Module Twenty Six, Activity Two

The History of Tanzania

Ancient History

Little is known about the ancient history of the interior of mainland Tanganyika (now Tanzania), however, one of the most important archaeological sites in the world for understanding our human ancestors is located in northern Tanzania on the eastern Serengeti plains. Olduvai Gorge (or Olupai as it is known in the local Maasai language), named after a plant that grows profusely in the surrounding area, has yielded artifacts and fossils that range from 2,100,000 to 15,000 years ago. There is also evidence of human ancestry that dates as far back as 2.5 million years ago! In Olduvai Gorge, Louis and Mary Leakey discovered very human-like fossils that pre-date the existence of the Homo sapiens. One of these is Homo habilis, which is arguably the first species of the genus Homo to appear in the fossil record. Therefore, we know that this region has been inhabited for at least 2.5 million years. This site is often referred to as the “Cradle of Humankind.”

Homo habilis skull. Photo by Jose-Manuel Benito Alvarez and Loctus Borg
A reconstruction of what Homo habilis may have looked like. Photo by Lillyundfreya, Wikimedia commons

Your Turn

Writing Activity: Your teacher will choose one of the tasks below for you to complete.

Brainstorming task: For advanced students

Imagine that you found the following letter written by Josh, a student who joined Louis and Mary Leakey on an archaeological dig in Olduvai Gorge. You are planning to use the letter to write a short (150 words or less), informative article for your school newspaper describing a typical day on site with the Leakeys. For this brainstorming exercise, read through the letter and extract the most important information using the “six Ws:” Who?; What?; When?; Where?; Why?; and how? Then, keeping your audience and your word limit in mind, pick out a few compelling details that you would like to add to the basic information in the article.

Grammar Task: For intermediate students

Josh has written this letter to his friend Chris. Because Chris is his close friend, Josh has written in what we call “informal” style—a style of writing that is similar to the way one speaks everyday. Go through the letter below as a class and discuss the type of grammar Josh uses in his writing. What are some of the differences between “formal” and “informal” writing? When is it appropriate to write in informal style as opposed to formal style?

Letter Part 1

Letter Part 2

Letter Part 3

Letter Part 4

Lewis Leakey examining skulls from Olduvai Gorge. Photo from wikimedia commons

In his letter to Chris above, Josh mentions Leakey’s most famous find--an ancient set of hominid footprints at Lateoli. These footprints show the first ever evidence of human bipedalism, which is the ability to walk upright on two feet. Bipedalism is unique to humankind and is an important part of who we are—being able to use only our feet to walk frees us to make tools and art, build and plant, and do other creative things with our hands. The footprints at Lateoli have special significance to Tanzanians and the Tanzanian government, but the landscape in which they are located makes them difficult to preserve--at times they have almost been lost because of damage from weather and root growth! Later on in this lesson you’ll learn more about the Lateoli footprints and efforts to preserve them.

Click on this link to visit the Smithsonian Museum’s virtual collection of evidence of human evolution. On this website, you will see fossils of early humans and their ancestors. You will also see how the scientists who follow in Louis and Mary Leakey’s footsteps use modern technologies like fossil dating and genetics to discover when these early humans lived and to prove that they are genetically and behaviorally linked to us. Take a few minutes to browse around and look at the different types of evidence on the site. Which pieces of evidence do you find the most compelling? If you had to prove to your classmates that Olduvai Gorge really is the “cradle of human kind,” what parts of this website and the video about the Laetoli footprints would you use to help you do so? Do you think Tanzanians should be proud of this heritage? Why or why not?

African Societies to 1800

Currently, the majority of known early history of Tanganyika concerns the coastal areas, but more of the history of the inland regions is now being uncovered.

On the coast, there is a very long history of trade with Northeast Africa, Southwest Asia and India. Traders from these regions also settled along the coast.

Most known early history of the interior concerns the Bantu migration which is said to have taken place beginning in the last century BCE continuing throughout the first millennium AD. The migration consisted of the movement of Bantu-speaking peoples from the west across central Africa into the interior of Tanzania. The yellow lines on the map below show the routes of the Bantu migrations into East and South Africa.

Ancient African History Map

Archaeological evidence shows that the interior of this region has been shaped by its neighbors who migrated into it. The historical shaping of interior Tanganyika was a long and complex process in which these groups mixed and mingled. Four major groups migrated into the region over the course of its early history. First, the Khoisan arrived around 10,000 years ago. The Khoisan were primarily hunter-gatherers and lived mainly in the region south of Olduvai Gorge. Second, the Cushitic herdsmen and cultivators migrated in from the north (specifically from the Ethiopian highlands) 3,000 to 4,000 years ago.Third, by the beginning of 1000 CE, Nilotic pastoralists had migrated down from southern Sudan and had begun settling with their grazing herds in Tanzania’s northern savannahs. Here they met with the Bantu who were moving north into the territory, and it was these Bantu agriculturalists who make up the fourth group.

The Bantu-speaking people migrated to Tanzania beginning around 1000 CE and settled west of Lake Victoria. Over the next centuries they colonized most of the interior of the country. Over time, this migration progressed to the extent that as many as 90% of people in Tanganyika spoke Bantu languages because Bantu-speakers culturally and linguistically absorbed the previous inhabitants of this region.

Here are some examples of ethnic groups which are descendants of these various groups of early inhabitants:

  1. Khoisan: Hadzabe
  2. Cushites: This group includes the Somali, Galla, Orma, Rendille, and Borana
  3. Nilotes: Includes the Luo, Kalenjin, Maasai, Teso and Samburu
  4. Bantu: Gikuyu, Luhya, Kamba, Embu, Meru, Kisii, Kuria, Mijikenda, Taveta, TaitaPokomo, Bajuni, Boni and Sanye

The Bantu-speakers also brought with them knowledge of iron working and tool and weapon production. This influence combined with the influence of Cushitic cultivators and herdsmen from the north led to a change in subsistence patterns, in which indigenous societies moved from hunting and gathering to farming.

With this shift societies became more settled (less migratory). Agriculture required that people stay in the same place for a period of time, and also it produced more concentrated amounts of food that could support a larger and more settled population in one area. As societies shifted away from nomadic ways and grew larger in size, they began to adopt the new ideas of social and political organization that the Bantu brought into the region. For example, in Module 10, activity two, you learned what some historians of Africa call “decentralized” or “stateless” political societies, in which people began to appoint chiefs to rule over groups of villages. By 1500 most of the people of Western Tanzania were ruled by chiefs called ntemi. Many of these chiefs were thought to derive their power from their spiritual connection to a higher power and the ancestors. In general, they were responsible for making political decisions, handing down legal rulings, and keeping the community safe. You can learn more about pre-colonial political structures like this one in Module Ten, Activity Two. Are you curious about the indigenous spiritual practices from which the ntemi chiefs derived their power? Go to Module Fourteen, Activity Two to find out more.

The coast of Tanzania in 1000 CE consisted of a few small trading settlements, but as traders from South Asia and the Middle East (areas around the Persian Gulf) began to sail to East Africa, the coastal populations grew quickly and the culture of the area changed through interaction with diverse peoples from across the ocean. These new towns and settlements were made up primarily of Muslim commercial societies which were relatively isolated from inland peoples. A new “Swahili” culture formed. Swahili people were both Muslim and African, which made them different religiously and culturally from inland societies. Some still today refer to this area as the “Swahili Coast.”

A depiction of the city of Kilwa, Tanzania from a 16th-century European atlas called “Civitates Orbis Terrarum” by Georg Braun and Franz Hogenberg.

By 1200 CE the Tanganyikan coast was commercially important because of its position on the route between the Middle East and the ports of Mozambique. Kilwa Kisiwani (pictured in the drawing above) was the most important port in the region from the 1100’s CE to the early 1500’s CE. The city was established as a trading post in the 9th century and from there grew into the center of Indian Ocean trade, where goods from what are now India, China, and the Arab Peninsula were housed and traded with gold and other commodities from across the African continent. The society of Kilwa consisted of Swahili-speaking Arabs, Shirazi (or people whose ancestors were of Persian origin), free Africans, and African slaves. Famous travelers and explorers like Ibn Battuta, Vasco De Gama, and Pedro Alvares Cabral visited Kilwa Kisiwani and wrote of its beauty. Battuta described it as “one of the most beautiful and well-constructed towns in the world.”Among the city’s buildings were an impressive fort and palace and the largest mosque in southern Africa. Today the ruins of these buildings are protected by UNESCO as a World Heritage site.

Despite its significance, Kilwa Kisiwani began to experience an economic decline and political instability around the time that Portuguese traders arrived in the region in the early 1500’s. The Portuguese were then expelled from the East African coast in 1698 with the help of Arabs from Oman who were part of the main commercial and trading networks on the island of Zanzibar. After this, trade in the region and its connections to the Middle East and the rest of the Indian Ocean flourished. By the late 1700’s CE the main trade items exported included ivory, slaves, gum, hippopotamus teeth, tortoise shells, cowries, wax, and indigo. In turn, they imported mainly cloth (from India), salt, arms, and ammunition.

By 1800 CE, the barriers between the coast and inland societies began to break down as trade routes were established in the interior. At the same time, more and more Europeans arrived along the coast, leading to increased interactions among different peoples and cultures.

The Great Mosque at Kilwa Kiswani. Photo from Wikimedia commons
Kilwa Kiswani Fort in present day. Photo from Gustavgraves at the German language Wikipedia (

Activity: Conservation and Ownership

In Activity 1 of this module you learned about how important land is to Tanzanians. Many Tanzanians rely on natural resources such as land and water to make their living by farming, fishing, and raising livestock. At the same time, Tanzania’s landscape is filled with heritage sites attesting to its role as a major player in global history, and the efforts to preserve these sites must take into account the views of many different kinds of people with different priorities and values. This concern surrounding conservation efforts is a recurring theme in Tanzania’s national dialogue, as you will also see in Activity 3 of this module.

Watch this video about the ongoing conservation project in Kilwa Kisiwani and compare it to the following video about a similar project at the site of the Lateoli footprints, which you have read about above. Then answer the following questions:

What actions are involved in preserving a heritage site?

In these videos, who are the people in charge of conducting conservation?

What role does the Tanzanian government play in these efforts? What about local Tanzanians?

Pretend you live in an American town that is the site of one of the oldest churches in the country. A group of conservationists from Africa are meeting with you to discuss their interest in preserving this nearby heritage site, and as a community leader you want to make sure they are respecting the culture and wishes of your fellow community members. What advice would you give these foreigners as they attempt to move forward with their project? What questions would you want to ask them?

Now, think about the videos you just watched. Together with a partner, draw a line down the center of a piece of paper. On one side, write down what you believe these conservationists are doing well. On the other side, write down what you believe they could be doing better.

European Contact and Colonialism 

In 1498 Vasco da Gama was the first European to visit Tanzania’s coast, and by 1506 the Portuguese controlled the East African coast. During the Portuguese rule however, there was significant competition between European and Arab traders, and the networks of trade that had been previously established by Arabs were disrupted. Many people began to migrate away from the region in search of less competition and better economic opportunities. As mentioned previously, in 1698 the Portuguese were expelled from the East African coast, and as a result trade between the Tanganyikan coast, Zanzibar and the Middle East was rejuvenated.

Imagine you were Vasco da Gama or one of the other early Portuguese explorers. What were your country’s motivations for exploring the world?

As we have seen, Arab traders played a significant role in the East African coastal trade, and in 1840 they gained a more significant role in the region. At this time the ruler of Oman, Sultan Sayyid Said, moved the capital of Oman from Muscat to Zanzibar, because of the island’s economic importance as the center of the Indian Ocean slave and spice trade.

Omani control was not only concentrated on the island of Zanzibar. It extended to the coast of the mainland. The Omani sultanate controlled trading routes that extended into the interior even as far as the Congo River. Indeed, throughout the 19th century an extensive caravan trade was established, moving slaves and ivory from the inland regions to the coast. This increased trade also facilitated the spread of Swahili culture and language, which had been primarily located in Zanzibar, neighboring islands, and the coast. Traders from the interior were exposed to the language and it soon became the dominant lingua franca throughout the region.

Activity: Below is a map of slave trade routes in East Africa. Locate Zanzibar on the map. According to this map, where would many of the slaves in Zanzibar have come from?

Compliments of Makerere University, Uganda
Compliments of Makerere University, Uganda

One reason for the revival of trade during this time was the growth in slave exports from the region under Omani rule. During the 1700’s CE East Africa played a major role in the Indian Ocean slave trade. Kilwa, for instance, was known as a primary slaving port in the region. The slaves were captured from the interior, typically from stateless peoples in the southeastern part of Tanganyika, and then sent to the coast. They were then often shipped off to Zanzibar, the Middle East, or sold to the French who had colonies in the region (until the French banned the slave trade in 1822). Zanzibar had an especially large slave population at this time, most of whom worked on Omani clove plantations. In fact, it was estimated that at different times in the 19th century the island’s population consisted of between 65 and 90 percent slaves. While the Indian Ocean slave trade did not reach the proportions of the Atlantic slave trade of roughly the same time period, the number of Africans who were captured (or killed), taken from their native land, and sold into slavery was significant. Nobody knows exactly how many, but scholars estimate that many hundreds of thousands of people were enslaved. Today visitors can still see the ruins of a roofed underground slave chamber where slaves were kept until they could be sold at market.

znz slave chambers
Photo by Charles Roffey

Compare what you have just learned about the East African slave trade to the information about the Atlantic slave trade that you learned in Module six. What are some of the impacts of slave trade, regardless of where it occurs?

The 1800’s CE saw a marked increase of British, French, and German activity in the region. The Sultanate in Zanzibar established amicable relations with all of these European powers. In 1873, the Sultan of Zanzibar, Barghash bin Said—the son of Sayyid Said—was forced to sign a treaty with the British outlawing the slave trade. Even though the trade was declared illegal, it continued on the mainland until Britain gained full control of the region after the World War I.

Sultan, ganze Figur, sitzend
The Sultan of Zanzibar Khalid bin Barghash (1874-1927)

European exploration of the interior of the country began in the mid-19th century. Christian missionary groups began arriving in East Africa during this time period. In addition to their missionary work of conversion and education, they also explored the region and wrote several accounts of their experiences. David Livingstone is probably the most famous of the European missionary-explorers. Originally from Scotland, he traveled throughout east and southern Africa representing various missionary groups. His mission in Africa was not only to spread Christianity; he also promoted new types of commerce to replace the slave trade to which he was adamantly opposed. He firmly believed that a combination of Christianity, commerce, and “civilization,” (known as the three “Cs”) were desperately needed to help this region of Africa recover from the devastating impact of the slave trade. He arrived in Tanzania in 1866 where he carried out his last major journey. He set out from Zanzibar and then traveled to the mainland to search for the source of the Nile River. He was unsuccessful in finding the Nile’s source, and died in 1874 in Zambia from malaria and dysentery. His legacy, however, lives on in Tanzania where several memorial sites have been erected in his honor.

David Livingstone
David Livingstone; Photo by Thomas Annan, Wikimedia commons

While the British were active in the Indian Ocean trade, the Germans began to establish their presence on the mainland in the late 1800’s. In 1884, explorer Dr. Carl Peters acquired some land in the region through treaties with African chiefs in the interior, and he convinced the German government that colonization of East Africa would be a relatively easy endeavor. In 1884 and 1885 the governments of Europe held the Berlin Conference, which is often referred to as the “partitioning of Africa” or as initiating the “scramble for Africa.” The conference was called by Portugal and organized by Bismarck, the first Chancellor of the united Germany. In the conference, European governments established the rules of trade and colonization for the entire continent of Africa, and it was decided that Germany was able to maintain primary influence over the region that would become Tanzania. For more about the Berlin Conference go to Module Seven B, Activity Two.

In 1886, the Germans made a formal agreement with Great Britain to solidify their sphere of influence over the mainland. The German East Africa Company took over as the governing body, and the region was then known as German East Africa. This included what is now Tanzania. The modern-day countries of Rwanda and Burundi were then added after 1890. The governance of the region, however, changed in 1891. The German government determined that the German East Africa Company was an ineffective ruler and therefore took over in their place.

Throughout the colonial period, German occupation of the region altered significantly many aspects of everyday life. They used forced labor to construct infrastructure like roads and railway systems. The Germans also instructed villages to grow cotton as a cash crop instead of traditionally grown food crops. As men left home to work on the colonial building projects, women were charged with many of the social roles that men previously held in the villages.

Moreover, with men away, villages no longer had the labor power necessary to remain self-sufficient and their resources were stretched, often beyond capacity. However, since there were not a large number of Germans actually living in the region, Germany had a relatively weak hold on the colony. Consequently, in order to maintain some semblance of control they often used violent or repressive methods.

As one can imagine the German policies outlined above were extremely unpopular with the East Africans, and therefore, colonization of German East Africa proved to be much more difficult than Dr. Carl Peters had originally predicted. As the Germans moved inland from the coast, their invasion met with significant resistance from the peoples both along the coast and in the interior. This resistance was not only isolated to East Africa, but occurred throughout the continent in response to European invasion and colonization.

The most significant resistance in Tanganyika (now Tanzania) was the MajiMaji Rebellion or MajiMaji War which lasted for two years from 1905-1907.   The Rebellion was named after a water medicine (maji means “water” in Kiswahili) that African fighters believed gave them immunity to the bullets of German colonizers. A drought in 1905 put a strain on the region which was already suffering under harsh German labor and agricultural policies, such as forced labor on cotton plantations. On July 31, Abdullah Mapanda, a local chief, led an attack on German colonists in southeastern Tanzania.

It is estimated that between 75,000 and 120,000 Africans were killed and many more were displaced from their homes during the two-year long revolt that failed to oust the Germans from East Africa. The harsh retaliation by Germany, however, provoked international outrage. As a result the German government instituted reforms such as providing education and basic services to Africans.

In 1914, World War I broke out and this war had a significant impact on Tanzania’s history and again altered considerably the patterns of African life. Soon after the beginning of the war, British and Belgian troops occupied most of German East Africa. In 1920, after the defeat of Germany and the Axis powers in 1918, the League of Nations issued a postwar mandate that gave Britain control of the region that is now Tanzania. The areas that are today Rwanda and Burundi were handed over to Belgian rule. The British renamed their mandate territory Tanganyika, presumably after Lake Tanganyika which composes the majority of the region’s western border.

When Britain took over control of Tanganyika it did so under its policy of “indirect rule” which it imposed on most of its African colonies. You can learn more about indirect rule in Module Ten, Activity Three. Basically stated, indirect rule was a way for colonial administrators to rule through local African leaders. In this way the British could exert their authority over a colony with minimal resources and also avoid direct confrontation with the larger African population. This approach, however, assumed that all groups being governed had a centralized, hierarchical system of political organization, that is to say a leader or governing structure with authority over the whole group. This was not the case with all ethnic groups in Tanganyika. Consequently, the British had to impose an invented hierarchy on these groups, and this led further destabilization in the colony.

A Ten Cent and One Cent British East Africa piece from 1952(10) and 1924 (1) Photo by Chopin-Ate-Liszt, wikimedia commons


During the time period after World War II, many African political organizations were active in opposing British rule and were working toward complete self-government for Tanganyika. In 1954, the Tanganyika African National Union (TANU) was formed by Julius Nyerere and Oscar Kambona. This organization would turn out to be the most influential on the trajectory of Tanganyikan politics after independence. Its goal at the time of its formation was to enact self-governance “without ethnic or racial divisions.”

TANU entered candidates in the 1958-1960 general elections for the Tanganyika Legislative Council, an advisory board which had previously been dominated by non-Africans. The TANU candidates won the elections and, when Tanganyika achieved independence from Britain in 1961, Julius Nyerere, the head of the party, became prime minister. He was then elected president of the newly independent country a year later.

The island of Zanzibar received its independence from the British separately in 1963. After independence, the island experienced much political upheaval. The Sultan of Zanzibar was toppled in a communist-inspired revolution on January 12, 1964, and much of the Arab population on the island was massacred or expelled. President Nyerere offered his assistance to the island and on April 26 of the same year, Tanganyika and Zanzibar united to form the new nation of Tanzania (United Republic of Tanzania).

A young Julius Nyerere, circa 1960

Nyerere is well known for his unique political philosophy. When he first took office, he sought to forge a sense of national identity for the country and its citizens. He encouraged Tanganyika’s numerous ethnic groups to work together to build the newly independent nation. One of his major strategies for achieving a national identity was to designate Kiswahili as the country’s official language (in which all government activities including education took place).

In your opinion, is using a language to promote national identity an effective strategy? Why or why not? What are the advantages and disadvantages of choosing Swahili as Tanzania’s official language?

In February, 1967 Nyerere issued the Arusha Declaration. This was a major policy statement that called for the ideals of egalitarianism, socialism, and self-reliance to be implemented at every level of Tanzanian society and governance. The ideas that Nyerere put forth in this document were influenced by socialist models in practice at the time in Eastern Europe and Asia, but for him they represented a distinctly African model of development. Nyerere called this political philosophy African Socialism. In a 1960 interview with a New York Times journalist, Nyerere explained African Socialism in this way:

"Having come into contact with a civilization which has over-emphasized the freedom of the individual, we are in fact faced with one of the big problems of Africa in the modern world. Our problem is just this: how to get the benefits of European society -- benefits that have been brought about by an organization based upon the individual -- and yet retain African's own structure of society in which the individual is a member of a kind of fellowship."

The concept of ujamaa (Kiswahili for “familyhood”) formed the basis of Nyerere’s social and economic policies. Ujamaa represented the reliance of African development on everyone’s participation in service to the community. Nyerere and his government implemented this idea through the development of rural cooperative farm villages (through a process known as “villagization”). These villages would make all local agricultural production collective (rather than farms being a private enterprise). The 1970’s, however, marked the decline of ujamaa as a development policy. Several factors contributed to the downfall of this development model. These included a worldwide oil shortage which drove up the price of oil—a commodity so necessary to the functioning of any nation’s economy. This oil crisis wreaked economic havoc throughout the world and led to the collapse of export prices for commodities such as coffee and sisal. Also, a war with Uganda, which started in 1978, put a severe strain on Tanzania’s financial resources.

Throughout his presidency, Nyerere had strong views on international affairs and was especially involved in the international relations in southern and eastern Africa. He opposed the white-ruled government in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and even broke off diplomatic relations with Great Britain over its support of this government. He openly criticized the apartheid regime in South Africa and urged other nations to boycott South African businesses. He was a leading proponent of the idea of “non-alignment,” meaning that countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America should not align themselves with either western or eastern influences. Nyerere also leant support to the Portuguese colonies of Angola and Mozambique in their pursuit of independence. Additionally, the Tanzanian government and Nyerere also helped topple regimes in the Comoros Islands and Seychelles in 1975 and 1977 respectively.

Nyerere with US President Jimmy Carter and Rosalynn Carter in 1977

In terms of Tanzania’s relationships in East Africa, Nyerere was overtly opposed to Idi Amin, Uganda’s dictator from 1971 to 1979, and in the early 1970’s Tanzania had several clashes with Uganda. This eventually led to the Uganda-Tanzania war. In 1978, some units of the Ugandan army fled to northern Tanzania to join other Ugandans in exile who opposed Idi Amin. Amin then sent troops into Tanzania in pursuit of these soldiers and subsequently attempted to invade the country and annex Tanzania’s Kagera Region. Nyerere mobilized the Tanzanian army and other militia groups to launch a counterattack. The Tanzanian armed forces were joined in this effort by Ugandan exile groups. The Tanzanian army met little resistance in their invasion of Uganda and by April, 1979 they were able to take Kampala, the capital of Uganda. Amin was ousted and forced into exile in Libya and then Saudi Arabia.

While Nyerere and the Tanzanian government contributed much to support political movements across East and southern Africa and played a large role in shaping the history of the region, the military efforts stretched Tanzania’s already suffering economy beyond its capacity. In the 1980’s it became clear that the Arusha Declaration policies of African Socialism and ujamaa had not lived up to Nyerere’s expectations and goals for the nation. To add further complications for the Tanzanian economy, a cycle of natural disasters severely affected the agricultural production and exports from the country. In 1985 Nyerere voluntarily resigned as President. He is one of the few post-independence African leaders to voluntarily leave office. Ali Hassan Mwinyi, the President of Zanzibar, then became the second president of Tanzania. In 1995 there was another change in president when Benjamin Mkapa was elected in the country’s first multi-party elections. Mkapa was re-elected in 2000 and in 2005 JakayaKikwete was elected the fourth President of Tanzania. In 2015, a candidate from the same party, John Magufuli, was elected president.

Activity: From what you have read in this and other activities about African leaders, explain why a president leaving office could be considered an honorable thing to do.

Activity: Create a timeline using words, pictures, drawings, etc. and tell the story of Tanzania.

Go on to Activity Three or select from one of the other activities in this module