased trade in slaves, led to large changes in the social and economic conditions.

Nyamwezi staple food has historically been ugali, a porridge made from hominy and served with meat and vegetables. Beer made from fermented corn, sorghum, or millet was also common. Goats were used for ancestor sacrifices, but the economic value of goats and sheep lay in their meat and skins. By tradition five goats or sheep equated one bull; two bulls were worth one cow. Their year is divided into two seasons, wet and dry, with considerable variation depending on time and place.

In addition to agriculture, crafts were a part-time occupation and were not hereditary. Regionally traded products of importance were drums, ladles, stools, storage boxes for grain, and snuffboxes of horn. Iron and cloth were very important in regional networks, but the cloth industry in particular was ailing in 1857 because of severe competition from India, and over the next sixty years almost disappeared. Ironwork came from localized settlements whose products were then traded over wide areas: bows, arrows, spears, the payment of fines, and the extremely valuable hoes for bridewealth were all produced with considerable ritual by the smiths; and depending on the place that was blamed, for the heavy deforestation to obtain charcoal.


Social organization

Historically, villages were normally not kinship units and people found their relatives spread over wide areas. Spouses generally came from outside the Tembes and sons commonly moved away from their father's homestead. The core members of a "domestic group" consisted of the husband, his wife or wives, and any children who still lived with them. Sometimes relatives, such as a mother, younger unmarried brothers or sisters, and their children could be found together. The sexes usually ate separately. In general men did the heavy work, while women did the recurring tasks and much of the everyday agricultural work.

Ideally every adult person should be married, and every married woman should have her own household and bring her own household utensils. The husband is said to technically own his wife's hut, fields, and most of the household's food, but a wise husband usually listened to the wife's advice. There was little ranking between co-wives, although seniority in terms of who was first married was at times recognized. Jealously and sorcery were common, much depending on how well co-wives got along. Unlike the Wagogo, divorce was common, a large majority of persons experiencing al least one divorce by the time they were fifty years of age, which included the return of bridewealth minus the number and sex of the children born. Divorce was most often accomplished by the separation of either party. Chiefdom courts found certain reasons to automatically justify divorce: a woman's desertion, being struck by a wife, the wife's adultery, sexual refusal of the wife, and having an abortion, were all adequate reasons. Grounds for a husband to claim divorce were failure of the wife to carry out household duties, visiting a doctor without permission, and possible infertility. A wife could divorce if the husband deserted for a period of time without supporting her; if the husband seriously injured her by, for example, breaking a limb, but not simply beating her; the husband's impotence or perversions; or if her husband generally failed to maintain her and her children properly. A husband's adultery would not be one of the grounds.

It was customary for the younger brother of her former husband to inherit a widow, (a kind of "widows and orphans" security system), although it was not done against her will. Among some, inheritance of a widow by her husband's sister's son was particularly favored.

It had always been part or the Nyamwezi system for the chief to receive tribute, bring success and prosperity to the people, and play an active role in ceremonies. All land was said to have belonged to the chief and he had the right to expel witches and undesirables; abuse was checked by the general need to maintain a large population; and while no one had the right to sell land in a chiefdom, the people had considerable security in their rights to the land. Permission to clear land was not needed, but care was taken so as not to conflict with others in the area. If there was a shortage of land in an area to be inherited, a headman could insist upon other holdings. Water was free to all.

Village and house organization: “They commonly consisted of a man and his wife or wives, their resident children, and perhaps the spouse and the children of one or more of the resident children. Other close relatives of the head of the homestead might also be present. Homesteads were the largest units in which members of one sex regularly ate together. They contained one or more households that were distinct food-producing and child-rearing units. The household was the basic economic unit and the husband-wife relation was its key element. This has been reinforced in new compact village where each 0.4-hectare plot is assigned to a family based on a couple and their children. Neighboring households collaborate in a wide range of activities.”


Inheritance patterns

“Questions of inheritance are usually resolved within the families concerned. Customarily only sons of bride-wealth marriages, or redeemed sons, inherit the main forms of wealth. Such heirs should look after the needs of daughters. Sometimes one son looks after an inheritance for all his siblings. Unredeemed children are in a weak position; they may fail to inherit either from their father or from their mother's kin, whose own children may take precedence.”


Political organization

By mid-19th Century, the Nyamwezi were not as centralized as other contemporary Kingdoms. The Nyamwezi lived in a number of chiefdoms called Ntemiships. These chiefdoms had a considerable degree of autonomy and must have therefore existed independent of each other. The chiefdoms were usually small in size and with scarcely more than one thousand inhabitants. But if the population increased, chiefdom would split up to make new ones along clan ties or common historical origins. The existence of the various Ntemiships, in fact over 150, should not tempt one to think that all Nyamwezi were disunited. Far from this, the Nyamwezi were knit together by clanship ties and common historical origins. Moreover, the 1870’s and early 1880’s saw an emergence of great leaders Mirambo and Nyungu Ya Mawe who forged centralized institutions that is, Urambo and Ukimbu states respectively. Even then it has been pointed out that this centralization was mainly commercial and not political. For instance, beyond Urambo it is alleged Mirambo was more known as a commercial giant other than a politician. Whatever the case, the distinction between a commercial and political kingdom is not as clear-cut as it may appear to be.

The Nyamwezi political entities, chiefdoms, were headed by chiefs known as Ntemi or Mtemi. The Mtemi or Ntemi comes from a Bantu verb kutema which means “to cut.” The Mtemi was originally a man appointed by villagers to “cut” discussions so as to reach judgements in legal cases and decisions on political questions. His position was therefore not hereditary. The Mtemi was highly cherished by his people and indeed looked at as their father. Were (1974:183) records that the well-being of his people, country, crops and animals depended on his personal health. When he fell sick the chiefdom was supposed to suffer in one way or another.”

Besides, as political leaders the chiefs had royal symbols such as the spear and drum. The Ntemi was responsible for appointing the army commander and his deputy, the information officer as well as the tribute collector called Minule. These officers usually got orders from the Ntemi. The Ntemi also had religious duties to perform. They were adored as rain makers, magicians and judges. It has been pointed out however that beyond these tasks, the chiefs did not exercise excessive political powers.

In their administration, the Ntemi were assisted by a council of elders known as Wanyampala. Below the council of elders were various officers who included army officers, the head of the secret intelligence service, tribute officer and the information officer. The information officer would travel around the chiefdom announcing the Ntemi’s orders to the subjects. There was also the headquarters; the influence of the Ntemi was hardly felt. Thus he had to depend on a group of administrators called Gungli. These were heads of various settlement areas. In turn the Gunguli depended on the Wazenga Makaya, the heads of households. Thus there were various important political units. There was therefore power sharing among the Nyamwezi something that can be compared to modern democracy. This is contrary to the view that African leaders were completely dictators.

The Nyamwezi had an elaborate judicial structure. The top most judicial officer was the Ntemi himself with his court as the final court of appeal. He had powers to administer traditional and customary law. In addition to handling court cases, he also dealt with cases referred to his court from the districts. The Ntemi handled cases ranging from murder, treason, to witchcraft. Cases of witchcraft were settled with the help of advice from members of the secret of society.


Religious Belief

Most follow a traditional religion, despite conversion attempts by Islam and Christianity. They believe in a powerful god called Likube (High God), Limatunda (Creator), Limi (the Sun) and Liwelolo (the Universe), but ancestor worship is a more frequent daily practice. Offerings of sheep or goats are made to ancestors, and the help of Likube is invoked beforehand. Spirits also play an active role in Nyamwezi religious life, with mfumu, witchdoctors, or diviners, playing the role of counselor and medical practitioner. Bulogi (witchcraft) is a powerful force in Nyamwezi culture, with cults forming around (for example) possession by certain types of spirit. The Baswezi society recruits people possessed by the Swezi spirit.


Cultural material (art, music, games)

“Representational art is not strongly developed; it has mainly ritual functions. Music and dancing are the main art forms, and drums are the main instruments, although the nail piano (a box with metal prongs that twang at different pitches) and other instruments are also found. Traditional songs are sung at weddings and at dances, but new songs are also composed by dance leaders. Male dance teams are the most common, but some female and mixed teams perform. Ritual and other societies have their own dance styles. Transistor radios are now widespread. Local and visiting jazz and other bands play in the towns.”


Death and afterlife beliefs

“Funerals are important rituals for bereaved families and their kin and neighbors. Neighbors dig the grave and take news of the death to relatives of the deceased who live outside the village. The dead become ancestors who may continue to affect the lives of their descendants and demand appeasement. The idea that the dead live on in their descendants is expressed in terms of shared identity between alternate generations.”