The Chaga or Chagga (Swahili: WaChaga) are a Bantu-speaking indigenous African people that make up Tanzania’s third largest ethnic group. In both the Kilimanjaro and eastern Arusha regions, they traditionally live on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro and eastern Mount Meru. The favorable fertile soil of Mount Kilimanjaro and successful agricultural methods, which include large irrigation systems, terracing, and continual organic fertilization methods performed for thousands of years, account for their relative economic wealth. The Chaga are claimed to be descended from numerous Bantu groups who came to the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro from other parts of Africa around the beginning of the eleventh century.  While the Chaga are Bantu speakers, their language has a number of variants that are similar to Kamba, a Kenyan language spoken in the southeast.  They are linked to the Pare, Taveta, Shambaa, and Taita peoples ethnically. The residents demonstrate that migration occurred back and forth throughout these groups’ history, and the Chaga people should be considered part of the larger population that inhabits the entire Kilimanjaro Corridor.

Chagaland was traditionally divided into a series of small kingdoms known as Umangi. They follow a patrilineal system of ancestry and inheritance. Agriculture was the mainstay of their traditional way of life, with terraced fields irrigated and livestock manure added. They grow yams, beans, and maize in addition to bananas, which are their primary source of nourishment. In terms of agricultural exports, they are most known for their Arabica coffee, which is a key cash crop in the country and is sent to global markets.

Location and identification

By 1899, Mount Kilimanjaro’s Kichagga-speaking inhabitants had been separated into 37 autonomous kingdoms known as “Umangi” in Chaga languages. Early sources usually refer to each kingdom’s population as an unique “tribe.” Despite the fact that the Chaga are mostly found on Mount Kilimanjaro in northern Tanzania, many families have relocated abroad during the twentieth century. Due to large-scale reorganization and the emergence of newly populated land on the lower slopes of Kilimanjaro’s western and eastern slopes, the British administration drastically reduced the number of kingdoms in 1946.  The German colonial authority estimated that there were roughly 28,000 households on Kilimanjaro at the turn of the twentieth century. The population of Chaga was predicted to be above 800,000 people in 1988.

Cultural relations

Bantu peoples came to Kilimanjaro in a succession of migrations that started at least five or six hundred years ago. It is likely that there were other peoples on the mountain for hundreds of years before they arrived. Historical accounts of the Chaga written by Europeans date from the nineteenth century. The first European to reach the mountain was a missionary, Johannes Rebmann, who arrived there in 1848. At that time, Rebmann found that Kilimanjaro was so actively involved in far-reaching trading connections that a chief whose court he visited had a coastal Swahili resident in his entourage. Chaga chiefdoms traded with each other, with the peoples of the regions immediately surrounding the mountain (such as the Kamba, the Maasai, and the Pare), and also with coastal caravans. Some of this trading was hand to hand, some of it at markets, which were a general feature of the area. Many chiefdoms had several produce markets largely run by women, just as they are today.

As far back into local history as the accounts go, Chaga chiefdoms were chronically at war with one another and with nearby peoples. Various alliances and consolidations were achieved through conquest, others through diplomacy, but the resulting political units were not always durable. Alignments changed and were reorganized with the ebb and flow of the fortunes of war and trade. Presumably, the fighting between the chiefdoms was over control of trade routes, over monopolies on the provisioning of caravans, over ivory, slaves, cattle, iron, and other booty of war, and over the right to exact tribute. Outlines of the process are known from the eighteenth century onward. As large as some of the blocs of allies became, at no time in the precolonial period did any one chiefdom rule all the others. That unitary consolidation was not achieved until the German colonial government imposed it.

Initially (i.e., before the German conquest), various Chaga chiefdoms welcomed missionaries, travelers, and foreign representatives as they did traders; in the 1880s, however, when the Chaga gradually lost their autonomy, they became more defensive. In 1886 Germany and Britain divided their spheres of influence in East Africa; Kilimanjaro was allocated to the Germans. Some Chaga chiefs became German allies and helped the Germans to defeat old rivals in other Chaga chiefdoms. Sudanese and Zulu troops were also brought in when some strong chiefly resistance to German control manifested itself. By the 1890s, all the Chaga had been subjugated.

Chaga society experienced a radical change. Taxes in cash were imposed to force Africans to work for Europeans from whom they could receive wages. A native system of corvée was expanded for the benefit of the colonial government. A handful of armed Germans successfully ruled a hundred thousand Chaga by controlling them through their chiefs. The chiefs who cooperated were rewarded with more power than they had ever known. The resisting chiefs were deposed or hanged, and more malleable substitutes were appointed in their stead.

Warfare came to an end and, with it, Chaga military organization, which had been a system of male age grades. Christianity spread, and, eventually, most Chaga became, at least nominally, Christians. The churches, Catholic and Lutheran, were allocated religious control over different parts of Kilimanjaro. As part of their mission, they introduced schools and coffee-growing clinics. These developments parallel the major political reorganization effectuated by colonization and the fundamental change in the local economy. Long-distance trade became a European monopoly. Coffee growing spread rapidly over the mountain. This general economic transformation was well under way when the colonial government passed from German hands into those of the British in 1916.  Arabica coffee remains a major cash crop produced locally. Since 1961, Tanzania has been an independent nation and, among other products, relies on coffee exportation for foreign exchange.

The Chaga’s prowess in farming the highlands meant that the Chaga language spread to new groups. Initially, these settlements took the shape of villages erected along mountain ridges.
This ritual appears to have been passed down through their Kaskazi and Upland Bantu ancestors. The Chaga also circumcised males and initiated them into traditional Bantu age groups. At the same time, they adopted the practice of female clitoridectomy from their Southern Cushitic ancestors, which they abandoned after converting to Christianity or Islam.

Interactions with the Ongamo

The beginnings of Chaga interactions with the Nilotic Ongamo date well before 1600, and at some point the Ongamo had been the dominant people through much of the Mount Kilimanjaro area. The Ongamo had a large effect on Chaga culture. They borrowed several practices from them, including female circumcision, the drinking of cattle blood, and age sets. By the second half of the nineteenth century, the Ongamo were increasingly acculturated into the Chaga. The Chaga god “Ruwa” resulted from the combination of the Chaga’s concept of a creator god with the Ongamo’s concept of the life giving sun.

Interactions with foreigners and the Pare

The Pare, Taveta, and Taita peoples had been the Chaga’s main iron suppliers. Because of armed rivalry among the Chaga monarchs, the need for iron surged from the beginning of the eighteenth century. It’s possible that this rivalry was linked to the growth of long-distance trade from the coast to the interior of the Pangani River basin, implying that the Chaga’s interactions with the coast began towards the end of the eighteenth century. As seen and interpreted by European colonisers, the Chaga rivalry was characterized by raids and counter-raids.

Religion in the beginning

The Chaga practiced a wide mix of faiths prior to the coming of Christianity, with a strong syncretism. To this day, they have a great belief in the importance of ancestors. Ruwa is the name of the primary Chaga deity who lives atop Mount Kilimanjaro, a sacred mountain to them. Old shrines with masale plantings, the sacred Chaga plant, can be found in parts of the high forest. 

During the Colonial Era, the supreme council of the Kingdoms of Chaga. According to nineteenth-century western observations, Chaga Kingdoms appear to have been quite distinct, with no influence from early forebears. The kingdom structure appears to be comparable in the surrounding north Pare Mountains area of Ugweno. The original Mashariki clan kingdoms, on the other hand, continued to be the ritual center of life among the early Asu in the south Pare Mountains, and remained so well into the nineteenth century.
But, among the ancient Chaga of north Pare and their descendants who settled around Mount Kilimanjaro, a new sort of kingship, Mangi, emerged not long before 1000 AD, perhaps originally meaning “arranger, planner.”

Economics, politics and Mangi rule

The Chagas are arguably one of the most economically successful people in East Africa. Like many societies in Africa, the Chaga women take the forefront positions of the Chaga society; from economical issues, to education. Chaga women stimulate a large part of the economical progressions in northern Tanzania. The Mangi were great kings that governed largely clan-based states and controlled Chaga affairs even during colonial times. Although Mangis are not as prevalent at the present, the term ‘Mangi’ still rules and stands as the most respectable identity to most young and adult Chaga men.

Daily life and culture

Mbege a traditional Chaga brew

Because fish are absent from most of the streams of the Kilimanjaro foothills, fish were not traditionally consumed and were seen as having the same nature as serpents, which were considered unfriendly in Chaga culture. The Chaga people bred fowl in large numbers, to sell to the passing caravans of traders from the east coast. The Chaga, like many east African communities, value oxen, goats, and sheep. Dogs are used to help guard compounds from intruders at night. The prized cattle is the humped Zebu breed prevalent throughout east Africa since the days of Ancient Egyptians. Goats are small and handsome with small horns. Milk is an essential part of Chaga diet. Among the Chaga, the plants grown for food are maize, sweet potatoes, yams, alliums, beans, peas, red millet and bananas.

Traditional foods

Chaga people have their traditional food according to food crops they grow in their region. Most of food among Chaga people are made by banana; an example is machalari, which is most favorite food among Chaga. Machalari is prepared with banana and meat, while other traditional food includes kiburu (Banana and Beans), Kitawa (Banana and sour milk, porridge-like), mtori (Meat with banana, like porridge, mainly food for a few days after birth), mlaso, ngararimo, kisusio (soup with Blood), kimamtine and others of the like, according to nature of crops and animals on the Chaga land.

Cultural heritage

Traditional Chaga instruments include wooden flutes, bells, and drums. Dancing and singing are part of almost every celebration. Classical Chagan music is still heard in festivities; however, Chagan youth have also embraced Kiswahili songs produced by various Tanzanian bands and west and central African music and dance forms. Reggae, pop, and rap are popular with the youth. Many musicians of Chaga origin are known around Africa.[citation needed]

The first Chaga historian was Nathaniel Mtui, who was born in 1892 and wrote nine books about the history of the Chaga from 1913 to 1916.[7]


Chaga legends center on Ruwa and his power and assistance. Ruwa is the Chaga name for their god, as well as the Chaga word for “sun.” Ruwa is not looked upon as the creator of humankind, but rather as a liberator and provider of sustenance. He is known for his mercy and tolerance when sought by his people. Some Chaga myths concerning Ruwa resemble biblical stories of the Old Testament.

In the past, chiefdoms had chiefs who rose to power through war and trading. Some famous past chiefs include Orombo from Kishigonyi, Sina of Kibosho, and Marealle of Marangu.


Goat barn / kiriwa kya mburu

Traditionally, Chaga work has been centered on the farm and is divided by gender. Men’s work includes feeding goats, building and maintaining canals, preparing fields, slaughtering animals, and building houses. Women’s work includes firewood and water collection, fodder cutting, cooking, and cleaning the homestead and stalls. Women are also in charge of trading in the marketplace. Many young Chaga work as clerks, teachers, and administrators, and many engage in small-scale business activities. Women in rural areas are also generating income through activities such as crafts and tailoring. The Chaga are known for their sense of enterprise and strong work ethic.


Various Chaga Dishes

The staple food of the Chaga people is bananas. Bananas are also used to make beer, their main beverage. The Chaga plant a variety of food crops, including bananas, millet, maize (corn), beans, and cassava. They also keep cattle, goats, and sheep. Due to limited land holdings and grazing areas, most Chaga people today purchase meat from butcher shops.

Modern history

They once lived under the rule of the Mangi Mkuu, even though they are not as organised as they used to be, and the Mangi is not involved in the day-to-day activities and life of the modern Chaga. The Mangis are still respected by the Chaga. Some communities such as Mushi clan in Machame still exercise their “right” to rule often referring to themselves as Watu wa kwa Mangi (people from the Chieftainship). The Chaga are now modern wage earners in large modernised cities or abroad and entrepreneurs in the tourism industry around Kilimanjaro and Arusha areas. The Chaga still hold onto some of their traditions, like the “kihamba”, which is a family plot of land usually passed down from one generation to another. Coffee is the primary cash crop for many Chaga people after its introduction to the area in the late nineteenth century, although bananas and maize are also staples. The Chaga are also famous for a traditional brew known as mbege. It is made from a special variety of bananas and millet.

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