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The Wagogo, colonialism and independence

Mnyampala notes that life for the Wagogo changed significantly with the coming of colonialism. Even naming is significant. Prior to colonialism, the inhabitants of Ugogo still primarily identified by clan; to speak of the Wagogo as a tribe was an artefact of colonial organisation and labelling. Aside from being drawn into European conflict such as World War One, a number of the Wagogo’s societal structures were altered as well.

The Wagogo had several types of leadership: there were village watemi (chiefs) and rain watemi (chiefs). You can imagine that in a place as dry and as volatile as Ugogo, there was  a significant overlap between the wellbeing of a community and rain. It was not unusual for one person to take both roles.However, the British argued that you could only do one thing at a time and separated these roles into a religious authority (watemi) and a political authority (wajumbe). (Classic imposition of a western excluded middle.)

The British had a policy of Indirect Rule, supposedly giving the Wagogo greater freedom and agency than they had experienced under the Germans, but many Wagogo felt that the Native Authorities put in place by the British were chosen according to who was more pliable rather than the power structures of the clans. The rulers and the British deny that this was the case, but watemi were unable to leave their district to speak to others, and had to carry out instructions from colonial powers without consulting with their colleagues. It seems to me it creates a rich environment for the corruption and poor leadership that so frustrates many Tanzanians today.

Another, perhaps surprising effect of colonialism was that colonial rule acted for the suppression of women. Men were wanted for cash-crop production and wage labor and so customary law was codified. The Wagogo were already patriarchal, but where roles may have been more flexible (especially among those influenced by their matrilineal eastern neighbours), they became rigid in order to enforce male prerogative. Of course, this was advantageous for men, and it seems that by and large, they supported this change. It’s been argued that in this way, Indirect Rule used cultural forms to hold back modernisation.

Modernisation was an important value for Mnyampala. Gregory Maddox, who edited The Gogo: History, Customs and Traditions reminds us in the introductory essay that the nationalist movement was pragmatic rather than romantic, and this was true of Mnyampala as well. While in his book he defends the Wagogo against characterisations of ‘savagery’ and believes it is important to remember the past, he is not yearning for some idealised version of it. Maddox says, ‘while Mnyampala’s work says very little that would openly contradict the government’s agenda, it implicitly obtains a view of Gogo society antithetical to the continuance of not only colonial rule but also the authority of the Native Authority chiefs.’ That is, Mnyampala presents the Wagogo as a sophisticated and honourable people who are capable of moving towards progress.

Mnyampala’s high view of his people proved prophetic. As the colonists tightened their grip and the Wagogo felt further marginalised, nationalist movements took root. Several high school students from Kikuyu (that’s our suburb!) including Mnyampala kept in contact as they went on to higher education, eventually forming the Ugogo Union as a local national counterpart to Julius’ Nyerere’s TANU and supplying some of its most prominent leaders.

Along with the Ugogo Union’s desire for independence from colonial rule, came a conviction that Tanzania must develop and modernise. They promoted modern housing, medicine and education. While many of these goals were similar to the colonial government, the Ugogo wanted to move ahead much faster, and they had the connections to do so and to bring people with them.

The Ugogo Union even managed to get their local Native Authority, Mazengo on board, and from that point, the nationalist movement in Ugogo was virtually unopposed, enjoying both popular and political support. The Wagogo played a crucial role in the formation of Tanzania as an independent nation in 1961.

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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