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The Sukuma of Tanzania

Population:      5,500,000 (2005 estimate from composite sources)
Religion:        Animism; Some Islam; less than 10% Christianity
Registry of Peoples code(s):  Sukuma:  109589
Registry of Language code(s) (Ethnologue):  Turkana:  suk



Location: The Sukuma live in northwestern Tanzania on or near the southern shores of Lake Victoria, and the territory has been divided into nine administrative districts of the Mwanza and Shinyanga Region.  The northern area of their residence is in the famous Serengeti Plain.  Sukuma families have migrated southward, into the Rukwa area, encroaching on the territory of the Pimbwe. These Sukuma have settled outside Pimbwe villages.

The Sukuma area is mostly a flat scrubless savannah plain between 3000 and 4000 ft. elevation.  Twenty to forty inches of rain fall from November to March.  High temperatures range from 79 to 90 while lows at night seldom drop below the upper 50's.  Population is very spread out among small farm plots and sparse vegetation.

History:  Ancestors of the Sukuma were part of the extensive migrations of people speaking early forms of Bantu speech, in the first millennium AD.  They, along with the Nyamwezi farther south, seem to belong to the same group as the Bantu of western Uganda.

It appears their ancestors left that area before the invasion of the Hima Cushites, since their culture and language show no influences of the Hima or the later Lwoo invaders in the Nyoro-Kigezi areas of Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda.  This puts the Sukuma in their current area by about 1300 AD.

It appears that the pastoral Hima were actually there when the Sukuma arrived.  Sukuma tradition says they drove out the Hima who subsequently established their kingdoms farther west, around Lake Victoria.

Identity:  The Sukuma are the largest ethnic group in Tanzania.  The Sukuma are a Bantu-speaking people numbering over about 5.5 million, by current estimates.  Commonly sources will report major divisions:  the Kinakia (Kinakiya) of the north and the more dispersed Kisomao of the south.  

Information from a local source indicates that the larger group called Sukuma divide themselves into 2 groups called the Sukuma and Balatulu, then further sub-groupings called clans.  The Kisomao are reported to live in the Busumabu area.  The Kinakiya are more similar in culture and seems to share kinship with the Balatulu.  This source reports that the major clan is Kamba, a name most sources do not even mention.  

Some Kamba Sukuma claim some relationship with the Kamba of Kenya, though the Kamba of Kenya deny this relationship.  Other Western Lake Bantu groups share various affinities with other Eastern Highland Bantu, so the Kamba connection seems plausible.

Although many workers among the Sukuma define them as a single people, many Sukuma consider the clan groups as distinct, suggesting the possibility that "Sukuma" may not be a meaningful, cultural category.  

Language:  Swahili is the national language in Tanzania and all education through secondary school is in Swahili.  The Sukuma language, like Swahili, is a Bantu language.  Unlike Swahili, Sukuma is tonal and some missionaries have considered its difficulty to be a barrier to mission work.

Customs:  The Sukuma are generally considered to be matriarchal in clan lineage and naming system. They grow crops, raise livestock, and gather a diminishing supply of firewood.  It is common for the Sukuma women to do the majority of the family's work.  The Kinakia are subsistence farmers growing cotton, cassava, rice and peanuts.

 The Kisomao grow the same crops as the Kinakia but rely more on herding cattle.  The Balatulu on the eastern reaches of Sukuma area, on the plains away from the forests, where conditions are more conducive to their cattle herding. nbsp;The southernmost Sukuma among the Pimbwe both farm and herd cattle.

Cotton is the main cash crop but the typical cash income is nominal.  Abundance of offspring and traditional group dance mark important aspects of their society.  The Sukuma dance to the music of drums to celebrate the various events of life.

Mwanza (pop. 250,000+) and Shinyanga (pop. 40,000+) are the only major cities among the Sukuma.  These cities are 70-90% Sukuma residents.  These are the only places where electricity is available.  All roads are gravel or earth except one section of highway from Mwanza to Musoma along the lake.

Religion: Christianity, although introduced to the culture over a hundred years ago by Catholic missionaries, has not formed a church presence capable of reaching its people.  The vast majority have retained a belief in divination, magic, and spiritism.

Christianity:  It is estimated that about 10% of the Sukuma are Christian.  Traditionally, the Sukuma have been perceived as slow to change, passive and yet friendly.

Christian mission work began in the early 1900s, with The Africa Inland Mission membership reaching into the thousands.  The Church Missionary Society (Anglican) established early work at Nasa and Ihelele.  However, sources report that a growing felt need for improvement developed in the 1980s and 90s.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Baptist Mission implemented the Sukuma Project, an intensive team-oriented evangelistic thrust.  This project resulted in a notable increase in response to the gospel among the Sukuma.  

The project involved coordinated efforts in a sequence of evangelism, baptism and church planting and discipleship training.  This proved that the Sukuma were responsive to the Christian message.

For More Extensive Information on the Sukuma People:
Philip Greenspun
The Mwanza Community
Oral Literature Of The Sukuma
The Sukuma and the Pimbwe

Orville Boyd Jenkins
September 1996
Revised and first posted 15 April 2002
Last revised 4 May 2006

Copyright © 2002, 2006 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Please give credit and link back.  Other rights reserved.
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