The Sandawe of Tanzania
Religion: Traditional Nature Animism
Registry of Peoples code: Sandawe: 108634
Registry of Languages code (Ethnologue): Sandawe: sad
The Sandawe people are a small group living in north central Tanzania in Kondo District, near the town of Kondoa, between the Mponde and Bubu rivers.
The Sandawe are a small remaining group of a race of people that originally lived over much of Africa. The San, called the Bushmen by the Dutch in South Africa, were the first people we know of in the Rift Valley. As they came under pressure from invading and immigrant peoples, the non-aggressive hunter-gatherers often moved away or were absorbed by intermarriage, or more often were killed off. The San as a group are considered to be the oldest human lineage in the world.
Southern Cushites then Eastern Cushites were followed by the Highland Nilotes (Kalenjin Cluster), then the early Bantu. Oral traditions of the Kikuyu of Kenya refer to the Athi (the ground people), whom the Kikuyu paid for the right to move into their land. The Athi are thought to be the original San people of the area.
Some San peoples seem to be in existence now speaking the Bantu language of their dominant neighbors. The herding and tilling of the immigrant peoples, with their metal implements and weapons, upset the Sandawe way of life and sources of food.
The Sandawe are racially different from the surrounding tribes. Whereas most of the tribes in Tanzania are Bantu people, and the nearby Maasai are Nilotic, the Sandawe speak a San language. Some Sandawe have features more like the San people of southern Africa, while others look more like their Bantu neighbours.
They have a coppery brown skin and tend to be smaller than the surrounding peoples. Photos show some Sandawe to have knotty hair like that of the Bushmen, commonly referred to as peppercorn hair. They are reported to have the epicanthic fold of the eyelid (like East Asian peoples) common to the Bushmen. See two photos of Sandawe among other Tanzania peoples here.
The Sandawe are a remnant of the earlier inhabitants of the area, thought to have once covered all of eastern and southern Africa. Another related people in Tanzania are the Hatsa (or Hadzapi). Some think the pygmies in Rwanda, Burundi and Zaire are related, though they now speak the Bantu language of their neighbors and have more Bantu features.
The Bantu name "Twa" for the pygmy peoples living int he forwested areas around the Great Lakes of Eastern Africa is the same word the Zulus use for the Khoisan click-language speakers they found in their early migrations into what is now Natal province of South Africa. One San tribe there today is still called Twa.
The Sandawe language includes click sounds as consonants and is also tonal. Totally unrelated to other languages around them, it is difficult to learn. The language is related to the languages of the Bushmen (San) and Hottentots (Khoi) of southern Africa and is classified as a Khoisan language. It is considered to constitute a separate branch of the Khoisan family of languages.
The Hadzapi, also in northern Tanzania, are the only other aboriginal people in Eastern Africa still speaking a Khoisan language. Their language is also so different that it likewise constitutes aseparate branch of Khoisan. Comparative linguists theorize from comparison of the Sandawe and Hadzape languages with other San languages that the point of origin of San speech was here in Eastern Africa.
The traditional living patterns of the Sandawe left them isolated from other peoples. They were pressed by immigrant groups for millennia. Into modern times they were outside the political and social mainstream. The socialist Tanzania government forced the Sandawe to limit their movement and settle down. As they lost their hunting areas, their sources of food diminished, but they found it hard to make a transition. Their experience with farming and herding has resulted in economic disaster.
The Sandawe are known as a monogamous people, in contrast to the traditional practice of their neighbours. Some sources, however, comment that they have recently adopted polygamy from their Bantu neighbours. They have been associated with rock art that is very similar to the rock art of the southern San peoples, but with some unique features. See links at the end of this profile for more on this topic.
They have traditionally been hunters and gatherers of food, moving their portable shelters wherever there was game. In the past generation, the village-based development program of the Tanzanian central government has encouraged the Sandawe to develop a more sedentary lifestyle based on farming. Maybe one-fourth of the Sandawe have migrated to the areas around the towns of Arusha and Dodoma.
The Sandawe now own cattle and cultivate with metal hoes instead of their original wooden digging sticks, but still maintain their hunting, including pig and elephant. The men also still gather wild honey and women gather wild fruits and vegetables and dig roots with sticks.
Because of their healthy lifestyle and wide diet, the Sandawe have a much higher level of health than their Bantu neighbors. They do not suffer the kwashiorkor or other deficiency conditions of their neighbors. During the 20th century, the Sandawe have shifted from their traditional movable structures called sundu, to more solid rectangular houses of the tembe type of their Bantu neighbors.
Sandawe hold all-night dances to the music of drums in the moonlight. The Sandawe have a great musical and dance tradition, with beer-drinking at their celebrations. There are celebrations for each area of life, each with its own music: hunting, hoeing, circumcision, etc. Curing rituals have their own music. Their instruments are musical bows and a trough zither.
The elders tell the children stories of the past, conveying their history, traditions and wisdom. They also value riddles and have an art of humorous insult. In many of their traditional stories the Sandawe identify with the small animals whose cunning and intelligence gives them victory over their more powerful enemies. Men today commonly wear the Muslim brimless hat, called kofia, common to other peoples in central Tanzania.
Islam has influenced the eastern section of the Sandawe. Roman Catholicism has influenced the southern section. Most Sandawe still practice their animistic faith which includes the reverence for the moon. The moon is seen as a symbol of life, fertility and good will. Their traditional beliefs emphasize living in harmony with nature, which is a common feature of the San people of southern Africa.
The Sandawe religion gives a central place to cave spirits living in the hills, to ancestor worship and divination. They fear the cave spirits and no hunting, herding or wood-gathering is allowed near their caves. They make annual sacrifices to appease the hill spirits, shouting prayers loudly as they climb to the sacrificing area. They also sacrifice at the graves of their ancestors in public ceremonies.
The San peoples practice their traditional tribal religious rituals and they are very closed to Christianity. They believe in a High God, called Warongwe, a distant spirit that is not active in their lives. They see certain animals (especially the praying mantis) and celestial bodies (sun, moon, morning star, and the southern cross) as symbols of divinity. The moon is believed to be the source of rain and fertility. They also believe that dancing near a sacred fire will bring healing. Some reports indicate 10% of the people are Muslim.
One source comments further on the nature-relationship of their traditional religion:
"The gods of the Sandawe are activated by an erotic dance, phek'umo, in which the act of love is mimicked in embrace by the dancers. The Moon is seen to be part of the cycle of fertility; in the cycle of months and in the menses of women...so people dance by moonlight and adopt stances and postures in the dance which represent the phases of the moon. This dance embeds the necessity for human and earth fertility in the body, mind, and spirit of the dancers as they work the fields or the banana in Tanzania."
However, one of the few scholarly articles accessible on the Sandawe culture commented in 1969, "Nowadays the phek'umo is rarely performed...."1
Estimates of percentage Christian vary considerably. Some estimates are as high as 80%, but other investigators say this is unrealistic. The Africa Inland Church has three Tanzanian families and one missionary family engaged in outreach to the Sandawe. More workers are needed. A Bible translation project is underway in the Sandawe language.
Several Anglican and Pentecostal groups have worked with the Sandawe people, and there are gospel recordings in their language. There has been little positive response to the gospel. The transition to a more settled farming life may make it easier to plant a church community among the Sandawe people, as well as to improve their health and education.
1Eric Ten Raa, "The Moon as a Symbol of Life and Fertility in Sandawe Thought" Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, Vol. 39, No. 1 (Jan., 1969), pp. 24-53.
The Gwikwe Bushmen
The Mbarakwengo Bushmen
Related Topic on This Site
How We Determine Ethnicity
What is a People Group?
More on the Sandawe People:
Book Reviews with Information about the Sandawe and their Neighbours
Bushman Eland-bull Dance of Girls' Puberty Rites
A Christian Project Among the Sandawe
Difficulties of the Sandawe and other Minority Peoples
Dr Helen I Presume — Web site of a linguist working on the Sandawe language
The Drama Of The Holy
A Forest Shared by the Sandawe and Other Hunters
Photos of Sandawe and other Tanzanians
San — Human Genetic and Linguistic Origins
San Rock Art in Tanzania
Sandawe-Hadza Rock Art
Sandawe-Hadza Rock Art Irangi Hills
Sandawe Iyari Dance Performed When Twins are Born
Sandawe Phek'umo Fertility Dance
Orville Boyd Jenkins
Revised 11 August 2008
Revised 25 February 2011
Copyright © 1997, 2008 Orville Boyd Jenkins
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