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The Sandawe are an indigenous ethnic group of Southeast Africa, based in the Kondoa district of Dodoma Region in central Tanzania. They were predominantly hunter-gatherers before Europeans colonized Africa in the 18th and 19th centuries. In 2000, the Sandawe population was estimated to be 40,000.
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The Sandawe today are considered descendants of an original Bushman-like people, unlike their modern neighbors, the Gogo. They live in the geographic center of old German East Africa, the 'Street of Caravans' crossing their southern edge.
The Sandawe language may share a common ancestor with the Khoe languages of southern Africa. It has clicks and the surrounding Bantu peoples find it difficult to learn. It is unrelated to the neighboring Bantu languages, though it has been lightly influenced by neighboring Cushitic languages.
Many Sandawe are small, light-boned, and light brown-skinned, or as Lieutenant Tom von Prince of the German East Africa Company wrote, 'small and yellowish'; the are also noted for having thin lips, an epicanthic eye fold, and excessive wrinkling of the skin in old age. Some, particularly women, show signs of steatopygia, or accumulated fat in the buttocks and haunches.
The Sandawe have long been considered expert survivalists during times of food shortages as a result of having a strong hunting and gathering tradition. By the time of the expeditions of Charles Stokes and Emin Pasha, they had also become herders and agriculturalists, but still tended to be grouped with the Wagogo people. It was not until the travels of Lt. Prince in 1895 that the Sandawe were finally recognized by Europeans as a separate people maintaining their independence. Despite their technologically simple culture, European colonists considered them politically and militarily significant at least until the turn of the 20th century.
The Sandawe adopted agriculture from their Bantu neighbors, probably the Gogo, and scattered their homesteads wherever a suitable piece of land was found for their staple crops of millet, sorghum, and eventually, maize. They were uncomfortable with and had no use for denser village life, and remained a basically stateless people, showing little talent for 'empire-building'. The Sandawe did, however, have a tradition of mutual cooperation in such things as hoeing and threshing, homebuilding, and organizing informal parties to hunt pigs and elephants. They built their very temporary huts away from water holes, and then went hunting in the surrounding country. They also likely did not practice polygamy until after adopting agriculture.
During the mid-19th century, when Germany began to colonize sub-Saharan Africa, some Sandawe clans used their prestige as rainmakers to lay claim to chiefly status, but were never really accepted as such. Others defied European rule and the mass migrations of arriving colonists around them. The Germans were told that a man named Mtoro wielded some authority. He was officially made headman or leader of the recently established Nyamwezi colony.
The Sandawe so hated Mtoro and the Nyamwezi settlers that they threw them out in 1902, seizing their cattle. Lieutenant Kohlerman was called to keep the peace and within three days killed 800 Sandawe men, reportedly without suffering a casualty, while a second expedition then came and captured 1,100 cattle. The district commander reported 'progress':
- The rock-strewn land of Usandawe...is inhabited by a still thoroughly warlike, predatory, and unexplored mountain people whose members do not recognize German rule, live far apart and tolerate no headmen or superiors, and have hereto rid themselves in drastic fashion of those experimentally installed by the station. We now have the situation well in hand.
Encouraged, the German colony withdrew its military. But the Sandawe attacked as the soldiers left, announcing a willingness to confront a new expedition, and began harassing the Nyamwezi. In the end, the Sandawe were 'pacified', and 22 headmen were appointed chiefs, mainly from the traditional rainmaking clans. One of the headmen said, "If any one defies my order, I will appeal to the European Sergeant Linke. He is one who punishes with fetters and the whip....Therefore, my people see that you live in peace."
With the end of colonialism, however, the institution of chiefdom quickly crumbled and disappeared. In telling their stories, the Sandawe identify with small animals that use their cunning and intelligence to outwit their dangerous and more powerful enemies. As Tom von Prince understood it in his book Gegen Araber und Wahehe, "the deathly fear that must have existed to drive these people thousands of kilometers from their homes south of the equator, into the middle of countless strange tribes to find peace, can only be guessed at."
The Sandawe practice an insular and deeply spiritual culture with an emphasis on animism. Caves in the hills were believed to harbor spirits and were respected and even feared. So as not to disturb these spirits, the caves were avoided, no animals were herded there, and no wood cut or twigs broken. Once a year the Sandawe would go to the caves to perform rituals of sacrifice in order to make sure the spirits would not be spiteful and interfere with the community's general well-being. People would go to the caves in the hills as a group shouting prayers to the spirits, assuring them that no one had come to disturb them, but had come to pay their respects. These prayers were shouted as loudly as possible, to make sure that the spirits could hear no matter where they were. The Sandawe beliefs also centered on a veneration of the moon, the stars, the seasons, and the mantis insect. The moon was seen as a symbol of life and fertility; cool and beneficial, it brought rain and controlled the cycle of fertility in women. The mantis was divine messenger with a special reason for appearing and a medium was usually consulted to find the explanation.
There was a god, Warongwe, who was so abstract, distant, and unrelated to the well-being of normal life that it was rarely prayed to or given sacrifices. As in almost all African areas, religion consisted of a long line of ancestors and a strongly-knit extended family system that mediated between living beings and a very remote all-powerful God.
The Sandawe were and remain an outgoing people, fond of singing, dancing, making music, and drinking beer, and have an enormous store of songs. All ceremonials and rituals differed from one another, such as those of harvest and courtship, as did those of the curing rituals with their trances, the circumcision festivals, and simba possession dances, in which dancers imitated lions in order to combat witchcraft. The Sandawe still retain a strong oral tradition, loving to recount stories, which embody the collective wisdom of the group.
- "Ethnologue report for language code: sad". Ethnologue.com. Retrieved 2012-08-01.
- Bauer, Andreus. "Street of Caravans"
- Iliffe, John. "A Modern History of Tanganyika"
- "Mankind, the Illustrated Encyclopedia of" Pub. Marshall Cavendish
- Prince, Tom von. Gegen Araber und Wahehe
- Presented by Norm.