Zaramo people

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Zaramo people
Bundesarchiv Bild 105-DOA0148, Deutsch-Ostafrika, Wassaramoleute.jpg
Zaramo in German East Africa (1906)
Total population
~0.7 million
Regions with significant populations
Tanzania Tanzania~0.7 million[1]
Swahili language[1]
Islam (Sunni)[2]

The Zaramo people, also referred to as Dzalamo or Saramo, are an East African ethnic group found along the coast of Tanzania, particularly in its Pwani Region.[1][2] They are the largest ethnic group in and around Dar es Salaam, the capital of Tanzania.[3] Estimated to be about 0.7 million, over 98% of them are Muslims,[1] more specifically the Shafi'i school of Sunni Islam.[4]


Their original language is the Zaramo language, a Bantu language belonging to the Niger-Congo family of languages.[5] However, in contemporary Tanzania, only a few speak it, and most now speak another Bantu language namely Swahili language as their first language,[1] and have adopted Swahili-Arabic names.[2][5]


The term Zaramo, in scholarly studies, also reflects a macro-ethnic group. The larger Zaramo group consists of Zaramo proper but, however includes a number of related peoples such as the Kaguru, Kwere, Kutu, Kami, Sagara, Luguru, Ngulu and Vidunda peoples.[6]

The Zaramo society has been historically victimized by slave raids and slave trading by the Swahili-Arab traders of Zanzibar.[6][7] To resist this persecution, they developed stockade-fortified villages.[6] Many just ran away from the coast, and would return during the day time to farm and fish.[7] Zanzibar Arabs, state William Worger, Nancy Clark and Edward Alpers, however pursued their slave raiding into the mainland, where they would seize pagan Zaramo adults and children, gag them so they would not cry out, and then sell them to the traders.[7] Sometimes during famines, such as in the 19th-century rule of Barghash bin Said of Zanzibar, desperate Zaramo people pawned and sold each other to survive.[7][8]

Zaramo people distribution (approx).

The Zaramo society's history has long been influenced by the coastal encounter between the Arab-Persian and African populations typical of East Africa, since the 8th century.[9] During the colonial era, the influence came from the encounter between the African people, Arab-Swahili trader intermediaries and the European powers, but it broadly coopted the older slave-driven, social stratification model.[10]

According to Elke Stockreiter – a professor of History specializing on Africa, the slaves seized from Zaramo people and other ethnic groups such as Yao, Makonde and Nyamwezi peoples from the mainland and brought to the coastal Tanzania region and Zanzibar sought social inclusion and attempted to reduce their treatment as inferiors by their slave owners by adopting and adapting to Islam in the 19th century.[11] Conversion to Islam among the coastal Zaramo people began in the 19th century.[12] These historic events, states Stockreiter, have influenced the politics and inter-ethnic relations in 20th-century Tanzania.[11][13]


Initiation rituals are required for the youth of the Zaramo people to become full-fledged members of adult society. Theses rituals generally happen around puberty and the female's first menses.[14][15]


The male ceremony is termed as nhulu or "growth."[15] The initiation process takes place during the dry season and about once every three years. Each novice, mwali, have a designated instructor, mhunga, who guides the youth through the circumcision process, teaches Zaramo sex lore and practice. Once the mwali are circumcised, they are brought to an initian hut, kumbi, where they are taught, and then are not permitted to bathe for two weeks. Once the mwali are allowed to bathe again, their mothers in the village hold a village dance, mbiga. After eight more days the mwali return to the village and their instructors burn the kumbi and anything else related to the initiation. The mwali are now men of society and celebrate with mlao, a dance of emergence.[15]


Female initiation begins with a girl's first menses.[15] The rituals associated with female initiation are performed to protect and enrich a girl's female power and her fertility.[14] A girl has a reproductive cycle within society-one that starts with her first menses, continues to her initiation, marriage, birth of her children, and finally ends with the puberty of her grandchildren, at which point her reproductive cycle is over.[14] The girl novice, also called mwali, is secluded in her mother's house for anywhere between two weeks and one year. Earlier documentation states that this process in the past could have taken up to five years.[14] During seclusion, the mwali is not allowed to speak, work, or go outside, to symbolize her death and put emphasis on her re-emergence as symbolic birth.[14] She is then carried to a mkole tree where is circumcised as well by an operator, or mnhunga.[14]She is then returned to her family and she is celebrated with an mbwelo dance. She is secluded for a small amount of time before this dance where she wears a small doll of red wood, mwana nya nghiti, on her back.[15]

Mwana Nya Nghiti from the Minneapolis Institute of Art

Zaramo medicine man's container.

Culture and livelihood[edit]

The Zaramo people have adopted the Swahili–Arab culture in terms of dress such as wearing a skull cap, Islamic festivals and Muslim observances, but they continue some of their pre-Islam traditions such as matrilineal kinship, while a few pursue the Kolelo fertility cult and the worship of their ancient deity Mulungu.[2][6] The traditional practice of Mganga or medicine man, along with Muslim clerics offering services as divine healers, remains popular among the impoverished Zaramo communities.[16]

The Zaramo people are settled farmers who also keep livestock and fish, but they also are migrant workers to Tanzania's capital city and tourist sites. They live in Pangone or shanty clusters of villages. They produce staple foods such as rice, millet and sorghum, cassava, as well as cash crops such as coconuts and horticulture produce such as peas.[2][6]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e Anthony Appiah; Henry Louis Gates (2010). Encyclopedia of Africa. Oxford University Press. p. 572. ISBN 978-0-19-533770-9.
  2. ^ a b c d e Zaramo people, Encyclopædia Britannica
  3. ^ Lloyd W. Swantz (1990). The Medicine Man Among the Zaramo of Dar Es Salaam. Nordic Africa Institute. pp. 7–8. ISBN 978-91-7106-299-4.
  4. ^ Randall L. Pouwels (2002). Horn and Crescent: Cultural Change and Traditional Islam on the East African Coast, 800-1900. Cambridge University Press. pp. 116–122. ISBN 978-0-521-52309-7.
  5. ^ a b Zaramo language: Tanzania, Ethnologue
  6. ^ a b c d e James Stuart Olson (1996). The Peoples of Africa: An Ethnohistorical Dictionary. Greenwood Publishing. p. 610. ISBN 978-0-313-27918-8.
  7. ^ a b c d William H. Worger; Nancy L. Clark; Edward A. Alpers (2010). Africa and the West: From the slave trade to conquest, 1441-1905. Oxford University Press. pp. 119–120. ISBN 978-0-19-537348-6.
  8. ^ Gwyn Campbell (2015). Bonded Labour and Debt in the Indian Ocean World. Routledge. pp. 35–37. ISBN 978-1-317-32008-1.
  9. ^ Bernard Calas (2010). From Dar Es Salaam to Bongoland: Urban Mutations in Tanzania. African Books Collective. pp. 173–175. ISBN 978-9987-08-094-6.
  10. ^ Bernard Calas (2010). From Dar Es Salaam to Bongoland: Urban Mutations in Tanzania. African Books Collective. pp. 176–178. ISBN 978-9987-08-094-6.
  11. ^ a b Elke Stockreiter (2015). Islamic Law, Gender and Social Change in Post-Abolition Zanzibar. Cambridge University Press. pp. 210–212. ISBN 978-1-107-04841-6.
  12. ^ Nehemia Levtzion; Randall Pouwels (2000). The History of Islam in Africa. Ohio University Press. pp. 283–284. ISBN 978-0-8214-4461-0.
  13. ^ Crawford Young (1979). The Politics of Cultural Pluralism. Univ of Wisconsin Press. pp. 241–242. ISBN 978-0-299-06744-1.
  14. ^ a b c d e f Swantz, Marja-Liisa. (1995). Blood, milk, and death : body symbols and the power of regeneration among the Zaramo of Tanzania. Mjema, Salome., Wild, Zenya. Westport, Conn.: Bergin & Garvey. ISBN 0897893980. OCLC 30811740.
  15. ^ a b c d e Beidelman, T. O. (Thomas O.), 1931- (2017). The matrilineal peoples of eastern Tanzania : (Zaramo, Luguru, Kaguru, Ngulu, etc.). Routledge. ISBN 9781315309613. OCLC 974669106.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  16. ^ Lloyd W. Swantz (1990). The Medicine Man Among the Zaramo of Dar Es Salaam. Nordic Africa Institute. pp. 11–12, 16–17, 24–25, 43–46. ISBN 978-91-7106-299-4.

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