University of Florida Homepage

Social Organization and Social Status in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Rukwa, Tanzania

by Tony Waters


Nineteenth century histories of Tanzania typically focus on “tribal” histories, customs, and military action. To a certain extent, this is expected. The story of how interior Tanzania came in contact with the Indian Ocean World is an exceedingly violent one. However, there are different ways of looking at interior history which highlight factors besides “tribal” histories. The story told here of Rukwa Region highlights alliances, status hierarchy, and fighting during the second half of the twentieth century. Such institutions emerged out of an “ecology of fear” which resulted in the re-organization of peoples, trade networks, and the emergence of a strong separation between common people and powerful rulers from different status groups even though they may have spoken the same language and had the same “tribal” affiliation. The fears generated by the clash of such institutions often shaped local responses to rapid social change.

This essay highlights what this re-organization meant for what is roughly Rukwa Region of western Tanzania in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Focus is on the peoples of the Fipa Plateau, and Rukwa Plains. Traditionally, these people are referred to as the Fipa, Pimbwe, Bende, Kimbu, and Konongo people. The Gongwe, a group previously not described in the anthropological or linguistic literature is also discussed.

Full Text PDF

Tony Waters is a professor of sociology at California State University, Chico. In 2003-2004 he was a Fulbright Scholar at The University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. He has written extensively about Tanzania, refugees, economic development, and public education. Among his books are The Persistence of Subsistence Agriculture: Life Beneath the Level of the Marketplace (Lexington Books 2007), When Killing is a Crime (Lynne Rienner 2007), Bureaucratizing the Good Samaritan (Westview 2001), and Crime and Immigrant Youth (Sage 1999). He lived and worked in rural Tanzania between 1984-1987, and 1994-1996.