Iraqw people


Iraqw / Mbulu / Wambulu

The Iraqw People are the Cushitic-speaking ethnic group inhabiting the northern Tanzanian regions. They are a significant group in originating in southwestern Arusha and Manyara regions of Tanzania, near the Rift Valley. The Iraqw people settled in the southeast of Ngorongoro Crater in northern Karatu District, Arusha Region, where they are the majority ethnic group. In Manyara region, the Iraqw are a major ethnic group in Mbulu District, Babati District and Hanang District in the Early before 2005 Iraqw People were dominated in Mbulu District of Arusha Region whereby Karatu District, Babati District and Hanang District where the Wards in Mbulu District of Arusha Region.

Iraqw People Location


The Iraqw are an agrico-pastoral people who live in north-central Tanzania. No comprehensive ethnography has been written to date about them, although various aspects of their culture have been studied by anthropologists.



The Iraqw inhabit the Mbulu and Hanang districts of the Arusha region in northern Tanzania. Their population is concentrated primarily in Mbulu district on the Mbulu Plateau between Lakes Manyara and Eyasi. The topography of this area varies from the mountainous homeland of Iraqwa Da'aw (2,000 meters) to the lower-lying savanna (1,000 meters). The average annual rainfall in areas of higher elevation is 60 to 90 centimeters, but in the lower elevations of the southwestern part of region the range is from 30 to 60 centimeters. The rainy season begins in November and continues through to April. The dry season is from May to the beginning of November.



The Iraqw numbered 898,000 (Ethnologue 2016), making them the sixteenth-largest ethnic group in a country of more than 120 groups. The Iraqw are the largest population group in the Arusha region, and, with a population expanding by 3.5 percent each year, they have one of the highest birthrates in Tanzania. Within Mbulu District, highest population densities are found in the Endagikot, Daudi and Karatu divisions.


Linguistic Affiliation

There is debate about the linguistic classification of the Iraqw. Some experts have designated their language as "Southern Cushitic." Whiteley (1958), however, has disputed this classification, finding no connection with the Cushitic languages of Ethiopia. He claims that certain features of the language are comparable to those of Hamitic and Semitic languages.


History and Cultural Relations

It is not known when or how the Iraqw came to settle in Mbulu District; however, they refer to the mountainous region of Iraqwa Da'aw in Kainam Ward as their "homeland." Until the late 1890s, the population was concentrated in this area to avoid conflict with the hostile neighboring communities of Maasai and Barabaig. During both the German and British colonial periods, as a rinderpest epidemic and colonial pacification weakened the Maasai and Barabaig, the Iraqw were able to migrate both north and south out of their homeland.

With the expansion of their territory, the Iraqw have come to interact and coexist with the Datoga, the Barabaig, the Gorowa, the Mbugwe, the Alawa, and the Burungi. In the southern part of Mbulu District, the Iraqw employ Nyaturu from Singida District as seasonal laborers.



Before independence, Iraqw villages varied greatly in size, ranging from 40 to 400 inhabitants. Since 1974, the Iraqw have been moved into eighty-six villages in Mbulu District. In the northern part of the district, the villages have an average population of 2,500 people in 400 households. In the southernmost part of Mbulu, the villages average 1,500 people in some 225 households. The household typically consists of a man, his wife, and their children. It is the primary economic unit: each has its own agricultural plots and livestock. Every village is named and has a definite boundary. Houses within the village are dispersed.

House types vary by geographical conditions within Mbulu District. There are three basic types of houses. The subterranean house, which is dug into the side of a slope and has an earthen roof, was thought to be built as a defense against raids by the Maasai. Another type, which is most common in Mbulu District, is the round, grass-thatched and mud-plastered house. These houses have a small entryway and, usually, no windows. Most houses face west. Inside, the house is divided into rooms and there is a sleeping platform covering part of the main living space. Immediately inside the entryway is a room where the livestock are brought for the night. Outside the entrance is a courtyard of packed earth. A Swahili-style dwelling has appeared in Mbulu, and it is being encouraged by the Tanzanian government. Square or rectangular, its peaked ridge roof is of thatch or sheet metal, and it has several windows.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities

Maize is the staple crop of the Iraqw; it is supplemented with beans, sorghum, and millet (the latter two are used primarily for brewing beer). Other food crops are pumpkins, sweet potatoes, European potatoes, onions, and various legumes. Households generally have about 1.2 hectares of land. In areas of high rainfall, such as in the wards of Kainam, Murray, and Karatu in central and northern Mbulu, households can obtain a harvest twice a year. The Iraqw intercrop maize and beans, and maize and sorghum, and sow pumpkins, sweet potatoes, and gourds between the rows of each crop. Millet is usually planted in separate areas. Cash crops include wheat, maize, beans, onions, garlic, European potatoes, and pyrethrum. Typically, an Iraqw household keeps several cows, a few sheep and goats, and chickens. Pigs are often raised for sale, and donkeys are kept for transportation.

Grazing land is divided into private and public pastures. Private pastures are limited to land around the homestead, but the public grazing land of the village can be at some distance from the homesteads. Cattle are a symbol of a family's wealth and are one of the principal investments of the household. As it is difficult for one family to keep a large number of cattle, a system of lending has developed that both reduces the risk of spread of disease and establishes a patron-client relationship with those who have fewer cattle. In exchange for taking care of another's cattle, a family has the right to the milk of the cows and to some of the newborn calves. Livestock are also sold in the market.


Industrial Arts

Blacksmiths and potters were the only full-time specialists in precolonial Iraqw society. Smithing, which is practiced by very few Iraqw, is a male profession. Pottery making is the domain of women. Unglazed earthen pots are fashioned in various shapes and sizes without the use of a wheel. Women also make reed mats, which are sold in the towns. Various articles such as beer filters, furniture, hatchets and hoes, leather goods, and musical instruments are also made by the Iraqw.



Cattle markets are an important locus of economic activity in Mbulu District. Many Iraqw earn the greater part of their income from these markets. In addition to livestock, the Iraqw sell agricultural products, both at local markets and to Asian merchants.


Division of Labor

Gender and age are the bases for the Iraqw division of labor. On the Iraqw homestead, women sow the fields and harvest the crops, although men may assist if there is a shortage of labor. Hoeing, weeding, and threshing of sorghum and wheat are men's tasks. Young girls are responsible for taking the livestock out of the house in the morning, collecting the night's manure, and spreading it in the sun to dry. Children and married women take care of the calves and the wounded cattle, goats, and sheep; the young, unmarried men are responsible for herding. Women cook, keep house, and care for the children. They collect firewood, draw water, milk the cows, and plaster the house walls. Possessions and space within the house are strictly divided by gender. Men own—and are the only ones allowed to touch—spears, bows, arrows, and shields. Only women may touch the cooking pots, the hearth, and the stone mills. In addition, there is one room inside the house that men are forbidden to enter. Elder men are the principal actors in the political and social spheres. Although the majority of religious specialists are men, women do serve as diviners and rainmakers. The roles of county leader and elder are accorded only to men.


Land Tenure

Cropland and small grazing plots are held by individual heads of families. Villages and sometimes larger political units have control over more extensive areas of communal grazing land. Individuals maintain their rights to land by keeping it under cultivation. If a family migrates to another area, the head of the household may transfer his rights to his land on a permanent or temporary basis, or he may lend land. Transference of rights requires a public agreement before the elders, but lending is carried out informally. If a man returns to his land, the other occupants must leave. The first man to move to new, unoccupied territory is responsible for allocation of land to all incoming settlers. He is not considered the owner of the new territory but, rather, its overseer and protector. After all the land is distributed, the original pioneer no longer has any control over it.


Kinship. Kin Groups and Descent

The Iraqw are divided into more than 200 patrilineal clans, each named after the original founder. These clans are not localized but are spread out all over the territory, as a result of the Iraqw pattern of residence. Except for establishing rules for exogamous marriage, the clan lacks a prominent role in Iraqw daily life. The most important kinship unit within Iraqw society is the household. Communities are formed on the basis of shared space rather than shared kinship.



Polygyny is accepted, but very few men have more than one wife in Iraqw society. Generally, marriages are arranged by fathers rather than the couple themselves. The wedding involves a huge feast at which the bridegroom's family gives the bride a cow, a goat, a sheep, and a bottle of honey as bride-price to the bride's father. Bride-price is only returned to the groom if there is a divorce. Residence after marriage is neolocal. The Iraqw also practice levirate; children born to a woman after her husband's death are considered to belong to the deceased man. Ghost marriage, whereby women are married to the name of a deceased man and any children she has belong to that name, is also practiced.


Domestic Unit

The domestic household is the primary economic unit. Each household has its own fields and livestock. If a man has more than one wife, separate houses may be built for each.



The Iraqw do not follow strict rules of inheritance. In theory, the wife inherits all of the property of her husband and passes it on to her sons. In general, the youngest son inherits the farmland and most of the property; however, this transfer of the rights to land to a son must be approved by the village elders (Thornton 1980).



Circumcision is a large, collective ritual performed on children ranging from 3 to 10 years old. Beer is brewed for the occasion, and gifts are presented to the initiates from relatives and friends. After boys are circumcised, they become official members of a youth group (masomba ) and are expected to take on greater responsibilities with regard to work and social obligations. A male will remain in the group until he is around 40, when he is considered an elder, or barise. Until the 1930s, when the rites were abolished by the colonially appointed chief, girls were circumcised in the marmo ritual. More elaborate than male circumcision, this rite involved ritual seclusion for the girls, during which they were instructed in sexual lore and their duties as a wife. Following seclusion, they were circumcised and then permitted to marry.


Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Although the Iraqw recognize kinship units, the most important social and political groups are based on age and gender and local spatial relations. The young men of the masomba must participate in cultivation, house building, cattle raising, and protection of their livestock and comrades from attack. They also organize dances. Membership in this group is based on age and on locality. Usually a masomba consists of twenty or so young men from neighboring houses. The elders are in charge of the organization of ritual, the settling of disputes, the establishment of local boundaries, and convening meetings to discuss the community's welfare.

Political Organization. In precolonial Iraqw society there was no formai structure of authority. Villages consisting of neighborhood groups are the minimum local social and political unit. Neighbors assist each other in farm work and in mutual defense and assistance. Villages put on harvest rites and hold beer parties and festivals and feasts for the ancestors. Above the level of the village, is the county or section (aya in Iraqw). Within the county, elders from all the villages hold regular meetings to settle disputes and to organize the rituals that maintain the well-being of the county. At the head of the council of elders for a particular county is an elder known as the kahamusmo. He is responsible for calling meetings, supervising rituals, and for allocation of new land to incoming settlers. Upon his death, this position passes to the man whom the kahamusmo designated as his successor. Often this will be his eldest son.

Social Control. The principal means of social control is public opinion. An individual who does something wrong is openly criticized by neighbors and relatives. Where more definite action is called for, elders will prohibit people from speaking to wrongdoers and, in extreme cases, may banish them from the community. Banishment is communicated by the elders' act of placing a thorn branch across the doorway of the offender during the night. Failure to leave after this warning may result in the person's house being burned to the ground.

Conflict. The Iraqw are a peaceful people who have, for the most part, avoided conflict. They have not engaged in cattle raids on their neighbors. Internal fighting was rare, but when bloodshed did occur, the patrilineal relatives of the guilty party had to pay "blood-wealth" to the family of the victim.


Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Christianity and, to a much lesser extent, Islam have gained wide acceptance in Iraqw society; however, many of the precolonial beliefs are still maintained. Lo'a, a female deity, is associated with the sky, the sun, and the rain. Netlangw, or earth spirits, live in stream beds and springs. Lo'a and the netlangw are considered to be in opposition. Lo'a is more remote than the earth spirits, but sacrifices are made to her for prevention of disease and for gratitude for the harvest. Both Lo'a and the netlangw are addressed in prayers.

Ancestors can influence the living and are thought to appear in the form of a hyena. Although there is no ancestor cult, sacrifices to the ancestors are made when it is feared that they are angry. Ancestors only cause trouble to their immediate relatives. Witchcraft is not a prominent feature of the Iraqw religion, but Iraqw do believe that certain people are capable of performing witchcraft and bringing misfortune to others through the manipulation of animals.

Religious Practitioners. The principal religious specialist in Iraqw society is the diviner or rainmaker (qwaslare). These experts, who can be men or women, are responsible for deciding what rituals must be carried out for the benefit of both individuals and for the county. The knowledge of divination is usually transmitted along kinship lines. Diviners do not request payment, but people give them presents or assist them in cultivation in return for their efforts. Individuals who can divine for the county as a whole are thought to come only from the Manda clan.

Ceremonies. Sacrifices are made to Lo'a, the netlangw, and to the ancestors. In addition, the Iraqw hold a countrywide, boundary-defining ritual to purify the land. Harvest rites are also held in gratitude to Lo'a.

Arts. Iraqw women make many different types of pottery and weave mats from reeds. Musical instruments are also made.

Death and Afterlife. At death, people become ancestors and go to live in an underworld that is nearly identical to the world of the living.