Haya People - History, Kingdoms, Trade, Culture and More

Haya People – History, Kingdoms, Trade, Culture and More

The Haya people, also known as Bahaya, are a Kagera Region-based Bantu tribe in the northwestern part of Tanzania, on Lake Victoria’s western side. With a population of more than one million individuals, the bahaya people are estimated to constitute about 2 percent of Tanzania’s population. Historically, the tribe has had a complicated kingship-based governance system. Agriculture, especially banana cultivation, is integral to the economic life of the Haya people.

Haya People: Etymology

In the account of Hans Koritschoner, the word Bahaya (meaning fisher-people in the Haya language) was initially used to distinguish the Banyambo from the Haya. The difference is based on differences in culture, with the Bahaya economy more tilted to fishing and other occupations around Lake Victoria, while the Banyambo are mostly involved in pastoralism. Various sources of the word’s origin allude to oral traditions that indicate that it comes from a goddess known as Muhaya, who is the daughter of King Mushure. The other version isn’t quite as popular.

Haya Kingdoms and History

Early History

According to linguistic evidence, the Haya people made the Haya Region their home during the Bantu Expansion period. They are thought to be one of the earliest settlers in the area to engage in iron smelting. They were part of the Urewe pottery culture (an ironmaking culture inherited by several Eastern Bantu tribes) starting in the 5th century BC up to the 6th Century AD. The first compelling proof of Early Iron Period communities was established around 200 BC in Bahaya along Victoria Lake. Iron implements could have helped in the expansion of land cultivation in the area, including the steady use of beans, root cropping, and cereal crop farming (sorghum and finger millet).

From 800 to 1500 AD, the way of life of the Haya people was hugely shaped by the influence of other Bantu groups coming from a place further north in the region of the African Great Lakes. These Bantu groups from the north, whose heirs created Buganda and Bunyoro-Kitara, brought new cattle breeds with them and different types of bananas. It is still unclear why the Haya people migrated into the area, but available evidence points to serious ecological changes that aided migration with special cattle herding styles for adjusting to the stress of the environment. One of the primary methods of adjusting to the stress of the environment is the use of cattle compost to enhance the fertility of the soil for banana groves. The Haya people still practice this method today. However, it is not as popular as before because of the drop in cattle ownership that started after the rinderpest epizootic of 1890.

Haya People: Kingdoms (16th-18th Century)

Before Haya kingdoms were created, corporate groups like clans controlled the land tenure. Religion played a key part in the social structure of pre-dynastic Haya life. It included Bacwezi faiths aided by practitioners (priests, diviners, priestesses, and spirit mediums) who had the ability to communicate with or channel old Bacwezi goddesses and gods. According to oral tradition, some groups founded Bahaya kingdoms during the 16th century. Foremost examples are the Bakuma family of the kingdom of Kiziba and the Bayango family of the kingdom of Kyamtwara. The Ihangiro, located south of Kyamtwara, was the third Bahaya kingdom of this period. According to oral tradition, the Bahanda royal family arrived in the kingdom of Kyamtwara around the 17th century and co-opted the Bayango family and created their administration under King Mahe. The Bahinda family (the rulers of the kingdom of Karagwe) track their lineage to Ruhinda, the first ruler of Ankole.

Kingdoms (From the 19th Century to 1963)

The kingdom of Kyamtwara broke up in the latter part of the 18th century because of rebellions. This breakup brought about the establishment of kingdoms like Bugabo, Lesser Kyamtwara, Bukara, and Kihanja. Due to the breakup, the leadership of these four kingdoms was divided between the Bukango and Bahinda clans. The Bakango ruled over Bugabo and Lesser Kyamtwara, while Bukara and Kihanja were governed by the Bahinda clan. According to some accounts, this opportunity was seized by the Bakango clan to overthrow the Bahinda clan, who relied on them. Six Haya kingdoms were in existence when the German colonialists started ruling Tanganyika around the 1890s, namely: Bugabo, Lesser Kyamtwara, Bukara, Kihanja, Ihangiro, and Kiziba. After the 1890 Anglo-German deal, the Missenye Kingdom, located north of the kingdom of Kiziba, was added, bringing the total number of kingdoms to seven. When Tanzania became independent in 1963, the government eradicated all types of traditional chieftainship and kingship across the country. However, the government gave jobs to the kings that had the required qualifications. Only five Bahaya kings took the offer, with the others remaining honourary kings as they handled their ceremonial and traditional religious duties.

Tanzania-Uganda War

The ancestral home of the Haya people was embroiled in an attempted takeover by President Idi Amin of Uganda. Idi Amin’s incursion into the Kagera region during the Tanzania-Uganda War ultimately caused the overthrow of his administration by the Tanzanian Army.

Tanzania-Uganda War
Tanzania Uganda War

Haya People: Kingship

Kings of the Haya people (bakama) had total power over their domain. They assigned responsibilities to different clans. For instance, the Batunda were the traditional royal guards in the kingdom of Kiziba, the Baihuzi were the royal cooks, and the Bashode brewed the king’s drinks. Other roles allocated to clans were ironmaking, crushing rebellions, caring for the king’s cattle, and finding wives for the monarch. Assigning these duties helped to maintain structure across the kingdom. Each kingdom had a hierarchical administrative system. The king is at the top; below him is the prime minister, followed by ministers, adviser council, county chiefs, and finally, village headmen. There were two classes of authorities: the princes with royal ancestry and the non-royal followers of the king. During the colonial rule of the British, the Bahaya phrase omukuru we kibuga was replaced with the Ganda word katikro.


A training scheme called omuteko guided future choices of non-royal positions. The term means age set, and it mandates all male children aged 10 to 12 to appear at the capital for training and schooling. The village headman handled the selection under the king’s order. According to oral accounts, the first part of the training lasted ten days and usually included moral teaching on the boys’ responsibilities to the sub-county and their kingdom. Once the first part of the training ended, the boys were taken to the royal court of the king to be trained further. This training included singing, dancing, games, and sports. All these activities were competitive as each sub-county of the Haya People competed against another. The leading group was retained at the king’s court for extra training, and the others were subsequently sent off for physical and moral training until summoned. Other training under the omuteko program included science and art of war, culture, and history. In general, omuteko was on and off, lasting approximately three years and creating social coherence among various sub-counties. According to estimates, half of the boys admitted were let go after the initial round of training. Those who passed were given special training in the areas they excelled.

Young ladies were also invited to the royal court under a scheme known as buzana. According to the account of missionaries, this scheme was primarily for appeasing the king’s sexual appetite.

Ritual and War

Kings made crucial decisions for the Haya People like going on a raid or going to war with a neighboring kingdom inside a divining house known as buchwankwanzi. Inside the house, the king, assisted by his trusted advisors, based his decisions on the diviner’s prophecy. The word buchwankwanzi means ‘spitting pearls,’ in reference to the wise words being said by the people prophesying. Apart from military operations, the kings were in charge of their kingdom’s prosperity and fertility, such as healthy livestock, good crops, and good yield for farmers and fishermen. The new moon rituals are part of the most important ceremonies to make sure the kingdom continues to prosper. The ritual is held every month by the monarch with the assistance of religious figures. The ceremonies involved drinking alcohol, feasting, using a dead king’s insignia as catalysts, and offerings to goddesses and gods. During the new moon rituals, kings were also required to visit holy places across their kingdom with sacrifices to old Bacwezi goddesses and gods thought to be able to bring about famine, fertility, prosperity, and disease.

Renewal and Death

A king’s death was usually followed by a period of mourning which required every inhabitant of a kingdom to stop all work until the installation of another king. Any individual caught not following this temporary law would be dealt with. Installing a new monarch wasn’t always a seamless transition. Oral accounts show how groups among the royal lineage and the court usually delayed the installation. This delay sometimes came from the family of the king as siblings made covert plans and fought each other to ascend the throne. The kingdom’s royal drum and the deceased king’s jaw bone were part of the most important objects needed to clinch the seat successfully. The former is closely guarded by its custodians, and the latter needed special interment accompanied by some rituals on the deceased king’s burial estate within the royal compound. The deceased king’s ritual paraphernalia and regalia would be gathered and dumped inside his buchwankwanzi abode. Newly chosen kings typically underwent the ascension rituals. Once these rituals were completed, the temporary law prohibiting the Haya people to work would be abolished, restoring normalcy to the kingdom.

European Contact and Arab Trade

By the middle of the 19th century, the Bahaya people were connected to the trade networks of Arabs, Nyamwezi, Sumbwa, and Swahili. The time of arrival of the first Arabs in Haya is unclear. However, records show that Ahmed ibn Ibrahim was the first Arab that visited Buganda, having arrived in 1841. Ibrahim subsequently visited the kingdom of Karagwe and constructed a house at Kafuro few miles east of the capital of the kingdom, Bweranyange. Overall, the acquisition of slaves and ivory was the Arabs’ main interest. Items shipped in for the exchange included cowrie shells, Chinese porcelain, trade beads, salt, cloth, and copper coils. With the adoption of cowries, the customary Haya barter-style was abandoned. Subsequently, cowrie shells became a currency and an item used for rituals. Unlike Buaya Kingdoms, the kingdom of Karagwe had stronger ties to the trade networks of the Arabs, with important trade depots in Kitengure and Kafuro. However, Arab traders soon had to leave Kafuro one of the Haya people kingdoms after Ahmed ibn Ibrahim was killed by natives for allegedly interfering in the power play after King Rumanyika died.

James Augustus Grant and  John Hanning Speke were the first set of Europeans recorded to have passed through the region of Kagera during their 1860 to 1861 journey to find the origin of the River Nile. The Royal Geographical Society (RGS) funded their journey, and they started from Zanzibar in October 1860. The expedition took them to the mainland, arriving in Karagwe in November of the following year. King Rumanyika consulted his advisers after the arrival of the Europeans. After Grant and Speke were cleared, the entry fee usually required of foreigners was waived, going as far as referring to Grant and Speke as his visitors. Speke’s journal extols the king’s hospitality. In January 1862, Speke went to Buganda, while Grant had to stay back in Karagwe because of his swollen foot. Grant eventually left in April. In 1874, a journalist from Wales, Henry M. Stanley, visited the area, becoming the next European to come to the region after Speke and Grant’s visit. Henry Stanley’s journey was financed by The Daily Telegraph and the New York Herald. He was there to resume Grant and Speke’s work of mapping the rivers and lakes in the region. While traveling through the Ihangiro Kingdom, Henry Stanley’s crew was involved in a minor altercation with King Ntare while passing through his domain. Stanley’s crew set up camp on the island of Bumbire and struck a deal with the King to safely pass through his territory on their path to Buganda. All in all, the interest of Europeans in Bahaya kingdoms was marginal during this area as they seemed more interested in Buganda and Karagwe.

European Imperialism in Haya

Compared to the Haya kingdoms, and the Haya people the kingdom of Karagwe wielded more power. However, power struggles after King Rumanyika I died in 1881 undermined the kingdom. The struggles coupled with the rinderpest epizootic wiping out more than 90% of their cattle caused a decline they never fully recovered from. The Germans arrived in the area around this time. They had more interest in the area because of reports of Stanley, Grant, and Speke’s travels through the area. Instead of creating a colonial administration, they decided to use a pirate imperialist company known as the Society for German Colonisation. Carl Peters founded the society in 1885, and it allowed the Germans to compete with the presence of the British in East Africa.

German Colonialism (1890 to 1919)

After the 1890 Anglo-German deal, a border between German and British territories was drawn along the west bank of Victoria Lake. The border placed the Haya people under the control of the Germans and Buganda under the control of the British. Missenye, the southern part of Buganda, was ceded in 1902, becoming a distinct kingdom under German control. The Kagera region was referred to as the inter-lake region (Zwischenseengebiet) by the Germans, and the area included Burundi and Rwanda.

The Germans entered Bukoba in November 1890 under Emin Pasha’s command. Pasha, with his retinue of around forty fighters, created a German boma in the area, which was a swamp of neglected lower land near the bank of the Victoria Lake. Pasha also drew up agreements to give to Bahaya kings and recognized chiefs in the area before his successor Lt. Wilhelm Langheld arrived. Bahaya kingdoms were governed indirectly under the leadership of Langheld.

Lanfgheld was referred to as “Bwana Mzuri” (which translates to Mr. Good) by the Haya people not because he was a good man but because he overused the Swahili term mzuri (good) when talking. His style of Keeping Bahaya kings under Germany’s control was, according to him, to “set one against another.” He was succeeded by Lt. Herrman, who wasn’t any different in terms of using calculated n=manipulation to put Bahaya kingdoms firmly under Germany’s control. Lt. Franz Richter also arrived with Herman. Richter was referred to as a Captai (Hauptmann) by the Haya people. He was nicknamed Bwana Korongo (Mister Stork or Crane). From 1898 to 1902, when Richter’s rule was about to end, he, with the help of some askaris and Kihanja citizens under King Kahigi II’s leadership, killed several hundred Haya people from the kingdom of Bukara. The event is known as the Ngogo massacre, and it occurred after Richter got angry during an encounter with a group of Bakara along River Ngogo. Richter was heavily influential in the affairs of the Haya kingdoms through intimidation and military force. He was also implicated in the killing of 200 persons during the Maji Maji Revolt in 1907.

Following the arrival of Christianity and Europeans, the area became famous for producing the first African Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church (Laurean Rugambwa). The Haya people also embraced the European form of formal education before other neighboring tribes.

Iron Technology and Archaeological Discoveries

Peter Schmidt found proof through oral tradition and archaeology that the Haya people had been melting iron ore to produce carbon steel for more than 2,000 years. Schmidt made the discovery when working in Kataruka village. Village elders told Schmidt that their forebearers used to smelt iron under a holy shrine tree known as Kaiija. Since the elders were eager to confirm the veracity of their history, the elders implored Schmidt to excavate the sacred tree. His excavation brought about the discovery of an iron furnace that was carbon-dated to the first millennium BC.

During the 1980s and 1970s, Schmidt recorded many experimental smelts in order to understand the cultural, technological, and social processes of Bahaya iron making from the past. A stumbling block at the time was the fact that the Bahaya people had left iron smelting because cheaper steel gotten from foreign sources had been introduced. Haya people familiar with smelting methods were tasked with the responsibility of creating another iron furnace. The process included preparing and gathering necessary materials like grasses, clay for making tuyeres, charcoal, and iron ore. The Haya people taking part in the experiments created a furnace, managing to make iron similar in quality to those discovered at the Iron Age locations in the area like KM3 and KM2. Iron smelting recorded during the experiments was like an open hearth furnace style of making steel developed during the 19th century in Europe. The experiments made Schmidt advance his “preheating theory.” According to the theory, preheating was an important part of technologies of the Early Iron Age in the area. Preheating allowed the temperature inside a furnace to reach almost 1,400°C. The preheating theory was confirmed in an experimental smelt done in 1976. David Killick challenged this theory, but Schmidt and Donald Avery responded to Killick by defending the theory. In 1996, Terry Childs also tested Schmidt’s preheating theory and supported it.

Samples of pollen core in the area show the destruction of forested areas as well as the extension of grasslands starting around the second millennium BC and continuing till the 11th century. It is contended that iron-smelting contributed to the growth of grasslands around the region because smelting required massive production of charcoal. Bahaya iron smelter had introduced M. grass around 1500 A. this grass variant reduced the reliance on charcoal since it grows fast and is renewable. In addition, the use of M. grass made it possible for a bigger carbon contact area with iron ore in a furnace, thereby creating an adequate environment for smelting.

The Haya People; Culture

The Haya people are a traditionally patrilineal society. Their society is anchored upon a system of clans with a unifying totem that everyone identifies with collectively. Totems are usually animals, and every single clan has forbiddances such as not harming their totem or eating it. The Haya people persisting with this tradition, hold that anybody who eats or harms their symbol will bring calamity to themselves and their household. Furthermore, every male head of a family oversees a shrine dedicated to their ancestors. The shrines are frequently provided with offerings like dry coffee beans, unripe bananas, and banana beer to appease the spirit of the ancestors.


Traditional Haya House - Mushonge
Traditional Haya House – Mushonge

Traditional Bahaya houses are known as mushonge. The house is made with grass, banana fiber, wooden poles, and flexible reeds. Typically, a mushonge is built from top to bottom, with a circular shape and conical pinnacle. The term mushonge is derived from mushongole, which translates to a respected, powerful, and wealthy person. Building a mushonge entails the conduct of some rituals and drinking alcohol during the ritual and after it has been completed. The wooden poles used for structural balance define a mushonge’s spatial arrangement and typically include zones for male and female, ancestor shrines, and corralling animals. A mushonge’s size reflected the owner’s position in the community. The chief’s mushonge is usually the largest in the village, followed by spiritual authorities, clan heads, sub-clan heads, and the common people. Bahaya kings usually moved around their kingdom and dwelled inside a similar building known as nyaruju. Gradually, the mushonge switched to a clay-walled design and subsequently a mud-brick design. Currently, most Haya people dwell in square abodes with corrugated iron roofs.  The reasons alluded for the shift from the local design to a more modern one differ and include Christian ethics, which regarded the local design as retrogressive, including the symbolic parts that reflected traditional Bahaya religion, ujamaa policies aimed towards rural development, and issues of space family members further shared the land among themselves.

The Haya People: Foodways and Agriculture

The Haya people have always had a problem with fruitful soils for growing crops because rainfall kept leaching the soil’s nutrients and the physical makeup of the landscapes, notably near the shore of Victoria Lake, which offered only chunks of fertile land area. To surmount this problem, the Bahaya people practiced mixed cultivation anchored on three land types – the kibanja (banana grove) enclosing the homestead and cultivated all year because banana is a perennial crop; musin (family plot) for additional foods like sweet potatoes, cassava, and maize; and rweya (communal grasslands) for cattle grazing, and supply of grass for different uses, e.g., flooring, thatching, and mulching. Forested lands are also important. Charcoal for cooking food and wood for construction materials are gotten from there.

In terms of Haya foodways, the kibanja is of paramount importance. The Kagera Region produces almost 50% of Tanzania’s total banana production, and the cooking banana makes up the highest percentage of the banana produce. The well-known food matoke contains beans with fish or beef and is regarded as a satisfying dish compared to consuming only crops like cassava and maize. Other banana varieties include orubisi (used to make beer), konyagi (used to make spirits), and the sweet types that require no cooking. Beyond nutrition and food, the Haya people also use bananas when offering sacrifices to their ancestors and during the koshobekera ritual done to help a child grow. Coffee shrubs are raised with bananas. Coffee used to be a profitable product for the Haya people until market influences, El Nino rains (1998-2000), and the serious drought that followed destroyed most of the crop. Instead of roasting and brewing coffee for sipping, the Haya people usually dry the beans in the sun and chew them. Oftentimes, coffee beans are given to visiting guests and also left at shrines as sacrifices to ancestors. In the past, the beans were also used to finalize blood covenants by breaking a bean into two, slicing one’s navel, dabbing blood on half of the bean and putting the bean in the mouth of the other party.

The scarcity of cattle compost and other kinds of fertilizer has hugely affected the production of bananas amongst the Haya people. In addition, the massive spreading of banana bacterial wily into the area in 2006 is gradually altering the kibanja lifestyle, causing higher dependence on alternative crops like maize and cassava. Another reason pointed out is the region’s growing youth population and its effect on the inheritance of land as fathers share landholdings so much that kibanja lots are no longer big enough to produce sufficient bananas to adequately feed new households, making more Haya people focus more on working on communal grasslands. Edible grasshoppers are harvested from the communal grasslands when in season. Bahaya women were traditionally required to collect the grasshoppers (nsenene) by hand. They store the captured grasshoppers inside a woven basket and subsequently grill them for consumption. In the olden days, women were forbidden from eating grasshoppers. However, it is no longer considered a taboo, and both Haya women and men eat them. Other tribes located in southwestern Uganda also gather nsenene for sale and food.

The Haya People: Medicine and Health

The Haya people have a rich lineup of traditional medicines to treat disease and sickness. Studies on Bahaya ethnomedicine detail the use of many species of plants for curing different health issues such as gynecological issues, gastrointestinal disorders, skin conditions, malaria, wounds, and infections. Before modern medicine, health issues among the Haya people were attended to by traditional doctors (typically priests or diviners) proficient in identifying sickness and medications. Today, Haya people seek the help of trained medical personnel working at clinics and dispensaries as well as traditional doctors. Tanzania’s first recorded case of HIV was detected in the Kagera Region. Historically, HIV/AIDS has been widespread in the region. Therefore the region has been the subject of various studies and research on the disease, ranging from how families manage infected relatives, loss of native knowledge because elders with the virus are dying before passing on their knowledge to the younger generation, and data on documented cases and gender disparities.


In present-day Missenyi, Bukoba Rural, Bukoba Urban, Muleba, and other places where Haya culture is dominant in Tanzania’s Kagera Region, musical performances (playing musical instruments, dancing, and singing) are core parts of their daily life. Like many African communities, musical performances among the Haya people cannot be separated from their day-to-day life and the cultural, political, and social life. Generally, events like installation, worship, funerals, omutoro (triumphant war dances), omukama (exaltation and praise of kings), ebyebugo (self-praise or heroic recitations), healing practices like cleansing and casting off bad spirits, and every other celebratory occasion were accompanied with performances. Renowned ethnomusicologist Hugh Travers Tracey recorded the music of the Haya people. The International Library of African Music preserved the recorded songs. One of the recorded songs includes rhythms of the enkoito drum.

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