The Nyamwezi

Various communities commonly described as Wanyamwezi were by the early 19th Century inhabiting the rolling plateaus of central Tanganyika. The Nyamwezi society was mainly organised in a number of small communities or chiefdoms through out the first half of the 19th C. However, during the Second half of the 19th Century, larger political units were formed. By the advent of European colonial rule, the Nyamwezi social, political and economic institutions had been greatly transformed. Most of the transformation process was initiated and carried out by Mirarnbo who developed the Nyamwezi society into a more or less centralised society with some outstanding charactaristics of a kingdom e.g. its political or administrative system was highly centralized, characterised by autocracy and beauracracy trade and the economy was centrally controlled and coordinated by Mirambo.

Besides, Mirambo had evolved a strong standing army of the Ruga Ruga which terrorised western and central Taganyika; In fact, it performed the functions of the armies in the pre-colonial African kingdoms i.e territorial acquisition, territorial defence, quelling internal rebellions, raiding for trade items and escorting long distance trade caravans.

However, it must be pointed out that inspire of these tremendous developments, the society remained egalitarian or stateless chiefly because the nature of ascendance to power was not hereditary. In fact Mirambo didn't complete the transformation of the "yamwezi society into a kingdom. It is in light of this that upon his demise (death) the empire began crumbling and eventually collapsed.

Political Organisation.

In the pre-colonial era, the Nyarnwezi were organised into a number of small and autonomous chiefdoms ruled by chiefs whom they called "Watemi" or Nterni in singular. However, by 1870's in the reign of Mirarnbo, the society was more or less centralised With all the Ntemi's powers reduced by Mirambo.

Previously, the Niemi was the political and religious leader as well in his chiefdom. The Nterru formulated the major policies and took decisions such as declaration of war or the conclusion of peace after seeking the advice of hIS council of elders.

Apart from the council of elders. the Ntemi had a hierachy of palace officials. These included "Mugawe" (chief councillor), "Mteko" (the army leader) and "Krkorna (the junior army) and the information officer who was usually armed WIth the copper spear travelled around the kingdom announcing the Nterni's orders.

The Ntemi's effective judicial functions included settling disputes in his chiefdom handled cases such as murder, witchcraft and treason.

The Niemi's effective rule mainly covered his capital and few settlements (Gungulis) surrounding him. The chiefdom was divided into Gunguhs ruled by members of the Nterm retired palace officials or by persons otherwise appointed by the Ntemi..

The Gunguli leaders were responsible for the day today administration of their areas, collected tributes, organised cultivation of the Ntemi's farms and raised armies to assist the Nterni in case of war.

The political enlargement in Nyamwezi land took place in 1870's through Mirambo's and Nyunguyamawe's efforts. These Nyamwezi rulers forged "kingdoms" out of various chiefdoms e.g Mirambo started as a ruler of a small Ugowe chiefdom but later annexed his mother's neighbouring territory of Uliankuru and by 1880, he had created a more or less stale ofUrambo using Rugaruga mercenaries. In a similar way, Nyungu Yamawe formed Ukimbu state using Mavin soldiers,

Social Organisation.

[he vanous Nyamwezi chiefdoms were bound together based on kingship ties. These believed in common historic experiences such as migrations from a common centre.

The Ntemi was recognised as the most senior leader and the senior Ntemi would give ritual blessings to the newly insalled Ntemi.


In general, every Ntemi was regarded as a ritual leader. It was his duty in case of prolonged drought to mediate with ancestors and offer sacrifices to the "gods" to make min. Even before his army went to war, he performed some rituals.

The "Mgon Wa Ihanga" (Ntemi's wife) also took an active part in the Ntemi's ritual


The society of medicine men and diviners (Ufumu) was also represented at the installation and burial ofNtemi and other ritual ceremonies.

The Ntemi was believed to have power over life and death. In fact everyone prayed for the well being of the Ntemi, otherwise it was believed that Ntemi's sickness also affected the health of the plants and animals.

Economic Organisation.

The economy was under the control of the Ntemi e.g guided his subjects in crop cultivation. He maintained what may be referred to as a national grain reserve. This was made up of produce from his personal farm, The tribute in grain paid to him by every adult in his chiefdom and the harvest from the farm cultivated in his name in every Ginguli (settlement). He also kept large herds of cattle, goats and sheep.

Apart from the above, the Nyamwezi were active paniciants in the pre-colonial trade. They actively participated in long distance trade between the East African interior and the coast.

They played a role of the middle men especially from 1840's between the coastal traders and the East African interior communities.

During the second half of the 19th Century, several Nyamwerzi chiefs and successful traders organised caravans to and from the coast. They followed caravan routes along which there were major commercial centres'. The Nyamwezi dominated the central route at the climax of Long distance trade chiefly supplying slaves. The major trade items supplied to the coastal traders included aplong others; Ivory, copper and slave. This was in exchange of foreign goods e.g clothes, beads, armnitions glass ware etc.

Conclusively, the Nyamwezi society had by the colonial era evolved a large political unit more or less a kingdom. However. no central authority had emerged to bring together all the Nyamwezi people into one centralised political unit. It therefore stands to reason that, it was still a segimentary society. Subsequently, like any other pre-colonial African society in Tanganyika, she was subjected to German colonial rule in the last quarter of the 19th Century.