The Indian Ocean Coast – Mtwara

7th March 2013

Mtwara is a delightful and unusual town awash with charisma and charm. The colonial influence in its conception is plainly evident with one glance along its wide main street, Tanu Road, where an orderly avenue of flame trees cast some shade on the pavements and neatly frame a whitewashed church tower at the nether end.

Wide streets and vibrantly painted buildings, now known as ‘maduka makubwa’, ‘the big shops’ off Uhuru Road date from the days of the British protectorate and form part of a pleasant town environment that is well maintained by the regional government. Schoolchildren were brought here during the 1940s and 50s to show them the effects of ‘modernity’, and Mtwara retains a pervasive pride and sense of independence despite the dire state of the surrounding infrastructure. Lack of tourists to this southern corner means there are pristine stretches of glorious beach and a fantastic number of coral reefs that have not previously been explored by anyone other than scientists. The region also has a number of historical sites nearby and its proximity to the Makonde plateau provides opportunities to meet and watch Makonde carvers at work.


When the British Administration developed Mtwara Port after WWII they did so to accommodate the vast new trade ships they envisaged would be required for their infamous groundnut project, and had not yet discovered that their lack of planning for would soon cause them grand-scale embarrassment. The ‘groundnut scheme’ was conceived to replenish the shortage of edible oils after the war, and implemented in a grand style near Mtwara in Nachingwea as well as Kongwa north of Morogoro and Urambo near Tabora. Although this was enforced with generous financial backing and modern farm equipment, they failed to carry out proper pilot tests to establish the soil and climatic suitability for groundnuts. Crops were planted out over thousands of hectares but the expensive machinery imported to benefit from modern farming methods proved totally inefficient on hot African soil. Much of the work was finally carried out by hand and a total of £36.5 million was written off as a huge administrative farming error.

But perhaps the widely perceived folly of the British ‘groundnut scheme’ will finally prove to have been worthwhile if the deep water port at Mtwara is finally developed to sustain sizeable trade from Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Mtwara port can presently handle a capacity of 700,000 tons of cargo, and although this is now sorely under utilised it could be increased to 1.5 million tons if plans come to fruition to develop the ‘Mtwara Corridor’ as a viable trade route. The local fishing trade, presently on a small-scale level, could also be increased to an industrial level. The most popular export crop from Mtwara is presently cashew nuts, a cash crop whose fluctuating value on the world market makes for a fraught harvest time in late October, and recently there has been a reintroduction of oilseed crops such as castor which proved successful in this area when the groundnuts failed.

What to do and see

Around town

Mtwara is a pleasant town to hang out in, but with little intrinsic entertainment other than that which can be found by simply exploring the shopping potential. The market forms a maze of shops and stalls around the bus station, with a number of local medicine men with stalls outside the main covered market with a wealth of lotions and potions to cure anything from impotence to unrequited love. (The latter comes with a warning to be certain that the love harnessed is truly desired, as it is said to be so powerful that the recipient may resort to suicidal despair if their affection is not reciprocated). A selection of Makonde carvings can be found for sale at a small hut on the side of Tanu Road, near the Catholic Church, or otherwise a much larger selection is exhibited for sale every Wednesday at the Benedictine St Paul’s Church east of the market in the Majengo area. This church is also well worth visiting on its own merit, to see its walls painted with an excellent collection of narrative paintings by Father Polycarp Uehlein. His vibrant biblical representations have a whimsical, dreamlike quality, perhaps influenced by Kandinsky, and form part of a larger collection in churches throughout Tanzania, including on in Dar es Salaam, although they greatest concentration is in the South. The Shangani area has a relaxed sandy atmosphere, with a decent enough beach beyond the Finn Club for swimming after a hot day in town. The Finn Club itself is equipped with a table tennis table and small swimming pool in addition to a well-stocked bar and covered restaurant. They have changing rooms with showers if you are heading to the beach, and may be persuaded to keep an eye on your bicycles. A man-powered ferry runs between Msangamkuu Peninsula and the dock in Mtwara Bay where fish is bought and sold, cooked or freshly caught at a shanty style bustling market on the beach. The sunsets from here are superb. The peninsula is rural and sandy, with a local village and site of the Frontier Project camp. Sheltered areas can be found along its northern beaches for walking or swimming, whereas the view facing back to Mtwara port is frequently adorned with the bulky mass of vast cargo ships.

The town makes a good central location for exploring the surrounding area, with frequent local transport back and forth from Mikindani, and possible excursions to Msimbati, the Makonde Plateau and Mozambique. (see below)

The Makonde Plateau

Mtwara is the best base for making excursions into the region around and including the Makonde Plateau, which rises up to 900m above sea level and has become widely regarded as the Tanzanian base for the Makonde Tribe. The Plateau remains an essentially rural area, made more difficult to explore as a result of extremely poor road connections. The best form of communication and local knowledge is through the local Anglican and Catholic church organisations, who have developed a wide and popular parish network here since the early 19th century. But each of these towns somehow manages to thrive despite all the odds of their cut-off southerly situation, and there is great hope that the potential advent of the Mtwara Corridor trade route from Malawi will improve the local infrastructure here and provide even more opportunities for these impressively self-sufficient communities.

The Makonde

The Makonde are one of Tanzania’s most populous tribes, famous throughout East Africa for their distinctive ebony carvings. The tribe originated in Mozambique, where many still live, although as they have migrated and scattered the tribe has devolved into a multitude of separate villages governed by hereditary chiefs and elders. Specific collective names have developed to refer to the situation of different Makonde, such as Makonde ‘by the sea’, or ‘of the plateau’, and sometimes ‘of the tattoos’ when referring to the Makonde remaining in Mozambique. The tribe traditionally made small scarring cuts on the faces of women at different stages of life in conjunction with the introduction of an ebony lip plug through their top lip.

Although some suggest that this was to dissuade slaves from stealing their womenfolk, it is likely that the tradition went back further, but the Makonde of Tanzania are fading it out altogether. Apart from forcing the top two teeth out of kilter, sometimes necessitating their removal, the practice is generally considered to hinder the Makonde girls seeking education and work in the new republic. It is also widely held that the Makonde who have moved northwards into Tanzania are more progressive in terms of developing their carving styles and many have continued to move northwards from the Makonde Plateau in the Mtwara region of Tanzania to sell their carvings and work throughout the country.

The fundamental history of the Makonde tribe involves carving. It tells how originally there was one being, who was half-man and half-animal but remained neither. One day he took a piece of wood and carved a tall and wonderful sculpture, then set it outside his house that night as he slept. The next morning the sculpture had grown into a woman, and she was the first Makonde.

The tribe is traditionally matrilineal, meaning that Makonde women own any inheritances and children and men might move to a new wife’s family after marriage. All the tribal women are afforded great respect, whether they are old or young, or alive or dead, and have a wide reputation throughout Tanzania for their sexual expertise. The family is a structural central unit, with housing built up in two concentric circles as it expands. Their carvings reflect their most important values, mainly following themes of ‘ujamaa’ meaning family, or ancestors, spirits and dreams. It is also more common to find Christian religious imagery now, especially around the Mtwara region, where many Makonde have converted. Most Makonde Christians have chosen Roman Catholicism, and only a tiny number have converted to Islaam, although the larger proportion remain true to their traditional beliefs. Family sculptures are often represented by groups of abstract figures joined in a circular design, and ancestors may take a literal shape or otherwise be translated into very abstract spirit forms, which then moves into the popular realm of the dream carvings. These are carvings inspired by powerful dreams, or sometimes cloud patterns and structures that suggest images. These will often evoke quite disturbing images of spirits called Sheteni, representing ancestors or evil spirits.

Makonde boys learn to carve properly around the age of ten, although they may have played with tools and wood before this time, and then later they decide whether their talent will lead them into figurative carving or to create domestic utilities such as bowls, plates, etc.

The first major town directly west of Mtwara is Newala, a remarkably upbeat and independent town considering its hopelessly remote location on the southern border with diabolical untarmacked roads in each direction. The town is raised up on the hillsides overlooking the Ruvuma Valley, with impressive views south that seem to reach all the way to Mozambique. The road from Mtwara wends its way ever upwards through wild woodlands. The slight altitude and wooded surroundings create a pleasant cool and breezy climate, with a propensity for clouds and mists. Local building in the centre of town is mainly concrete and stone, even with internal fireplaces and chimneys to keep out the cold.

It is worth making the trip out to the Shimu ya Munga, ‘Hole of God’, an impressively steep drop off the Ruvumu Valley side with views of the wild mountains beyond. More impressive natural surroundings can be well appreciated from the German Castle.

Continuing west from Newala brings you to the the town of Masasi, the local district capital and another remarkably feisty southern centre for administration. Masasi sits at the end of the long tarmac road from Songea at the junction for the round route to the towns surrounding the Makonde Plateau. It sits snugly surrounded by the Masasi Hills, with are good easy walking tracks to impressive outcrops of rocky granite kopjies and caves, one of which has rock paintings. The town developed from the Anglican Universities Mission to Central Africa settlement for freed slaves in the late 19th century, and it continues to thrive as an important missionary centre. The foreign influence has given the town a reputation for being ‘kama Ulaya’, meaning like Europe, which can be taken more as an indication of the quantity of Western goods imported by the missionaries than as a real lifestyle comparison. The present President Benjamin Mkapa grew up in Masasi, and still has a house in town.

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