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Chagga elites and the politics of ethnicity in Kilimanjaro, Tanzania

Chagga elites and the politics of ethnicity in Kilimanjaro, Tanzania
Thomas Fisher


Centre of African Studies, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh EH8 9YL, UNITED KINGDOM.


The focus of this thesis is on elite members of the Chagga ethnic group. Originating from the fertile yet crowded slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro, this group is amongst the most entrepreneurial and best educated in Tanzania. In the literature on ethnicity, elites are usually understood as playing a key role in the imagining of ethnicities, while at the same time usually being venal and manipulating ethnicity for purely instrumental means. Yet this approach not only risks misrepresenting elites; it also clouds our understanding of ethnicity itself. This thesis interrogates themes of elites, politics and ethnicity through an examination of the trajectories of Chagga experience from the 1850s to the present.

Any discussion of Chagga ethnicity must have at its centre place - the landscape of Kilimanjaro, and the kihamba banana garden. Ideas of Chagga ethnicity were shaped by how the very first European explorers and missionaries saw the landscape of the mountainside. This formed how the colonial Tanganyikan state treated the Chagga people, placing them in an advantageous position through education, and a wealthy one through the growing of coffee. In the 1950s, the Chagga ethnic group came under a single political leadership for the first time with the introduction of a Paramount Chief. This decade marked a period of Chagga nationalism. The role of intellectuals in the articulation and imagination of Chagga ethnicity is examined through two Chagga-authored ethnohistories. After independence in 1961, the advantages of the colonial period placed Chagga elites in key roles in the new state. However, as Tanzania moved towards Julius Nyerere’s ujamaa socialism, the policies of the state began to clash with the more capitalist outlook of the Chagga elite. Nevertheless, through educational achievement and international migration, members of the Chagga elite were able to remain influential and powerful. As such, they were in an ideal position to take advantage of the political and economic liberalisation, even as new challenges emerged from within Kilimanjaro itself. The thesis concludes with an analysis of the role of ethnicity in the 2005 Presidential elections in Tanzania.

This thesis makes a contribution to the literature on ethnicity in Africa by providing an account of elites that is more nuanced than in much of the existing literature. Even though Kilimanjaro saw one of the strongest manifestations of ethnic nationalism during the colonial period, Chagga elites contributed greatly to the nation-building project in postcolonial Tanzania. Tanzanian nationalism, however, did not destroy a Chagga identity, but rather enabled a new imagining of Chagga ethnicity which today continues to have a role and saliency within the Tanzanian nation.