The Gosha (Shambara)
(primary, secondary or multiple as necessary)
Population: 85,000 in Somalia (including 20,000 Mushunguli speakers); 2,400 in Kenya;
(Joshua Project reports 18,000 in Kenya and 225,000 in Somalia, which would include the Digil-Rahanweyn, ROP code 102606)
Registry of Peoples code
Registry of Languages code (Ethnologue)
The Gosha live in the Jubba Valley of Somalia with perhaps as many as 20,000 living in Mandera District of Kenya.
In the 19th century Somalis imported slaves from the Bantu areas further south, Tanzania and Mozambique. Yao, Zigula and Makhuwa were some of the major peoples brought as slaves. "The riverine areas absorbed somewhere around 50,000 slaves between 1800 and 1890." [Bestemann, "The Invention of Gosha," The Invention of Somalia, ed. Ali Jimale Ahmed (Lawrenceville, New Jersey: Red Sea Press, 1945), p. 45.]
Slaves escaped from the upper Shabeelle River area as they could, south to the lower Jubba area. The first villages were established by escaped slaves around 1840. A constant stream of freed or escaped slaves followed. By 1900, about 40,000 were established in the lower Jubba River valley.
Abolition decrees after 1900 led to the immigration of another 30,000. They developed trading relations with the Swahili people of Kismaayo (Kismayu) and Brava (Baraawe) and gradually established clan relationships with the Digil, Rahanwiin (Reewin, and other variations) and Ajuuraan people in the Jubba area.
Many had lost their Bantu languages before migrating to the Jubba Valley, but the Zigula retained their language. By 1900 Zigula was the language of about 15 villages in the lower Jubba Valley. The various tribal groupings, however, were maintained, with Yao descendants settling together, Makhuwa descendants establishing in their own villages, etc. Some of the other Gosha people came to speak Zigula, which came to be called Mushunguli.
In the 1920s to 60s, more immigrants came from the Shabeelle River valley fleeing tribal wars around Qallaafo in Ethiopia.
The term "gosha" actually refers to a riverine forest infested with tsetse flies, coming from the Somali words reer goleed, "people of the forest." The term has come to apply to those diverse peoples of mostly Bantu backgrounds in the fertile farmlands of the lower Jubba Valley. The majority of Gosha are descendants of freed or escaped slaves from the Shabeelle Valley who moved south to established free farming colonies in the 19th century.
There is some evidence that there were free Bantu people already settled in the lower Jubba River area when the slaves from the north came. There were also Oromo slaves who went to the Jubba Valley when manumitted.
They have remained a distinct group, but there has been a lot of intermarriage with the Bantu Gosha. The term Gosha was used for all the non-Somali people.
The Somalis looked down on the slaves and former slaves for several reasons: They were not Somali, they were farmers and they were or had been slaves. They emphasized the difference by referring to the Bantu peoples as jareer (hard hairs), calling themselves jilec (soft hairs).
Oromo are not generally called jareer. But by extension the term includes all Gosha, and thus the Oromo by association.
Italian and British colonial administrators followed the Somali concept that the Somali were superior. They referred to the Jubba farmers by the same derogatory Somali terms. They used the general term Gosha as an ethnic reference, reinforcing the impression of the former slave groups as one social unit.
Some sources refer to them by the names Mushungulu, Shambara, or even Zigula.
The most common language of the Gosha peoples is Maay. Some also speak the Ajuuraan dialect of standard (northern) Somali. One notable group of Gosha speak the Bantu language Mushunguli, descended from the Zigula-Shambara language of early slaves captured in northern Tanzania.
This name comes from the Zigula word for the singular person, Muzigula. Mushunguli has been eroded as more Gosha came to speak languages of the surrounding Somali peoples. Some Gosha speak Swahili as a second language in their trading relations with the Bajun and other Swahili peoples. The Gosha in Kenya speak Maay and may be considered bilingual in Garre-Ajuuraan, an Oromo language.
Most Gosha gradually accepted Islam in the early decades of the 20th Century. Most Gosha now consider themselves members of Somali Digil or Rahanwiin clans. However, marriage patterns still tend to follow the original ethnic lines of the various original Bantu groups. This has perpetuated the non-Somali physical characteristics of the Jubba Valley farmers. Because of this the Somalis consider them different. One of the Bantu customs still observed by Gosha people is the Gulu Nkulu ("Great Dance") of the Yao in Mozambique and Malawi.
Many aspects of the animistic Bantu religion is retained by the Gosha people, including the practice of magic and curses. During the 20th century, however, they have gradually accepted Islam as a "cover" religion and culture. Awareness of Islam will be necessary to understand and communicate with the Gosha. But it will also be helpful to study African Traditional Religions of the Eastern Bantu peoples.
Many Gosha participate in possession dances like "lumbe," similar to the cults practiced by the Somali peoples. These all involve dances, efforts to placate spirits, and specialists who are paid by possessed people or families. It is reported that possessed people often speak in Swahili.
Historically, slavery was associated with animism and the animistic beliefs of the Bantu peoples was an excuse for enslaving them. The Islamic word kafir (infidel) was applied to them. As slaves accepted Islam, however, terminology for them changed. After the Gosha peoples began to accept Islam, the term "black" was used to distinguish the "foreign" non-Somali peoples from the Somali/Maay overlords or patrons. Thus "black" denotes inferiority. This is historically a common usage in Northern Africa, no matter what actual color slave owners were.
There has been virtually no Christian contact with the Gosha peoples. Early Italian missionaries had minimal contact but no ongoing work in the Lower Jubba area. Another mission had a presence from 1898 to 1935. The Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions was involved in Jamaame from the mid-50s to 1976. No recent mission work has been established.
Assimilation: How Peoples Develop and Change
Race and Ethnicity in the Horn of Africa
Who are the "Somali Bantu"?
For more about the Gosha
Bantu Ethnic Identities in Somalia
Maay Language: Ethnologue
Maay Language Group: Joshua Project
Kenya Peoples: PeopleGroups.org
Ahmed, Ali Jimale, ed. The Invention of Somalia. New Jersey: The Red Sea Press, Inc., 1995.
Cassanelli, Lee V. The Shaping of Somali Society: Reconstructing the History of a Pastoral People, 1600-1900. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992.
Menkhaus, Kenneth J. Rural Transformation and the Roots of Under Development in Somalia's Lower Jubba Valley. Columbia: University of South Carolina, 1989.
Orville Boyd Jenkins
Updated 15 May 2002
Last edited 31 July 2014
Copyright © 2000, 2006 Orville Boyd Jenkins
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