SUKUMA PEOPLE: TANZANIA`S LARGEST TRIBE WITH UNIQUE BUGOBOBOBO (SNAKE DANCING) CULTURE
The Sukuma is the largest ethnic group in Tanzania, with an estimated 5.5 million members representing about 16 percent of the country's total population. Sukuma means "north" and refers to "people of the north." The Sukuma refer to themselves as Basukuma (plural) and Nsukuma (singular).
Sukuma tribe snake dancer
The Sukuma live in northwestern Tanzania on or near the southern shores of Lake Victoria, and various areas administrative districts of the Mwanza, southwestern tip of Mara Region, Simiyu Region and Shinyanga Region. The northern area of their residence is in the famous Serengeti Plain. Sukuma families have migrated southward, into the Rukwa Region and Katavi Region, encroaching on the territory of the Pimbwe. These Sukuma have settled outside Pimbwe villages.
Sukuma family in photograph with their dog
The Sukumaland is mostly a flat scrubless savannah plain between 910 and 1,200 metres (3,000 and 4,000 ft). elevation. Twenty to forty inches (51 to 100 cm) of rain fall from November to March. High temperatures range from 26 to 32 °C (79 to 90 °F) while lows at night seldom drop below 15 °C (59 °F). Population is very spread out among small farm plots and sparse vegetation.
Sakuma people of Tanzania
Sukuma is a Cogo-Niger or Bantu language of Tanzania, spoken in an area south east of Victoria Nyanza in a country between Mwanza, Shinyanga, Lake Eyasi and minutes south, 55 degrees east. In an orthography using roman script without special letters, and resembling that used for Swahili, it has been used in Bible translation and in religious literature.
Sakuma woman and her child
Sakuma mythology on creation
Sukuma creation narrative of Masala Kulangwa (literally ‘the clever young man’ or ‘the one who is quick to learn’), which is the traditional narrative which most Sukuma would identify with. The text of the narrative, from Healey & Sybertz (1996: 64-65) is as follows:
Once upon a time, the monster Shing’weng’we swallowed the domestic animals together with all
the people in the world except for one pregnant woman who hid in a pile of chaff. Later this woman gave
birth to a boy named Masala Kulangwa. When he grew up he asked: ‘Mother, why are there only the two of
us? Where are the other people?’ She answered: ‘my dear one, everyone else was swallowed by the
monster Shing’weng’we. We are the only ones left.
From that day on, the clever young man started looking for the monster. One day he killed a
grasshopper and arrived home singing: ‘Mother, Mother, I have killed Shing’weng’we up in the hills.
Rejoice and shout for joy.’ But his Mother answered: ‘My dear one, this is only a grasshopper, not the
monster. Let’s roast and eat it.’
Sukuma woman and her kids at Mboli Mboli, Tanzania. By J Luoh
Another day he killed a bird and arrived home singing: ‘Mother, Mother, I have killed
Shing’weng’we up in the hills. Rejoice and shout for joy.’ But his mother answered: ‘My dear one, this is
only a bird, not the monster. Let’s roast it and eat it.’
Another day, he killed a small gazelle and arrived home singing: ‘Mother, Mother, I have killed
Shing’weng’we up in the hills. Rejoice and shout for joy.’ But his Mother answered: ‘My dear one, this is
only an antelope, not the monster, let’s roast and eat it’.
When Masala Kulangwa grew to manhood, he told his mother that he wanted to go and look for
the monster. At first she did not want him to go, but finally she agreed. Then he went out into the forest to
look for the monster. Masala Kulangwa shouted, ‘Hey, you, Shing’weng’we.’ The monster answered, ‘It’s
me’, in a voice so loud that the earth shook. The clever young man was terrified, but he gritted his teeth and
did not turn back.
Finally Masala Kulangwa found Shing’weng’we, overcame him, killed him and cut open the
monster’s back. Out came his father along with his relatives and all the other people. By bad luck, when he
cut open the monster’s back, Masala Kulangwa severed the ear of an old woman with his knife. This
woman became very angry and insulted the young man. She tried to bewitch him and kill him. But Masala
Kulangwa was guarded by his many friends, and she failed to harm him. Afterwards he found medicine and
healed the old woman. Then all the people declared the clever young man chief and raised him up in the
Chief’s chair. Masala Kulangwa became the chief of the whole world, and his mother became the Queen
Sakuma woman from Tanzania and her kids
Ancestors of the Sukuma were part of the extensive migrations of people speaking early forms of Bantu speech, in the first millennium AD.
It appears their ancestors left that area before the invasion of the Hima Cushites, since their culture and language show no influences of the Hima or the later Lwoo invaders in the Nyoro-Kigezi areas of Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda. This puts the Sukuma in their current area by about 1300 AD.
It appears that the pastoral Hima were actually there when the Sukuma arrived. Sukuma tradition says they drove out the Hima who subsequently established their kingdoms farther west, around Lake Victoria.
The Basukuma originated from the Balongo tribe who lived on the Western side of lake Victoria. The area is now known as Geita District. There is no evidence of the original inhabitants of the Sukuma area, however according to the Hamitic Families the country was very bushy – Dense in some parts with woodland and sparse in some others. The country was sparsely populated, mainly scattered settlements of a few hundred or so people under the leadership of a “Ntemi”. The “Ntemi” evolved into chiefs once the migrant groups (clans)settled.
Archival photograph of Masuka, the Ntemi (chief) of Mwanza Chiefdom
in his regalia, c. 1900, Courtesy of the Archives of the Missionaries of Africa, Rome.
Nkanda is believed to have been the leader (Ntemi) of about 250 people. Men and women who settled at a site about 12 miles from Mwanza on Nyerere road. This group (clan) came from Lushamba, an area in the present day Geita District. Exhausted by the long journey, Nkanda expressed his wish to camp Nye-Nsukumale aha ‘Let me camp here’. Nkanda was invited by the Waruli, the indigenous culture, to become their chief. They believed that Nkanda had medicine to make people and animal fear him, as well as medicine to protect against crocodiles that often spoiled their fishing nets, and the ability to make rain. Nkanda declined the offer, because the customs of his people, the Balongo and Bazinza demanded that a leader be an offspring of the daughter, matrilineal descendent of the Chief. Nkanda then journeyed back to his village, where his father to appointed Sanga, the son of Nkanda's sister Minza, as leader for the region where he first rested. This is still known as Nsukumale (Sukumalaha) and has developed from the first Sukuma chiefdom into the fifty two chiefdoms of modern day Usukuma. Later on when Sanga was officially enthroned as chief in 1504, the place was referred to as Sukuma. The various settlements (clans) had little communication with each other, the concept of ethnic unity never occurred to them.
Another version of the same tale has Ilembo, also of Nyalukalanga, venturing to Seke in search of game. He invited his four sisters (one being Minza) to join him and it was these sisters who settled what was to become the Sukuma, Ntuzu and Ng'wagala Chiefdoms and the immigrants from Lukulanga followed soon after. Then Nkanda is said to have married Minza and became the military commander of Ilembo and was responsible for uniting the local settlements as put forth in the first story but through a military campaign not by peaceful coercion. Whether or not one or both of these stories are true they shed light on the infamy of Nkanda and the importance of his role in the forming the identity of the Sukuma. Nearly every clan (luganda) and chiefdom formed before or after Nkanda's era tends to claim his lineage and thus perpetuates the importance of the Babinza and Balongo (clan of blacksmiths) link to Usukuma. In fact the first oral account which was passed down by a member of the Sukuma chiefdom and heroizes the chiefdoms families link to Nkanda and the origins of the Wasukuma and the second is told from the perspective of a Sukuma from Ntuzu.
As Minza was either Nkanda's mother, sister, or wife it becomes clear that under Nkanda's leadership the consolidation of individual settlements emphasized the identity and traditions of the Babinza within Usukuma. Today the traditional greeting of the Sukuma chiefdom is Iminza a direct reference to Minza, her family and thus the Babinza. The greeting is answered by the family name of the persons grandfather which reflects the continuing importance of Sukuma loyalty to their chiefdom and family and also aided parents during matchmaking by avoiding marriage within a clan.
Sukuma people of Mwanza
During the German (1860s -1916 ) and British (1916-1961) Colonial periods the traditional mode of succession since the first Sukuma Chief Sanga was interrupted to help secure support for colonial policies. The German colonial government often placed "Akidas" or non-indigenous coastal leaders in power and the British pressured the Sukuma chiefdoms of Usukuma to place the eldest son on the throne or to elect a man from the royal family at the death of the chief. The British also created the Sukuma Federation of Chiefdoms which brought together the Sukuma chiefs to discuss government policy in Malya. These changes were a mainstay of "Indirect Rule," the British policy for ruling Tanzania and Usukuma that enabled the colonial government to influence the future chiefs through european style training and education. It also was a way to neutralize the power of the royal ministers against colonial policies and increase that of the chief who was biased by his new education and possibly pleased to gain power at the expense of the royal ministers. Marie Jassy explains, "traditionally the Ntemi received his authority from two sources: the life force coming from his maternal ancestors, and the consensus of his people. The first role of the Ntemi was to insure good rains and crops by conducting appropriate ceremonies at planting and harvest times. At such occasions with the help of his first wife and of succes
sful magico-religious practitioners, including rain-makers, he called upon his ancestors and other spiritual agencies to bring fertility to the fields, women and cattle.....The second role of the Ntemi was to maintain justice and peace, which meant the same thing in Sukuma society, as a just solution to a conflict which allowed two parties involved to be reconciled with one another."
Sukuma Village in Tanzania
Yet during the colonial period, the authority of the ntemi or chief did not come from maternal ancestors, his royal ministers, the traditional doctors or the consensus of the people, but from the influential colonial government. Thus the traditional authorities that supported the chief slowly became no longer relevant and the chief "became a member of a different hierarchy, that of colonial administration, where all initiatives came from the top down and could be implemented without the consensus of the population." The historical effect of the British "Indirect Rule" that attempted to purge "native law and customs of all that offends against justice and morality" was that the chiefs became civil servants, the interface between chiefdom and Colonial authority. This ruling strategy of the British crushed the political future of the chiefs because while trying to preserve what was left of their authority, the chiefs sacrificed their spiritual and economic power and mandate.
Sukuma snake dancer
On the eve of independence, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere explained that "We tell the chiefs frankly that their authority is traditional only in the tribes, Tanganyka is not a traditional unit at all, and if the chiefs want to have a place in this thing we call Tanganyika, they have got to adapt themselves to this new situation, there is nothing traditional in the central government of Tanganyka." Considering that the authority of the chief was traditional and sanctioned by the British it was not surprising that in 1961 at independence the newly formed Tanzanian government extinguished the political power of the chief and the Sukuma Federation of chiefs. After nearly seventy five years of colonial rule, the role of the chief was diminished and tainted by his association with the colonial rule and lack of leadership within the nationalist movement. Throughout these periods of extreme transformation and diversity many royal families did not relinquish their royal regalia even though the political conditions forced the objects literally underground where many, unfortunately, were destroyed by nature and the environment.
The Sukuma practised mixed farming, and were also hunters. Boys took the cattle to graze in the plains/communal grazing land. During the dry season they grazed in the woodlands.
The subsistence crops of the Basukuma are mainly maize, millet, rice sweet potatoes and vegetables. Livestock was slaughtered onlyduring ceremonies, rituals, and large family gatherings. Nowadays the occasional cow and goat are sold for money to cater for educational and family needs.
Dancers from the Sukuma tribe celebrate the annual farmers' holiday called Nane Nane day, which takes place on 8th August each year. | Location: Southern Highlands Tanzania. © Nigel Pavitt/JAI/Corbis
Traditionally, the chief was chosen among the son of the daughters of the previous chief. The choice was made by the banang'oma, royal family members who are official attendants and resembled modern day government cabinet members and ministers. The royal ministers rarely indicated who would succeed the current ruler until his death and so the new chief was not groomed for the position and dependent on the ministers for his training. He was also heavily influenced by the traditional healers or bafumu (Waganga in Kiswahili), the Diviners, Rainmakers.
Sukuma traditional diviner dancing to perform ritual
Along with these specialist, he also depended on advice and expertise of the Balongo or blacksmiths. These people forged agricultural tools, weapons and controlled fire. These intermediaries would usually take the blame if mhola was challenged and would be punished for mistakes, poor predictions, or bad advice that the Ntemi may have acted upon. In this way the semi-divine chief was shielded from daily criticism, but if the circumstances continued to deteriorate it was possible that the chief could be dethroned. In most chiefdoms the chiefs controlled the ivory trade, received tribute from community members, controlled the use of fire with the assistance of the Balongo and depended on the traditional doctors for medicine or dawa. The relationship of the royal court of the chief with the balongo (Blacksmiths) and the bafumu (Traditional Doctors) was pyramidal and linked spiritually and economically. Ignatius Manyama Pambe in his dissertation on Sukuma culture explains that concepts like "spirits," "spirit possession," "spirit of ancestors," and "medicines" are considered to be sources of "power," "ability," or simply "mystical magical power," and are essential to the "rituals and the symbols which help in making the "chief, traditional doctor, and blacksmith." Through the symbolic, the consecrated, the traditional and with the medicine of the traditional doctors, the manufacturing (hoes and spear heads) and fire making of the blacksmiths and the creation of mhola and rain by the chief, these authorities controlled the spiritual and economic vitality of their communities.
“sungusungu” militia from Sukuma tribe
The Basukuma are a patrilineal/society. The role of the women being to take care of their husbands and children. Young people marry only when they are ready to carry the responsibilities marriage entails. They are initiated into adulthood in a ceremony known as lhane.
The Basukuma do not practice circumcision as part of initiation, but organize a separate ceremony. The young people involved in “lhane” have to be prepared well. Respected elders of the community tutor the initiates on their roles and responsibilities in the
family and the whole community. The initiates have to think, act and participate as adults in all rituals. After ‘lhane’ the initiates are considered adults and cannot be asked to deliver messages anywhere as this is a job for non-initiates.
Sukuma girl from Mwanza, Tanzania
“In Sukuma life there is no clearly prescribed sexual role because children and young boys (bayanda) and girls (baniki) play together without restriction, in the course of which there is bound to be a increasing amount of sex play. Children thus behaving would get a sound beating from their parents or neighbours catching them, but nevertheless such play is universal and forms a gradual and informal education into life which is denied to more withdrawn communities. […] Both sexes from about the age of eight years until round about the time of puberty, play at building small houses and setting up families therein. This game (bulya) consists of cooking grain that they have gleaned away from the fields at harvest, the inevitable sexual play between the children acting as mother and father, and the caring for imitation cattle […]. Thus from an early age both boys and girls are conditioned into their future roles as husbands and wives with their sexual activity taken for granted with the only restriction that it should be carried on discreetly so that the older generation should not notice and of course that unmarried girls should not bear children”.
The role of oral poetry cannot be underestimated as it is through song and dance that some of the societies ideals are inculcated into the initiates. A song like ‘Ubumanga Butashilaga’ is sung in this ceremony. The Basukuma are among the most cheerful people in Tanzania. Song and dance come naturally to the Basukuma in rituals, ceremonies, childbirth, death, work, etc. Usually they do not speak directly what is in their minds. They do not show anger and irritation easily except when they are annoyed. If they do not agree with someone else’s suggestion they will just say ‘yes’ and ignore or go their own way. Once they loose confidence with someone or something they do not restore it easily.
SUKUMA PEOPLE OF PIMBWE
Sukuma Dancing and Dawa
Dancing is a vital part of Sukuma life. The Sukuma are famous throughout Tanzania for their innovative dancing styles. Dancers continue to perform and compete in annual competitions, creating new costumes and using new and old dances just as their ancestors did over a hundred years ago. Some suggest that many of the current Sukuma dances started through cooperative farming groups who traveled from farm to farm. Members assisted one another to till their own farms and also worked as a group in exchange for money. To help pass the long day and to maintain their energy, the workers composed songs and lifted their hoes to the rhythm of singing and drumming. Such cooperative groups still exist; yet, Sukuma dancing is not limited to farm work.
Sukuma lion killing dance.In order to collect reward payments for killing a lion a Sukuma lion killer performs a highly stylized tradition song and dance in which the story of the kill is retold.
The competitive dance season begins in Usukuma in June when people have free time from their farm work and can celebrate their new supply of food for the year. The season can last through August or until people resume their farming activities. A good harvest will lead to a dance season with great celebration through singing and dancing. The festivals take place in a large field that has been cleared for dancing or sometimes in a small stadium. A competition can be as short as a day or as long as two weeks depending on the occasion or the number of dance groups scheduled. Both July 7, or Saba-Saba, and August 8, Nane-Nane, are National holidays to commemorate farming and commerce in Tanzania and provide two of the biggest festival days for dancers.
Sukuma traditional dancers
Bagalu and Bagika Dance Societies
Competitive dancing in Usukuma began with the formation of two dance societies: the Bagika and Bagalu. These societies were started in the mid Nineteenth century by two famous dancers and composers, Ngika and Gumha. Both of these men lived for many years with traditional doctors to gain the knowledge of potent medicines. Because they were also both famous dancers in Usukuma, they were encouraged to compete to test which one had the most powerful medicines.
Sukuma Dancing group
Both used their magical potions to attract the spectators to their side of the dance field and to force bad luck on their opponent. The matches between these men was fierce and in the end their supporters divided according to which man they thought was the most powerful. Ngika then became the first leader of the Bagika Society (people of Ngika) and Gumha of the Bagalu.
The societies are still going strong and dancers are affiliated with either Bagika or Bagalu. The two groups continue to compete against one another during the dance season. While the leadership of Bagika is divided between Ibogo Muhangwa and Kabugume, Bulungute Muleka is the undisputed leader of Bagalu and grandson of its founder, Gumha. These men are considered all the more powerful because they received their knowledge from a direct ancestral line to the first dance society leaders, Ngika and Gumha. Bulungute, Ibogo and Kabugume are busy during the dance season administering special medicines to their followers to aid them in winning competitions.
Before going to a competition, the dance leader consults his trusted traditional doctor for special advice and medicines for good luck. He then wears certain medicines while the group is dancing or implants medicine on the dancing ground for good luck and to attract the crowd. The most popular dance medicine is called samba. This is a special powdered form of good luck medicine that is supposed to make the dancers and especially the dance leader very attractive to the audience. It can be used in three different ways. The dancers may rub the powdered medicine on their bodies with a lotion; mix some in water and allow it to wash over the body while bathing; or, sit in an enclosed space with the medicine over a fire and allow the open pores of the body to "inhale" the substance. During a contest, some dancers build semi-permanent ancestral shrines on the dance ground. Larger structures are also constructed where a constant fire might be maintained to heat the samba medicine. At the competition, dancers go into the house to allow the smoking medicine to enter their bodies through the pores.
During a match, two dance groups compete for the crowd at the same time. Each attempts to perform the most outrageous stunts to draw the rest of the spectators over. The crowd runs from one dance group to the other as the excitement builds and the cheers of the audience grow louder and louder. The winner is selected by judges based on the size of the crowd the dance group maintained during the competition. Costumes are diverse and new innovations occur each year in the hopes of victory. One famous dance family, the Lyakus, innovate new moves with each dance season. Hoja Lyaku, the family's grandfather, was a famous dancer of Bakomyalume. During a dance he would use large wooden figures, often with moveable arms and legs to parade in front of the spectators. The figures would often draw a large crowd because of their novelty and humorous moves. Hoja's grandson, Steven Lyaku, suggested that they no longer use the wooden figures. Instead they plan new secret weapons each year as a strategy to win.
Shaggy,enthroned as Sukuma tribe chief
Sungusungu Tribal Justice Organizations
Shaggy crowned as chief of the Sukuma People in Tanzania
Sukuma tribe dancers
Shaggy,with Sukuma tribe dancers
Sukuma kids dancing
Shaggy holding a traditional Sukuma symbolic royal stick to swear as a Sukuma chief.
Dancer from sukuma tribe
Shaggy enthroned as a Sykuma tribal chief
Sukuma albino girl
Sakuma women offering traditional prayers
Sukuma people in dancing action
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