When you consider that Tanzania is home to more than 100 distinct ethnic groups and tribes, meeting and understanding the cultures of all would take a lifetime. Unlike some African countries, Tanzania lacks a dominant ethnic group, with the largest Tanzania tribe (the Sukuma) only representing about 16% of the population. Despite their ethnic differences, Tanzania hasn’t experienced the tribal conflicts that have impacted other parts of the continent. It’s this incredible diversity of peoples and languages that make visiting the country so special, particularly if you’re interested in ethnography.
While some tribal groups are living according to long-established traditions, others have blended into the modern world, living in some of Tanzania’s biggest cities. This means you could be interacting with them during cultural village visits on a Serengeti safari or while browsing the aisle of a downtown supermarket. There are myriad languages, folktales, and music to discover with each and every encounter as you discover our shared human history.
So to give you a taste of the cultural diversity you may experience during your Tanzania safari tour, here are a few of the most recognized tribes in Tanzania.
This indigenous ethnic group resides in north-central Tanzania, dwelling near Lake Eyasi in the central rift valley and in the neighboring plateaus of the Serengeti. The impact of tourism and pastoralist encroachment has for many years posed a severe threat to the continuation of their traditional way of life.
The oral history of the Hadzabe tribe’s past is divided into four epochs, with each epoch inhabited by a different culture. The archaeological and genetic history of the Hadza reveals that they are not closely related to any other tribe, although their language was once classified with the Khoisan languages because it has clicked, there is relatively no evidence that they are related.
The Hadzabe Tanzania tribe became part of German East Africa but soon came under British control at the end of the first world war. Several attempts were also made by the British and the Tanzanian government to make the Hadzabe settle and adopt farming, but all their attempts failed as the Hadzabe people only settled to take advantage of the food provided, but left and go back to foraging when the supply of food runs out.
Perhaps Tanzania’s most iconic tribe is the Maasai who are famed for their blue and red-robed attire. They’re predominantly pastoralists and cattle herders, eating meat and milk that they produce themselves, although many also work in the tourism industry. Around 800,000 are believed to be living in North and Central Tanzania, with over a million if you include the Maasai over the border in Southern Kenya.
Despite the transformation of their ancestral lands into national parks and the increasing tourism in the region, the Maasai have maintained their customs and traditions. These include lively dances, songs, and cultural rites of passage, as well as intricate beadwork, which many of the women use to ornament their bodies and pierced earlobes. Most tribes live in kraals that are arranged in a circular fashion and are surrounded by a fence made from acacia thorns to prevent lions from attacking their cattle.
The Maasai Tanzania tribe is monotheistic, believing in one God, Engai, who can be either kind or evil. They speak a Nilotic language known as Maa, although most will also speak Swahili. The importance of cattle, goats, and sheep in the lives of the Maasai cannot be overstated, serving not only as a source of sustenance but also as social status. Having cattle and children are the two most important aspects of life for the Maasai, with a traditional prayer translating as “May the Creator give us cattle and children”. Read more about the Maasai people
The Datoga Tribe
Known as the Mang’ati in Swahili. Datoga people are known as an agro-pastoral nomadic Nilotic-speaking tribe. Residing in the Manyara and Singida region of north-central Tanzania near Mt Hanang, lake Basotu, and Lake Eyasi. With well over 10 subtribes, its best subtribe is the pastoral Barabaig. They reside mainly in the northern volcanic highlands encompassed by Mt Hanang which is a sacred mountain to the Barabaig.
Their migratory history has been somewhat reconstructed through the study of comparative linguistics. Also through the oral tradition of the Datoga Tribe and its neighbor Tanzania Tribes. They are said to be from South Sudan or Western Ethiopia highlands. As their ancestors gradually migrated southward, this resulted in settlements in the highland areas of Kenya and Tanzania by speakers of Nilotic languages, herding, and farming in the rich highlands by about AD 1500.
The Chaga is one of the largest Tanzania Tribes, with an estimated population of around two million. They’ve traditionally lived on the southern and eastern slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Meru where the fertile soils have allowed them to develop successful agricultural methods. They’re renowned for their work ethic and entrepreneurial instincts, which are exhibited in the remarkable irrigation systems they developed to carry water up the mountain slopes. As a result of their geographical roots, many Chaga work as guides and porters for trekkers attempting both of these peaks, so you may encounter them on your Kilimanjaro safari.
The Chaga Tanzania tribe practices a tradition known as “kihamba”, whereby a family plot is passed down between the generations along the male line. Following the introduction of coffee to East Africa in the late 19th century. It has become a primary cash crop for Chaga farmers, together with bananas, maize, and traditional homebrew made from bananas and millet that’s known as mbege.
In traditional Chaga belief systems, Ruwa is the central god and is considered a liberator and provider of sustenance. However, the Chaga was one of the first tribes in Tanzania to convert to Christianity and many now also practice Islam. They speak a Bantu language known as Kichaga, which has a number of dialects that are related to Kamba (a language that’s spoken in the southeast of Kenya).
Also known as the Wambulu by Swahili speakers, the Iraqw people are a Cushitic-speaking ethnic group inhabiting the Great Lakes Region of East Africa. The Iraqw Tanzania tribe has traditionally been viewed as the descendants of Neolithic Afro-Asiatic peoples. They have practiced plant and animal husbandry in the Great Lakes Region.
Their Ancestors are often credited with having constructed the sprawling Engaruka Complex in northern Tanzania. They practice an intensive form of self-contained agriculture that resembles the ruins of stone-walled canals, furrows, and dams that are found at Engaruka. Maize is the staple crop of the Iraqw; it is supplemented with beans, sorghum, and millet (the latter two are used primarily for brewing beer). Other food crops are pumpkins, sweet potatoes, European potatoes, onions, and various legumes.
The Iraqw people speak the Iraqw language as a mother tongue and their population is estimated to be over 900,000. Although Iraqw is not an endangered language, due to the minimal use of it in writing and the increasing importance of other languages as the country develops, it may be a future that is looming ahead. The traditional culture of Iraqw has rich oral literature. Historically, the Iraqw have been seen as outsiders from other peoples within Tanzania Tribes, and a large part of their songs and poetry is about living in peace with their neighbors.