The People and Culture of Tanzania

Tanzania is well-known for being a premier safari destination in Africa and attracts travelers from across the globe annually. Alongside the wealth of wildlife and breath-taking landscapes, the country is rich with culture.

Tanzania is home to over 120 different tribes. One of the most recognized is the Maasai Tribe notable for their distinctive red shuka, memorable jumping dance, colourful beads and warrior nature.

Certain tribes welcome visitors into their homesteads to share their lifestyles. Travellers have the opportunity to learn about the various traditional ways of living. During our travels through Tanzania, Safari365 has encountered and interacted with a vast number of locals who have shared their ways of life with the Safari365 consultants and travellers. Three that we have interacted with the recently are the Maasai, the Hadzabe, and the Datonga.

The Maasai – The Warriors

Figures draped in red drive herds across the plains of Northern Tanzania. With loping grace and a warrior’s stride, they graze the cattle on the grasslands around the Serengeti and in the Ngorongoro area before returning to their kraals.

The Maasai tribe of Tanzania are one of the most recognized tribes in Tanzania thanks to their proximity to well-known National Parks. The semi-nomadic warrior people, who once lived nomadically across the lands of east Africa, now live as pastoral herders.

Tanzania Culture Maasai People

Cows play an extremely vital role in the day-to-day lives of the Maasai. Cattle meat, milk and blood play a major role in the Maasai diet with cow blood being saved for special occasions. Cattle are highly valued in the Maasai culture; cattle are a symbol of wealth and an important source of food and nutrition. Seeing Maasai tribesmen with a large, healthy herd if cattle would be equivalent to watching someone race an expensive sports car down a highway in today’s culture – a symbol of wealth and prosperity. The Maasai are monotheistic and believe in a god named Enkai who gifted the Maasai with all the cattle in the world. The belief in this gift is the reason Maasai may put their warrior status to work and raid the corrals of neighboring tribes as they have the conviction that the cattle are theirs to begin with.

Maasai tribes are patriarchal with the men taking up the task of guarding and herding the cattle while the women undertake household tasks and take charge in building the Inkajijik (traditional huts). A combination of grass, sticks, mud, water and cow dung are used to create the small, oval structures.

The local language is “Maa” and the name Maasai literally translates to “people who speak Maa”.

Tradition plays a huge role in the day to day lives of the Maasai. The tribe tends to favour the colour red illustrated by their iconic red shuka (traditional cloth) that both men and women drape across their bodies. Blue as well as striped and checked cloths also feature widely in Maasai dress. Cow hide sandal protect feet from the harsh landscapes and beaded jewelry adorns the arms, ears, necks and heads of many.

One of the most memorable scenes in Maasai culture is the “Adumu”, known colloquially as the ‘jumping dance’, Adumu is the act of young men jumping competitively. Traditionally it is a part of “Eunoto” – the ceremony in which young male warriors climb the ranks of masculinity in the tribe. Nowadays, visitors to Maasai villages are treated to a special version of Adumo not part of the ceremony. They can even try their hand at the athletic jump – and no doubt elicit some laughter from the seasoned Maasai pros.

The Datoga  – Craftsmen, Farmers and Fighters

A tribe with little concrete history, living on the land around Lake Eyasi is the Datoga Tribe. Men practice fierce fighting skills and women tend to the homesteads.

Formerly nomadic, the Datoga have settled in the Manyara region in the northern reaches of Tanzania. Little is known about the Datoga as the tribe characteristically has kept to itself over history. They are understood to be Nilotic people indigenous to the Nile Valley, with roots in southern Sudan and western Ethiopia, before groups began to migrate south and settle in Tanzania and Kenya.

Tanzania Culture Datoga Tribe

The Datoga are a proud tribe made up of fierce warriors. Pride is placed in their ability to beat any enemies they may encounter – whether animal or human. Young men are encouraged to prove their fighting and hunting prowess.

Nowadays, while still isolated from much of Tanzanian society, the Datoga are farmers and skilled craftsmen. Cattle, goats, sheep and donkeys are farmed and chickens are raised around the traditional villages. The Datoga also engage in agricultural farming and grow maize, beans and millet. Subsisting on a diet made up of the things they farm, the Datoga no longer need to hunt as they did many years ago. As was tradition hundreds of years ago, men still enjoy a delicacy called “honey beer” – a sacred consumed only by men on special occasions.

Resembling the Maasai in culture, high value is placed on cattle and cows represent a symbol of wealth. Similar to the Maasai, the Datoga wear draped, coloured cloths swapping the bright reds and patterns for red, earth colours. The tones are chosen specifically so that the Datoga can blend in better with their natural surroundings. The Datoga women are notable in their brass necklaces and bracelets as well as their colourful beadwork. A unique, distinguishing feature in Datoga tradition is the circular pattern of scars and tattoos found around their eyes.

There is a hierarchy in Datoga culture; elders have power and can impose fines and curses on any wrongdoers in the tribe.

To outsiders, the Datonga seem to live a primitive life. They are an isolated people with only a small fraction speaking Swahili however outside influence has slowly seeped into everyday life with the introduction of farming and more recently, small bouts of tourist visits.

The Datonga interact – not so amicably – with the next tribe we encounter – the Hadzabe. The need to farm has caused the Datoga to increasingly encroach on Hadzabe land over the years.

The Hadzabe – The Last of the Hunter Gatherers

The Hadzabe people offer a look into the way humans would have lived thousands of years ago.

The Hadzabe live in a small section of land around the banks of Lake Eyasi. They are historically nomadic. As the season change, and the need arises, groups of Hadzabe move camp. The Hadzabe continue to live much in the same way to their ancestors.

Tanzania Culture Hadzabe Tribe

Certain oral folklore describes the Hadzabe as descending one day from a tree. Oral traditions go back thousands of years with Hadza being one of the world’s oldest languages. The words are strings of low rhythmic utterances punctuated by clicks; Hazda seems to be an isolated language unrelated to any other spoken on earth. The Hadzabe are distinguished in that they don’t make use of calendars or clocks; time is not measured. They are also reputedly the only people in Tanzania who have never been taxed.

The Hadzabe are an egalitarian tribe where raising children is a shared responsibility and all Hadzabe tribe members are well cared for. There is no warrior class amongst the Hadzabe and any weapons created are used for hunting. Men create hunting equipment out of material found on the land around them – imagine bones used for short knives, and sticks and giraffe ligaments used to fashion a bow and arrow.

The Hadzabe eat meat, fruits, tubers and honey which is a much appreciated delicacy. As nomadic hunter gathers, traditionally the men hunt and the women forage. Both perform their duties in groups creating strong social bonds.

In the mornings, Hadzabe boys and men gather to sharpen their arrow heads and share a pipe filled with smoking tobacco before embarking on the hunt. The men traditionally hunt baboon, antelope, buffalo and birds. Porcupine is a widely enjoyed delicacy. A well-known Hadzabe hunting tactic is the use of desert rose poison. The desert rose plant is carefully boiled down to create a heart-attack inducing liquid before being lathered onto arrow heads.

Over the years, pastoralists have begun to encroach on Hadzabe land reducing their range of movement. However, many still aim to maintain the traditional Hadza way of life.

Currently, there are approximately just over 1000 living around the Lake Eyasi area. These days, as the world modernizes and outside influences touch the tribes, few live exclusively as hunter gatherers and young children are attending school and university; education paid for with proceeds from tourism interactions. Many of the Hadzabe that leave to study, return and use their educations to fight for the historic rights of the Hadzabe.

The Hadzabe way of living is a throwback to the nomadic lifestyle shared across Africa thousands of years ago. It is a world of freedom; not restricted by modern constraints. A simpler way of living but one that is also slowly dying out.

Out on the banks of Lake Eyasi the Hadzabe live within the means of nature. Ensuring they never take more than the land can provide or regenerate. An ancient lifestyle lost somewhere in time.

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