The social and economic organization of the Nyamwezi society in the pre-colonial period

The social and economic organization of the Nyamwezi society in the pre-colonial period

These were the Bantu speaking people who probably came from the Congo or Cameroon highlands. They first settled in central Tanzania around modern Tabora between 1000-
1600AD.Originally they lived in small independent chiefdoms ruled an Ntemi or chief who sometimes had little more than ritual functions. And by the 19th century there were about 150 Ntemi states

The name Nyamwezi was given to them by the coastal Arabs because they always saw them approaching the coast coming from the direction of the new moon hence the people of the new moon.

Social organization of the Nyamwezi

  • The pre-colonial Nyamwezi was organized in a number of small independent chiefdoms ruled by the chiefs known as the Ntemi. The Ntemi however derived and by 1870 Mirambo had taken on power and the society became centralized and all Ntemi powers were reduced by Mirambo and Ntemi powers were reduced by Mirambo the Ntemi was a political leader and formulated laws of policies and always took decisions.
  • The Ntemi was assisted by a council of elders known as “Wanyapala” headed by a chief priest known as “Mugarawe”. This council was composed of important people such as the chief counselors, army leaders (Kikomo) Junior Army officers and inform officers.

  • The council of elders assisted the Ntemi to formulate policies. The Ntemi had political and judicial powers that are; he settled disputes in the chiefdom and handled cases like murder, witchcraft, theft, robbery, etc.
  • The society was divided into chiefdoms known as “Guhgulis” ruled by the Ntemi, retired Palace Officers appointed by the Ntemi.
  • It has to be noted that the Ntemi came to power this achievement, courage and extraordinary ability but not through hereditary means.
  • The Ntemi had political powers to declare war, peace and give orders over planting and harvesting, his bad health for sickness was a sign of danger therefore the Nyamwezi always prayed to God for the positive health of the Ntemi.
  • The Nyamwezi did not have outstanding army since there was an officer in charge of war known as the “Wataatte” and was assisted by another officer known as “Mutako”

  • The settlement leader “Gungulis” was responsible for the day to day running of their areas that is; they collected taxes, organized cultivation and raised army to assist the Ntemi in-case of war.
  • Although the state was decentralised, the flow of information was centralised, the head of the state would Passover information to the head of settlement who would in turn pass it over to the people.
  • The Ntemi was a ritual leader and it was his duty in case of any problems to mediate with the ancestors to sacrifice to the gods in order to offer foreign or even before war; some rituals were performed.
  • The “Wagane-wa Thonga” was the wife to the Ntemi and played an important role in the Ntemi ritual activities.
  • The society of the Nyamwezi had medicine men known as “Ufuma” who installed the burial ceremony of the Ntemi. Before for the wellbeing of the Ntemi environment one prayed for the Ntemi’s health.
  • The Nyamwezi lived in small clans comprising of several families. The Nyamwezi were friendly unless provoked. They allowed people to pass through CX VCZXheir territory without hostility.

  • Marriage was polygamous that is; a man would have many wives as he could and concentrated on domestic work and men went hunting.
  • They did not speak the similar languages because of their ties and different organisations since they were only bound together by ethic/cultural ties.
  • Functions that is; delivery of twins, initiation of the new Ntemi, marriage and death were all celebrated and this brought about community belongingness and sense of togetherness.
  • Women dressed a longhorn tied over their heads using a red ribbon and had bracelets, they also had their ears pierced and were traditional earrings the Nyamwezi men put on kanzus a culture they copied from the coastal Arabs.

Economic organisation

  • The Nyamwezi economy was under control of the Ntemi that is; he guided is subjects in crop cultivation and he maintained crops to use in national grain resource.
  • The Ntemi encouraged the Nyamwezi to keep food in their stores to avoid food scarcity. This policy was implemented by the “Gungulis”

  • The Nyamwezi society was mixed in economy that is; they were cattle keepers and grew crops like sorghum, millet and kept animals like cows, goats, etc. When the Arabs and Europeans came, they added on groundnuts as well as rice in swampy areas.
  • The Nyamwezi carried out small-scale fishing under River Marangasi and traded in dry fish with the Karagwe people and later the coastal traders.
  • The Nyamwezi traded with their neighbours like the Vinzo for salt and the Nzinga for iron tools like spears, arrows, hoes which were used purposely for defense and cultivation.
  • The Nyamwezi were active participants in Long Distance Trade (LDT) and played the middleman ship role between the coastal people and the interior communities like Bunyoro, Baganda, Kibuyo and the Zembe.
  • During the second half of the 19th Century several Nyamwezi chiefs and successful traders at the coast dominated the central route and supplied copper, ivory, slaves in exchange for guns and other tradable items.

  • Nyamwezi imposed a tax called Hogo from the traders that passed through their society and also provided security to the Caravans.
  • Iron-melting was practiced for making implements / tools like hoes, spears and pangas that were used for both crops and human defence. This activity became dominant among the Nyamwezi due to availability of iron-ore in the area.
  • Also poetry and craft making were common among of Nyamwezi that is; these people made traps
  • Hunting was also another economic activity provided by the Nyamwezi; they hunted both big and small animals for trade and food purposes for instance they hunted elephants for ivory.


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