Traditions and customs of Tanzania

What traditions and customs are there in Tanzania?

We observe the customs and traditions of Tanzania.


Food in daily life

For most Tanzanians, including those living in urban areas, no meal is complete without their favorite staple carbohydrates: corn, rice, cassava, sorghum, or bananas, for example. Bananas are preferred in the Northwest, ugali (a thick mixture of maize or sorghum) in the Central and Southwest regions, and rice in the South and along the coast.

The staple food is accompanied by a stew of fish, beef, goat, chicken, or lamb or fried pieces of meat, along with various types of vegetables or condiments, commonly including beans, green leafy vegetables that resemble spinach, cassava leaves, pieces of pumpkin or sweet potatoes.

Indian food (such as chapatis, a flatbread; samosas, pastries filled with vegetables or meat; and masala, a spiced rice dish), is widely available in all urban areas.

Breakfast preferences depend on income levels and local tradition: bread, sweet rolls or cookies (“mandazi”), coffee or tea (sometimes with spices, sugar and/or milk), buttermilk and chicken broth are the most common foods.

Street foods include fried plantains and sweet potatoes, charcoal grilled corn (no butter or salt), small bags of peanuts and popcorn, dried or fried fish pieces, samosas, bread, fruits, dates, candies chewing gum and mishikaki, or beef or goat skewers grilled over a charcoal fire.

In the local bars that sell home-brewed beers or bottled and carbonated alcoholic beverages, it is common to eat roast beef or goat meat; often the meat is flavored with hot peppers, salt and fresh lemon juice.

Food customs on ceremonial occasions

Without exception, all ceremonial occasions call for the preparation of huge plates of food, such as pilau, a spiced rice, potato and meat dish that caters to local tastes and culinary traditions. It is considered highly embarrassing for guests to leave hungry from a ceremonial meal or dinner.

Except among religions that forbid it, alcohol is also an integral – and sometimes highly symbolic – part of the ceremonies. Local beers and spirits derived from bananas, corn, rice, honey, or sorghum are served neat or alongside manufactured alcoholic beverages.

Konyagi, a gin-like spirit, is commercially brewed in Tanzania, as are a variety of beers and soft drinks. Certain beers produced in neighboring countries – Burundi’s Primus, for example – are also popular.


In general, traditional marriage customs vary by ethnic group. However, the practice of clan exogamy – or marriage outside the clan or group – is typical of almost all ethnic groups. Traditional customs require that marriages be arranged by the parents of the bride and groom, although such arrangements are becoming less frequent, especially in urban settings.

In patrilineal ethnic groups (those in which descent is traced through males), traditional marriage customs often include the presentation of a dowry or bride price to the wife’s family by the groom.

The dowry can include livestock, money, clothing, locally brewed beer, and other items. The amount of the dowry is determined through negotiations between the families of the bride and groom.

Preparations for marriage can take months. For those wealthy enough to afford it, the marriage may include a separate dowry ceremony and, several months later, a church wedding followed by traditional ceremonies.

Although many Muslim and ethnic groups allow polygamy (having more than one wife), the practice is declining in popularity, in part due to the influence of Christianity and the expense of maintaining multiple households.


Tanzanians are proud of their disciplined upbringing. The ability to maintain control of one’s temper and emotions in public is highly valued. Young men and women in rural areas are not supposed to show affection to each other in public in daylight, although this rule is often broken in urban centers.

Boys and men, however, are commonly seen in public holding hands as a sign of friendship or camradarie. In many rural areas, women are not supposed to smoke, talk loudly, or cross their legs sitting or standing.

Traditionally, the elderly are honored and respected by the rest of the community, although the young are increasingly challenging customs such as arranged marriages.

Although the use of silverware is increasing, traditional customs prescribe eating all food, including rice and meat sauces, with the right hand. Children who attempt to eat with their left hand are appropriately disciplined at a very young age.

This custom is related to the perceived symbolic purity of the right hand, compared to the left hand, which is often used for cleaning after using the toilet.


Religious beliefs

Religious freedom is a virtue that has contributed to Tanzania’s long and relatively peaceful history since the nation’s independence. All religious holidays receive the same public recognition. Many world religions played a role in the nation’s history.

Islam began to be practiced as early as the 12th century, when Arab merchants established posts along the coast and on Zanzibar and the Pemba Islands. The influence of Islam and Arabic culture is strongly reflected in the Swahili language.

Arab traders brought their religion to some inland settlements, but their proselytizing did not match the impact of Christian missionaries during the German and British colonial periods of the first half of the 20th century.

Long before the influence of Islam or Christianity, indigenous belief systems shaped the cosmology of each ethnic group. The influence of these beliefs is still very strong; they are often practiced alone or in conjunction with major religions.

Almost 100 percent of the population of Zanzibar is Muslim; on the mainland, about 40 percent are Christian, 35 percent Muslim, and 20 percent profess indigenous religions. Among Asian minorities, the Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist religions are practiced.

Christian sects include Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Orthodox. Both the Christian and Islamic faiths provide access to educational opportunities and often some of the best medical care. Wealthy Muslims make pilgrimages to Mecca, but this is a minority of the general Muslim population.

Religious holidays include Christmas (December 25); and Good Friday, Easter Monday, Idd-ul-Fitr, Islamic New Year, and the Prophet’s Birthday (all of which fall on different dates each year). Idd-ul-Fitr is a Muslim holiday and public holiday celebrated with the sighting of the new moon at the end of the calendar year. The exact date varies depending on the position of the new moon.

Religious professionals

Native Tanzanians preside over all positions in all major religions. In the indigenous belief systems of some ethnic groups, certain people take on religious roles that often include healing.

These indigenous religious practitioners differ significantly by ethnic group. For example, in some cases among the Haya, the omufumu (“healer” in the Kihaya language) uses herbs and spiritual power to diagnose and cure illnesses.

Acting as spirit mediums, the Wazee (“Ancestors” or “Old Ones” in Swahili) “enter the head of the omufumu” and speak through him or her. The Wazee have the ability to travel great distances and achieve a therapeutic cure, such as the recovery of stolen objects or even success in soccer games.

In some parts of the country, an indigenous religious practitioner, such as the omufumu in parts of northwestern Tanzania, will inspect a soccer field before a match to remove any objects placed there to influence the course of the match by an opposing team.

Death and the afterlife

Death is part of everyday life for Tanzanians. In regions hardest hit by the AIDS epidemic, families often cannot afford the time or resources to follow traditional mourning and burial customs, which differ by religion and ethnic group.

Among many ethnic groups, “ancestors” assume an extremely important role. Ancestral spirits are remembered through various rituals and are believed to exert a significant influence on daily life. For example, on drinking occasions, some people pour a small amount of beer on the ground with respect to the ancestors.

In other cases, a small pot of beer is left in a special place as an offering to ancestors. In other cases, sacrifices of a chicken or a goat, for example, are made to ancestors in ceremonies that vary by ethnicity.

Secular celebrations

The main holidays are New Year (January 1), Zanzibar Revolution Day (January 12), Trade Union Day (April 26), International Labor Day (May 1), Saba Saba (July 7, commemorating the establishment of the TANU), Peasant’s Day (August 8) and Independence Day (December 9).

All holidays are celebrated with large amounts of food and alcohol at the appropriate time. The middle classes take advantage of days off to go out with their families, watch soccer games or travel to see relatives.

The arts and humanities

The formal development of the humanities and arts in Tanzania has been constrained by a severe lack of public and private funding. Tourists, the local elite and expatriates support most of the artists, especially the ebony carvers of Makonde.

Although not as well known as Congolese or Senegalese singers, Tanzanian musicians are beginning to make their mark on the world of music.


Because most of the local languages ​​in Tanzania are expressed orally rather than in writing, only dictionaries and collections of idiomatic phrases and fables compiled by local and foreign missionaries or researchers have been published.

However, the national language of Kiswahili has a very old and rich history. Stories, novels, poetry, epics, textbooks, children’s literature, and historical treatises are widely available throughout the country.

Graphic arts

A thriving tourism industry supports thousands of artisans in Tanzania, the most famous being the Makonde ebony carvers from the far south-east of the country.

Other tourist items include paintings and greeting cards of landscapes, local towns, and wildlife; intricately woven baskets; soapstone, pottery, and malachite carvings and jewelry; woven or printed wall decorations, and decorative and functional objects made from banana leaves and coconut shells.

Performing arts

Individual tribes are characterized in part by distinctive theatrical performances, dances, and music—for example, the Snake Dance performed by the Sukuma people in the north-central part of the country.

Some of these groups are invited to Dar es Salaam to honor the president, ministers or foreign dignitaries. Occasionally, private or state funds are found to be sent to foreign capitals for action.

Although not as well known as Congolese, Malian or Senegalese singers, Tanzanian musicians are beginning to make their mark on the world of music.

Drama, dance, and music on radio and television are also being used by churches, state agencies, and development organizations to deliver public service messages on issues such as AIDS, corruption, vaccination campaigns, and contraception.

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