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Getting in Touch with Native Tribes in Tanzania

Tanzania is well known for its natural beauty, varying landscapes, wildebeest migrations and, of course, Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest point in Africa. One of the things travelers often do not expect is the rich cultural heritage in Tanzania where over 120 different tribes from all over Africa live side by side in a peaceful, almost archaic existence.

East Africa has been inhabited by some of these tribes for thousands of years and they mostly still practice their traditions threatened by an ever-expanding world full of technology and consumerism.

Zanzibar – the birthplace of the Swahili culture
Swahili can be spoken in most parts of Africa, especially on the eastern coastal areas. Along with English, it is also the official language of Tanzania. The Swahili culture is an amalgamation of many different tribes, mainly bantus, that traded with travelers from Arabia and India and later came into contact with the Portuguese, and other European colonizers like Germans.

The birthplace of the Swahili culture is presumed to be the Old Stone Town on Zanzibar. Here one can find incredibly diverse dishes with flavors from all over the world, and the spice plantations and Stone Town is a must-see on a trip to Zanzibar. Dar es Salaam on mainland also has a great influence from the Swahili people that is visible in the street markets and cuisine.

House of Wonders in Stone Town, Zanzibar
House of Wonders in Stone Town, Zanzibar (Photo by TravelingOtter, by CC 2.0)

The Maasai is the most prominent tribe in Tanzania and can be found spread over the northern parts of the country. A visit to one of the many Maasai villages in the Ngorongoro National Park is a popular day activity easily combined with a safari through the park. This is one of the only places in the world where the traditional tribe is included in the natural reserves in the area because the Maasai people follow the nomadic way of life and herd their cattle to wherever there is water and graze available.

At these villages visitors are greeted with Maasai in their traditional colorful clothing and intricate jewelry that they have been making and selling for hundreds of years. The Maasai mainly rely on their cattle for meat, milk and in some rituals, blood. They love showing visitors how they make weapons, build their huts and herd their cattle, and will often burst out in song and dance.

An interesting fact about the Maasai: It is strongly believed that they are the tallest people in the world, and even their oral history suggests that their ancestors were giants.

Young Maasai boys, Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania
Young Maasai boys, Ngorongoro Crater (Photo by Colin J. McMechan by CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Hadzabe and Datoga
Around Lake Eyasi lives the fascinating tribes of the Hadzabe and Datoga. First believed to be part of the Khoisan family due to the similar clicks in the language, these tribes actually formed completely on their own, isolated here in Tanzania for thousands of years. They have a strong oral tradition and enjoy telling their ancestral stories to guests that come to see their way of life.

The Hadzabe are mainly hunter-gatherers. They build their huts from mud and cow dung, make their own clothes, gather berries and other fruit from the surrounding bush, and hunt small animals. These people love teaching tourists how they make their weapons, start a fire, cook meat, collect fruit, use plants as medicine, and they are also lively and partake in dance and song often and with rigor.

The Datoga are herders and in the past the Datoga and Hadzabe often took part in tribal wars, though in the last century this has largely ceased and they are now allied neighbors around Lake Eyasi. The Datoga often teach tourists how they make weapons, construct bomas, milk cows to make butter and other traditional meals, and show how they make art and other trinkets to sell to the visiting tourists.

Mto wa Mbu, a rich village
This Village near Lake Manyara, Mto wa Mbu, is a village rich in cultures from all over Africa. The tribes that live here are peacefully united by the irrigation system that waters the plantations ranging from sweet potato to coffee beans. The pleasant tropical climate the village thrives on makes for plenty good soil to grow food for home-use and export.

Visitors to Mto wa Mbu can easily spend a whole day here listening to the music of different tribes, watch Maasai people make jewelry, and learn how to make pots from clay or iron weapons. Of all the cultural places to visit, this village probably encompasses many of the traditional tribes that live in Tanzania.

Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania above the clouds
Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania (Photo by Yoni Lerner, by CC 2.0)

Though many of the 120 tribes were not named here, there is still lots to see-in Tanzania including the thousands of years old rock paintings, ruins of great African kingdoms at Bagamoyo, and sites where fossils were found that had a large impact on the archaeological studies of humankind.

Be sure to ask a tour guide to include these cultural visits in a safari tour of Tanzania for an enriched experience.

Cover photo by Anita Ritenour (by CC BY 2.0).

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Phil Ott

Sunday 23rd of May 2021

Thank you for this story. I have an adopted granddaughter who just happens to be a Maasai and lives in Tanzania. Having never been there myself, I am most happy to learn something about her country.

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