Mbulu is the Swahili word for the Iraqw of Tanzania. The Iraqw, also called Mbulu, Mbulunge, Erokh, or Iraku, are a Cushitic people who live in the Mbulu district in northeast Tanzania. Their language, also called Iraqw, seems to belong to the Cush-itic group of the Afro-Asian phylum, though some dispute this. They number 462,000 people, but because of their kin-ship system, which easily absorbs others, their numbers are growing.The Iraqw belong to the Southern Cush-ites, who moved from the Ethiopian high-lands south into the plains of Kenya and Tanzania between 3500 and 1000 BCE. Archeologists have named the original Cushitic culture in the furthest southern reaches to be Oldishi.
The Cushitic peo-ples settled among the older Khoisan inhabitants and established close relation-ships with the hunter-gatherers, who pro-vided items like wild honey, while the Cushitic peoples were herders and cultiva-tors. Their language has borrowed a num-ber of words from others who have come into the region, including Eastern Cush-ites, Nilotes, and Bantu. The drier climate of the Iraqw lands made them less interest-ing for the expanding Bantu to turn into cultivated ﬁelds. Their main threat came much later in the 18th century with the expansion of the Western Nilotes and the arrival of the Maasai.
The Iraqw, like most Cushitic people, are patrilineal. They are independent and have not formed a central political author-ity. They generally live in clan-based set-tlements, raising livestock, cattle, sheep, and goats as well as subsistence-level maize and millet. They have held to their own religion, which recognizes the exis-tence of different spirits and allows for others to have different gods.
They believe that bad happenings are the work of evil spirits and their cosmos is “dominated by Lo’a, a good spirit, and Netlangw,abad spirit” (Olson, 242). They believe that the soul is immortal and lives on in an afterlife whichisinthe same spaceastheir own homeland, but in a different dimension. Iraqw women produce some of the “most elaborately decorated items of clothing in East Africa,” though it generally has not been recognized by dealers, collectors, or tourists (Stokes, 324).
In the 19th century, the Iraqw began to expand out of their main area in the Mbulu highlands. The Maasai were weakened both by plagues of rinderpest that killed numbers of their cattle between 1880s and the 1890s, and by colonial rule. The plague occurred around the same time that Great Britain and Germany established the border between Kenya and German East Africa in 1885. The Iraqw area became part of German territory while that of the Maasai was split between the two colonial powers. As a result, the Iraqw were able to colonize some of the Maasai region in what was German East Africa and later British Tanganyika.
The Iraqw are highly suspicious of the Swahili-speaking government ofﬁcials, and Iraqw have as little to do with them as possible. Suspicion has to do with their bad experience with government employ-ees during the colonial period and after independence, not due to a history of slave raids. Instead, the Swahili have been asso-ciated with government, taxation, and con-scription to the army since the Germans’ arrival in the 19th century. The Iraqw set-tlements are highly individual and egali-tarian, much like other pastoral peoples. The independent and segmentary nature of their culture allowed them to expand territorially in the past.
John A. Shoup
Ehret, Christopher. The Civilizations of Africa: A History to 1800. Charlottesville: Univer-sity Press of Virginia, 2002.
“Iraqw (Mbulu, Mbulunge, Erokh, Iraku).”http://www.christusrex.org/www1/pater/JPN-iraqw.html (accessed June 10, 2010).
Newman, James. The Peopling of Africa: A Geographic Interpretation.New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995.
Olson, James. The Peoples of Africa: An Eth-nohistorical Dictionary. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996.