LOCATION: Shambaai (West Usambara mountain range—northeastern Tanzania)


LANGUAGE: Shambala; Swahili

RELIGION: Traditional Shambaa beliefs; Mufika ; Christianity; Islam


The Shambaa, also referred to as the Shambala, are a Bantu people found mainly on the west Usambara mountain range in Tanzania. The homeland of the Shambaa is called Shambaai (or Shambalai).

The Shambaa were traditionally ruled by kings. The Shambaa kingdom was made up of several descent groups with a common origin, but the kingdom was governed by a single descent group. The king ruled over several chiefdoms. All the wealth of the land was regarded as the king's. The system of chiefdoms was abolished soon after Tanzanian independence (1961).


The mountains of the Shambaa are an area of abundant rainfall with thriving banana plants. The Shambaa regard the nyika (plains) as a dangerous place of disease and death. Thus, the population density is high in the mountain area. Villages are located near each other with nearly all arable (farmable) land in use. Overpopulation is considered a problem. Some Shambaa people have now moved to the nyika and to urban areas such as Dar es Salaam and Tanga. Total Shambaa population is approximately 445,000 people.


Shambala is the main language spoken by the Shambaa. It has three main dialect areas. Despite these differences in dialect, the Shambaa can understand one another's speech. Shambala is used mainly for oral communication; only a few people can write in Shambala at this time.

The Shambaa also speak Swahili, the national language of Tanzania. Young people prefer to speak Swahili, which is taught in primary school. It is used in business and communications (in the media). Instruction in secondary schools and universities is in English.


The story of Mbegha (or Mbega) is the most famous of Shambaa myths. Mbegha was a hunter from Ngulu Hills to the south of Shambaai. He was forced to leave his homeland after a dispute with his kinsmen over his share of an inheritance. Mbegha fled to Kilindi, where he became a blood brother to the chief's son. The chief's son died accidentally while hunting with Mbegha. This caused Mbegha to flee again, into the bush, to escape punishment from the chief. He lived in caves and camps, hunting wild animals. After crossing the Pangani River, Mbegha arrived on the southern escarpment of the Usambaras. The Ziai people saw the smoke of his campfire and approached him. Upon learning that Mbegha was a skilled pig hunter, they asked him to rid their village of pigs. He was invited to live in Bumbuli. There he grew famous as an arbitrator, hunter, and storyteller. The grateful villagers gave Mbegha a wife. Mbegha also helped the people of Vugha and was known as a lion slayer after killing a lion on the way to their village. He was made the chief of Vugha. Mbegha's son Buge grew to be the chief of Bumbuli. When Mbegha died, Buge succeeded him as king of all Shambaai.


Traditional Shambaa beliefs center on healing the land and the body. Rainmakers were important people in the society. They were believed to have the power to prevent or cause rainfall. Mufika (ancestor worship) was important. The Shambaa believed that ignoring one's ancestors, especially one's deceased father, was sure to lead to misfortune.

The Protestant and Catholic faiths are both well established in Shambaai. The Christian influence in Shambaai was spread by missionaries through education and preaching. Islam was spread in Shambaai by the Zigua, mainly in the trading towns.


The Shambaa observe both secular (nonreligious) and religious holidays. The main government holidays now celebrated are New Year's Day, Union Day (April 26), Workers' Day (May 1), Peasants' Day (August 8), and Independence Day (December 9). Government holidays are public rest days when offices and shops are closed. Nationwide public rallies are held in urban areas.

Both Christian and Muslim holidays are celebrated with public observances. The major Christian holidays are Easter weekend and Christmas. The major Muslim holidays are Eid al-Fitr, Eid al-Hajj, and Maulid. Religious holidays are a very special time for family gatherings.


Traditionally, the Shambaa held initiation ceremonies for both young men and young women. Initiation for boys began with circumcision at the age of three or four years. At that time a kungwi (mentor) was chosen for him. At puberty, the initiate undergoes the gao ceremony, in which he is instructed in acceptable behavior.

In modern times, circumcision takes place in health facilities. The initiation ceremony has been shortened but is still required. Young women are not circumcised. However, they also go through a gao ceremony of instruction that is required before a young woman can marry or become a mother.


Greetings are important in Shambaa culture. There are particular greetings for different times of the day. Greetings may be prolonged, for it is customary to inquire after a person's family, health, and work. Younger people are expected to show respect and deference to their elders.

Traditionally, men and women were socially segregated, and this has formed the basis for all their relationships. Couples do not eat together at home. Mothers usually eat with their children while the father eats alone. Persons of opposite sexes do not show any affection publicly through bodily contact; this is considered highly inappropriate.


The Shambaa live in large villages consisting of several lineages (family groups). Villages are usually located on upper hillsides. Banana groves separate the homesteads and provide a source of food, a symbolic and practical insurance against famine. A traditional Shambaa house is round, with thatched roof and sides. There are also rectangular houses in Shambaai, with walls of wattle (interwoven sticks) and mud and thatched roofs. These are modeled on what is called a Swahili design. Now, these houses commonly have cement walls and corrugated metal roofs.


Polygyny (having multiple wives) was widely practiced by the Shambaa. A man married as many women as he could support. He also fathered as many children as possible. Under the influence of Christianity, marriages are now often monogamous (having only one spouse).

The wife was responsible for the daily farm work. A husband was responsible for increasing his mai (wealth). Wealth was increased mainly through acquisition of goats, cattle, and sheep. A person increased his status and standing in the community by lending out his livestock. This enabled the person to build a network of supporters who could help in times of need.


The Shambaa dress code has been greatly influenced by the Tanzanian coastal people who are mainly Muslim. Men wear kanzus (long, flowing white robes) and a small cap, or barghashia, on their heads. Women use lengths of colorful cloth as wraps for the body; these are called khangas and kitenges . A wrap may be worn over a dress or used to carry a baby on the back or hip. Married women cover their heads and clothes with two pieces of khanga cloth. Shambaa men often wear shirts and trousers in urban areas. Traditionally, women do not wear shorts in public other than for sporting events or in military camps. Secondhand clothing (mitumba) is generally worn by poorer people.

12 • FOOD

The Shambaa plant many different food crops adapted to the climate of the area, including tubers, medicinal plants, tobacco, beans, and bananas. Banana plants used to be the main food crop of the Shambaa. This has changed with the introduction of maize (corn) and cassava to the area. Cassava, a hardy root vegetable, is drought-resistant, and will survive when other crops fail due to lack of rainfall. Drought-resistant crops like cassava are grown as safeguards against famine.

The Shambaa diet is composed of starchy foods such as rice, maize, and sweet potatoes. These are usually accompanied by beans, meat, and vegetables. Dairy products are available, and sour milk is often drunk for breakfast. Meat consumption is on the increase.


Traditionally, Shambaa children have received instruction from their parents. Youths receive further instruction from their elders during the gao (adolescent initiation) ceremonies in the form of songs and stories.

The Christian missionaries were the first to offer the Shambaa formal education. Generally young men were sent to these schools while girls were kept at home.

Since 1971, the Tanzanian government has required that all children seven years of age and older attend primary schools for at least seven years. Primary education was provided free to all Tanzanians, but in the early 1990s the government reinstated school fees. Students who pass qualifying exams advance to four years of secondary education. After another exam, two years of high school follow. Those who wish to continue their education attend university or alternative trade or business schools.


The Shambaa have a rich cultural heritage of songs and dances. Songs are used to teach younger people their history and expected behavior for when they are adult members of the tribe. Drums were traditionally used to transmit messages of approaching danger as well as important news such as the death of a king. Storytelling by the elder generation is a popular evening pastime with children. Traditional dances are still popular, especially at wedding celebrations.

A wide variety of African music is popular among the Shambaa. The younger generation prefers to listen and dance to Western music, including reggae, pop, and rap.


Traditionally, work centered on the farm and was divided between men and women. Men were responsible for planting and tilling the fields; women were in charge of weeding and harvesting.

Due to diminishing land holdings, declining yields, and soil erosion, Shambaa men are increasingly forced to seek outside employment. Women are usually left in the homestead to tend the farm and children while the husband seeks employment in the urban areas and on plantations.

Educated Shambaa have better chances of finding jobs in the cities as clerks, teachers, and administrators. There is fierce competition for jobs in the private sector.


Like other Tanzanian children, the Shambaa children first come into contact with sports at school. Primary-school children are encouraged to participate in interschool competitions. These lead to higher-level championships. Popular sports at school are soccer for boys and netball (similar to basketball) for girls. At secondary schools Shambaa youth may also be introduced to basketball, table tennis, and volleyball.

Soccer is the most popular sport in Tanzania. The national soccer league broadcasts games, which are greatly enjoyed by the Shambaa. On weekends, standard and makeshift soccer fields are crowded with spectators and players.


Radio broadcasts by the state-owned radio station have been the major source of entertainment. Many households have transistor radios, and people enjoy listening to music, radio plays, and sports programs. Shambaa men gather around a radio in public meeting places, usually with a local brew in hand. Recently the government has allowed private TV and radio stations to operate, increasing the choice and quality of programs.

Television ownership has led to the opening of many video lending libraries in Tanga. Action movies are the most popular.


The Shambaa are mainly agriculturists who prefer tilling the land to craftwork. They have been fortunate to be able to obtain their ornaments and tools through trade. Blacksmiths traditionally forged iron tools and weapons. Toymaking was a favorite pastime for children, who made wooden objects such as small spears and cooking utensils. Children still make their own toys.


The greatest problem facing the Shambaa today is the gradual loss of cultural identity. Young people generally prefer to adopt a national Tanzanian identity instead of a Shambaa identity. The Shambaa are trying to reverse this cultural erosion by recording their cultural values and history. Younger people in urban areas are encouraged to regularly visit Shambaai, where they may learn their traditions and converse in Shambala.

Another serious problem facing the Shambaa is a shortage of land. A population increase has led to a decrease in arable land. Soil depletion has resulted, since the land is never left unplanted to regain its nutrients. The government is trying to introduce more resiliant crops and better farming practices into the area.

Like all Tanzanians, the Shambaa face the problem of poverty. The World Bank classifies Tanzania as the second poorest country in the world, after Mozambique.


Feierman, Steven. The Shambaa Kingdom: A History. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1974.

Feierman, Steven. Peasant Intellectuals . Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990.

Pelt, P. Bantu Customs in Mainland Tanzania . Tabora, Tanzania: TMP Book Department, 1971.

Winans, Edgar V. Shambala, the Constitution of a Traditional State . Berkeley: University of California Press, 1962.

World Bank. 1995 World Development Report. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.


Interknowledge Corp. Tanzania. [Online] Available , 1998.

Internet Africa Ltd. Tanzania. [Online] Available , 1998.

Southern African Development Comm. [Online] Available , 1998.

World Travel Guide. Tanzania. [Online] Available , 1998.

User Contributions:

Report this comment as inappropriate
Dec 15, 2009 @ 4:04 am
I had to do a project on shambaa and this helped a lot
Report this comment as inappropriate
Oct 11, 2011 @ 5:17 pm
I am insterested in the Shambala culture. My maternal grandmother was a sambaa and I speak her dialect, unfortunately, she passed on and I feel I am loosing everything. I do not have any contact with her relatives but she will always remain dear in my heart. I am expecting a Baby boy and would like to give him a name from the Shambaa people. Is there a website I could visit to find boys names and meanings.

Kind regards
Report this comment as inappropriate
Nov 23, 2011 @ 2:02 am
I am very much interested with my language,, the sambba. and would like to do somethin to develope it. Is there a dictionary?

Regards, Singano TP
abedi asiadi
Report this comment as inappropriate
Nov 29, 2015 @ 3:03 am
Im sambaa in tribe , the culture of our tribe is very interesting, i have a plan to research on history of my tribe
Report this comment as inappropriate
Jan 12, 2019 @ 7:07 am
what is the main argument of steven fiereman and what were the themes covered that reflect the types of oral sources used?

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: