Sukuma Chiefs and Royal History

Archival photograph of Mazungu, the son of the Ntemi (chief) of Bukumbi Chiefdom, with his wife, c. 1900, Courtesy of the Archives of the Missionaries of Africa, Rome

by Mark H.C. Bessire

History and Myth

The role of the chief in Usukuma has gone through many transformations since the Sixteenth Century when the area began to be organized by hierarchical chiefdoms and not villages. This took place during the migration of the Babinza, Bakwimba, Balongo, Bangolo, and Basega. These groups were mostly responsible for consolidating the sparsely populated areas in the Lake Victoria region and the local clans under their leadership. Their exogenous customs combined with the indigenous people are now considered Wasukuma. The Kisukuma word for chief, ntemi, derives from the verb Kutema and literally means to cut down trees or to clear bush. This recalls the role of the early chiefs in blessing the land at the beginning of each cultivation season, when the land was cleared and could also refer to the cutting short of arguments following an important discussion by village elders.


Mzee Zepherini Nkamba at Sukumalaha, the original homesite of Nkanda, the founder of all Sukuma Chiefdoms, April 12, 1995, Sukumalaha

According to oral history accounts, the first chief of the area, now known as Usukuma, was the nephew of Nkanda, who, under the guidance of his father, Chief Muletwa of the Lushamba Kingdom, traveled to a place near Kinango and Magaka (between Bujora and Magu) from Nyalukalanga in Geita District. In his native tongue, Nkanda spoke the words “Lnye Nsukumala aha,” which means let us rest or stay here. This could be the first reference to the term Sukuma, which henceforth evolved into the cultural group now known as the Sukuma. Eventually, as Mzee Mkamba, a member of the Bujora Research Committee, tells the story, Nkanda was invited by the Waruli, the indigenous culture, to become their chief. They believed that Nkanda had medicine to make people and animal fear him, as well as medicine to protect against crocodiles that often spoiled their fishing nets, and the ability to make rain. Nkanda declined the offer, because the customs of his people, the Balongo and Bazinza demanded that a leader be an offspring of the daughter, matrilineal descendent of the Chief. Nkanda then journeyed back to his village, where his father to appointed Sanga, the son of Nkanda’s sister Minza, as leader for the region where he first rested. This is still known as Nsukumale (Sukumalaha) and has developed from the first Sukuma chiefdom into the fifty two chiefdoms of modern day Usukuma.

Stones marking the grave site of a chief of the Sukuma Chiefdom, April 7, 1995, Nyashigwe village

Another version of the same tale has Ilembo, also of Nyalukalanga, venturing to Seke in search of game. He invited his four sisters (one being Minza) to join him and it was these sisters who settled what was to become the Sukuma, Ntuzu and Ng’wagala Chiefdoms and the immigrants from Lukulanga followed soon after. Then Nkanda is said to have married Minza and became the military commander of Ilembo and was responsible for uniting the local settlements as put forth in the first story but through a military campaign not by peaceful coercion. Whether or not one or both of these stories are true they shed light on the infamy of Nkanda and the importance of his role in the forming the identity of the Sukuma. Nearly every clan (luganda) and chiefdom formed before or after Nkanda’s era tends to claim his lineage and thus perpetuates the importance of the Babinza and Balongo (clan of blacksmiths) link to Usukuma. In fact the first oral account which was passed down by a member of the Sukuma chiefdom and heroizes the chiefdoms families link to Nkanda and the origins of the Wasukuma and the second is told from the perspective of a Sukuma from Ntuzu.

As Minza was either Nkanda’s mother, sister, or wife it becomes clear that under Nkanda’s leadership the consolidation of individual settlements emphasized the identity and traditions of the Babinza within Usukuma. Today the traditional greeting of the Sukuma chiefdom is Iminza a direct reference to Minza, her family and thus the Babinza. The greeting is answered by the family name of the persons grandfather which reflects the continuing importance of Sukuma loyalty to their chiefdom and family and also aided parents during matchmaking by avoiding marriage within a clan.


IMinza —————- term of respect and mother of the first Sukuma Chief.
Ng’wa nani? ——— what is the name of your family?
Ng’wa Fumbuka —- Fumbuka (Sukuma name of the founder of the Museum).
Uli mhola? ————Are you at Peace?
Nali Mhola ———– Peace.

Mhola and the Sukuma Chief

Archival photograph of Masuka, the Ntemi (chief) of Mwanza Chiefdom in his regalia, c. 1900, Courtesy of the Archives of the Missionaries of Africa, Rome

To understand the traditional power and strength of the relationship of the chief and his chiefdom one must recognize that the key to sustaining power was controlling the state of mhola. The word mhola derives from the Kisukuma verb Kuhola, to be healthy, thriving, and is also part of the Sukuma greeting of another person. If the Chiefdom was in a state of mhola the chief’s position was secure and if not he could be dethroned in favor of another family member. The chief was not infallible even though his subjects honored his sacred relationship which linked the powers of god and of his ancestors with the welfare of his people. The magico-religious or semi-divine relationships are revealed to his subjects in a number of ceremonies, such as those taking place at his enthronement, before battle, during a period of pestilence, at the birth of twins, and especially during the seasonal ceremonies connected with the annual agricultural cycle. In precolonial times a newly designated Sukuma Ntemi went through the following series of ceremonies or rights of passage.


Kundima – Apprehending of the candidate
Kugundika – Seclusion and lessons from banang’oma on how to be chief
Kung’wanila Ntemi – Enthronement


Kufuha Maholelo – Blessing of royal regalia, singing of Kologosho, the bafumu song, and sacrifices to the great diviners like Luhinda.
Kumula Ntemi – Anointing the chief.
Kuhanga Mbula – Rain prophecy or divination for community.
Kugabila Ha Mashigo ga Batemi – Offering at chief’s graves.
Bumoga wa Ntemi (Busunzula) – Cutting of chief’s hair.
Mashuda Na mbina ja Ndabaliga – Peoples feast and dancing.
Kwolechiwa Ku Banhu – Presentation to the people.
Kuja Lombo – Hunting expedition.
Ngole wa Lwambe – For one night ntemi sleeps with this woman chosen from royal family.

Archival photograph of Kikanga, the Ntemi (chief) of Bukumbi Chiefdom, c. 1900, Courtesy of the Archives of the Missionaries of Africa, Rome

Traditionally, the chief was chosen among the son of the daughters of the previous chief. The choice was made by the banang’oma, royal family members who are official attendants and resembled modern day government cabinet members and ministers. The royal ministers rarely indicated who would succeed the current ruler until his death and so the new chief was not groomed for the position and dependent on the ministers for his training. He was also heavily influenced by the traditional healers or bafumu (Waganga in Kiswahili), the Diviners, Rainmakers. Along with these specialist, he also depended on advice and expertise of the Balongo or blacksmiths. These people forged agricultural tools, weapons and controlled fire. These intermediaries would usually take the blame if mhola was challenged and would be punished for mistakes, poor predictions, or bad advice that the Ntemi may have acted upon. In this way the semi-divine chief was shielded from daily criticism, but if the circumstances continued to deteriorate it was possible that the chief could be dethroned. In most chiefdoms the chiefs controlled the ivory trade, received tribute from community members, controlled the use of fire with the assistance of the Balongo and depended on the traditional doctors for medicine or dawa. The relationship of the royal court of the chief with the balongo (Blacksmiths) and the bafumu (Traditional Doctors) was pyramidal and linked spiritually and economically. Ignatius Manyama Pambe in his dissertation on Sukuma culture explains that concepts like “spirits,” “spirit possession,” “spirit of ancestors,” and “medicines” are considered to be sources of “power,” “ability,” or simply “mystical magical power,” and are essential to the “rituals and the symbols which help in making the “chief, traditional doctor, and blacksmith.” Through the symbolic, the consecrated, the traditional and with the medicine of the traditional doctors, the manufacturing (hoes and spear heads) and fire making of the blacksmiths and the creation of mhola and rain by the chief, these authorities controlled the spiritual and economic vitality of their communities.

Colonial Influence

Sukuma Chiefdom Federation Building, April 1, 1995, Malya village

During the German (1860s -1916 ) and British (1916-1961) Colonial periods the traditional mode of succession since the first Sukuma Chief Sanga was interrupted to help secure support for colonial policies. The German colonial government often placed “Akidas” or non-indigenous coastal leaders in power and the British pressured the Sukuma chiefdoms of Usukuma to place the eldest son on the throne or to elect a man from the royal family at the death of the chief. The British also created the Sukuma Federation of Chiefdoms which brought together the Sukuma chiefs to discuss government policy in Malya. These changes were a mainstay of “Indirect Rule,” the British policy for ruling Tanzania and Usukuma that enabled the colonial government to influence the future chiefs through european style training and education. It also was a way to neutralize the power of the royal ministers against colonial policies and increase that of the chief who was biased by his new education and possibly pleased to gain power at the expense of the royal ministers. Marie Jassy explains, “traditionally the Ntemi received his authority from two sources: the life force coming from his maternal ancestors, and the consensus of his people. The first role of the Ntemi was to insure good rains and crops by conducting appropriate ceremonies at planting and harvest times. At such occasions with the help of his first wife and of successful magico-religious practitioners, including rain-makers, he called upon his ancestors and other spiritual agencies to bring fertility to the fields, women and cattle…..The second role of the Ntemi was to maintain justice and peace, which meant the same thing in Sukuma society, as a just solution to a conflict which allowed two parties involved to be reconciled with one another.”

Yet during the colonial period, the authority of the ntemi or chief did not come from maternal ancestors, his royal ministers, the traditional doctors or the consensus of the people, but from the influential colonial government. Thus the traditional authorities that supported the chief slowly became no longer relevant and the chief “became a member of a different hierarchy, that of colonial administration, where all initiatives came from the top down and could be implemented without the consensus of the population.” The historical effect of the British “Indirect Rule” that attempted to purge “native law and customs of all that offends against justice and morality” was that the chiefs became civil servants, the interface between chiefdom and Colonial authority. This ruling strategy of the British crushed the political future of the chiefs because while trying to preserve what was left of their authority, the chiefs sacrificed their spiritual and economic power and mandate.


On the eve of independence, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere explained that “We tell the chiefs frankly that their authority is traditional only in the tribes, Tanganyka is not a traditional unit at all, and if the chiefs want to have a place in this thing we call Tanganyika, they have got to adapt themselves to this new situation, there is nothing traditional in the central government of Tanganyka.” Considering that the authority of the chief was traditional and sanctioned by the British it was not surprising that in 1961 at independence the newly formed Tanzanian government extinguished the political power of the chief and the Sukuma Federation of chiefs. After nearly seventy five years of colonial rule, the role of the chief was diminished and tainted by his association with the colonial rule and lack of leadership within the nationalist movement. Throughout these periods of extreme transformation and diversity many royal families did not relinquish their royal regalia even though the political conditions forced the objects literally underground where many, unfortunately, were destroyed by nature and the environment.


Ndeji Ndeji Royal Emblem Royalty
Ndili ya Shimba Ngozi ya Simba Lion Skin Fierceness
Ndili ya Subi Ngozi ya Chui Leopard Skin Fierceness
Isumbi lya Nhebe Kiti cha Ntemi Royal Stool Ceremonial
Ng’oma ndogo Ngoma ndogo Royal Drum Ceremonial
Ng’oma ya ntemi Ngoma Small Royal Drum Ceremonial
Buta na Masonga ga Ngoba Upinde na Mishale Bow, Hooked Arrow Military
Lumuda Ngao Shield Military
Masaba Shuka Ivory Bracelets Wealth
Isabujo Kiholi Trough Rainmaking
Mbizo Teso Adze Agricultue
Nanga gwa ntemi Fimbo ya ntemi Chief’s Cane Peace
Sing’wanda Mguisho Fly Whisk Leadership
Nguba Mfukuto Bellows Economy
Shantalu sha Shimba Viatu vya Simba Lion Skin Sandals Royalty
Ichimu Mkuki Spear Military
Ihima Kofia Crown Royal


Masaba Shuka Ivory Bracelets Wealth
Shilungu Kilungu Royal Emblem Royalty
Lupingu Lupingu Royal Emblem Royalty
Shilatu sha Shimba Kiatu cha Simba Lion Skin Sandals Royalty
Busalu wa Ng’oma Shanga za Ngoma Beaded Headress Status

Sukuma Royal Traditions in the 1990s

Royal Pavilion, Sukuma Museum

Today, royal traditions are preserved in the Royal Pavilion of the Sukuma Museum. But, slowly, as in Magu and Nela chiefdoms, chiefs are resurfacing in Usukuma. In the past, the strength of the chief resided in their ability to communicate with their ancestors for the welfare of the Chiefdom and not the colonial authorities. This magico-religious relationship was transcended through royal ceremonies and shitongelejo which are sacred objects passed down from ones ancestors. The following list comprises many of the items that would be collected through the ages by an chief from his predecessor and ancestors. Items were often added to the collection of each new ntemi or queen (Queen) by the royal ministers. The list should be understood as a broad classification and not literal as each Sukuma chief and queen may have had some of these shitongelejo, all, or others that may be particularly symbolic to the family, clan, or chiefdom. Some of these items may also be included in the shitongelejo of any member of the chiefdom and reflects the importance of the relationship with ones ancestors and forms a common link among all the people and the royal family. This current list of royal regalia which was collected during field research in 1995 and 1996 is interesting because of its similarity to a more ancient list of regalia passed down to Mzee Joseph Mahyegu Lupande (Bujora Cultural Center Manager) by his father from a very old oral account of the founding of Sukumalaha by Nkanda and the enthronement of the first chief, Sanga, in 1504.

In this tale, Sanga was sent to his new home by his father with the following Longo traditional royal regalia; drums, royal emblem (ndeji), hoe (igembe), twing (ng’ochangoko), saji ya maguta, royal throne (nzule), lion skin (shimba) and a leopard (subi) skin, bow and arrows, quiver (ntana). Recently Chief Kishina of Bulima organized a reinstallment ceremony and his royal regalia was made up of things passed down to him and hisroyal ministershad made other traditional shitongelejo. In Nela, Ntemi Masanja is having new royal drums made and is building a new traditional royal residence or in Kisukuma an itemelo which when built will be the only one in Usukuma.

The royal residence that Ntemi Masanja is building, will be a traditional itemelo which is very similar to the round Sukuma home seen here built by the healer Mbula, but much larger. The one significant difference that declared the itemelo different from other dwellings in a village was the roof ornamentation. Placed at the peak of the thatched roof were two woven circular branches of the makamila tree. Above this an inverted pot was placed and then four horns of the lala, a gazelle, facing to north, south, east and west. A traditional hoe, one in the triangular shape of a spade was then placed within the arrangement. The hoe would be anointed with python fat, red ocher, rain medicine and wild honey. The hoe represents the harvest; the earthen pot the plentitude of food, and the thorn twigs relates to the protection against the chiefdom’s enemies. Ntemi Masanja is also preparing to resume the shaving of his head in 1996 as did Ntemi Kishosha Kapunda of Nw’wagala in Magu district. Ntemi Kishina of Bulima continues to make offerings for good rain and claims great success for 1994 and 1995 which were excellent years for rain. Traditionally the major ceremonies performed by the chief are:


Kujila Mbula- Ceremony and fetching of rain or Mbula, the rainmakers.
Kufunya na Kusanja Mbiyu – Bringing out and mixing of the seeds.
Kumiza – Local method of seed sowing.
Kubegesa Moto Gwa Ng’waka – Making of the New years fire for the community.
Kufunya Ngoye – Blessing of the home during rethatching of home.
Why are these chiefs renewing traditional customs, making new shitongelejo, and building traditional royal residences for the old Sukuma ceremonies? As Tanzania has accelerated its movement toward democracy, the multi-party system, increased its communication networks and opened its economy the need for a Tanzanian and Sukuma cultural identity has increased. The need is acute because once a nation enters the international economy they are inevitably faced with the increased cultural homogeneity produced by the cultural and commercial imperialism of the United States and Europe. This homogeneity is manifest in the identity of Coca Cola, Pepsi, fast food, and most of all through video. Possibly to defend one’s culture, ones identity, ones history, the chiefs are trying to fill a gap of cultural leadership. Today’s chiefs have conceded that they indeed are trying to fill a gap of cultural leadership that has grown since Independence. Possibly as the nation feels more secure in its political role it is more willing to accept elements of the past. This includes cultural traditions that the colonial governments destroyed and that the revolutionary Independence government could not fully embrace for political reasons revolving around the necessity of unifying a nation of many different cultures.

Today many chiefs are becoming more visible and are taking active roles in their community and are participating in traditional ceremonies, such as the Busunzula or shaving of the chief ‘s hair at the beginning of the planting season. Their societal role is not political, but reflects an increased interest in culture, in Kiswahili utamuduni, which may be experiencing a unique renaissance in Usukuma. The uniqueness of this renaissance lies in the dynamic social and political changes that are spreading through Usukuma during the current Post-Independence period of Tanzanian history.