The Chagga People


The Chagga, Chaga, Wachagga, Jagga, Dschagga, or Waschagga are a Bantu-speaking people who traditionally live on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Meru. The Chagga are the third-largest ethnic group in Tanzania, number-ing some 2 million people. Their language is called Kichagga and, though mainly Bantu, the language includes some elements of other peoples the Chagga encountered when they migrated from west of qake Victoria starting in the 11th century CE.

There is no one single Kichagga language, but it is made up of a number of closely related dialects, includ-ing Kivunjo, Kimarangu, Kiromba, Kima-chame, and Kikibosho. Some linguists note that the Kamba of Kenya speak a lan-guage with many similarities to Kichagga. The Chagga are related to the Pare, Tateva, and Teita, who remained in the Pare Mountains south of Kilimanjaro when the Chagga migrated to their current homeland.

The Chagga were part of the Bantu expansion into Kenya and Tanzania that began around the start of the 11th century and lasted until the mid-15th century. The Bantu brought with them knowledge of highland cultivation that could support large populations, and the Chagga found the highlands of Mounts Kilimanjaro and Meru ideal for the cultivation of bananas. They developed a large number of banana types and developed agricultural methods including terracing, irrigation systems, and use of animal waste for fertilizer.

The Chagga did not have large areas to graze livestock, but kept them in stalls or pens and collected the manure to fertilize their fields. It is debated if the Chagga invented some of these methods, or if they were partially already in place, brought by Southern Cushitic peoples from Ethiopia, where similar techniques were in use for centuries. Southern Cushitic peoples had been in the region since the first millen-nium BCE.

The Chagga absorbed the remnants of those who already lived on the mountain slopes and developed a close trading rela-tionship with the Nilotic peoples, who dominated the plains by the end of the 11th century. The Nilotic Ongamo in par-ticular had a major role in shaping Chagga culture. The Chagga borrowed a number of Nilotic practices including female circumcision, the drinking of cattle blood (originally a Cushitic practice), and age sets. Drumming, associated in Bantu culture with the chieftaincy, was lost among the Chagga, who no longer prac-tice it.

In the second half of the 19th cen-tury, the Ongamo were increasingly acculturated into the Chagga. Chagga-Ongamo interaction blended their reli-gions; Bantu concepts of the Creator God and Cushitic-Nilotic concepts of the life-giving sun whom the Chagga combined into Ruwa. Ruwa is also the Chagga word for“sun,”andasagod,heisa provider; kind, and tolerant. The Bantu importance of ancestor spirits remains to this day among the Chagga, but in general, their traditional religion has been replaced by Christianity and Islam.

The Chagga are patrilineal, and the center of their society is the kihamba or family plot of land. The kihamba is passed from one generation to the next and was the source of family wealth. Chagga farm-ers in the past grew bananas, finger millet, beans, and cassava and raised small num-bers of livestock, cattle, goats, and sheep. With colonization, new crops were added including coffee, maize, and tobacco, which helped them remain wealthy in the face of colonial commercial farming.

Politically, the Chagga developed a number of competing chiefdoms that were more territorial based than lineage based. The need to expand viable agricultural lands met the challenge of space on the mountain slopes and the kihamba system is seen today as one of the best examples of multi-cropping and with less environ-mental damage than other agricultural sys-tems. Environmentalists have urged others to study how the Chagga are able to main-tain high production on small quantities of land and not damage the natural environ-ment.

Today the kihamba produce crops of coffee, bananas, millet, maize, beans, cassava, sweet potatoes, yams, sugar cane, tobacco, pumpkins, and squash. In addi-tion, they grow fodder crops for their live-stock, and keep ısh in the irrigation canals to help keep them clean.

Chagga chiefs are called mangi, which means more of ocean arrangerœplanner than head of a clan.” Rivalries between Chagga chiefs led to a continual need for iron ore to make needed weapons. Iron ore deposits are located in the Pare Mountains, and Chagga chiefs maintained good trade relations with the Bantu Pare, Tateva, and Teita who inhabit the Pare Mountains.

Conflicts between Chagga chiefs allowed the inter-ference of colonial powers, who took one side against another.Toward the end of the 19th century, two major mangi were in rivalry, Mangi Rindi and Mangi Sina, both with large, well-armed armies.

The Germans established their colony in the 1880s and entered into the conflict assisting Mangi Rindi against Mangi Sina, and in 1891, a German col-umn assisted in the defeat of Sina. Mangi Rindi had already signed a treaty with the Germans in 1885 and his town of Moshi became the German colonial capital.

The Germans, and later the British, used the rivalries between the Chagga leadership to manipulate them; however, in 1952, the Chagga decided they needed better means to deal with colonial administrators and elected the Mangi Mkuu or “Para-mount Chief.” The Mangi Mkuu became their representative with colonial author-ities until he came into conflict with Western-educated Chagga and growing power of the Tanganyika African National Union (TANU) under the leadership of Julius Nyerere.

Chagga split their support between the Mangi Mkuu, who formed a rival party called the Chagga Democratic Party that pushed for democratization of the chieftaincy, and those who supported Julius Nyerere. By 1959, the position of Mangi Mkuu was abolished and with independence, the role of traditional chiefs was reduced.The Chagga are one of the most highly educated people in Tanzania, with over 80 percent literacy in the 1980s.

During the colonial period, Chagga welcomed missionaries and the majority of them are Christian, perhaps as much to do with the combination of Christianity and schools. There are also a smaller number who are Muslim. As the most educated population of Tanzania, they exercise a great deal of influence in economics and politics and have the highest number of people in government, education, and the arts.

John A. Shoup

Further Reading

Ehret, Christopher. The Civilizations of Africa: A History to 1800. Charlottesville: Univer-sity Press of Virginia, 2002.

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: Caro-lina Academic Press, 2000.

“People of Kilimanjaro: The Chagga.” -of-kilimanjaro-the-chagga/index.html (accessed December 20, 2010).