Tanzania Ethnic Groups

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Ethnicity in Tanzania means something slightly different than in many other African nations. In this lesson, we'll talk about Tanzanian ethnic groups and see what diversity means to this nation today.


I don't know what it is about the East African coastal nation of Tanzania, but it always sounds exciting. Whether you're talking about the semi-autonomous island of Zanzibar or the capital city Dodoma, even mentioning Tanzania feels like you're bound to end up on some wayward epic adventure. So, in the assumption that through some dramatic plot twist we are destined to end up in Tanzania eventually, maybe it would be good to get to know the people of Tanzania. What do you say? Grab a rucksack and some goggles, and let the adventure begin.


Bantu Ethnicity in Tanzania

So, who are the Tanzanians? Tanzania is actually home to over 120 distinct ethnic groups. That is a great amount of diversity. While each group is treated as a unique ethnic group, most of which speak unique languages, it should be noted that nearly all are historically related. About 95% of ethnic groups in Tanzania belong to the broad Bantu ethno-linguistic family. Bantu languages/ethnicities are amongst the most dominant throughout sub-Saharan Africa, but again each group is still distinct in its identity and traditions. So, how do these people all communicate? Well, the official language of Tanzania is actually a very common Bantu language called Swahili, spoken widely throughout this part of Africa. It's sort of the unofficial standard of Bantu cultures.

With over 120 ethnic groups in Tanzania, it's reasonable to expect the sort of ethnic conflicts we see throughout Africa. In these countries, the general trend across the 20th century was that one ethnic group gained political power and violently defended it against the other ethnic groups with whom they had often quarreled for centuries. But not in Tanzania. Tanzania is actually the exception to this trend, which is somewhat surprising considering its great diversity. So, how did Tanzania escape this trap? It's not entirely clear, but the political spectrum of the nation has been much more representative, with political power never solely being in the control of one ethnic group.

Despite great diversity, there is very little ethnic division in Tanzania
People in Tanzania

The other thing that may have helped Tanzania avoid ethnic conflict may actually be that stunning diversity. You see, whereas in many places there is one ethnic group with a clear numeric majority and then a series of much smaller groups, ethnic groups in Tanzania are much more closely related in size. The largest group, the Sukuma, make up only 13% of the total population. The second largest group, the Nyamwezi, are only 5% of the total population. So, no single ethnic group is very large, and possibly for this reason there are very few divisions between these groups. In fact, ethnic distinctions, which are becoming more important in other parts of Africa, are fading in some parts of Tanzania. There is a general geographic division, the Sukuma and Nyamwezi are still predominantly in their historic territories in the western part of the nation, but very little prejudice or discrimination exists between the various groups.

The Sukuma are the largest ethnic group in Tanzania

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