Nyamwezi People – History, Social, Culture, Demographics and More

Nyamwezi People – History, Social, Culture, Demographics and More

The Nyamwezi people or Wanyamwezi are one of the Bantu groups found in East Africa. The Nyamwezi kingdom people are the second-biggest ethnic nationality in Tanzania. Their ancestral homelands are found in parts of Katavi Region, Shinyanga Region, Singida Region, and Tabora Region. The name Nyamwezi originates from Swahili and translates to “people of the moon” or ”people of the west.” The latter translation is considered more meaningful to the context.

Historically, five ethnic nationalities refer to themselves as ‘Wanyamwezi” to outsiders: Sumbwa, Sukuma, Nyamwezi, Konongo, and Kimbu. However, these ethnic groups were never united. All the groups have cultures that are broadly similar. However, it will be an oversimplification to regard the Nyamwezi people as one single group. The Nyamwezi people are closely related to the Sukuma people and are thought to have been one ethnic nationality until the Nyamwezi started exploring the coast for long-distance transactions. The Sukuma call the Nyamwezi people ‘Dakama’ (people of the south). Conversely, the Dakama call the Sukuma ‘people of the north.’ Their homeland is referred to as Unyamwezi, and they speak the Kinyamwezi language, although many also speak English and Kiswahili.

The Nyamwezi Names Origin

Old Indian texts reference the Nyamwezi people or ‘people of the moon.’ The term is still used to identify the Nyamwezi people in Tanzania today. The name was only found in European literature in the 19th century, although the term could include almost anybody from the western plateau. Through their travels, they realized that they were referred to as Nyamwezi by others, and almost all of them accepted the name the coastal people gave them. This shows that the Nyamwezi people originated from the west. A hundred years later, their land is still referred to as ‘Greater Unyamwezi. According to Nyamwezi map, the land is about 91,000 km2 (35,000 square miles) of rolling land at an elevation of around 1,200 m (4,000 feet)

Nyamwezi People History

Early History

Oral tradition indicates that the Nyamwezi people are believed to have settled in their current location (west-central Tanzania) around the 17th century; the earliest proof is from the Galahansa and affirms their presence there in the late part of the 17th century. They used to be nomadic farmers and fishermen due to the poor quality of soil in the area. They became professional traders through their travels. By 1800, they were already taking caravans to trade in ivory, salt, wax, slave, and copper on the coast. Indian and Arab ivory and slave traders reached the Nyamwexi in 1825. They also began buying guns and establishing regular armies due to inter-tribal conflicts and some issues with Arabs on the coast throughout the 19th century. The Nyamwezi society could be regarded as an acquisitive society as they are usually accused of only thinking of how to make money.

The Nyamwezi people had long been a settled farming and cattle-rearing group. They arrived on the western plateau around the 16th century and initially dwelled in a mosaic of independent and small chiefdoms carved out slowly by dominant dynasties. According to a Catholic missionary, these dynasties could have been more than 150, and each had its court slaves, elders, and councilors. By the 19th century, the Nyamwezi were already identified as large owners of slaves and were renowned for their herds. Although cattle were important, they were not a core part of their normal life, instead, they were left to the care of professional cattle herders – the immigrant Tutsi people.

Nyamwezi People; The 19th Century

Chief Mirambo
Chief Mirambo

There were many Nyamwezi kingdoms during the early 1800s. They include Urambo, Ulyankhulu, and Unyanyembe. Unyanyembe was arguably the strongest of them all since it was in control of the trading town of Tabora and had close ties with the Arabs living in Zanzibar through the local Arab population in Tabora. The Arabs helped Mnywasele to chase out his rival Mkasiwa after he inherited the throne. Mkasiwa eventually fled to Ulyankhulu. However, a greater conflict occurred between Ulyankhulu and Unyanyembe when Mnywasele attempted to exert greater control over the Unyanyembe trading community. At the end of the conflict, Mkasiwa ascended the throne of Unyanyembe. Unyanyembe was involved in another conflict in 1871; this time, it was against Urambo, which was ruled by Mirambo, a prominent ivory and slave trader. Urambo’s men shut off Tabora from the ivory trade network, leading to a global increase in the price of ivory. The war persisted until Mirambo died in 1884.

19th-century settlements among the Nyamwezi people were described as compact large and strengthened for defense with the use of robust wooden stockades, usually in highly inaccessible rocky locations. When the Germans finally brought peace, the people didn’t disperse immediately; instead, they slowly dispersed over a period of fifty years. Thus, the modern style of scattered settlements was birthed.

The German colonialists administering Tanzania from the late 19th century found the Nyamwezi people heavily involved in trade with the Arabs and the people of Zanzibar, dominating as porters and traders since 1850. Although Illife says up to 100,000 people were likely traveling to and from the coast, Abrahams says there were up to 200,000 plying various side roads, some even making the trip 20 times. Despite their contact with outsiders, the Nyamwezi colonies were exceptionally resistant to foreign influence. Nyamwezi colonies located outside the Unyamwenzi stayed culturally distinct. In Unyamwenzi, multiple lifestyles were absorbed into the existing lifestyle, like how the Ngoni became another chiefdom or became isolated like the Arabs living in Tabora. Despite their conservatism and poor relationship with the coast, the ability to travel was regarded as a manly and valuable attribute.

Several trade routes passed through Unyamwenzi, and the Nyamwenzi had access to slaves and ivory stretching the inland from the coast, as far as the Kingdom of Kongo. The western Nyamwenzi got to the coast with ivory around the year 1800. Coastal traders followed suit by entering Unyamwenzi and arriving at Ujiji by 1831. A sort of California Gold Rush occurred for the Congo’s Manjema ivory to the west of Lake Tanganyika. Due to their deep involvement in commerce, the Nyamwezi people welcomed traders. Unyanyembe was the most friendly chiefdom. There, Arab traders created a link between Tabora and the Lake District.

Most of the last half of the 19th century was dominated by conflicts between Arab traders and chiefs. Chiefs like Mirambo and Isike were no longer strictly ritual and realized that the availability of firearms allowed them to establish standing armies as well as a new state organization. Essentially, trade and firearms transformed the Nyamwezi people regions into trade centers and generated the fund required to acquire firearms. Normally, chiefs were ritual Nyamwezi figures without stable succession rules. Their lives were very restricted, with their most important duties carried out by headmen. When the chiefs became gravely ill, they were strangled because the state’s well-being and its continued existence were associated with the chief and his subordinates. Therefore, a hierarchical set of territorial offices was created. There were ritual officials, headmen elders, assistant chiefs, and sub-chiefs as dynasties kept seizing power from one another. Ultimately, Greater Nyamwezi was turned into a war zone.

Nyamwezi Resistance 

The Germans moved towards Tabora in 1890. Tabora is found on the interior of Nyamwenzi land, and the Germans met stiff resistance from the hereditary leader of Unyanyembe, Isike. Isike was the only ruler in Nyamwezi land who was willing to defend his people to the last drop of his blood.

According to a combination of European intelligence and correspondence information offered by explorers and missionaries, Isike was the first on the Germans’ list of serious opponents of the colonialists. The arrival of the Germans isolated Isike; his Arab friends caved in and jettisoned the long bond they had from the reign of Mkasiwa (Isike’s father). The Arabs recognized and acknowledged the military power of the Europeans and supported them in their war against Isike.

Isike distinguished himself as a committed leader who dedicated his life to the continued survival of his tribe. He was attentive to matters of governance. He was a man of few words as he listened to his people more than he talked.

Isike was shrewd in his transactions with every foreigner. His centrist leaning balanced the triangular relationship between Europeans, Arab-Indians, and local rulers in the caravan trade.

His consciousness and understanding of the powerful workings of all the sides of the triangle preserved his authority.

Isike built a fortress around the royal courts of Nyanyembe on Itetemia to stay prepared for foreign invasions. The fortress was a purpose-built defense stronghold to keep out invaders. The fortress had thick walls and was constructed with mud mortar and stones and strengthened with fire. The walls are approximately ten feet high and three feet wide. Holes were carved strategically atop the walls to allow ruga ruga snipers to place their weapons and defend the base of the fortress.

Unlike his cousin, Nyungu-ya-Mawe and Mirambo, who fought in the forefront of the battle lines leading their fierce ruga ruga forces, Isike opted to control his men from his command cn=enter inside the fortress. Isike never complied with the demands and invitation of the Germans for peace talks. He refused to leave his fortress to negotiate personally with the invaders. He sent Nyamwezi people envoys instead.

The German’s earliest attempt to appease Isike failed woefully in 1890. Their weak military tools and small army were simply not up to the task. He kept to his tactic of staying put in his fortress.

Lt. Tom von Prince was specifically appointed by the German authority to use any means needed to confront and crash Isike’s resistance. This time the Germans were better equipped. They also had local ruga ruga deserters who were attracted by the promise of handsome rewards to serve as mercenaries for the Germans.

They also forged a coalition with the experienced and skilled Arab militia with Princess Nyanso’s support as well as ruga ruga fighters from other Nyamwezi rulers. The Arab militia and ruga ruga mercenaries did not only strengthened the German army personnel in size but also supplied the vital information that could weaken Isike’s defense plans,

The Germans learned a bitter lesson in 1891 when they lost fifty percent of their men to the Nyamwezi people in Kalenga. They suffered this heavy loss when they attacked Isike’s close ally and son-in-law, Mkwawa. The Germans realized the two leaders conspired to keep close contact and share intelligence in order to ward off foreign incursion.

Before 1983, the Germans had launched two major futile attacks in their bid to upstage Isike and followed up with intermittent skirmishes at different times. Their third heavy offensive turned out to be the decisive blow. The Germans broke Isike’s stronghold. Realizing his impending defeat, Isike committed suicide to avoid surrendering or being captured alive. He ignited the gunpowder kegs stoked in the armory where he hid with his wives and willing relatives. He preferred to die than to live a miserable life under foreign usurpers.

In 1891, prior to Isike’s defeat, Nyanso was made the German’s allied ruler of Unyanyembe. With the death of Isike in 1893, the German’s victory was cemented. This sealed Nyamwenzi’s dominance of the central caravan business route. The Germans exerted their authority freely across Unyamwezi lands before extending it to the whole of Tanganyika. Thus, the Germans’ strategy of forming a coalition with Isike’s foes paid off. If not, it would have been an uphill task. The Germans would have taken longer to overcome Isike’s strong will. Swetu, Isike’s brother, was the only one to openly continue to oppose in the periphery.

After the fall of Isike’s Itetemia fortress to the Germans, Swetu ran into the Nyimbo forest with the remaining ruga ruga soldiers. He launched various guerilla attacks against the Germans for almost two years. However, his guerilla warfare was not as effective and organized as Mkawawa’s, and the Germans focused solely on Mkwawa after conquering the Nyamwezi people.

The Germans pacified Unyamwezi in 1893, with only Chief Isike posing any serious threat. They adopted a system of indirect rule in the area and chiefs served as the central government’s administrative agent. The chiefs received account books as an official sign of recognition. The chiefs were expected to collect taxes and maintain order. Although earlier officers were comfortable with the collaboration, later officers weren’t. They became suspicious and even intentionally dismantled a chiefdom.

A German ethnologist, Karl Weule had this to say as late as 1906: “European caravans even had their bellhops expect to receive drink and food from villages they moved through.”

After the exit of the Germans from Tabora during the First World War, the British stepped in in 1919 and ruled until the independence of Tanzania in 1961. To avoid sleeping sickness, several people were conveyed to villages free from the sickness.

The Nyamwezi People Social Organization

Historically, Nyamwezi villages were not usually kinship units, and relatives were often scattered across wide areas. Generally, partners were from outside the Tembes, and male children usually moved ut of their father’s compound. The main members in a domestic group are the husband, the wives, and any of the kids still living with them. In some cases, relatives like a mom, younger unmarried, sisters and brothers, and their kids could be found co-habiting. Usually, the genders ate separately. Men generally handled the heavy work, while the women handled recurring duties and most of the daily agricultural duties.

Every adult is expected to be married, and every married lady is meant to have a household of hers and bring her household tableware. Technically, the husband is assumed to own his spouse’s field, hut, and most of the food in the household. However, a smart husband often pays attention to his wife’s counsel. There was no clear-cut ranking among co-wives. However, seniority was sometimes decided on the basis of who was married first among them. Sorcery and jealousy were common, mostly depending on how well the wives related with themselves. Unlike the Gogo people, divorce wasn’t uncommon. A vast majority of individuals have had at least one divorce before they turn 50. The divorce usually entailed the refund of the bride price subtracted from the number and gender of the kids born. Oftentimes, the separation of any of the partners concludes the divorce. Certain reasons automatically legitimize divorce in chiefdom courts, e.g., aborting a baby, wife refusing the husband sex, wife striking the husband, and wife’s adultery. Among the Nyamwezi people, a husband could have sufficient reasons to claim divorce if the wife consults a doctor without his permission, possible infertility, and the wife’s failure to handle household tasks. A wife can divorce the husband if he leaves a for a period without support, if he injures her seriously (by breaking a leg or arm but not by simply striking her), if he is impotent, and if he is unable to cater to her needs and that of the kids. However, a husband committing adultery is never a reason to seek divorce.

It was normal for the kid brother of a woman’s dead husband to inherit the widow ( a sort of ‘orphans’ and ‘widows’ security system. However, it was never done against the will of the widow. Among some people, the son of the husband’s sister inheriting the widow was especially favored.

The chief traditionally receives tributes in the system of the Nyamwezi people and actively participates in ceremonies. The tribute is paid so that the chief can bring prosperity and success to his people. It is said that all land belongs to the chief, giving him the right to eject witches and other undesirables. The overall need to have a massive population made it necessary to check abuses. Although nobody had the authority to sell off any land in a chiefdom, the inhabitants had enough security in freedom to use the land. They didn’t require approval to clear the land. However, they had to be careful so as not to be at odds within the vicinity. A headman can ask for other holdings if there wasn’t enough land to inherit. Water was free for everyone.

The Nyamwezi people were highly spiritual, with ntemi serving as their priest and religious and ritual leader.

The Nyamwezi People Economic Organization

Historically, one of the most respected jobs among the Nyamwezi people is elephant hunting. This is because they could become very wealthy through the trade in ivory. Elephant hunters usually have a guild that only included people who succeeded in the tutelage stage and the tests associated with elephant hunting. Hinting was done in different ways. Members of the guild usually use a deadly poison, and when used, “it worked gradually but surely’ said a German sergeant.

Guild members believe that they have potent hunting charm acquired through onerous learning, tracking games in different terrains, and moving discretely and swiftly through spiky underbrush. Elephant hunting by the Nyamwezi people caused a drop in the population of elephants. Elephant hunting coupled with the increase in slave trade caused changes in the economic and social conditions of the people.

Ugali (porridge made with hominy) has been the staple food of the Nyamwezi people historically. The delicacy is usually served with vegetables and meat. Beer produced from fermented millet, sorghum, and corn was also commonplace. Ancestors were appeased with goat sacrifice. However, the economic worth of sheep and goats was in their skins and meat. According to tradition, five sheep or goats equated to one bull; one cow was worth two bulls. The year was split into two seasons, dry and wet. Depending on place and time, there were considerable variations.

Ugali Mchicha
Ugali Mchicha

Apart from agriculture, the Nyamwezi people also engaged in crafts as a part-time job, although they weren’t hereditary. Horn snuffboxes, stools, ladles, grain storage boxes, and drums were important products traded regionally. Cloth and iron are important items in regional networks. However, the cloth business was particularly ailing in 1857 due to serious competition from India. Over the next six decades, the industry almost vanished. Iron tools like bows, spears, and arrows were gotten from localized communities and the products are subsequently traded across wide areas. Hoes were highly valuable and were used for bride price. The smiths often produced these tools with major rituals.

Slavery Background of the the Nyamwezi People

Slavery was historically important, and government officials and chiefs owned slaves the most, with their slaves numbering more than 1,000 at times. Owning slaves was important at the time because men were traveling and labor for farm cultivation became scarce. Slaves in the area apparently had a more secure and easier life than the slaves that were moved to the coast. Nyamwezi traditional houses slaves usually lived and dined with their slave masters. They were permitted to work alone and could have their livestock and slaves. Sometimes faithful slaves were given control over parts of a chiefdom. It was also not uncommon for slaves to attain positions of power and great influence.

Although slave raiding and trading outside Nyamwezi land were huge, some individuals became slaves because of debt. Prior to the 19th century, slavery was permitted, but the Nyamwezi empire people looked down on it. During the economic and social changes of the 19th century, the perception changed and the trade-in of slaves increased gradually. The sale of ivory hugely increased the slave trade, though it had always been important to inter-and intra-regional businesses. Like cattle, slaves were wanted and needed for the prestige value because men could acquire social connections and influence. Marriage payments could even be made with slaves. Slaves were hardly used to convey ivory. Ivory porters were seen as voluntary and free labor, though they were sometimes abused financially by their owners. However, Arabs later defeated these people.


When the German East Africa was established in the 19th century, missionaries of the Moravian Church arrived in the Lake Nyasa region of Tanganyika. Currently, the Moravian Church in Western Tanzania has around 800,000 Nyamwezi members and many of them are still evangelizing amongst the Sukumas.

Approximately 926,000 Nyamwezi people speak a Bantu Nyamwezi language categorized under the Sukuma – Nyamwezi Bantu group.

The Nyamwezi people are mostly cattle herders and subsistence farmers.

Culture of the Nyamwezi People

The Nyamwezi tribe people are mostly adherents of traditional religion, despite various attempts to convert them to Christianity and Islam. They have faith in an all-powerful god known as Likube or High God, Limi (sun), Liwelolo (universe), and Limatunda (creator). However, ancestor worship is practiced more frequently. Sacrifices of goats or sheep are offered to ancestors, and Likube’s help is sought beforehand. Spirits also actively participate in the religious life of the Nyamwezi people, and mfumu, diviners, or witchdoctors act as medical practitioners and counselors. Witchcraft (bulogi) is an effective force in the culture of the Nyamwezi people. People occupied by the Swezi spirit were recruited by the Baswezi group.

Many Nyamwezi people became Sunni Moslems around the 19th century, and the religion influenced the fashion of people that did not convert. Around the same time, other Nyamwezi people converted to Christianity theough the efforts of the Moravian Church in the area. Despite converting, Christians and particularly Muslim Nyamwezis stuck with many of their traditional beliefs and customs.

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