Central Tanzania – The Southern Highlands – Iringa

21st February 2013

The town of Iringa nestles on a 1600m plateau at the heart of the Southern Highlands, almost entirely hidden from view until you come upon it. It is an unusually attractive town, with wide streets lavishly lined with flowering jacaranda – a legacy of its colonial origins. An overall impression of the town is one of clean organisation and investment – all major roads throughout were immaculately re-gravelled and resurfaced in 1999 – and the central market is vibrant, busy and amply piled with fresh, colourful goods. The high-altitude climate has attracted a healthy population of expatriates, many of whom have returned to the area as a result of the extensive tea plantations further south at Mufindi, and continue to nurture business interests in the town. There are a number of pleasant hotels and restaurants as a result, and a thriving Christian community. Their grand cathedral is raised high on the hill at the entrance of town, its brick façade and whitewashed knave and aisles beneath a neat tile roof form an imposing feature against the Iringa skyline.

Iringa – History

Iringa town developed following the eventual victory of the German colonialists over the Hehe tribe and its supporting sub-tribes during their valiant resistance to European rule through the 1890s.

This resistance was spearheaded by the infamous Hehe Chief Mkwawa, whose formidable war-cry is thought to have inspired the naming of the tribe. The Hehe reputation for warfare was already well established among neighbouring tribes before that advent of the colonial era, and Mkwawa had established a formidable fortress at Kalanga – just a few kilometres outside Iringa, now on the road into Ruaha National Park – with outer walls measuring 13km end to end. The walls are said to have been ‘4m high and as wide as a road’, and contained a smaller, also fortified, inner courtyard. Mkwawa’s tribe practised archery with poisoned arrows, and these became a worthy deterrent for groups of slave-raiding Arabs, until he secured their allegiance with supplies of ivory and leopardskins instead. But no such alliance was made with the European colonialists, who remained irreconcilably at odds with the warrior-like Hehe and their supporting sub-tribes. Mkwawa’s men made a lasting impression on the German troops in 1891 when they carried out an ambush at Lugalo, outside Iringa, and trounced the colonial forces.

Humiliated and furious, the Germans retreated in order to regroup and to plan their retaliation. Three years later, in 1894, they returned for a rematch, and successfully destroyed Mkwawa’s fort. Now the remnants of this ancient rock and clay-moulded stronghold have been whittled down to a rather large mound in the middle of Kalenga village, from the top of which Mkwawa was said to have addressed his people. The vague outline of the old fort walls can just be made out around the edge of a sun-scorched football pitch, but the final onslaught of bullets and grenades launched by German troops from the top of a nearby hill comprehensively obliterated the fortress. On the 19 June 1899, after seven years of resistance, Chief Mkwawa shot himself through the skull rather than surrendering to his German foe. Somewhat ungraciously, the thwarted colonialists chopped his head off and sent it back to Germany, where it came to rest in the Bremen Anthropological Museum for more than fifty years, gathering dust and hardly considered. But the Hehe did not forget, and continued to demand its return, until, on the 19th June 1954, it was finally returned to Mkwawa’s grandson, Chief Adam Sapi. June 19th has traditionally been a holiday for the Wahehe, entailing everyone drinking a popular brew of fermented millet and maize and contributing a cow or money for the celebrations. Although this memorial was forbidden by the original dictate of the 1967 Arusha Declaration concerning distinct tribal practices, it has recently been reinstated since the centenary of Chief Mkwawa’s death.

Chief Mkwawa’s skull is now on display in the small memorial museum on the outskirts of Kalenga village. The path of the final bullet is clearly revealed from chin to crown. Entrance to the museum is arranged by the caretaker, presently Francis Kalenga, who provides a detailed and amusing account of the local history in return for a donation of around Tsh 1000 each. Even if you turn up and find the place locked and apparently deserted, any of the cheeky children that slowly materialise from the shade of the trees can be willingly despatched to find the caretaker and the key, especially if showered with rewards on their return! (Toffees are an ultimate treat). To the right of the museum you can see the impressive ‘palace’ built by the Wahehe people to honour their Chief and his family, even though their rule became only nominal after Independence and the devolution of tribal powers. The ‘palace’ looks surprisingly similar to an English country estate house, and was built on the proceeds of a collection taken from each member of the tribe. Mkwawa’s grandson, Adam Sapi, was Speaker of Tanzania’s first parliament and a highly regarded politician. He died in June 1999, and his son, Mfuimi, takes on the nominal role as head of the Hehe.

Iringa – Around Town

Iringa is small and friendly enough to explore on foot in the course of a day, with a few interesting old colonial buildings such as the Old Boma, Town Hall and Hospital and a bustling although fairly typical local market. A monument outside the police station commemorates the native warriors who died in the Maji Maji rebellion. The surrounding area provides good walking country, with views over the surrounding plains from the plateau. A good destination to the North of the town is Mkwawa’s favourite spot for meditating, known as Gangilonga Rock, the ‘Talking Stone’ in Wahehe. It takes a few minutes to climb to the top, with good views of the town once there.

Just outside Iringa, Isimila Stone Age Site is considered one of the most exciting areas for Stone Age archaeological findings in East Africa. The site is a dry lake bed, and was discovered in 1951, by a schoolboy who came across an axe head. It is thought that Stone Age man camped on the shores of the lake and shaped and worked his tools here, based on the prolific number of tools found in the area and a number of blocks and boulders that were probably used to shape the granite and quartzite rock. A number of fossilised bones have also been found showing the prehistoric forms of species of elephant, hippo and giraffe. The site is signposted from the main road to Mbeya just less than 20 km (12 miles) south of Iringa. The site’s office and small museum is about 1km further from this turning, and this houses an exhibition of some of the tools, bones and fossils found in the area that are thought to date from around 60,000 years ago. There is a $2 entry fee. A guide can also take you around the site, a walk that takes about an hour. A short walk along the valley brings you into the Isimila Gully, a scenic red earth area that has been naturally sculpted and eroded into impressive sandstone pillars and eerie formations that loom overhead on each side of the valley – a good spot for a picnic! A taxi from Iringa will cost around $20, or take a dala dala in the direction of Tosamaganga and get out at the Isimila turn-off.

The small village of Kalenga is just a short drive from Iringa town, and makes for an interesting venture if you have a yen to see the tiny memorial museum to Chief Mkwawa of the Hehe. From here it is also possible to cast an imaginative eye over the sandy remnants of his fortress, now more obviously a football pitch with hummocks of earth around the edge.