The Indian Ocean Coast – Tanga

9th March 2013

The wide and shady avenues of Tanga are the first clue to its past. It is evident within minutes of arrival that Tanga was once a popular colonial and industrial centre, complete with strict town-planning, immaculate roads, a fine looking hospital, police posts and an imposing gaol. But the huge steel hulks of old ships have turned to rust in the old harbour, and paving stones are loose and sporadically sprouting weeds. These are signs of a far greater misfortune that has befallen the once fine town that thrived here, but which has since suffered harsh economic decline. It hardly feels large enough to classify as Tanzania’s third largest city, or its second most important port, but it is extensive enough to have developed several distinct areas. Row upon row of small swahili houses and shops extend southwards behind the railway line reminiscent of purpose-built workers accommodation dating from the Industrial Revolution, and the thousands of people who live here are a generous mix of the numerous main regional tribes, with many others besides. Exploring the town a little further brings you to the looping coastal road around the peninsula called Ras Kazone. Here a number of large, detached residential houses sit sleepily in the sunshine, soaking up a salty air of bygone beachside elegance that this waterfront with its sailing club and swimming club and grand old hotels once nurtured.

Tanga – History

When the British explorer Burton visited the settlement of Tanga in 1857 he described a collection of ‘thatch pent-roofed huts, built upon a bank overlooking the sea.’ He estimated the local population to be between 4 and 5 thousand people, including around fifteen Baluchis and twenty Indian merchants, all held in check by the Sultans troops under his appointed ‘Wali’, or governor. So, when the German East Africa Company came here in 1888, following their success in persuading the Sultan to lease them a 16km wide strip along the coastline of Tanzania, Tanga was a relatively small fishing village that would have sustained a certain amount of commercial trade with Bagamoyo. The town sent annual caravans into the Usambara, Pare, Kilimanjaro and Maasai regions to return laden with ivory for sale. There were a handful of Omani residents who chose a quieter life here north of the central port town, but in essence this was a rural region occupied by a number of distinct and different tribes. These include the Digo people and the Bondei, whose name means ‘of the valley’, originally from Kenya but each squeezed south by their neighbours, and the Shambaa and the Pare people from the nearby Usambara and Pare mountains, also extending southwards. Another migrant group was the Segeju, who are less in evidence today, probably as a result of intermarrying, but they are considered responsible for building a number of protective walled enclosures around the Tanga region, thought to have been built during the 19th century as a defence against the Maasai. Some of these, however, have angled spy-holes similar to those at the ‘Gereza’ at Kilwa and Fort Jesus in Mombassa, which may indicate Arab influences in design and construction.

The Zigua people remained on their turf just south of Tanga, perhaps the original people of the Tanga region, and developed an impressive reputation for keeping themselves to themselves but responding with violent aggression when challenged. They have become a large tribe, taking many wives and remaining generally resistant to missionaries pushing for schooling in return for taking on the Christian faith. All of these people and other neighbouring tribes were familiar with the commercial exchange provided by the proximity of the caravan routes, but perhaps none were prepared for the advent of the new German port. At the end of the 19th century the first colonial power had begun work to develop the small port of Tanga to accommodate their steam ships after the port of Bagamoyo proved too shallow, and soon after, in 1893, they completed a railway line from Moshi to Tanga.

In the same year the first school in Tanzania was built and run initially by the German Colonial Society, and then soon after it was taken over by the government. The school developed quite a reputation for rigorous discipline, to the extent that it was meted out with canes and chains, but was evidently successful in organising a structure of education that focused on learning the German language, reading, writing and craft skills.

The fertile lands around Tanga and up into the Usambara mountains were very soon cultivated and proved profitable. Extensive sisal plantations were laid out, but further progression was thwarted by the outset of World War One. Tanga was then the site of one of the most infamous military blunders in East Africa. Thousands of Allied Troops were dispatched to lay a surprise attack on the Germans along the Tanga coastline, although the surprise was theirs when they arrived to find the dense mangroves along the beaches almost impenetrable, and the German troops fully prepared for their arrival. They were repulsed further by an aggressive swarm of disturbed bees, and were forced to abandon crucial supplies and weapons in retreat. An estimated 800 men died, with almost as many injured, in various ways. This episode and other events of the First World War on Tanzanian soil are excellently, if imaginatively, recounted in William Boyd’s novel, The Ice-Cream War.

In the years following the war, the population of Tanga was curiously altered as the German settlers moved away and the sisal plantations were taken over by a feisty contingent of Greek farmers. These developed a wild reputation for popular gambling sessions, during which entire estates might change hands, and enjoyed enormous prosperity from their sisal crops until the mid 1950s, when sisal prices crashed. The crop has never really recovered as a result of the proliferation of manufactured fibres, although it is still worthwhile for many of the smaller, recently privatised farms, but the population of Tanga today is largely dependent on local dhow trade with the Tanzanian and Kenyan coast, and the cement and brick factories that are situated just west of the town.

Tanga – Around town and local activities

The Tanga Ropeworks near the Post Office at the centre of town has examples of the various ropes made from sisal, once the lifeline for the town’s prosperity. This is opposite the old German-built Court House, which remains an imposing and good-looking structure that still functions as a ministration of law and order.

A walk along Independence Avenue, parallel to the sea front, leads past the Clock Tower erected in 1961, towards the Library, a substantial building in front of a pleasant arched courtyard that was opened by the British Governor Sir Edward Twining in the mid-1950s. Just west of the Library along Independence Road brings you to the Old Boma, large, heavy and imposing, and situated in a prime position overlooking the old harbour. A more curious and attractive legacy of this colonial era can be found a couple of blocks directly south, where the quaint and seemingly entirely unchanged railway station seems to have been lifted straight from a picture book of European country stations a century ago. Sadly this route is no longer functioning for passengers. To get here, walk through the Uhuru Park and follow Station Road south. Tanga School is situated on the eastern aspect of the park.

Tanga – Out of town

Just 8km north of Tanga, Amboni Caves are a good and exciting diversion if you have a little time to spend in Tanga. These are a protected portion of over 207 km of limestone caves dating from the Jurassic age, which have inspired a number of mystical legends in their time. Local people have traditionally regarded the strange formation as being supernatural, and call them Mzimu wa Mabavu, the dwelling of a powerful deity. For this reason people come from all surrounding areas to offer prayers and sacrifices, seeking cures from sickness, suffering or lack of fertility, and in certain areas you will find dusty bottles of oil, perfumes and charred incense. History tells how these caves proved a formidable sanctuary for certain individuals during the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, particularly the now legendary Elias Samuel Oselloetango, who continually thwarted the British attempts to capture him. This evasive anti-hero used these caves to hide with Paulo Hamisi between 1952 and 1956, and during those years managed to spread all manner of tales about his exploits vanishing from prison cells and living in this underground maze. An unappealing description of his scarred, dark, heavy complexion and lock of curly hair hanging low on his forehead brings the legend to life on yellowing ‘wanted’ posters hanging in the guide’s hut.

The caves are under the protection of the Antiquities Act of 1964, and it is possible to take a guided tour through many of the caves at Amboni. These exceptional natural rock formations are distinctly impressive, but do not expect more from the ‘guided tour’ than a man with a torch leading through the maze and pointing out odd stalactite formations that seem to have the appearance of the Virgin Mary, or a roaring lion. Finally he points out ‘Kilimanjaro’, while you are standing at the bottom of a very steep pile of rocks, from the top of which the path continues. Nevertheless, it is absolutely imperative to take a guide, as fatalities have been incurred when individuals have gone in alone. The tour is great fun, but not recommended for claustrophobics, vertigo-sufferers, or anyone nervous about climbing, squeezing and scrambling through often quite small dark spaces. The honeycomb cave maze is liberally inhabited by bats and absolutely unlit. Entrance with a guide is Tsh 1000 per person.

Tanga – Tongoni Ruins

Near the village of Tongoni, 20 km south of Tanga town off the Tanga-Pangani road, there are ruins of a much older settlement of the same name that date from the 13th to 16th centuries, as well as mosques, tombs and defensive walls from the 18th and 19th centuries. Many of these older sites are now thickly overgrown, and access to many is difficult or impossible. ‘Tongoni’ is a Swahili term meaning place of ruins, or more literally ‘forsaken place’, although it is said that more recent inhabitants called the place ‘Sitahabu’, meaning ‘better here than there’. These were ancestors of some inhabitants of present day Tongoni, remembered as ‘Shirazi’ migrants from Kilwa who found the ruins deserted and occupied some of the old houses. Perhaps a few generations passed before the earlier alternative was forgotten and their home was re-christened Tongoni.

Remains of the most ancient settlement at Tongoni is mainly found to the North and East of the ruined large central Mosque and tombs, which notably include a number of 14th to 15th century pillar tombs. The pillars have scalloped indentations that would have once been decorated with glazed porcelain saucers, as seen at the domed mosque at Kilwa, but none of these pieces remain intact. Many have extensive frieze work carved around. A plain, double walled tomb near a fallen pillar tomb that rests on the east wall is considered significantly spiritual, as local tradition tells how this is the tomb of a Shariff, a descendent of Prophet Mohammed. People still bring offerings here, especially women hoping for children.

Tanga – Getting Around

Tanga is largely navigable on foot, although this can mean covering a fair old distance if you are keen to explore the town centre, the Raskazone peninsula and more. It is possible and worthwhile to hire a bicycle, especially if you are energetic enough to cover the kilometres to Amboni Caves as well, and these can be rented for around Tsh100-200 per hour from the roundabout between the bus stand and the train station on Taifa Road.

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