Tanzania: Land and people

Extracted from: Grant Masterson 2009 "Chapter 13: Tanzania and Zanzibar" IN Denis Kadima and Susan Booysen (eds) Compendium of Elections in Southern Africa 1989-2009: 20 Years of Multiparty Democracy, EISA, Johannesburg, 513-514.

Mainland Tanzania is located in East Africa a few degrees south of the equator. To the east is the Indian Ocean, to the south Mozambique, to the west Malawi, Zambia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi and Rwanda, and to the north Kenya and Uganda. Tanzania is characterised by a chain of mountains and the deep, narrow lakes of Nyasa (Malawi) and Tanganyika. To the northwest is Lake Nyanza (formerly Victoria), which is relatively shallow and the source of the River Nile. To the northeast are high mountain ranges that extend into Kenya. The interior is divided by mountain ranges and plateaus in the west and south-west, and the Maasai Steppe in the northeast.

The mainland covers some 945,087 square kilometres and has a population of approximately 38.5 million people. Like many other tropical climates, Tanzania has two climactic seasons: the rainy season and the dry season. Given Tanzania's geographical location one would expect an equatorial tropical climate, but due to the nature of Tanzania's interior (particularly the altitude), these regions have more temperate climates. Less than half of the land in Tanzania is suitable for arable use, with soil erosion a major challenge facing agriculture in the country. Forests cover nearly half the area of Tanzania, the most common form of forest consisting of miombo woodlands (scattered brush, trees and thickets). Commercial tree plantations make up less than 0.5 per cent of the total wooded areas.

Tanzania's population includes some 120 different ethnic groups, many with a distinct vernacular. However, Tanzania does have a lingua franca in Kiswahili, which most of these ethnic groups can easily speak. These groups include those of Bantu, Nilotic and Cushitic origins. Some coastal towns still have residents descended from Arab traders who settled there during the first millennium. Fewer still are descendants of British colonists who settled in Tanzania from the 1880s until Tanzanian independence in 1961. There are also hunter-gatherer groups which live in the central regions, known as the Hadzabe and the Sandawe, although these groups face competition from the more populous Maasai pastoralists, whose herds of cattle force them to migrate regularly in search of pastures for their herd, and the challenges of modernisation and government regulation of their lands. Tanzania conducts a census of the population once every 10 years, and has a birth rate of around 48.1 per 1000, and a death rate of around 14.6 per 1000.


The archipelago of Zanzibar is located in the Indian Ocean, just off the coast of the mainland of Tanzania in East Africa. It lies south of the equator, and is two hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time. The archipelago comprises the two main islands of Unguja and Pemba, as well as nearly 50 smaller islands including Tumbatu, Kibandiko, Changuu (Prison), Chapwani, Bawe, Chumbe, Mnemba, Uzi and Latham. Unguja Island (also referred to as Zanzibar Island, is the main island of the group. It is 83 km long and 38 km at its widest point, with a surface area of nearly 1,500 km². It is separated from the African continent by the Zanzibar Channel, which is 3 km wide at its narrowest point, and it is 76 km by boat from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania's largest port city. The main centre of population is Zanzibar Town, fronted by the ancient Stone Town, an area filled with historic architecture. A small airport handles a light load of local and international traffic.

Pemba Island is 67 km long and 20 km at its widest point, with a surface area of approximately 850 km². It lies 49 km north of Unguja and is 60 km off the mainland. The capital is Chake Chake, which is considerably smaller and less developed than Zanzibar Town. Roads are poorer than on Unguja and the small airport near Chake Chake handles only light air traffic. Historically, both Unguja and Pemba islands benefited greatly from the trade in cloves, which were first cultivated under the German colonists in the late nineteenth century. Until the 1960s, the clove trade was the primary export from Zanzibar, and the positive balance of payments from the trade enabled the government to provide the majority of its citizens with their basic needs. However, changing international economic conditions (globalisation) and the freezing of international assistance in the wake of the flawed 2000 elections in Zanzibar have exacerbated the economic hardship that has affected the majority of its citizens. The spice trade is no longer profitable, and the government has attempted to encourage the development of alternative fishing and tourism industries as a substitute. The island remains dependent on support from the mainland and international community for its survival, however, with revenues from the fishing and tourism industry unable to support the economy alone.



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