The Sukuma is the largest ethnic groups in Tanzania, with an estimate 3.2 million members representing between 10 and 13 percent of the country's total population. Sukuma means "north" and refers to "people of the north". The Sukuma refer to themselves as Basukuma (plural) and Nsukuma (singular).
The Sukuma homeland (Busukuma), is located to the east and south of Lake Victoria. Mwanza, a city in Usukuma, is one of the largest and fastest growing areas in Tanzania. However, most of the area is rural and many Sukuma live in the countryside.
The Sukuma speak a language of the Bantu phylum, the Sukuma language, classified as a member of the Sukuma-Nyamwezi group of Bantu. They are predominantly subsistence farmers and cattle herders whose culture is based on cooperative social networks.
As with the Nyamwezi, all members of the five groups in 'Greater Unyamwezi' identified themselves as Wanjamwezi to those outside of the 'greater' area, but among themselves used, Sukuma, Kongogo, etc. The Wasukuma call themselves, Sukuma, (Northerners) when speaking to Nyamwezi, but use Nyamwezi when speaking to anyone else. It can be called the Nyamwezi-Sukuma complex, for while never united, they were very closely related in attitude and way of life. Like most of their neighbors they were an ethnic group divided into many smaller groups. Some claim they were a Nyamwezi people who had moved northwestward to escape Mirambo's raids with the result that game and tsetse re-occupied the deserted area.
Unyanyembe, the most important chiefdom of the Wanjamwesi, centered on Tabora, obtained its meat supplies from the Sukuma. By 1892, However, the herds of cattle began to decline due to rinderpest and tsetse fly, and while two-thirds of German East Africa became unsuitable for cattle, and cattle in general probably did not recover until after the First World War; large valuable herds of cattle were retained by the Sukuma who were then still able to escape any great social change by exploiting the herds economically. Sukuma tradition suggests that famine did become more common towards the end of the nineteenth century, leaving conservative Sukuma blaming religious innovation for the natural disasters and expecting regular sacrifices for the household or chiefdom ancestors.
As all Nyamwesi, the Sukuma, being agriculturalists, ridged their fields to accommodate the fertile but rather arid region. At the same time they had herds, having acquired them from the Tatoga people, but since 'mixed' farming was practiced they were not considered pastorialists. Usakma also contained and used iron deposits, re-exporting some 150,000 iron hoes to Tabora.
Relationships between the Sukuma and their non-Nyamwezi neighbors, the Tatoga, were generally good and they did not regard each other as enemies. They needed one another. The Tatoga needed the grain of the Sukuma while the Sukuma needed the cattle and the highly regarded rainmaking diviners of the Tatoga. (Rainmaking experts of the Tatoga were considered the very best at this important and highly specialized activity. The Massai, however, in contrast to the Tatoga, were considered enemies. The Tatoga-Sukuma relationship was centered on cultural and economic exchange, while the Sukuma-Massai connection was centered in fear and hatred, for cattle were the only thing the Massai wanted from the Sukuma, believing that God had granted the Massai all the cattle in the world, it is still possible that some peaceful relationship did exist. The Sukuma were very selective in what they assimilated, just as the Nyamwesi were, they were able to assimilate others but were unable to assimilate themselves into other societies. One Sukuma myth states that the Tatoga (Taturu) were their leaders and chiefs when they migrated from the north; the Taturu were the cattle herders and needed open plains for their cattle and moved on into the greater Serengeti area. The Sukuma were left closer to the big Nyanza (Lake Victoria), cleared the forests and became the agriculturalists. Even then, when the Taturu moved out toward the plains, they left Taturu administrators to "rule" over the Sukuma. For this reason, up until the time of the dissolution of the chieftain system, all chiefs and major headmen represented themselves as Taturu even though they were now within the Sukuma area.
A museum of the Sukuma culture is located in the town of Bujora (Magu District), about 15 miles East of Mwanza.
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- Ileffe, John, (A Modern History of Tanganyika)
- Itandala, Buluda, (Nilotic Impact on the Babinza of Usukuma)
- Weule, Karl, (Deutsches Kolonial-Lexikon, Band III)