History of Tanzania: Colonialism, Culture and Progess

  | 6 min read

Born on April 26th, 1964, Tanzania was conceived after lengthy talks to merge Tanganyika and Zanzibar began years prior. The merging was spearheaded by the charismatic leaders of their two most prominent political parties; TANU, led by Julius Kambarage Nyerere & ASP, led by Abeid Amani Karume.

Politics & Colonialism  

Centuries prior to this, Tanganyika had been a colony of Portugal in the 15th Century, up until the 17th Century when the Sultan of Oman took power. Thereafter, Germany added Tanganyika to its colony list in the late 1800s up to World War 1, after which Britain administered the land under a League of Nations charter. Nevertheless, December 9th,1961 is when Tanganyika gained independence from British Colonial Rule. Interestingly, it is celebrated as Independence Day for Tanzania as a whole since 1964, when Tanganyika and Zanzibar united.

Yet, as important as these two events are in Tanzania’s history, they are not the only ones. Here are some others that have had a fundamental impact on the Tanzania that exists today:

1967 – Nyerere issues the Arusha Declaration, which launches the push for socialist economic self-reliance.

1977 – The Tanganyika African National Union and Zanzibar’s Afro-Shirazi Party merge to become CCM (the Revolution Party), which is proclaimed as the only legal party.

1978 – Ugandans temporarily occupy a piece of Tanzanian territory.

1979 – Tanzanian forces invade Uganda, occupying the capital, Kampala, and help to oust President Idi Amin.

1985 – Mr. Nyerere retires and is replaced by the president of Zanzibar, Ali Mwinyi.

1992 – Constitution amended to allow multi-party politics.

1995 – First multi-party elections are held

Cultural & Natural History

The Olduvai Gorge

What’s the connection between Sisal and the historical site of the Olduvail Gorge? Both exist in an area where the earliest evidence of human ancestors exists. The Olduvai Gorge, whos name is a misspelling of the word Oldupai which is the name of Sisal plant that grows in the area, was discovered by paleontologists Louis & Mary Leakey in the 1930s and 1950s. Now, were the earliest human ancestors Tanzanian? Maybe…just maybe.

The Tribes

One of the most fascinating things about Tanzania is that, with over 120 tribes, the nation still managed to achieve independence with no violence at all. This is quite the feat for any nation consisting of such diverse groups of people.

Of the 120+ tribes, there are 4 that are more known than others for differing reasons. These include the:

  • Wasukuma, largest tribe in the country

  • Wachagga, known for their business acumen

  • Wamakonde, exceptional at woodcrafts

  • Wamaasai, the great warriors & pastoralists

Worldwide, conflicts have arisen in regions that have 2 or 3 ethnic groups. To date, Tanzania has never had any such instances (though it’s come relatively close once or twice). How? Why? A chief reason for this is the language, Kiswahili.

The Language

Kiswahili is a combination of Bantu (African) speaking dialects as well as Arabic, influenced by the Swahili people. Championed by Nyerere as part of his political strategy to galvanize the nation, Kiswahili became the official language of Tanzania. The significance of this is that all of the 120+ tribes would now communicate in one language. This impacted the unity that was needed then; a togetherness that has been fostered for generations.

Greetings are a fundamental aspect of Tanzanian social culture. Whether it’s entering the office, going to the shop or market, joining friends for a drink and so forth, greeting all those in your immediate company is an unwritten social rule. It’s both a sign of respect to all and simply, just the thing to do. Also, contrary to (tourist/traveler) belief, ‘Jambo’ is not a common greeting in Tanzania. It’s hardly common in neighbouring Kenya. ‘Habari? / Habari yako? / Habari ya saa hizi?’ are the more common ‘formal’ greetings. The informal greetings include ‘Mambo? Mambo vipi? Kwema? Salama?’

Clothes & Cloths

Tanzania also has two distinct clothing items that you will find nationwide, the Kanga & the Kitenge.

The Kanga is a cotton cloth, mostly but not only worn by women in a wrap-like manner. Origins of the cloth date back to 19th Century Zanzibari women who, as Kanga folklore goes, got the idea of buying printed kerchiefs in great lengths (as opposed in standard handkerchief lengths). It’s light, bright with bold patterns and can be used in numerous ways including as a bath towel, beach towel, head scarf and so on. Over the decades and centuries, its popularity has grown with design evolving. Nowadays, it’s common to find a Kanaga with popular Kiswahili proverbs or sayings, some of which are quite playful and tongue-in-cheek. The Kanga is also being used as a medium for political & social expression.

Similar to the Kanga, the Kitenge boasts bold and bright colours matched with distinct patterns. The bigger difference between the Kitenge and Kanga is the thickness of fabric. The Kitenge is thicker and as such, heavier. Furthermore, it’s also more used in day-to-day wear from Shirts, trousers, and suits to ties and accents on t-shirts. Used in a similar manner as the Kanga, the Kitenge has been more widely accepted in the fashion industry with the emergence of the ‘African Print’ style from the streets of Dar Es Salaam and Lagos to the runways of New York & London.


Boasting the Mount Kilimanjaro, the tallest mountain on the continent, & Lake Victoria, the deepest lake in the world, Tanzania’s lands are as much majestic as they are vast. To fully grasp the size of the nation, Tanzania shares its borders with Kenya & Uganda (to the North), Burundi, Rwanda and the DRC (to the West) and Mozambique, Zambia & Malawi (to the South). Add in the lengthy coastline along the Indian Ocean, and the size of Tanzania is all the more astounding.

Should the opportunity present itself, travel across the lands. For example, from Dar Es Salaam (East) to the Kilimanjaro region (North), grasslands, crop plantations & a mountain range (Usambara Mountains) are amongst the scenery that will accompany you. It’s 100 times more difficult not to marvel at the natural beauty Tanzania’s been blessed with.

A place of peace

From its politics & people, land and language, Tanzania’s history is as rich as it is diverse. Tanzanians are generally polite, mild-mannered and tolerant people. Despite different colonial rule & ethnicities, Tanzania has managed to exist and grow in harmony; a feat in which it’s known and prides itself. The country has come a long way from colonial rule and is moving slowly but surely in the right direction. Serious problems are still yet to be solved with hurdles to be jumped but progress is being made. The future looks bright.

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.