People and History

The lower slopes of Kilimanjaro – exceedingly rich in flora and fauna – have been inhabited by African peoples for hundreds of generations. It is probable that the first hunter gatherers were displaced by later waves of Bantu and Nilotic peoples. Today the main African tribe to inhabit the Kilimanjaro region is the Chagga (or Wachagga) people. They are agriculturists and make good use of the fertile lower slopes to grow tea, coffee, bananas and corn.

Early European explorers and missionaries of the mid nineteenth century brought Kilimanjaro to the attention of the world. One hundred and fifty years ago Johannes Rebman, a German born missionary, saw the snow-capped Kilimanjaro and was later ridiculed in Europe for believing that snow could fall on the equator. Thirteen years later Baron von der Decken and British geologist Richard Thornton proved the presence of snow. Hans Meyer made the first successful climb to the summit in 1889. Since then the mountain has been scaled by hundreds of thousands of travellers via a myriad of new routes, including difficult technical routes, which have opened up.

Kilimanjaro and its people – the Chagga

Kilimanjaro’s various names are testament to the significance the mountain holds to the many different tribes and peoples of northern Tanzania. To the Maasai, it is Oldoinyo Oibor, the “white mountain”, and its highest peak (Kibo), is known as Ngaje Ngai, or “House of God”. While in Swahili, Kilma Njaro, or “Shining Mountain”, is a common reference to Kilimanjaro.

The people most intimately connected with the great mountain, however, are the Chagga tribe, who have occupied the foothills of Kilimanjaro for centuries, deriving from the mountain both physical and spiritual sustenance.

Kilimanjaro has long held a special significance to the Chagga. The mountain, and especially its highest peak, Kibo, are the great landmark and focus of their culture. In Chagga tradition, the dead are buried facing Kibo peak (which, in Chagga as in traditional Maasai culture, is believed to house God).

The Chagga are thought to have first reached Kilimanjaro in the 16th or 17th centuries, migrating, like the Maasai after them, from the north, through Kenya and Ethiopia. A domineering force, they wiped out or incorporated other tribes as they went, including Kilimanjaro’s indigenous population.

The Chagga weren’t a unified peoples but rather a collection of disparate and occasionally warring clans. These clans would come to occupy different corners of the Kilimanjaro foothills and seem to have had their own distinct customs. But they shared a common language and a reverence for the mountain.

There are still traces of these early Chagga clans. Kilimanjaro’s most popular routes (Machame, Marangu) take their name from their trailhead towns, which are in turn named after the Chagga tribes that first settled them.

As with the Maasai people, the Chagga have largely abandoned their traditional customs, which included ancestor worship and perhaps other, more colouful practices recorded in the not always reliable testimonies of European colonists. Old practices and tribal identities disappeared in the 19th and 20th centuries, replaced by broader religious (chiefly Christian) and national identities. But traces of the Chagga culture still remain, in the names of, and the mythology surrounding, the peaks of Kilimanjaro.