ALTERNATE NAMES: Wanyamwezi
LOCATION: Unyamwezi (Tanzania: Provinces of Tabora and Shinyunga)
POPULATION: 1 million
LANGUAGE: Kinyamwezi; KiSwahili (Tanzania's national language); English; languages of neighboring ethnic groups
RELIGION: Spirituality shaped by traditional beliefs; Islam; Christianity
The Nyamwezi people, also called the Wanyamwezi, live in the East African country of Tanzania. Their home area is called Unyamwezi, "the place of the Wanyamwezi." Over the years Nyamwezi culture has both influenced and been influenced by the cultures of neighboring African societies as well as the national Tanzanian culture. Islam and Christianity have also had a great impact on modern Nyamwezi customs.
The Nyamwezi are made up of four distinct subgroups, each claiming to descend from its own special ancestor. The first Nyamwezi settlers formed small communities that grew into larger kingdoms ruled by a mtemi, or king. The Nyamwezi were well-known traders in the precolonial era.
German and British colonialists created a system in Tanzania where people were separated according to race, similar to apartheid in South Africa. Colonial rule in Tanzania was built upon the notion that Europeans were superior to Africans.
The German colonial occupation of Tanzania was brutal, based on physical violence and a racial hierarchy. During the 1880s and 1890s German military campaigns conducted vicious reprisal raids against African areas that resisted German authority. In 1920, after World War I, Germany ceded control of Tanzania to the British. British administration of the territory was characterized by racial segregation. Africans were denied the right to participate in politics.
In the 1990s, Tanzania changed from a one-party socialist state to a country with multi-party competitive elections and a free-market economy. A number of Nyamwezi emerged as leaders of the opposition parties and played important roles in the ruling party.
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 million.
Many Nyamwezi can speak at least three languages. Kinyamwezi, which has three dialects, is the mother tongue of most. Most are also fluent in KiSwahili, Tanzania's national language. Many Nyamwezi also speak English and the languages of neighboring ethnic groups, such as Kisukuma, the language of the Sukuma people.
One of the most important historical figures for the Nyamwezi is the mtemi (king) Mirambo. By the time of his death in 1884, he had created a central African empire that incorporated the greater part of Unyamwezi. Mirambo was a brilliant military tactician, known for his fierceness in battle.
Nyamwezi spirituality has been shaped by traditional beliefs, Islam, and Christianity. Traditional Nyamwezi spirituality centers on the connection between the living and their ancestors. Ancestors are seen as upholding the tradition, law, and values of society.
Relations with the ancestors and respect for Nyamwezi traditions are maintained through ritual activity such as animal sacrifices and other ceremonies. These activities are overseen by diviners, who act as spiritual advisers. They interpret events and determine which spirits are involved and what rituals should be followed to restore balance in people's lives.
The major holidays in Tanzania are Union Day (April 26), which celebrates the creation of the union between mainland Tanzania and the Zanzibar Island; Mayday/Workers Day (May 1); Independence Day (December 9); and New Year's Day (January 1). Major religious holidays for Christians are Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter; and for Muslims, Eid al-Fitr (end of Ramadan), Eid al-Haj (Festival of Sacrifice), Islamic New Year, and the Prophet Muhammad's Birthday. Religious holidays are usually celebrated by attendance at the church or mosque and visits with family and friends. Secular (nonreligious) holidays such as Independence Day are characterized by military parades and speeches by the country's leaders.
A series of rituals welcome the birth of a new baby. Many Nyamwezi practices surrounding birth have changed as Western influences have increased.
Marriage is a very important Nyamwezi institution. Courtship typically begins with a young man's search for a suitable young woman to marry. With one or two male friends, he visits her home and discusses the possibility of marriage. If, after consulting with her female elders, the young woman agrees, bride wealth negotiations begin. When the bride wealth is agreed upon, the groom's father holds a large feast. After the bride wealth has been paid, a wedding ceremony is held with much feasting, dancing, and singing.
Greetings are very important in Nyamwezi society. One greets important people by bowing, clapping one's hands, and averting one's gaze before a handshake. A greeting among close friends are less formal and often incorporate some teasing and joking. A greeting is always accompanied by a handshake, as is leave-taking. After the greetings, it is considered impolite to "get straight to the point," and the matter to be discussed is usually approached gradually and in an indirect manner.
Visiting relatives and friends is a favorite activity on the weekends, on holidays, or after work. Hospitality is taken very seriously.
Tanzania is one of the poorest countries in the world. Within Tanzania the most prosperous area is Dar es Salaam, the capital, while the poorest region is the southern coast. Unyamwezi falls between these two extremes.
Most people in Unyamwezi live in houses made of mud bricks with either thatched grass or corrugated iron roofs and dirt floors. Most houses do not have electricity or indoor plumbing, and most people have few material possessions. Malaria and sleeping sickness are widespread.
Most families are made up of a mother, a father, and children. Men have traditionally controlled most of the power within a household. This pattern is changing, as the government has stressed equal rights for women. Within the household, women are responsible for many of the daily chores, such as weeding crops and cooking. Men are responsible for building the house and clearing the fields. Girls help their mothers with household work, while boys help with herding the livestock. It is not unusual for school enrollment rates in rural areas to fall during harvest and planting times as children help their parents with agricultural work.
Nyamwezi traditionally wore clothing made of bark cloth. As trade grew in the eighteenth century, imported textiles became popular. Many women wear khangas, printed cloth adorned with Swahili sayings and vitenge, printed cloth with brightly colored and ornate designs. Dresses based on Arab, European, and Indian styles are also popular. Men wear trousers and shirts. On special occasions Muslim men wear flowing white robes called kanzus.
A favorite food is ugali, a stiff porridge made from corn, millet, or sorghum meal. It is served with beef, chicken, and vegetables. Cassava, rice, bread, peanuts, spinach, cassava leaves and other vegetables are also eaten. Snacks often consist of fruits. When available, the meat from wild game is a special treat. A recipe for mtori, a common soup made of plantains, follows.
Before the European colonial occupation of Unyamwezi, children were educated by their elders. They would learn from their parents how to farm, hunt, cook, herd cattle, and do other work. Stories told by parents or grandparents after the evening meal taught children the ways of Nyamwezi society. Stories typically began with a call and response, in which the storyteller would tease the listeners as follows:
Storyteller: A Story.
Listeners: There once was what?
Listeners: Go on!
Storyteller: You know who.
Listeners: Go on!
Many children's stories in the United States are based on African folktales. For example, one Nyamwezi story closely resembles the tale of "Br'er Rabbit." It tells of some farmers who decided to catch a hare that was eating their crops. They used a wood carving covered with glue to try to catch the hare. The rabbit came to the field and tried to talk to the carving. When it did not respond the rabbit resorted to violence, kicking and punching the carving and becoming stuck in its glue. When the farmers returned to kill the rabbit he pleaded with them not to beat him to death on the sand. When the farmers tried to do this, the soft sand broke the rabbit's fall and he was able to run away.
Informal education continues to be important for teaching societal values. At the same time, formal education equips the Nyamwezi with basic skills for life in modern Tanzanian society. After independence (in 1961) the government devoted most of the educational resources to providing free elementary education for all Tanzanian children. Until about 1980, elementary attendance rates improved significantly. However, enrollment rates have dropped in recent years in response to deteriorating economic conditions and the poor quality of some elementary schools.
The Nyamwezi have a rich cultural heritage. Perhaps the most important part of their heritage is the emphasis on harmonious and balanced social relations. Nyamwezi society has historically placed a high value on tolerance. This has allowed many people from outside Unyamwezi to live peacefully in the area and has allowed the Nyamwezi to live throughout Tanzania.
For the Nyamwezi, music and dance are an important part of their cultural heritage. Both play an important part in wedding festivities and other ceremonies.
Hunting is also an important part of Nyamwezi culture. Many men belong to secret societies of hunters with special rituals which are considered to help them track various types of animals.
Most Nyamwezi are agriculturalists relying on traditional farming techniques. As in the past, most of the farming is done manually, although some tractors and animals are now used. The Nyamwezi live in areas where rainfall is often unreliable. Consequently, they long ago developed techniques, such as ridging their fields, to conserve water. The major crops are sorghum, millet, maize (corn), rice, sweet potatoes, cassava, peanuts, beans, chickpeas, gourds, sunflowers, pumpkins, cotton, and tobacco.
By far the most popular sport is soccer. The Tanzanian landscape is dotted with soccer fields, and children and teenagers enjoy playing the game, often in bare feet with homemade soccer balls. On weekends many people enjoy listening to soccer games on the radio. For those who can go to the stadium, Simba and Young Africans of Dar es Salaam are the most popular teams to watch. Many Nyamwezi also support their local team, Milambo, based in the town of Tabora.
Besides soccer, many people like to play cards or a board game called bao. Sometimes called African chess, bao is a very complex game in which good players need to plan many turns in advance to capture their opponents' markers or pieces. More affluent families enjoy watching videos. Perhaps the most important form of relaxation in Unyamwezi, especially in the rural areas, is visiting friends and drinking traditional homemade beer.
Many children make their own toys. A common toy is a wire car with wheels cut out of old pieces of rubber from tires or flip-flops. Children also make their own soccer balls.
Important crafts in Unyamwezi include ironworking, basket making, and making traditional stools. Some skills are closely guarded secrets passed down within a family or a close-knit secret society.
For adults, beer brewing is an important hobby. After the beer has been prepared, a process that takes several days, the brewer will have a party with much singing and dancing. Traditional beer is used in numerous ceremonies, including weddings, funerals, feasts, and holidays.
The most pressing problem facing the Nyamwezi, as with most Tanzanians, is poverty. Malnutrition, the lack of clean water, and insufficient health care allow diseases to take their toll. As in most countries, poor people are often at a severe disadvantage in protecting their rights and advocating their interests through the official channels of government.
Tanzania was ruled from 1965 to 1992 by a one-party state that tended to restrict political rights and individual liberties. A radical new plan called ujamaa (development of family villages based on socialism) was instituted in the 1960s and 1970s. Ujamaa led to numerous economic problems including a shortage of basic goods, corruption, high rates of inflation, declining production, and a deterioration of the nation's physical infrastructure. However, these problems need to be considered within the context of a ruling regime that seemed committed to building a new egalitarian society and promoting a national culture relatively free of ethnic animosity.
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