“Kids tell us it’s pointless”: Tanga’s hidden histories of land and sea

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Through years of conversation, rarely heard stories of hope, regret and resilience – which destabilise typical development tropes – emerged.

In Tanga, Tanzania. Credit for all photo: Jenny Matthews.

A group of women pose in Tanga, Tanzania. Credit for all photo: Jenny Matthews.

Speak to the people of Tanga and those that remember will tell you that the town is not what it used to be. In its heyday, this coastal city in northeast Tanzania was full of factories for textiles, construction materials, paint, and cosmetics. Local expertise in fishing, farming, rug and basket-making, boat carving, and medicinal plants was highly valued.

Today, by contrast, work is informal, precarious, and unstable. Artisanal fishing is under threat from European and Chinese trawlers as well as climate change. Farmers battle increasingly erratic weather patterns, floods, the encroachment of genetically modified seeds, and supply chain problems. The controversial East Africa Crude Oil Pipeline promises to replace large swathes of mangrove and beach if it finally comes to fruition. Generations’ worth of knowledge is no longer being passed down to young people, who would rather set up tourism businesses, beauty parlours, or train as mganga (healers and diviners) to get rich quick.

The historia iliyofichwa ya ardhi na bahari (“hidden histories of land and sea”) project sought to capture the stories of those living this reality in Tanga today. This took many years of spending time in a local fishing community, visiting people’s homes, and building trust. It involved lots of chatting; afternoons in Tanga are 30 degrees and very humid, too hot to do much except chat. With time, people opened up, revealing a vast array of perspectives and positions. Some, like taxi driver Zawadi, remain resolute and resilient. Others, like Bi Asha and Mama Tausi, feel beaten, resentful, and tired. Others still, like the dope-smoking boda boda boys, create fantasies of mwini – being a sultan – to escape the drudgery of a life with few good options.

The final project was co-created with the interviewees, who learnt how to use hand-held recorders and decided how they wanted to be presented. What emerged are images, views, and voices we rarely get to see. Devoid of jargon, the work destabilises development tropes and offers a window into a piece of the global puzzle typically ignored. Though on the margins from the perspective of the Global North, Tanga is subject to global political and economic decisions. As a result, life has become transient and insecure, though far from hopeless. There’s a committed, diverse and deep sense of pride about the community’s marine cultural heritage and a nuanced understanding from all age groups about just how rich this environment is.


Mama Mwanamvua Salehe, weaver, basket and rug artisan, farmer (left photo)

“We try and pass these skills on. Kids tell us it’s useless, pointless. The young people of today prefer to make house decorations using cloth (kufuma vitambaa). They want office work. What can we do? We cannot force them. They want to sit around in the office and write with pens; what can we do about it? It is definitely our responsibility to preserve the old cultures, but it gets complicated because if we train someone, then we get complaints because why did we favour her? We don’t have enough money or facilities to do it large scale, only our relatives. Also my eyes are really bad now. I see double vision when there’s only one thing.”

Bi Salama Bwanga (left in right photo, with her friend Josphine Tanga)

“We practice a very traditional skill called unyago. It is an education for young men and women about to marry. It is many things: how to get along with them amicably; how to co-exist with your husband or wife and have a happy marriage; how to keep house – very practical things like how to budget and clean, how to take care of babies. Then there’s another level: to deepen their understandings of themselves and enjoy their bodies, including contraception. We can’t go into great depth because by their nature some of these things are personal, and secretive, and not be discussed in public”.


Rajab Adballah, boatbuilder and fisherman

“Boats made in this way are part of traditions that are hundreds of years old. We use coconut, mango, eucalyptus trees. These skills for building the canoes now are dying due to the availability of trees and the fact that it’s time consuming and complicated. We do still build dhows with processed timber which is available, but the issue is cost. They are expensive and where the canoes are for two or three freelance fishermen who pay the skipper, the dhow is for up to twenty, who pay the skipper and then split the catch. But there’s not enough fish for these bigger boats now. No one is making any money. I used to make three or four boats a year. I’ve made one in the last three years.”


Charles Joseph Nyasolo, retired jazz musician (left)

“Let me tell you about the illegal slavery that my grandparents told me about: it continued until the 1940s and took place here on the beach. The people who were responsible for these activities were the Arabs. They pretended to be going to DRC, Burundi and Rwanda, but behind their businesses they were also buying slaves and taking them by force to the slave markets. They had their own station centres for collecting the slaves. The slave trade bosses did not walk; they were being carried by slaves aloft in a bed where they could just give commanding orders to their security personnel. The slaves who died on the journey were left behind, just left there as others proceeded with the journey.”

Margareth Mwanamvua, mganga (healer/physician) (right)

“Tanga was a really big port used for slavery and for transportation from countries like Burundi,  Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Uganda. Now it has ceased to be so famous because of Dar es Salaam, which is a business city and has a good transport system. From Tanga, it was easy to get to Bagamoyo, Pangani, Zanzibar. These were stations and markets for slaves. They were all easy to get to from Tanga. This museum used to be the administrative building for the British and the Germans. From here it was easy to ship the slaves to Zanzibar, where there was a large slavery market. There was no market here. This was used as a terminal. They used to rest here before they took their journey to Zanzibar.”


Mama Tausi Ramadan Mohamed, single mother of five, fruit seller and plastic collector

“We have two types of seeds these days. We say ‘modern’ and ‘local’. The modern ones are GMO and are for things like melon, apples, but they have a lot of chemicals in them. So people often criticise them and say they don’t produce a good taste. For example, the rice from the modern seeds is bouncy like plastic! I have three jobs so I’m totally exhausted. I sell fruit by the side of the road, but I also collect plastic bottles and used plastic and bring it to the recycling factory to be ground down and made into chips which are sent abroad; I don’t know where or why. Often people piss into these bottles so it’s not nice. I’m 35. I do not want my children to be like me. I am a failure.”


Principle investigator: Thembi Mutch. Co-investigator: Aida Mulokozi. Researchers: Neema Mtenga, Julius Mkwaya, Jenny Matthews. All photos credit to Jenny Matthews. A full selection of the photos and film will be on display in the Wolfson Gallery, SOAS, London, in July 2023. ‘Team Watafiti’ is Neema Mtenga, Aida Mulolozi, Sylvester Mkwaya, Thembi Mutch and Jenny Matthews. More information here and here.





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