Church and State in Tanzania: Aspects of Changing Relationships, 1961-1994

By Frieder Ludwig | Go to book overview

CHAPTER TWO

CHURCHES AND ETHNIC IDENTITIES

Over the last decades, there has been much discussion about the concepts of ethnic groups or tribes. It is now widely recognised that traditional societies of the pre-colonial era were not unchanging and fixed entities. In times of crisis smaller groups could join together to form larger units, or the traditional society could disintegrate. Although differences did exist between the various peoples, ethnic boundaries in the precolonial period were flexible. In those regions where migration or trade promoted contact between the different traditional societies, a tendency to ethnic consolidation or assimilation can be observed.'

Only in the colonial era did the concept of a tribe as having a clearly defined size and well established boundaries begin to develop. The policy of the colonial administration was to subdivide their occupied territory and to work wherever possible with local figures of authority, for example the tribal chiefs. Thus ethnic groups were created which had not existed in that form before. The Nyamwezi in western Tanzania do not for example share any common myths of origin, customs and institutions. As a result of the colonial situation however new customs and traditions could be formed or “invented”.2 In a widely known article T. O. Ranger drew attention to the fact that certain African groups appealed to invented “traditions” to legitimise their position.5 Although the conclusion that African ethnicities were invented during colonial times has been challenged—in a recent contribution Adrian Hastings stressed that precolonial African communities had an inherent sense of identity, which was very closely linked with language use4—and indeed has been repudiated by

1 W. Aschenbrenner-Wellmann, Ethnizität in Tanzania: Überkgungen zur Bedeutung der
Ethnizität im Rahmen des gesellschaftlichen Wandels
(Munchen, 1991), pp. 90, 91.

2 Aschenbrenner-Wellmann, Elhnizitdt, p. 92, refers to the work of J. Koponen,
People and Production in Late Precolonial Tanzania. History and Structure (Uppsala, 1988).

3 An intense discussion has been stimulated by T.O. Ranger's article “The Inven-
tion of Tradition in Colonial Africa” in: E. Hobsbowm, T.O. Ranger (eds.), The
Invention of Tradition
(Cambridge, 1983, pp. 211–262).

4 A. Hastings, The Construction of. Nationhood. Ethnicity, Religion and Nationalism (Cam-
bridge, 1997), p. 149.

-17-

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