Colorful Lives: Music, Art and Culture in Tanzania

  | 7 min read

The People

With over 120 ethnic groups and roughly 128 languages spoken, Tanzanians have managed to remain just that; Tanzanian. Anywhere a Tanzanian is or travels to they will identify themselves as Tanzanian first & foremost. With further inquiry, one may reveal their tribe however this is a secondary issue and when brought up, it’s done so to further establish familiarity. Tanzanians are Tanzanians first. It’s their culture.

Moreover, Tanzania is almost evenly split between followers of the Christian and Muslim faiths. What’s more, they all live general harmony together and have done so since independence; a true testament to the underlying togetherness felt throughout. Yes, differences exist and grievances occur among citizens like any other nation, but a fantastic job has been done by its people to live without these differences being expressed in an ugly manner. Two factors have each played important roles in facilitating this; Ujamaa & Kiswahili.

Ujamaa was the name of the socialist political policy pursued by the first government of Tanzania in the early 1960s. Ujamaa was laid on a foundation of family-hood and fostering relations within society. Though the economic merit of the policy can be questioned, it cemented a feeling of unity soon after gaining independence; a time which could have easily seen the rise of tribalism. Fortunately, this wasn’t the case.

Now, if Ujamaa gave this feeling of one a home, Kiswahili said ‘Karibu’. Karibu means welcome and Kiswahili welcomed unity to the land. As one language uniting millions from many different ethnic groups, Kiswahili played a huge role in furthering unity and pride. Great examples of this are through daily dealings.

To hear a local greet a stranger, be it a shopkeeper, friend of a friend, new colleague or whoever else as ‘dada’ (sister) or ‘kaka’ (brother) is very common. Tanzanians are a lot more cordial stemming from that sense of family-hood passed on from generations. This is in contrast to our East African neighbours where one may use ‘hey’, ‘you’ or ‘helloooo’ to call the very same trio. Furthermore, greetings are a core part of Tanzanian social culture. Although more accepted nowadays, it is still considered to be highly disrespectful not to greet everyone a person comes into contact with in any given social setting. Equally, when asking for general information from a stranger

Moreover, respect, especially that of your elders, is something that is taught in virtually every household from a young age. Children are shown how to respect their elders when in their presence. A most common way to do this is through the respectful greeting of, ‘Shikamoo’. Originating from our Arab colonialists, it translates to ‘I am beneath you’. Colonial subjects had to say this to their colonial masters as a form of submission. In Swahili culture, however, it has been adopted as a sign of respect for a younger person to an older individual.

Generally, Tanzanians are a welcoming, mild-mannered and tolerant people. The laid back Swahili nature as influenced by the Arab colonialists & that is popular along the coast, made in-roads in-land.

Food & Eating

Few meals are complete in Tanzania without rice, Ugali (stiff porridge) or more recently, chips. If invited for lunch/dinner to a friends house, chances are carbs (in the form of one of the three mentioned) will be part of the main course. Moreover, if out to a restaurant (local, continental or otherwise), browse through the menu. It’s a safe bet that 9 times out of 10 you’ll find the following words in brackets or with an asterisk – All meals are served with rice/ugali/chips. Sometimes salad/vegetables are thrown into the mix.

Tanzanians are meat eaters and they’re love for meat probably goes as far back as the fossils found at Olduvai Gorge. Be it beef, goat, chicken, lamb, pork or fish (especially along the coast), whenever possible meaty flesh is to be consumed. Finding a vegetarian in these lands is as likely as finding a Swahili speaker in Russia; it’ll be a long, hard search but you might get lucky.

Breakfasts in Tanzania range from the savoury to the sweet. Things such as samosas, chapati, maandazi (a Swahili donut), chicken/beef broth (commonly called ‘supu’), bread, and potatoes (sweet or unsweet) among others are very common breakfast foods. Liquids that accompany them are commonly tea (black or milk) or coffee.  Additionally, breakfast is typically consumed between 6 and 9am, where eating breakfast at work happens regularly.

It’s also very easy to find existing Tanzanian cultures on a plate on any given day. Samosas, pilau rice, biryani & chapati, for example, are all Asian dishes that have become popular countrywide, having been exposed to Tanzania at large by the very present Asian community. Meanwhile, as much as Zanzibar is known for its spices, that spice culture is a prominent remnant from the Arab colonial era. With regards to local ethnic groups, ugali is a staple to the Hehe (pronounced ‘heh heh’ tribe) whilst the Chagga and Haya tribes from the north have helped spread ndizi (cooked bananas) to the south, west and east.

The Arts

Whilst performance art such as dance and drama is slowly rising through organizations such as the Tanzania House of Talent, fine art and carvings are staples. The famed TingaTinga paintings and Wood Carvings of the Makonde people are loved by locals and tourists alike. They make for great home decoration as well as souvenirs.


Much like any African nation, the music culture in Tanzania is a deep one. The over 120 tribes have each had their distinct sounds and dances for generations. Heavily percussion focused, Tanzanian music has been high in storytelling and social commentary. Whether in celebration, mourning, hardship or joy, music, song, and dance have been key ways in which Tanzanians  express themselves.

Historically, post-colonial Tanzania fostered a band culture that was heavily influenced by the Lingala sound of the Democratic Republic of Congo. To this day, Lingala is still loved and cherished by the young and old generations alike. The love for this particular type of music, with its signature guitar sound, rumba drums, and beat transitions has been passed from generation to generation. Additionally, Taarab, a coastal music genre that combines Arab rhythm & instrumentation with coastal drum patterns, has seen its popularity spread nationwide over the last 20 years.

Contemporary pop has also seen its spread in the same period through Bongo Flava. Bongo Flava is the most popular genre of music in Tanzania. With influences from US hip-hop, r&b and pop beats, Bongo Flava fuses them all together adding that Tanzanian ‘flavour’ to it. From its humble beginnings in Dar Es Salaam and Arusha, to being demanded internationally and producing international music stars including Diamond Platnumz, AY, Ali Kiba & Vanessa ‘Vee Money’ Mdee, Bongo Flava is a rags to riches story in itself; one told with unique sounds and groovy beats.

A colorful yet tame culture

Colours, flavor, politeness and vibrancy are key ingredients of Tanzanian culture. Be it food, music, art or the smiling people themselves, these are at the core of what it is to be Tanzanian. At times, Tanzanians may treat guests with these courtesies more than locals, however, more often than not they are a constant throughout. Just not on the Dar Es Salaam roads. That’s another story altogether.

Iman Lipumba
A digital storyteller, experienced in creating content that improves website visibility on search engines, enhances the user experience, and nurtures brand loyalty. With a background in the social sciences, an expert in researching complex ideas, and communicating them in engaging language to multiple audiences.