The People of the Serengeti


Discover the diverse culture, tribal traditions and history of the people of the Serengeti from ancient to modern times presented by the Serengeti National Park research team

The Serengeti is home to a diversity of cultures. One way to see this diversity is to look at the different languages spoken today in the human ecosystem. There are four major language groups that make up the people of the Serengeti: Bantu, Nilotic, Cushitic and Khoisan. 

Serengeti's Cultures Mix and Change


Thousands of years ago the Serengeti was occupied by small groups of foragers much like some of the present day Hadzabe people who live on the southern edge of the ecosystem. Peoples speaking Nilotic and Cushitic languages gradually moved into the area from the north, bringing livestock and crops like millet. These early residents used stone bowls to grind seed and grains.

Bantu cultivators who lived around Lake Victoria basin, gradually spread into parts of the ecosystem with good rainfall and soil. In response to this pressure, the foragers moved south. In the last two hundred years, the pastoral Maasai moved in and occupied the grasslands, avoiding the wooded areas with biting tse tse flies.

Hadzabe: An Ancient People on the Verge of Losing its Traditions 

They move from one place to another looking for food, like wildfruits, honey, fish and game. But if they hunt or collect honey they are more and more often arrested by hunting companies occupying core areas of their homelands. How much longer will the Hadzabe be able to maintain their ancient, nomadic lifestyle?

About 2000 Hadzabe live south of Serengeti and at the other side of Lake Eyasi, Hadzabe's heartland. Most of the Hadzabe still live according to their traditions preserved throughout thousands of years. Like the Bushmen in Southern Africa they do not live in permanent settlements but build little huts on small clearings in bush and woodlands. A few Hadzabes have started farming but the majority still depends on the wild fruits and roots their small area produces.

Wildlife census and ground observations in the area indicate a rapid decrease in the number of animals. As a consequence the Hadzabe do no longer find sufficient food supplies. One of the main reasons for the wildlife decline are other nomadic tribes. Furthermore, the cultivation and farming of the Sukuma tribe pushes the Hadzabe from their land. Trees and bushes are cut in order to gain grazing land for cattle and the few water holes existing in the region are occupied. Game find less and less space and ressources and therefore gradually vanish. Consequently, the Hadzabe are being deprived of the basis of their existence.

According to its constitution the United Republic of Tanzania has to ensure that the Hadzabe's traditional way of life can be maintained. The Hadzabe are to be granted the rights of land utilization. They have to get access to an appropriate area in order to preserve their traditonal lifestyle of hunting and collecting honey, fruits, roots and nuts.

The Iraqw: Among the Few Non-Bantu Tribes

Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania, Eastern Africa
Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania, Eastern Africa

The Iraqw (also known as Wambulu among Swahili speakers) are one of the few non-Bantu tribes in Tanzania. They are Cushitic - of Ethiopian origin, and their language bears a strong resemblance to Amharic, a language native to Ethiopia. Their appearance is also distinctive: they tend to be tall and light-skinned, with the prominent cheekbones and high foreheads common to people of Cushitic extraction. However, it is uncertain exactly when the Iraqw migrated to northern Tanzania. Estimates vary between 1,000 to 5,000 years ago. The little research that has been conducted suggests that the Iraqw introduced farming to East Africa.

Today, they are the predominant tribe of the Mbulu region which stretches from the town of Karatu to Lake Eyasi and Mt Hanang. They maintain their strong agriculturalist roots. Their farms of wheat, beans, sorghum and maize ripple over the south-eastern slopes of the Ngorongoro crater.

Traditionally, the Iraqw had a complicated political hierarchy all their own. There were specifically appointed tax collectors, rain-makers, healers and "wise men." Their style of housing was also unique: an area was excavated from the earth and covered with a flat roof that was level with the ground. From the distance it was impossible to see their dwellings.

The arrival and influence in the 1940's of Roman Catholic missionaries diminished Iraqw traditional culture. The old dances that played pivotal roles in initiation, courtship, marriage and celebration were forbidden by the Catholic church, and are now all but forgotten. Few of the younger generation speak Iraqw or have knowledge of their unique history.

Like many other area tribes, their traditional enemies were the Maasai, who's young men would swoop down from the slopes of Ngorongoro and steal cattle and children. Though violence is rare these days, friction endures between the two tribes - now the Maasai fear the Iraqws' agricultural encroachment on their traditional grazing lands.

The Kuria: A Bantu Community

Game Drive Serengeti Safari Camp, Serengeti National Park, Tanzania

The homeland of the Kuria tribe (also known as AbaKuria, as they prefer to call themselves) straddles the Kenyan-Tanzanian border near Tarime in the Masai Mara region. Though many of Kuria's cultural traditions are similar to those of the Maasai, the Maasai were always considered their arch-enemies. Unlike the Maasai, however, few members of the Kuria tribe continue to live in a traditional manner.

Few of their rituals, ceremonies and beliefs have endured the influence of Christianity and the pressures of a modern economy. Predominately agricultural, the Kuria also keep cattle for milk and meat, and until recently they lived in constant threat of Maasai cattle raids. Their "bomas" (compounds) were defensively constructed: mud and thatch huts for cattle, women and children were located in the center of a thick, thorny euphorbia hedge.

Like the Maasai, the Kuria practiced polygamy and male and female circumcision (three traditions which remain popular despite the a strong missionary presence). And, like the Maasai, the Kuria once had a penchant for adornment. Traditionally, the Kuria cured goatskins for clothing. Both men and women wore copper bangles on their wrists, but the women also wore numerous copper coils around their necks. Man had various head-dresses for assorted ceremonies; these were usually made of clay and rooster feathers. Leopard and lion skins were worn during male initiation ceremonies.

Ears and earrings said much about a Kuria's social standing. Unmarried women never wore earrings, but wives and men preferred to stretch their lobes to great lengths with heavy copper rings or large, heavy earrings made of bone or wood. Dangling earlobes were of such aesthetic importance to men that if, while sparing, one man tore another's lobe, he would have to pay damage compensation. Courting and marriage ceremonies were complex affairs that involved both families and the elders of the tribe and often took several months to complete. Once a girl had been chosen by a boy, and approved of by his elders, he would stamp his spear into the ground in front of her, thus claiming her. To increase population, children were weaned as soon as possible and given to their grandmothers for care so that their mothers could become pregnant again.

These days, the majority of the Kuria are Christian, although Islam has some converts and a few remain steadfastly animist. Their crops of maize, beans, millet and sorghum are grown for barter or sale in the Tarime market. Though fertile, the region remains extremely poor. Most Kuria now no longer fear marauding Maasai, but struggle to find the means to pay for schooling and modern medical care.

The Maasai: A Changing Culture

Maasai Nduara Loliondo, Serengeti National Park, Northern Tanzania

"The Maasai's pastoral lifestyle has always been compatible with conservation, and rather than being treated as interlopers the Maasai should be seen as an integral and beneficial part of the ecosystem."
Matthew Ole Timan

Everyone knows the proud pastoralists who once dominated the entire Rift Valley all along. Not all people who identify themselves as Maasai or Maasai people are pastoralists, some are farmers and hunters. What it means to be Maasai has changed radically over the past several centuries and is still changing today. The early foreigners who first met Maasai called them Jews of Africa and identified them as a Nation not a tribe. They had maintained their strong and democratic government for many decades.

Until quite recently the pastoral Maasai's subsisted essentially off the milk, blood and meat of their livestock. Their zealous adherence to a pastoral diet was reinforced for cosmological beliefs and cultural restrictions against eating agricultural and other non-pastoral foods.

As pure pastoralists they strongly rejected alternative modes of subsistence such as agriculture, hunting and fishing. However the purely pastoral ideals are no longer realised in practice. They occasionally consume eland and buffalo secretly away from their homes. It is also known that trading and exchange of livestock against agricultural products have been taking place for a long time between the pastoral Maasai and neighbouring agricultural tribes. At present there is an increasing demand on agricultural foods. Particularly maize meal has become popular among the pastoral Maasai and many are even turning into agro-pastoralists out of economic necessity.

Sukuma: The largest Culture in Tanzania

The Sukuma people live in an area called Usukuma which is located between west and south of Serengeti and east and south of Lake Victoria. The landscape of Usukuma is most notable for its kopjes or rocky outcrops. The land is very fertile in the north and near the lake, but dry to the south towards the city of Shinyanga. During a good rainy season, a family can produce enough food for the year.

For many in Usukuma, farming is a family activity. The Sukuma are known as cattle herders and most people farm the land for rice, cassava, potatoes and corn. Some also grow cotton as a cash crop. In rural areas, the cultivation of the farm, or shamba in Kiswahili, is a necessary part of daily life. During the cultivation season, when the land is prepared for planting, the family works together to ensure that they will harvest enough food for the coming year.

Tanzania has accelerated its movement toward democracy, increased its communication networks, and opened its economy to the world. This has influenced the traditional culture of the Sukuma. While many Sukuma remain in small villages, others move to cities and assimilate to the urban society which is a combination of many different cultures and international influences. Possibly to renew awareness in Sukuma culture, identity and history, some people provide cultural leadership through a mix of traditional and modern culture. This movement reflects an increased interest in utamuduni or traditional culture, which lies in the dynamic social and political changes that are currently spreading through Usukuma. Today, a revival of Sukuma culture is taking place among traditional doctors, chiefs, artists and dancers.

In primary and secondary schools throughout the country children are taught Kiswahili. The Sukuma and all other Tanzanian cultures are closely united through the national language of Kiswahili which makes it easier for people from different linguistic groups to communicate with the other ethnic groups of Tanzania. But the Sukuma also have their own language. Kisukuma is the first language learned by most Sukuma children; yet, they also speak Kiswahili.

Sources: Photos by Bushtracks Expeditions. Article written by Pia Zimmermann The Serengeti National Park's Official Website; Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iraqw_people 

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