A Cultural Profile of the Datooga People of Tanzania
The Datooga of Tanzania
Registry of Peoples codes
Registry of Languages code (Ethnologue)
The Datooga people live in Tanzania. The most general name for this widely-dispersed ethnic group is Datooga, though it is sometimes spelled Tatooga. In the outside world they are often known by the Sukuma name for them, Taturu. Very few sources have information about the Datooga people.
The best-known and most numerous sub-tribe of the Datooga peoples are the pastoral Barabaig, who reside chiefly in that part of the northern volcanic highlands dominated by Mount Hanang (3,418 metres). The sacred nature of this mountain makes it an important theme in Barabaig myth and song. In some people lists, the Barabaig are listed as a separate people, but as speaking the Datooga language.
There is little concrete history of the Datooga people. Their migration history has been reconstructed through comparative linguistics and study of oral traditions of the Datooga and their neighbors. The Datooga are linguistically and culturally classified as Highland (Southern) Nilotes.
Their origins are thought to be in the Southern Sudan or western Ethiopia highlands, probably 3000 years ago. A gradual southward migration of their ancestral people resulted in a settlement of the highland areas of Kenya and Tanzania by speakers of Nilotic languages, herding and ultimately farming in those rich highlands by about AD 1500.
These Highland Nilotes now fall into two groups, the Kalenjin cluster of peoples in Kenya, speaking several closely-related languages, and Datooga, whose language is more distantly related.
The Datooga themselves blend in with their environment, their dress being the color of the reddish brown soil. Only on closer inspection will they appear colorful with their reddish, patched leather dresses, bead work, and brass bracelets and necklaces. A prominent decoration is tatooing of circular patterns around the eyes.
This people are part of the broad Nilotic migration from the Sudan along the Nile River centuries ago. They were cut off from other Highland Nilotes by later migrations of Bantu and Plains Nilotic peoples like the Maasai. The Highland Nilotes are distantly related to the Plains Nilotes like the Samburu, Maasai and Karamajong-Turkana and the River Nilotes like the Luo.
They were herders, but have diversified to include agriculture in recent times. The Datooga are proud people, with a reputation as fierce warriors. Traditionally, young men had to prove themselves by killing an "enemy of the people," defined as any human being not a Datooga, or one of the dangerous wild animals, such as elephant, lion or buffalo.
Other Tanzanians and outsiders consider the Datooga primitive, because they resist education and development. They live in low standards of hygiene, and have high infant mortality.
The Datooga language, with its dialects, is a Southern Nilote language, related distantly to the Kalenjin languages of Kenya. About 20% also speak the language of their Southern Cushitic neighbors, Iraqw. A language closely related to Datooga is Omotik, the speech of another small northern Tanzania people.
The Omotik are close in cluture and language, related genetically and linguistically to the Datooga. More distantly related to the Kalenjin cluster of Nilotic peoples, the Omotik show clear signs of being linguistically influenced by Kalenjin languages in recent history. (The Omotik are one of the groups commonly called Dorobo.)
Only about 5% speak Swahili, the national language of Tanzania. This further accentuates their isolation. The Barabaig dialect is spoken by over half the Datooga. Their literacy rate is only about 1% and there is very little available in their language. Schools available are conducted in Swahili.
The Datooga have basically been bypassed in modern political developments. They were not active in the colonial period and have lived in the small circle of their contacts with neighboring peoples, mostly in a belligerent relationship.
The Datooga keep goats, sheep, donkeys and a few chickens, but cattle are by far the most important domestic animal. They resemble the Maasai in culture. The meat, fat, blood, milk, hide, horns, tendons and cow dung of every animal have either practical or ritual purposes.
They were formerly nomadic, depending largely on milk products for their diet, and moving whenever the needs of their cattle dictated. Now, however, many farm a plot of maize and sometimes beans and millet. They live a very difficult life, in semi-arid areas, where water is hard to obtain and often unclean.
The ideal family situation is polygamous, with wives ranked in order of marriage. Marriage must be outside the clan. Funerals are extensive ceremonies, lasting up to a year. Power centers in a neighborhood council of elders. Group pressure is the primary social control, but elders can impose fines and curses. Men drink honey beer as a sacred drink on ritual occasions.
They are resistant to cultural change, including belief in Christianity, maintaining a strong adherence to traditional animist beliefs and practices. The Datooga are animists who respect and fear their ancestors. They practice divination, rain-making, witchcraft and sorcery. They believe in one creator God, whom they call Aseeta. But they think of him as distant and impersonal. Spiritual help is found through communication with ancestors. Women play a big role in religious life, especially in singing and prayer.
Since most Datooga do not speak Swahili, the national language of Tanzania, and very few are literate, communication of the gospel must be in their own language, using traditional media of story-telling and songs. Like animists the world over, the good news of Jesus Christ is very relevant to their needs, once communication can be established. A translation team is working on a Datooga Bible.
Translation Project Co-ordinator Dr Isaack Malleyeck reported in 2004 that in 2003 the translation of the New Testament work was finished and by March 2004 reviewed had been completed by translation consultants. All that had been printed for distribution at that time was the Gospel of Mark. Translatoin of the Old Testament, to be started after that point, was expected to take seven years.
The primary Christian influences have been mission schools and contacts with Christians of other Tanzanian peoples. The first Christian witness was a school and clinic near Katesh, started by the Lutheran Church in 1965. Christian Datooga are fewer than 1% of the people.
Since 2001 Mount Meru University (formerly Arusha Baptist Theological Seminary) has sent periodic pastor teams among the Barabaig for short visits to meet Datooga people and tell their stories.
It has been reported that the Datooga are resistant to Christina faith, because the gospel is a foreign religion with foreign forms, communicated in a language, Swahili, foreign to the vast majority of the Datooga people. They might be more open if work could be done in their own language on the basis of a serious worldview investigation.
Barabaig and Datooga
On the Internet:
Datooga Bible Translation Project
Klima. G. The Barabaig: East African Cattle Herders. Holt, 1970.
Ehret, Rinehart and Winston C. Southern Nilotic History. Northwestern Univ Press, 1971.
Registry Of Peoples code:
Orville Boyd Jenkins
This profile includes material from 1995 and 2001 reports by Isaack Malleyeck, Datooga Language Committee, of Mbulu, Tanzania
Originally written August 1996
Last updated 31 July 2008
Copyright © 2001, 2005 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Other rights reserved.