A Brief Look at the History and Culture of Tanzania

This entry is part 1 of 8 in the series Heritage & Cultural Travel in Africa

Among African nations Tanzania has an extremely strong history and cultural heritage. It is here that evidence of the earliest human development has been found, where one of the greatest campaigns of World War I was fought, where one of the great oriental dynasties created a sultanate, and where some of the more memorable tussles of the colonial period took place. The opportunities for Cultural and Heritage Travel in Tanzania are enormous. From the slave market in Zanzibar to the battlefield sites of WWI, the possibilities are endless – with, of course, the beauty of Tanzanian wildlife always a backdrop.

A Brief History of Tanzania

Recorded history came to the east coast of Africa with the arrival of the Portuguese in the late 15th century. Prior to this trade had been underway between the Arabian Peninsular and the east coast, and further afield between the Indian sub-continent and China, from the first millennium A.D. onwards.

Prehistory: Archeological discoveries in the late 1950s by British anthropologist Dr. L.S.B. Leaky unearthed in the Olduvai Gorge the fossilized remains of what was termed Homo habilis, an early hominid that lived some 1.75 million years ago in the region of the Great Rift Valley. Also nearby are the Laetoli Footprints formed by the earliest human ancestors thought to be over 3.6 million years old.

The original human inhabitants of the region where hunter gather communities of the Khoisan group, that later gave way to Nilotic pastoral immigrants from the north and Bantu speaking people from the west and northwest. With the exception of remnant hunter/gather populations, it is these two latter groups that make up most of the human population of Tanzania today.

Arabs & Portuguese: The arrival of the Portuguese mariner Vasco da Gama in 1498 en-route to India began a period when the Arab mercantile influence along the coast was challenged, an influence that had been steady for almost half a century. This influence is still evident in the language, religion and architecture of the region to this day. Both Arab and Portuguese traders exploited the interior for ivory, gold and slaves, which were principally exported east into the Indian Ocean trading axis.

In 1698 a resurgence of Arab influence was achieved with the help of Omani Arabs who established a presence on the Island of Zanzibar. In 1841 Zanzibar became the official seat of the Sultan of Oman where it remained until the advent of the liberation period. From Zanzibar most of the trade emanating from the interior was factored and controlled, including the lucrative Indian Ocean Slave Trade from which the economy of Zanzibar was largely built. The effect of this revitalization of trade along the east coast was the founding or regeneration of important commercial centers along the coast, including Kiliwa, Tanga, Pangani, Kivinje, Lindi and Bagamoyo.

The Colonial Period: The expansion of European imperial powers into Africa reached Tanzania with the treaty gathering journeys of agents for the German Colonization Society throughout the hinterland of the Tanzanian coast. At the same time the British were attempting to advance north through the Central African Protectorate (Malawi) and Northern Rhodesia (Zambia). By treaty agreement with the British Imperial Government Germany achieved a sphere of influence over mainland Tanzania barring a narrow strip adjacent to Zanzibar which remained the territory of the Sultan, himself becoming increasingly dependent on British diplomatic and financial support.

The territory of German East Africa was founded upon the incorporation of the German East Africa Company in 1887. The Company was granted a charter to govern the territory but was met by resistance from various groups including the Arabs and the Swahili, resistance that was quelled only after the direct involvement of the German government. Thanks to the ineptitude and general unpopularity of the Company, control of the territory was later assumed by the German government. Germany added to its territorial possessions in Africa with a second Anglo/German treaty of 1890 that ceded the regions of Rwanda and Burundi.

World War I: World War I introduced global conflict to German East Africa. The East Africa Campaign was a contest between the British General Jan Smuts and German counterpart Paul von Lettow Vorbeck that drew in almost every nation of the empire and required the drafting of thousands of native Africans for service under arms and frontline portage and labor. After the German defeat the territory was handed to Britain as a mandate by the League of Nations.

Liberation: British economic development of the territory went ahead largely along the same model as had been applied by the Germans, with by the advent of WWII an increasing number of blacks taking up seats on the legislative council. In 1954 the Tanganyika African National Union (TANU) was formed out of the more civic orientated Tanganyika African Association, and easily won the general elections of 1958-1960. When Tanganyika became independent on Dec 9 1961 its first Prime Minister was Julius Nyerere.

On April 27 1964 Zanzibar and Tanganyika merged to form the Republic of Tanzania. On October 29 1965 Julius Nyerere became the first President of the republic.

Tanzania achieved independence and self government without recourse to violence or war, as had been the case in many other colonial territories. A short war was fought with Uganda to oust Idi Amin after a brief and failed invasion of parts of northern Tanzania.

Nyerere resigned in 1985 and a multi-party political system was introduced seven years later.

The Culture of Tanzania

Ninety percent of the population of Tanzania are rural, and remain within the rural, subsistence agriculture economy. Over 120 ethnic groups call Tanzania home, and amongst them over 100 languages are spoken. The main language groups are Bantu, although small populations of Nilotic people, including the Maasai and the Luo, are found in Tanzania, as are two small remnant populations of Khoisan speakers centered around the alkaline lakes.

Most of the population of Zanzibar originates from the mainland, although a small group calling themselves Afro-Shriazis claim a lineage reaching back as far as the original Persian occupation of the island.

The coastal language group is primarily Swahili, which, thanks to centuries of Arab influence has a strong Arabic flavor, and thanks to the wide ranging trade routes of earlier centuries, the language has evolved into a lingua franca for the entire east African region.

Tanzania has a large Indian population comprising Hindus, Sunni Muslims, Sikhs, Parsis and Goans.

The Tanzanian art scene is mixed and very varied. Popular music has developed considerably since independence, and Tanzania fields some of the regions biggest names. Bongo Flava is the definitive Tanzanian style of popular music, combining western hip-hop beats with Afrobeat rhythms and a combination of Swahili and English phrases. Traditional music tends to be specific to particular ethnic groups, and a wide variety of traditional instruments are applied.

The most famous Tanzanian musical product was Freddie Mercury, who was born of Parsi parents in Zanzibar.

Painting and sculpture are also well represented, with the colorful Tinga Tinga painting style tending to dominate the curio markets. Exceptional examples of this style mingle with much mediocre work, so caution is necessary in buying. The best sculptures among the Tanzanians are reputed to be the Makonde of the south who produce fine works out of indigenous hardwoods, specifically fetish style figurines and masks.

The multi-culturalisim of Tanzania is perhaps best reflected in the varied cuisine of the country. The Arab/Indian influence has tended to lend coastal foods, and in particular seafood, a richly spiced flavor. Zanzibar, and the coastal cities offer a variety of Indian and pan-African restaurants, with street food in Zanzibar being a long and august tradition.

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