Religious Beliefs. The Zaramo, Luguru, and Kutu traditionally made pilgrimages to honor a spirit called Kolelo. When Sir Richard Burton passed through the Uluguru Mountains in 1857, he heard that the Zaramo came there to offer sacrifices to "Kurero or Bokero." According to Burton's account, the place was a cave where a spirit produced a terrible subterranean sound. Women came to bathe in a pool in this cave in order to obtain success in bearing children. The pilgrims had to dress in black, and what they offered had to be black—for instance, a black goat. The social use of black may have many connotations. Black is seen as the color of death, but death is seen as a way to another life. Black is also a color of blessing when associated with the rain and the spirits that are believed to bring rain, success, and fertility. In 1935 Herman Krelle wrote a detailed account on the Zaramo and mentioned a woman called Mlamlali as the priest of Kolelo, who performed sacrifices at the cave of Kolelo. There was also another woman called Kambangwa. She was Kolelo's servant, who made journeys to the cave to pray for rain.
After harvesting the crops, the Zaramo performed harvest purification to cleanse the food. Without this rite, it was believed that the people who ate the food would become ill. The Zaramo also had a special combination of medicines to protect the harvest from thieves. This powerful charm was capable of causing disease and even death.
Among the Zaramo, the number seven is sacred and plays a part in much of their religious and social life. For example, seven knots are pulled on a rope if there is sudden throat pain, a woman is confined for seven days after the delivery of a child, and the relatives of a dead person sleep for seven days on bare ground. It is widely believed that the Zaramo concept of the number seven was influenced by the Arabs, Indians, Persians, and Portuguese.
According to Zaramo conceptions, a gust of wind or the rustling of leaves indicates that the spirits are going past; an eclipse of the moon is a war between the sun and the moon. The Zaramo also once believed in magic water that was supposed to stop bullets; thus persuaded, they participated in the Maji Maji rising against the German colonial administration. The Zaramo fear poison and witchcraft, which they hold to be the cause of practically all deaths.
The medicine man, or mganga, in his role of diviner, has the authority and position to function as the preserver of the traditional Zaramo social and religious patterns. His diagnosis and practice uphold the concepts of spirit forces, witches, powers of sorcery, and clan taboos, and also the need to keep the traditional Zaramo rituals. No other public figure in Zaramo society today represents Zaramo traditional concepts and life as does the medicine man. Despite changes in their belief system, the Zaramo basically affirm the powers of sorcerers and spirits and thus continue to consult the mganga.
Before 1890, boys' circumcision—or jando, in Swahili—was not practiced among the Zaramo; however, the Zaramo used to put their young boys through an initiation period called kukula in Kizaramo. During this time, the boys were taught about the customs of the clan. Today, owing to Islamic influence, jando is also included in the boys' initiation rites. Following a period of seclusion and training, the boys return to their homes, and there is celebration and dancing (L. W. Swantz 1965, 39). The most significant celebrations, however, are held when the girls come out of the seclusion that accompanies their initiation into womanhood. The onset of menstruation is an important period in a Zaramo woman's life, entailing the transformation from girlhood to womanhood; she becomes a new member of society, one who can fully partake in its rites and ceremonies. While the girl is secluded, her father's sister brings the family heirlooms: a chain of pearl or iron, which is hung around the girl's neck, and a little wooden doll, called an mwananyang'hiti in Kizaramo, or a gourd doll, called an mwanasesere in Kizaramo. When not in use, these much-treasured dolls are kept in the father's family. The girl remains secluded in the house; she is not supposed to see the sun or to see any man, especially her father. She is allowed to do ordinary chores in the house. The two guardians chosen for the girl are called the kungwi and the nandi. The kungwi can be chosen from the mother's side, and the nandi comes from the father's side. Traditionally, the girl was given instruction under an mkole tree, a tree that bears small, red, edible fruits. A Zaramo girl's instructor would sing of it: "It is the tree from which you have gotten your growth." The girl then hugged the tree and was imbued with its powers of fertility (L. W. Swantz 1965, 46). Nowadays girls do not normally go to be instructed under the mkole tree. Instead, they are instructed near their homes, holding a branch of the mkole tree. At the end of the seclusion period, there is much celebration and dancing.
Today the Zaramo are predominantly Muslims, but they have not been Muslims for very long. In the period between 1857 and 1881, when explorers passed through Zaramo area, nowhere was it mentioned that the Zaramo were Muslims. Instead, they went to worship at the cave of Kolelo. The big movement toward Islam came during two periods, from around 1890 to 1900 and from 1910 to 1925. Islam accommodated itself very well to Zaramo traditional religious and social structure. Very little in the way of theology and practice had to be altered. In some respects, the Muslim teacher, called mwalimu in Swahili, simply took over the role of the mganga. Islamic amulets, medicines, and special charms took the place of the traditional ones without difficulty. Islamic magic, sorcery, power to curse, and divination all fell within traditional usage. Instead of the diviner, the Muslim teacher conducted the ordeals, using the traditional ones and introducing others. The traditional initiation rites for boys were accepted completely as they were, except for the addition of circumcision.
Although the Christian church has been established and at work among the Zaramo for the past century, its influence on and acceptance by the Zaramo have been limited.
In August 1863 Father Antoine Horner crossed over from Zanzibar to Bagamoyo with letters from the sultan giving him permission to erect a mission station there. The center was intended to be an orphanage and a settlement for former slaves that incorporated an agricultural training school. A community of over 1,000 Christians grew, mainly of former slaves. In 1888 the Benedictines of Saint Ottilien, Germany, started mission work at Pugu, 19 kilometers west of Dar es Salaam. They built the largest Catholic secondary school in the country. A congregation of the Zaramo, however, never developed as such. Through the school and through medical work, the Catholics established contact with the Zaramo, but the number of converts has been insignificant.
In 1887 a Lutheran missionary called Greiner arrived in Dar es Salaam to open a settlement for freed slaves. A 400hectare parcel of land in Magogoni, on the southeastern side of Dar es Salaam harbor, was set aside for the settlement. On the northern side of the harbor entrance, headquarters of the Lutheran Berlin Mission III and a hospital were built. In 1892 Greiner moved his work to Kisarawe, 32 kilometers inland, and in 1895 a church, a school, and a hospital were established at Maneromango, 80 kilometers inland, in the heart of Zaramo country. From three centers, about thirty-eight churches and preaching places were established, as well as two upper-primary schools, seven primary schools, and twelve bush schools. In spite of the good beginnings, the Lutheran church is comparatively weak among the Zaramo and is quite small compared to its presence in other areas of Tanzania. The Christian minority in an overwhelmingly Muslim community does not encounter enthusiastic hospitality, but Zaramo Muslims and Christians live and work together in relative peace.
There may be several factors that have contributed to the conversion of the Zaramo to Islam and not to Christianity; chief among them is the fact that Islam accommodated many of the traditional Zaramo practices whereas Christianity did not.