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Life for the Wagogo

Continuing in our series on Mnyamapala’s The Gogo: History, Traditions and Customs, which was written in 1954 about the region where we now live…

The Wagogo were not an ethnically pure tribe: there were the original Bantu migrants but lots of other people passed through Ugogo region for trade. On one hand, this made the Wagogo very accepting: if you moved into the area, within a generation, you were ‘one of us’, your past forgotten. However, Wagogo were less hospitable to those who were only passing through, sometimes holding them up or making them pay (and earning a reputation for being disagreeable as a result!)


Even though the Wagogo had common customs, they were generally not particularly organised, something like a loose collection of clans. This was partly because of the climate. Ugogo region gets about 500mL of water a year. That’s right on the border for viable cultivation of crops, so even tiny differences in the weather could mean disaster, having to leave home or set up somewhere else. (Incidentally, this has increased tenfold in recent years, and many of the people we live among are already experiencing the effects of climate change.)


Though there are some matriarchal tribes not far from Ugogo, the Wagogo were patriarchal. A son was instructed in the taboos and customs of his father’s lineage but not his mother’s. A daughter of a chief could not become ruler even if there were no boys in the family because she would convey her right to rule to her husband, and her children would be raised with his lineage and customs.

The Wagogo circumcised both their boys and their girls. It was a dishonour not to be circumcised but the age of circumcision varied, also dependent on the climate and when the rains came. Boys were circumcised out in the bush with all the other boys and when they returned but they did not re-enter their house, instead building a camp out of millet stalks where they stayed for 2 months. At the end of this time, they entered their mothers’ homes at midnight and greeted their mothers. Girls were circumcised in their mother’s home and remained there until healed. There were other rites of passage as well. At two months, a child was burned with a mark on their forehead, and at age six, the bottom two teeth were pulled out and both ears pierced. Mnyampala notes that many of these customs were no longer in use when he wrote the book.

Mnyampala recounts the quite extensive rules around marriage and bride wealth. There were three types of marriage: one which involved a proper dowry (bridewealth), one which was stealing a daughter without her parents’ permission, and one which is kind of like paying off your wife by moving in with her and her family to work for her father. There were a number of different elements to bridewealth. It includes 6 goats but each one represents something different to do with sides of the family, when the boy proposed, how well the boy and girl know each other, etc. There were also a number of rules about what was to happen to the bridewealth in the event of a divorce and fines for mistreating women.

An mtemi (hereditary rain chief) had to be married and his wife sat on a chair by his side.

The practice of wife exchange was common. Mnyampala explains this by saying that back in those days, people were not jealous!


Mnyampala gives very few details of the religion of the Wagogo prior to the coming of Christianity and Islam, ‘the new religions’. There’s plenty of mention of spirits of the ancestors, feasts, and prayers for rain, but no developed cosmology. It’s possible this is because there was none, as religion was more driven towards every day needs, but it may also reflect Mnyampala’s bias towards progress – he saw the older religions as primitive and at times bemoans that some older people still continue with these practices.

Witches were often blamed for deaths and were hunted down. There was a process of discerning a witch by placing their hand in boiling water. If they were unharmed, they were vindicated; if not, they were guilty and immediately killed. Witches were male.

Some clan chiefs (wajumbe) were also rain chiefs (watemi), and until the colonial takeover, these could be the same person. It’s tempting to classify the first as political and the second as ritual, but this was not a distinction the Wagogo made until it was enforced by the colonial powers. Watemi only wore black.


The Wagogo had a variety of songs, dances and performances. Some were ritual, others were just for fun. A favourite game seems to have been something like a massive version of ‘Capture the Flag‘, that was played in the evening and resumed each day!

Categories: Tanzania Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

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