Survival of the Chagga


Tanzania is Africa’s leader of ethnic and cultural diversity! Over 120 tribes share the country and live together in peace – something, the Tanzanians are very proud of! But it was not always like that. Before colonialization tribes were regularly fighting over land, cattle and power. An ethnic group in the Northern Tanzania suffered especially. But they also had some very clever ways of protecting themselves.

The Chagga tribe has always been living at the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro. They were and are famous for growing vegetables, maize, beans and bananas in the fertile soil of the mountain.

About two hundred years ago there was a severe drought in Tanzania and people living in the lower parts of the country started to suffer heavily. So did the Maasai tribe who lived in the low lands of the Kilimanjaro area with their cattle. The Maasai and the Chagga always had a lively trade where the Maasai would exchange cow skin, milk and meat for vegetables, maize, beans and bananas from the Chagga tribe. But when the drought made the low lands impossible to live in, the Maasai tried to seize the fertile lands of the Chagga.

The Maasai started to steal the young boys of the Chagga to make them their slaves and kill them once they reached the age of fighters – only to menace the tribe of their power. This was when the mountain tribe developed the idea of digging caves to hide from the cruel Maasai warriors. It took them 54 years to finish digging them up with their bare hands, just using cow bones or volcanic rocks from Kilimanjaro.







Today Daniel Mlingi (in the picture above) made the ancient caves in Marangu, Kilimanjaro, accessible for tourists who are interested in Cultural Tourism. Since 1990 he manages the grounds of the ancient Chagga caves and teaches young men and women to become cave guides to show the guests around. The tour on site will take you underground, where you will learn everything about the tricks the Chagga used for hiding, as well as in a Chagga hut, where you will see how the Chagga people lived over ground before. You can also do a coffee-making workshop and enjoy the tourist shop with beautiful souvenirs.







Once you enter the caves you will see how clever the Chagga people planned their refuge. A living room for the family, a room for cooking, ventilation shafts, a room to keep the cows and ambushing chambers where they hid to attack the incoming enemies.

And the Maasai did try many times to win over the Chagga by entering their caves – but without success. Any Maasai who entered the caves wouldn‘t come out again. Most of the Maasai were killed in the caves, cut into pieces and flushed down the river. But some were kept for interrogations and slavery. It were cruel times.

One day the Maasai put together chilli and tobacco leaves and set them on fire to blow the steam into the caves. They were sure that the steam would kill everyone. But the brave Maasai who entered the caves wouldn’t be seen again. One of the Chagga man, who saw the incoming steam reacted very smart by putting up a cow skin to prevent the steam coming in. No Chagga was harmed that day.

After some more failures the Maasai finally gave up, being afraid of the devil living in the caves. They ran far until they reached the fertile lands of Ngorongoro and the plains of Serengeti where they live until now.

You can visit the Chagga Caves to get a unique insight in tribal lives of the past and the Tanzania before colonization. You can support the local community and the preservation of the ancient site by giving a donation at the end of the tour that is otherwise free of charge.


by Katharina Stein


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