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The Nyamwezi Ethnic Group

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Published: Mon, 01 May 2017

Numbering approximately one and a half million, the Nyamwezi are the second-largest of the ethnic groups which comprise the nation of Tanzania in East Africa. Most of the Nyamwezi live in their indigenous homeland in west central Tanzania, south of Lake Victoria. The Nyamwezi were given their name, meaning “people of the moon”, in the nineteenth century by the Kiswahili-speaking peoples of coastal Tanzania. Their language, referred to as Kinyamwezi, is a distinct dialect of the wider Bantu language family spoken widely across Sub-Saharan Africa.

By 500 c.e., the central region of Tanzania was populated with Bantu agriculturalists who migrated from the Great Lakes Region of Central Africa. After 1000 c.e., the peoples of central Tanzania divided into several different groups, one of which was the ancestors of the Nyamwezi. The earliest political formation of the Nyamwezi and other groups in the area was largely determined by the topography and environment of the region. Central Tanzania is mostly a dry plateau with few rivers. The lack of water, combined with poor soil conditions, prevented the accumulation of large, centralized populations. As a result, the Nyamwezi were organized into small, independent villages headed by a hereditary chief known as an ntemi. In the centuries following 1000 c.e., the Ntemi chieftaincies of the Nyamwezi continued to spread and differentiate across the region. When one chieftaincy became too populous for its local food supply, a new ntemi would breakaway with his followers and establish a new chieftaincy. No central or unified authority existed over the Nyamwezi prior to the nineteenth century.

Two historical developments in the early nineteenth century had a dramatic impact on the Nyamwezi, in both cases leading toward greater political centralization. The first was the Ngoni invasions of the 1830s. The Ngoni were fleeing northwards from Zulu expansion in southern Africa. Bringing new weapons and advanced fighting methods, the Ngoni forced their way into central Tanzania and caused great disruption among the Ntemi chieftaincies. By 1850, the Ngoni were raiding and plundering Nyamwezi territory. Many villages were destroyed or forced into the ranks of the Ngoni. Crop cultivation declined and chaos dominated the region. In response to the threat, many of the Ntemi chieftaincies, including the Nyamwezi, adopted the fighting methods of the Ngoni and sought refuge in larger, more secure political formations, such as king-ships.

The second development in the nineteenth century which led to greater centralization was the coming of the ivory and slave trade. Starting in the late eighteenth century and increasing over the course of the nineteenth, trade caravans led by Swahili or Arab traders journeyed from the coast along two different routes into the interior. The southern trade route ran from the southern section of the coast to Lake Malawi. The central route ran from the coast opposite Zanzibar to both ends of Lake Tanganyika and the western side of Lake Victoria, passing directly thru Nyamwezi territory. In 1852 Arab merchants established the present town of Tabora as a trading base in the important Nyamwezi chiefdom of Unyanembe.

From the start, the Nyamwezi were involved in the trade, imposing tolls on passing merchants and frequently accompanying slave caravans and acting as porters carrying ivory tusks to the coast for export. By the mid-nineteenth century, the Nyamwezi were the most active trade group in the interior south of Lake Victoria. In addition, the hardships and uncertainty created by the Ngoni, the slave trade, and the introduction of firearms into the region caused many people, including the Nyamwezi, to follow leaders who could offer protection and security. At the same time, participation in the caravan trade allowed ambitious chiefs to gain access to greater wealth and firearms, providing the means to expand their power and build greater kingdoms out of the formerly scattered chieftaincies.

The best known and most powerful of these chiefs was Mirambo. As a young man, Mirambo was captured by an Ngoni force and learned much about their fighting methods. By the 1860s, having survived Ngoni capture, Mirambo ruled his father’s chieftaincy at Ugowe and used the lessons he learned from his captors to expand his own power. Mirambo frequently raided neighboring peoples and by 1880, he controlled the central trade routes that ran thru Tanzania. In 1876, his capital at Urambo was second only to Tabora as a trade market and he was the most powerful figure in the interior. Mirambo’s power was such that he able to force the Arab merchants to pay him for protection. At one point when the Arabs refused, he closed the trade routes until his terms were met. He also established good relations with the Europeans who were moving into the region, even allowing the London Missionary Society to erect a mission station in his empire. Mirambo was not very effective however at organization and administration. When he died in 1884, his successor, Mpandasho, was unable to maintain the empire and it quickly collapsed.

Not long after his death, in the 1890s, the Germans were attempting to occupy German East Africa, later Tanzania. Many peoples of the interior resisted Germany’s occupation and the Nyamwezi were no exception. In 1892, a Nyamwezi leader known as Isike defeated the first German force sent against him and he closed the trade routes. In January, 1893, his capital at Ipuli was overrun by a larger German force and Isike killed himself and his family in an explosion rather than be captured.

Following its effective occupation of the interior, Germany introduced hut taxes and cash crops to make its colony profitable. Many Nyamwezi men became migrant workers on settler farms to pay the hut tax. In the Nyamwezi homeland, groundnuts were the cash crop of choice and many Nyamwezi benefitted economically from their sale.

When German rule ended in 1919, the British took over the colony. In the decades that followed, ethnically-based political associations began which ultimately contributed towards the independence movement of the late 1950s. In 1936, the New Wnyamwezi Association formed, which sought to improve the welfare of Nyamwezi but which also raised consciousness about the possibility of larger political movements. By 1958, the Tanganyika African National Union, which led Tanzania to independence in 1961, was gaining members among the Nyamwezi. They have as well remained a significant population group in post-independence Tanzania.

Phillip Cantrell


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