Kin Groups and Descent. The Zaramo lineage system is based on two principles. On the one hand, there is biological descent, following the line of the mother, and, on the other hand, there is spiritual descent, following the line of the father. The Zaramo are divided into several clans, which for them encompass the concepts of kinship, ancestry, and descent family. A Zaramo clan represents those people who acknowledge common descent, tracing their lineage through the female line. These individuals possess a common clan name, which they inherit matrilineally. The clan of the mother is also that of the children. The children always belong to their mother's clan, never to that of their father. The terms for the father's clan name ( mtala in Kizaramo and mtaa in Swahili) mean "a division of a town or district" and also "the residence of a wife in a polygamous household." The father's mtala derives from his mother's clan name. His children will never belong to his clan, for they can only belong to their mother's clan. The children will use their father's clan name, or mtala, only to show from which father they were born. For instance, when a child is born, he or she is given a personal name and also the father's mtala. The mother's clan name is always understood to be the child's clan name, but it is not used in a child's name. Thus, a child knows to which clan he or she belongs, that of the mother; however, he or she is called by a personal name plus the father's clan name.
Swantz found fifty-nine Zaramo clan names (L. W. Swantz 1965, 26-28). The clans are not totemic: the Zaramo do not observe common prohibitions or taboos. There are taboos and sacrifices, but these practices are transmitted through the father's line. There is no sign of common worship or sacrifice within the clan. Religion among the Zaramo has long been a family or household affair. No religious leader, chief, or headman could grow in importance or leadership because each family had different spirits, ways of sacrifice, and prohibitions.
The Zaramo lineage system may have stemmed from the time when there was clan land, when all from the same clan lived in close proximity to one another. Despite the fact that the children belonged to their mother's clan, they used their father's clan name. If all children from several sisters living in the same area used only their given names, plus their mothers' clan name, it would be very difficult to tell from which father they really were born. The mtala of the father was therefore used to make that distinction.