Kaguru people

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

The Kaguru, or Kagulu, are an ethnic and linguistic group based in central Tanzania. In 1987 the Kaguru population was estimated to number 217,000.[1]


Ukagura (Kaguraland, about 3,600 square miles) lies roughly 200 miles directly due west of Bagamoyo and Sadani on the 'Street of Caravans' (reached by the German caravan of Stokes on August 12, 1890, about two and three weeks after starting from Sadani). The mountains formed part of a belt stretching diagonally from southwest to northeast across the East Rift system of German East Africa. To the west and north lies the central plateau comprising two-thirds of Tanzania.

There are three very different areas, the core, the plateau, and the lowlands. The core is mass of mountain peaks (6,000–7,000 ft.) considered part of the east rift system, and represents one third of the area. In the German Sergeant Bauer's time only a few of its mountains were, and remain today, thickly wooded, for most were already deforested because of the iron smelting industry with its intense need for charcoal and the severe agricultural clearing. After the coming of the Germans much land was preserved as woodland reserved and can be considered beautiful semitropical forestland of great density and abundant rain. The steep terrain had a network of valleys ideal for refugees escaping raids, particularly from the Hehe of the south and the Maasai of the north and is considered the 'heartland'. The word 'Kaguru' refers to the highlands with heavy rain (100 inches on the peaks) that was cool and capable of the regular production of vegetables, and some rice, millet, and plantains. It contained no maize.

Next the plateau is a land of less rain and more warmth, of large expanses of scrubland and forest, scattered peaks and rocky outcrops, a land of dry and wet seasons. It is a land of periodic famine due to drought, but healthier than the damp and chilly 'heartland'. It was after more peaceful time had arrived that people began returning to the 'Street of Caravans' and the caravan's resting places. Generally the very largest livestock holdings were kept here.

The remaining 20 percent had the most extreme contrast between wet and dry seasons. Lying below 2,000 feet altitude it had the least dependable agricultural conditions, being a flat grassy plain, it was most vulnerable to raiding, difficult to defend against these raids, was most prone to cattle diseases, and contained the largest number of non-Kagura who had settled either as refugees or part of the very impressive caravan trade.


During Sergeant Bauer's time, the Kaguru still tended to stay in large, palisade settlements on the plateau where enough men lived to defend against the raids for livestock, grain, metal goods, or slaves. The plateau represented 50% of Ukagura and had become the area where most Kaguru lived.

The earliest European accounts of the Kaguru gave them various names and seem to be only vaguely aware of them (the Germans with Sergeant Bauer and Charles Stokes make no mention of them). They were lumped together with their neighbors the Gogo or the Sandawe to the west or the mountain and plateau Kaguru were given separate names. They were ethnically placed with other highland peoples who were also matrilineal and had similar lifestyles.

There were no traditional firmly established chiefdoms or political systems. A few leaders would rise up and establish a network of contacts on the main caravan trading stations. It was here that these leaders became responsible for overstating their influence and power and tried to claim special rank and privileges, and it was also here that caravans were offered the services of law and order in return for recognition, munitions, trade goods, and cash. These leaders also offered the Kagura protection against dangerous, armed outsiders who were to kill in order to get supplies and labor. While the Arabs, Germans, and British were only too happy to imagine coherent 'tribal' areas under the control of cooperative chiefs, some of the leaders were actually to follow through on their offerings. In reality, however, the Kagura were quite close to being stateless. Ukagura was the last site for caravans taking on supplies and water before entering the dry western plains, (Mr. Stokes' caravan is only one example), and it was the first good supply and resting place for caravans after crossing the wild plains to and from the coast with their slow moving shipment of trade goods.

Christian missionaries not only established their headquarters among the Kagura in order to aid their fellow missionaries passing through, but also condemned a wide range of Kaguru customs such as polygyny, ancestral propitiation, and the use of rainstones and other magical medicines.

Also included in the condemnation were alcohol consumption, dancing, native jewelry, dress, hairstyles, ear-piercing, red ocher for cosmetics, Kaguru music and songs, including many forms of etiquette. They violently opposed female circumcision, but since this was not performed in public it was difficult to prevent. The missionaries also tried hard to segregate the Christian initiates from the pagans. By and large the missionaries were unsuccessful with their opposition. Had they been successful most of Kaguru culture and identity would have been lost. They also interfered with the illegal slave trade by reporting it to the European authorities on the coast through their connections there.



The Kagura were and remain a matrilineal people (tracing the descent and inheritance through the female) and speaking Chikaguru. They needed to establish broad and diverse relationships since their society was organized around relatives and household groups containing people who could be called upon for support and were a major resource for security and prosperity. Since Ukagura was vulnerable to raids, and at times lacked sufficient manpower to work the land, defend it, and guard against outsiders looking for goods and captives, people not land, were the scarcest and most sought-after resource.

Every third of fourth year a Kagura could expect lean times, while every seventh or eighth year conditions could become very brutal. The Kagura were forever caught between trying to meet their own needs and having to meet the requirements of others who sooner or later might in turn come to their rescue. Diverse social ties are crucial, since harvests and prolonged dryness vary between areas and help can be vital, involving more than just sharing harvests, but also borrowing livestock, or permission to resettle.

The Kagura negotiate rights to land, to rituals, bridewealth, fines and inheritance as part of kin membership determined through birth and marriage. Their society existed of about one hundred matrilineal clans with a wide variety of names such Cat, Goat, Messengers, Spoiled Beer, Rain, Beads, Ravines, Criw, etc., with each containing thousands of members. Each clan was associated with one or more pieces of land that it claimed as its own and each year would organize rituals to revitalize this land. In practice, actual ownership of a clan area was negotiable and could lead to trouble. In Sergeant Bauer's time most Kaguru felt secure within a local area and resisted leaving it.

Gender roles and marriage[edit]

Flesh and blood was identity and came from the mother. The father was important but not as powerful as the ties to the mother and her kin. A child is a member of his or hers mother's clan but not a member of the father's. Ties to the mother were automatic and profound, ties to the father and his kin went into effect only after payments were made. Most Kagura marriages were not considered complete until the birth of children, which only then complicated the varying interplay of loyalties over time.

Men monopolized all ritual and official public life, but women were also essential, whether or not they were married, and had total rights of control over their children. The difference between the two sexes can be illustrated by the kinds of abuse aimed at each. A man may be told he is unmarried or acts as though he were uncircumcised. This can be changed. A woman, on the other hand, can be rebuked for having no children, a flaw in the woman that cannot be changed.

Brother-sister relationships are important. A sister's consent to be married and not run away puts her brother in debt to her. Yet in later live, brothers may encourage their sisters to leave their husbands. The bridewealth received for a sister often enables her brother to marry. A brother hopes to make claims on the loyalty and labor of a sister's sons and bridewealth from her daughters. Men encourage marital instability among their own sisters and nieces while urging marital stability within their own households. Even though the couple's attitudes are taken into consideration, marriage is seen as a competition for alliance, and it is the relatives of a couple who determine marriage. It is this intense competition that provides the broad economic, social, and political security go necessary and so important.

The most important role for men is as husband and brother and they rarely favor divorce, even when the wife is difficult, in contrast many women press for divorce or use it as a threat. The more children a couple have, the more advantage the wife's kin find in divorce. If she is divorced her side withholds a portion of the bridewealth for every child born, even if these died. If there were five or six children born, no bridewealth is returned and the brideservice is not returned. If she remarries, her kin could again secure bridewealth and brideservice.

Divorce is always an economic threat to a husband unless his wife is barren or is considered so unpleasant that the community supports his refund. No divorced man wants to remain alone for long. Mature men cannot easily manage without a wife to cook, and carry water and wood, whereas grown women can manage rather well if raiding is no problem. From a woman's viewpoint the best reason to marry is that she gets a man to appease her own father and mother's brothers, for women are most closely bonded to their mothers and children. The father finds the support of his wife to be vital in order to secure the loyalty of his children.

Whatever value a Kaguru woman holds for her brothers and husband stems from her importance as a mother. She sees her long-term loyalties as the same as those of her children. The Kaguru mother is the person most likely to provide true heartfelt advice and support for her children, as her own needs are totally wrapped up with those of her children. When a woman grows older, her focus upon her children increases, and increases even more when there are co-wives. All Kaguru women desire as many children as possible, in or out of marriage. It is barrenness, not an illegitimate child, which is a Kaguru woman's greatest calamity. Help during illness or need becomes undependable as the woman ages. Her lot is not an easy one. A childless woman's greatest concern is finding kin to care for her after she becomes old, with brewing, prostitution, and midwifery becoming her most likely means for added income. Childlessness has become a disgrace and a catastrophe.


Traditional Kaguru were quite prudish about any kind of public nudity. No immature Kaguru would ever have been able to examine an entirely unclothed adult of either sex. Men wore a toga-like garment and took great care not to appear naked even when washing. Women always wore a skirt. All sexual allusions were forbidden between parents and child and between all siblings. Such talk would be considered shameless and perverse. It is the grandparents, cross cousins, or those unrelated of the same age that are expected to be free to mention such matters.

There was very little sexual information available to Kaguru youth before initiation. Parents' sexuality was shielded from children who could not even touch the bed of a parent. It is only at initiation that sexual questions can at last be freely mentioned and are a constant and required topic of instruction.

Male circumcision (initiation) is performed at puberty by men in a bush camp (not in a settlement) where the youth remains until he recovers, and consists of removing the foreskin of the penis with a knife. It was said that his childhood has died and he has been reborn as an adult. It is thought to please women because it makes males even more different from females and the sexes are attracted to the opposites of each other.

Female initiation takes place in the seclusion of a house when the girl is about fourteen. The seclusion could last weeks to months and she was expected to become beautiful (fat and pale). Women inside the initiation house enjoyed singing obscene songs, laughing loudly at jokes, and dancing, it was good excuse to travel and visit. After a night of singiing and dancing the girl was taken into the nearby bush, held seated on a hide and cut by an old woman. The cutting on the labia could be extensive, a light nick or not at all. The Kagura did not remove any part of the clitoris, and the female initiate, after receiving gifts of new clothing and masses of beads from her kinswomen, was now ready for suitors and marriage.


As with most African peoples the community consisted of dead ancestors and the generations still to be born, as well as the living; they lived in an 'age of faith'. Following the death of an ordinary person the spirit goes to an alternative dimension, 'ghostland' (Rejoining the 'Life-Force', but retaining the spiritual identity), where ghosts live in villages much as the living do (they merely change their address), and the arrival of a new person is celebrated just as the loss is mourned by the living. At birth to the living, the ghosts, who have given up one of their members, mourn the loss. Both sides give up one of theirs to the other with resignation and resentment.

Infants, having just made a dangerous journey, have a weak hold on life and may be taken back by the jealous ghosts, while uninitiated youth who die, are also said to have never fully stopped being ghosts and are not extensively mourned. In an orderly world the two dimensions are expected to be separate and not interfere with one another, though the misdeeds of the living do upset the ghosts and they wish to be remembered with sacrifices and hear their names called out. Serious and continuing problems are blamed on angry, disturbed, or confused ghosts for whom rites are then held to placate, cool or quiet them. The most prominent ancestral ghosts are named and wheat flour and the blood of sacrificial animals are poured on the graves.


  • Bauer,Andreas, Street of Carvans
  • Beidelman, Thomas O, The Cool Knife
  • Beidelman, Thomas O, The Kagura