Nyamwezi or Wanyamwezi


Nyamwezi or Wanyamwezi is a Swahili term meaning “People of the Moon” and refers to a large population of Bantu peo-ple in western Tanzania. Their homeland is called Unyamwezi, which are the prov-inces of Tabora and Shinyunga. The Nyamwezi are closely related Sukuma, and together they are the largest group in Tanzania, numbering over 5 million peo-ple; the Nyamwezi number about 2 million and the Sukuma 3 million, though the numbers are disputed.

The Nyamwezi and Sukuma languages, Kinyamwezi and Kisukuma, are closely related, and there is some debate about whether one is a dia-lect of the other or if they should be con-sidered separate languages.The Nyamwezi began to settle in their present location in the 16th century. It has been noted that the region was not inviting for most Bantu farmers given the conditions of swamp, poor soils, drought, and sleeping sickness.

The Nyamwezi, Kimbu, Sukuma, Turu, and Langi settled in widely dispersed settlements that made use of where soils were the most produc-tive. This movement was among the last of Bantu displacements of earlier popula-tions of Khoisan, though the Hadza and the Sandwe have survived up to the present day. The Bantu farmers generally absorbed others including many of the Southern Cushites.As overland trade routes reached Lake Tanganyika by 1700, the Nyamwezi were in a position to take advantage.

Arab and Swahili traders established two trade cen-ters in Unyamwezi, Ujiji, and Tabora, that linked to other inland trade routes north to Buganda and west towards the kingdoms in Angola. Nyamwezi ivory traders were operating in Buganda by 1830. By the 19th century, the Nyamwezi were them-selves recognized traders, often opening the way for later Arab and Swahili cara-vans. In the 1850s and 1860s, Arabs, Swa-hilis, and their Nyamwezi allies had tapped into the trade from the Kazembe kingdom in the Katanga in the Democratic Republic of Congo (former Zaire), where the Nyamwezi settled and took the name Yeke.

The Yeke developed a conquest state that eventually brought down the Kazembe kingdom. Ivory and slaves were the main commerce and by the 1830s, slaves were needed in the clove planta-tions on Zanzibar and Pemba islands.Islam was introduced in the 19th cen-tury, and some Nyamwezi adopted the religion, though generally the culture adopted much of the dress worn by Mus-lims even if they did not convert. Most Muslim Nyamwezi are Sunni of the Shafi‘i madhhab.

The Nyamwezi developed a system of local leaders called metimi or ntemi or chiefs. Several of the chiefs were able to extend their rule over others, and in the 19th century, there was briefly a Nyam-wezi Empire under Mirambo, who ruled from 1860 to 1884. The Germans exten-ded their protectorate over the Nyamwezi in 1885 and imposed a hut tax in 1898. Great Britain took German East Africa following World War I as the colony of Tanganyika.

Most Nyamwezi have retained their original religion, and even those who have converted to Islam are not that strict in their belief. Nonetheless, Muslims cel-ebrate the main ‘Ids or holidays; ‘Id al-Fitr at the end of the month of fasting, Ramadan, and ‘Id al-Adha or feast of the sacrifice that marks the end of the Haj period. In addition, the Prophet Muham-mad’s birthday or al-Mawlid al-Nabawi is celebrated.

Traditional Nyamwezi religion has sev-eral terms for the supreme being; Likube or High God, Limatunda (The Creator), Limi (The Sun), and Liwelo (The Uni-verse). The creator god is rarely wor-shipped directly, and ancestors receive more of the peoples’ reverence. The ances-tors of chiefs are seen as even more impor-tant, and people give them, and their own ancestors, offerings such as grain or even a sheep or goat. Traditional religion believes in spirits and witches. Witchcraft or bulongi causes illness, and diviners called mfumu are needed to find out if a person has been bewitched.

The Nyamwezi were farmers as well as raised livestock. Farming included crops of millet, sorghum, and rice, and later, maize and cassava were introduced. Other crops include beans, mushrooms, onions, peanuts, bananas, and oranges. Cash crops were introduced in the 20th century, and the Nyamwezi today raise cotton, sunflowers, and tobacco as commercial crops. The Nyamwezi have long been involved in trade, and in the 19th century, between 1 million and 2 million men worked as por-ters between the inland and the Indian Ocean coast while others remained farmers.

As noted above, traditional Nyamwezi government involved local communities under a ntemi. They were very successful in absorbing others whose descendants consider themselves and are considered by others to be Nyamwezi. In 1961, Tan-ganyika became independent and, in 1964, Zanzibar joined Tanganyika to become Tanzania after a bloody revolt.

The Nyamwezi traditionally lived in many somewhat isolated communities that came into trouble with official government pol-icy called ujamma to collect isolated com-munities together. Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere wanted to implement a type of socialism, but to make it more familiar to Africans. He borrowed the idea of com-munity/extended family from the Swahili ujamma, thinking that as an indigenous concept, it would be better accepted by all.

The collectivization did not work, par-ticularly with inland groups such as the Nyamwezi with long histories of private landownership. The ujamma farms failed and in the end, though amounting to over 90 percent of the farmlands, produced less than 5 percent of the agricultural output. Nyerere retired from office in 1985, and subsequent Tanzanian governments have abandoned the socialist policies. In more recent years, the Nyamwezi have suffered from drought and soil erosion, which has crippled their agricultural output.

John A. Shoup

Further Reading

Adekunle, Julius O. “East African States.” In Africa Volume 1: African History before 1885, edited by Toyin Falola. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2000.

Keller, Edmond J. “Decolonization, Indepen- dence, and Failure of Politics.” In Africa, 3rd ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.

Mbajekwe, Patrick U. “East and Central Africa in the Nineteenth Century.” In Africa Volume 1: African History before 1885, edited by Toyin Falola. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2000.

“Nyamwezi.” http://www.ethnologue.com/show_language.asp?code=nym (accessed June 10, 2010).

“Nyamwezi.” http://www.everyculture.com/ wc/Tajikistan-to-Zimbabwe/Nyamwezi (accessed June 10, 2010).