Tanzania Folklore Overview

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Tanzania has a very rich, diverse, and sophisticated folklore. Each ethnic group has a store of myths, legends, folk tales, riddles, proverbs, and sayings that embody culture and tradition and are an important element in Tanzanian cultural heritage.

Storytelling is tremendously important in African societies, serving a far more diverse purpose than simply entertainment. It teaches lessons of religion, morals, history, roles, and societal codes. It builds strong bonds among generations and helps people share experiences and ideas. Legends tell of cultural heroes and important ancestors who were intelligent, courageous and generous. Young people learn about these illustrious ancestors through story telling. Among the Bahaya, the young groom researches his family history that has been preserved and passed down through legends and chooses an important ancestor that he will try to emulate and that will be his role model. In a very real sense, these ancestors participate and influence the lives of people today. Heroes also include ritual specialists, not just political heroes. Among the Maasai, for example, there is a traditional healer and ritual expert who is an important character in legends. The Chagga, who live on the slopes of Mt. Kilamanjero tell many stories about the mountain; one of them is the story of Kibo and Mawenzi, the names of the two peaks. Kibo was very careful with her food while Mawenzi was a spendthrift and did not worry about storing and saving food for lean times. When she did not have enough to eat she would visit her sister Kibo and Kibo would always feed her. After three days in a row of Mawenzi coming over to beg for food, Kibo in anger hit her on the back with a spoon, this explains Mawenzi's rugged appearance today.

Peter Seitel has collected many folk tales among the Haya and Thomas Beidelman has conducted a lot of research among the Kaguru. Seitel shows how there is a standard opening formula before a narrative is told. The audience says, "See so that we may see", before the start of a folk tale. Folk tales also recount the exploits of tricksters such as Hare and Tortoise. Thomas Beidelman paid close attention to the Kaguru trickster Rabbit. In one folk tale Hyena and Rabbit agree to kill their mothers and sell their flesh in order to survive a famine. While Hyena kills his mother, the Rabbit repents and hides his mother until the Hyena dies of hunger. Beidelman argues that this tale represents problems of authority between categories of men in a Kaguru matrilineal clan. Rabbit represent a junior male and Hyena a senior. This tale illustrates conflicts and divisions within a matrilineage. Those that transgress social boundaries of authority are considered witches just as the Hyena is symbolic of a witch.

Riddles are not just a form of entertainment, they play an important role in the social and cultural education of children. Riddles are also useful tools in children's cognitive development. They teach rules of behavior, explain and interpret natural phenomenon, and are a socially sanctioned avenue for questioning social taboos and restricted subjects. In the educational role, riddles provide a safe avenue for transmitting restricted information as well as intimate and vital knowledge. Among the Chagga, for example, elders explain that riddles are for entertainment, but they also point out that an adept at riddling acquires social respect and is considered a master in manipulating social knowledge.

Proverbs are also an important part of Tanzanian folklore. Proverbs are social phenomenon and as such they can be defined as a message coded by tradition and transmitted in order to evaluate and/or effect human behavior. Proverbs reveal key elements of a culture such as the position and influence of women, morality, what is considered appropriate behavior, and the importance of children. One of the most common uses for proverbs is on Kangas, large colorful cloths that women use to cover other clothes or to carry their young children on their backs. These proverbs are usually in Swahili and some examples include: Halahala mti na macho - Beware, a stick and your eyes! - This is a caution against impending danger. Pekepeke za jirani, hazinitoi ndani - Unwarranted spying by a neighbour does not take me out of my house -

Mtumai cha ndugu hufa masikini - He/she who relies on his/her relative's property, dies poor This proverbs encourages self-reliance. Mdhaniaye ndiye kumbe siye - The one whom you think is the right one is the wrong one - You are barking up the wrong tree. Tamu ya mua kifundo - Sugarcane is sweetest at the joint - What seems to be hard to achieve in real life is often times the best. Mso hili ana lile - A person missing this has that - There is no useless person. Likewise, there is no person that is absolutely perfect.

Uganda is a country rich in folklore. With over 40 languages (from three major language families) and a population of approximately 17 million, forms of vernacular expression abound in material culture, cuisine, and performance genres, among others.

Material culture

Fibers from the banana plant are widely used in southern Uganda, especially among the Baganda who cultivate over 30 varieties. Mats, bowls, screens and cooking wraps are all common uses. Barkcloth, the inner bark lining of a particular tree, was widely used before Arab traders brought cotton fabrics at the end of the 19th century. Today, barkcloth and kanzus (a white cotton robe) are associated with "traditional" male dress. Women wear wraps of patterned textile (usually imported from Kenya and Tanzania) or the gomezi, a western style dress with pointed shoulders. Other natural materials such as gourds are also widely used for a variety of purposes.


Musical forms are plentiful throughout Uganda. An unusually wide variety of stringed instruments abound, including harps, zithers, fiddles and lyres. Xylophones are popular in the southern, western and northwestern parts of the country and most regions use drums in a variety of contexts. Historically, drums were often closely associated with positions of power in many regions. These "royal drums" are personified and treated as living entities. In pre-colonial times, to possess one of these drums legitimated one's position of social power and importance. Aerophones such as flutes and sets of tuned horns (called amakondere, agwara or amagwara in different regions) are also used as are a seemingly endless number of shakers, rattles, and bells.

Dancing is also widely popular and is intimately tied with musical performance. In fact, the word "ngoma" is often used to refer to both activities. Dance styles in the south are typically waist-centered, with upper body movement minimized. In the north, foot, arm, and neck movements are emphasized and elaborate headresses are often worn. Dances like Bwola from Acholi in north-central Uganda can incorporate hundreds of people in carefully choreographed movements. The southwestern and northeastern regions emphasize leaping and stamping movements that bring the feet into forceful contact with the ground.

This description only glosses the tremendous variety of vernacular expressions found in Uganda. Other areas such as storytelling, architecture, social structure, marriage patterns, religion, medicine, and language offer exciting topics for further inquiry.

Traditional Music

In Ugandan traditional music the xylophone is king. There are two main types of the xylophone, the amadinda and the akadinda. They are both royal forms but are also played by musicians outside of the royal compound and at public events. Buganda had a fascinating system whereby national music was developed and disseminated. For each recognized form of classical music/dance, there was one man who was considered a master and who lived in the palace. Each of these traditions also had their own compounds for storing, training, and performing. These master musicians then apprenticed skilled artists from clan groups throughout Buganda for limited periods of time. When these artists returned to their region, they taught others the music, and so people throughout a large territory were familiar with topical songs from the Palace.

The amadinda and akadinda vary in size and number of keys. The amadinda is larger (in terms of the size of the keys), usually with 15 or more keys tuned in an equidistant pentatonic scale (the same scale is used in akadinda). It is played by two or more people and often involves the abstraction of vocal-based pieces performed instrumentally. The interaction of the two players' melodies (each with two hands playing the same notes, one octave apart) creates a third melody with a longer cycle. You have to see it to believe it. Two players can produce music faster than 120 beats per minute with each individual appearing to barely break a sweat. The akadinda keys are usually smaller in size, but may have either more keys (around 20) or fewer (only 10).Essentially, the akadinda is a more diminutive amadinda (in terms of key size). The compositional structure is essentially the same, except that the 20 key instrument is played by four people and the ten by a soloist (in conjunction with the Mbaga wedding dance, for example).

Both the amadinda and akadinda may be played in conjunction with percussion. The royal forms include low-end tuned drums connecting with the pentatonic scale of the xylophones. This particular form has stylistic features reminiscent of Western Ugandan music (Nkole and Butoro, for example). Both the amadinda and akadinda are derived physically and compositionally from neighboring Busoga where they are called mbaire and obubaire respectively. The Basoga and Baganda had close royal relations and shared musicians frequently. Buganda borrowed many styles and instruments from the Basoga but were the dominant ones of the relationship, often sending their own people to rule in Busoga districts. Balikowa Centurio is the grandson of the last lyre (entongoli) player of the Busoga court who used to perform in Buganda frequently. This particular form was restricted to the royal compound in both Busoga and Buganda (where they call it endongo). Balikowa plays now, and even won a scholarship for his entire primary and secondary education because of his skill in a dying art form.

This article is from the University of Pennsylvania African Studies Department 

Mpaji ni Mungu - God is the Sustainer - Mostly used by the have-nots to console themselves.

For Further Reading:

Beidelman, Thomas O. 1961. Hyena and Rabbit: A Kaguru representation of matrilineal relations. Africa 31:61-74.

Seitel, Peter. 1980. See So That We May See: Performances and Interpretations of Traditional Tales from Tanzania. Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press.

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