People & Culture

A united people

There are over 120 different ethnic groups among Tanzania’s population. But no one group is dominant, many being fairly small.


A maasai man walking across a field

In northern Tanzania, groups speak Khoisan or ‘click-sound’ languages, such as the Sandawe. Some groups speak Nilotic languages such as the Maasai. These nomads live as they have for centuries, herding cattle across large areas and living off the animals' milk, blood and meat. The Maasai are particularly known for their distinctive dress and the warrior-status of their men. Males go through a number of stages, from junior warrior to senior elders.

Among the different ethnic groups, the vast majority are Bantu-speakers; the largest is the Sukuma, with others including the Nyamwezi, the Makonde and the Chaga of the Kilimanjaro region.

Unlike in other African countries, most people identify themselves as Tanzanian first and foremost. This reflects the ideals which were introduced by the leader of the nation for over twenty years, Julius Nyerere – see History & Politics.

Under his leadership, the learning of Swahili was prioritised over local languages. Swahili is therefore widely spoken as the national language.

English is used as the language of higher education, as well as in business and government. And in Zanzibar and other predominantly Muslim places, Arabic is also spoken. There are also small communities of Asians speaking languages such as Gujarati and Hindustani.

The arts and sport

Playing football in TanzaniaWith a national pride in Swahili, novels and poetry in the language are popular and there is a strong background of literature.

The graphic arts are also important. The colourful and distinctive tinga tinga paintings (mainly of animals and birds) and the ebony carvings of the Makonde people are particularly prized. Sculptures and carvings are also made for the important tourist industry.

Tanzania has a wide range of sports. But as in many countries, football is the national obsession.

Politeness and tolerance

Religions side-by-side

With large communities of both Muslims and Christians, it’s not uncommon for towns to have a mosque and a church. And festivals/holidays of both religions are given equal recognition.

From a young age, Tanzanian children are taught how to be polite and respectful. They will normally greet their elders with the phrase shikamoo, which literally translates as ‘I hold your feet’.

Due to the sense of brotherhood fostered by Julius Nyerere, adults will frequently address strangers as dada (sister) or kaka (brother), or alternatively as ndugu (comrade or relative). Serious friction between people of different groups or religions is rare.