The Maji Maji Uprising

Great Mosque of Djenné, Mali, 1907 (photo: herr_hartmann)

I was asked to write about the ‘relationship between spirituality and justice.’ So here’s a brief historical anecdote on the subject, in the form of an incredibly brief re-telling of one of the most significant moments in African decolonial history.


When speaking of colonization, it is generally accepted that different colonizing nations treated the colonization process differently. While colonialism was (is) a universally brutal and morally repugnant process of events, the ways in which different empires went about this ugly process reveal magnitudes about their interests. The French, for example, were concerned with instilling French cultural values and beliefs into their colonial subjects. They wanted their colonies, as many French missionaries described in their journal writings, to feel as if they were, despite the brutal violences and slavery practices enacted on them by their French rulers, part of the heritage of French culture; that the subjects of French colonialism themselves, people from Martinique, or Algeria, or Morocco even, would feel an attachment and personal belonging to French culture and society — the same society responsible for their demise, and society and culture they’d never fully be allowed to integrate into due to French racism — and would, eventually, defend their own colonization. This method proved successful; in many wars which involved the French, soldiers from the French colonies willingly joined in to fight alongside their colonizer, to help them win wars which would have virtually no positive effects on their own lives.

An often overlooked colonial power is Germany, a country that was “late to the game” in a sense. Prior to 1870 Germany was not a unified nation, rather it was the combination of several nation-states and territories knows as “the Germanies”, who all had varying levels of autonomy and societal goals. Because of this, they had no vastly unified military front, especially lacking a strong naval front — often the most important part in colonization — and all of the attempts by these individual states to colonize and control territories in Africa were failures. Compared to France, Spain, and the UK at the time (c. 1790–1870) Germany was a vast, violent, and, or course, racist empire with territories constantly fighting each other, barbarically so. It wasn’t until c. 1870 “Germany” was formally unified, a stronger military and naval front was formed, and they began to play catch up in the Scramble for Africa by 1872. What this meant, however, was that a considerably large portion of the continent had already been divided and violently conquered by the other European colonial power; Germany, in their brutish lateness, was left to fight off other colonial powers where they were weaker, as well as getting the “scraps” of African territories still unclaimed. These territories included much of West Africa, in modern day Cameroon, Chad, Guinea, CAR, Ghana, Togo, as well as even parts of Nigeria and Kenya temporarily.

The history of colonization is the history of resistance. At every step of the process, every second, someone somewhere in the colonial world was resisting. Enslaved Africans and other Indigenous peoples spent each day plotting escapes, rebellions, massacres, uprisings, sabotages, religious resistance, and much more, probably still thousands of stories and tales of we will never know of. The history of slavery in the US, for example, is actually a history of consistent and powerful slave revolts, much like the history of colonization of the Americas is one of dedicated uprising. Across the African continent, in places where the tides of colonialism and slavery touched their feet, this deep history of resistance remains the same. What must be observed and not forgotten is the role that spirituality — indigenous spiritualities, practices, and motivations specifically — played in resistance to colonial violence.

One particular story of this spiritually guided resistance which has always remained a particularly relevant case study for me is the Maji Maji Rebellion, or as I like to call it, the Maji Maji Uprising. Taking place mainly in what is today known as Tanzania, this uprising was one of the most effective against German colonization recorded; it lasted roughly two years and spanned an estimated 9,500 square miles. The Uprising began in the Matumbi Hills, the southern part of what used to be Tanganyika and is now Tanzania, and eventually ended in the African people being slaughtered by the Germans. Despite the depressing outcome, it is the motivations of the people to fight which are peculiarly intriguing.

Lead by Kinjikitile Ngwale, a spiritual leader of the population, they turned to their indigenous beliefs of the land, the nature they lived intertwined with until interrupted, and their religious practices to motivate thousands to fight the Germans. Rallying thousands, Ngwale, who began going by “Bokero”, the name of a powerful water deity, they turned to mythos, legend, and spiritual belief for strength. Bokero believed that the gods had called upon his people to end German colonialism, then further unite the rest of Africa against its colonizers. It was a divine prophecy, which he believed could not be properly understood until his people’s generation. Bokero began creating a potion, which he and other spiritual leaders claimed would protect them from German bullets, turning the bullets into water upon contact. This empowered them, drawing them out to join by the thousands covered in this magical water, which in some parts of the region was called “Allah water” due to an interesting creolization of Islamic and indigenous traditions.

Nonetheless, armed with this supposed magical protectant water, which was actually just a mixture of a sacred plant known as the maji plant, along with castor oil and water, which was also known as maji in their language, this maji maji concoction became their rallying hope. They believed the Maji Maji tonic would turn the German bullets into water upon contact, and began acting as such. Within days of this phenomena taking place, they began targeting German colonizers, dousing themselves in the Maji Maji liquid before attacking small colonial outposts and cotton plantations. They took several German guards and soldiers prisoner, used them as collateral and, despite losing many, thousands continued to join them.

What began as a small uprising or a “rebellion” as the colonizers call it, in just three months spread to the Matumbi region, then the Ngindo and Mahenge regions, and several other small territories. With numbers at their highest points estimated between 20,000–40,00, the uprising took place for roughly two years. At one point in August 1905, following the death of five colonial missionaries while on a “leisure safari”, a large battle took place at the Mahenge region/town, leaving thousands of Africans dead by the hands of two German machine guns. Still, despite the great loss, word spread of the uprising throughout the other regions and eventually the Ngoni/Grangara Ngoni people joined in — a culture mixed with various aspects of Islamic and Indigenous heritage, which is quite common for the entire region — and sent an estimated group of 5,000 fighters. These fighters, too, were mostly slaughtered by the German colonizers’ machine guns, leaving less than 500 Ngoni soldiers who retreated.

Soon after their retreat, word spread that the power of Maji Maji was not true, “a lie.” This caused strife, dissent, disunity. Within weeks Germany sent reinforcement soldiers and re-appropriated many of the territories which were reclaimed by the Tanzanian tribes. German military general and colonial governor Gustav Adolf von Gotzen, one of the vile architects in securing the German colonization of Rwanda, operated under an extreme “scorched-earth policy” similar to that which Union army in the American Civil War used; once they cleared a battlefield, searched the town for food and materials they could use or sell, as well surviving victims to make into slaves, they would burn the land then salt it. Burning the land took down all standing structures, singed any crops or plants growing, including any humans left behind, and salting the earth made it extremely difficult to cure the land for future generations to harvest.

While hundreds of Maji Maji guerrillas still existed prepared to continue the fight, the scorched earth of their villages caused famine and sickness to spread throughout their tribes. In Tanzanian history they teach this as the “Great Hunger” (or ‘Njaa’ which means ‘hunger’ in Kiswahili, a regional dialect of Swahili). And while the uprising did come and go, crushed at the hands of machine guns and the absolute brutality of Western military practices (scorched earth practices had been outlawed in East African and other global societies, for example), the last of the Maji Maji fighters were captured and murdered in August 1907, two years after the fighting began.

One could choose to see this story of war and uprising as one of an oppressed people losing, however I believe we should look at is an incredible moment in history where spirituality, resistance, blood, and power all intersect into one messy yet vibrant illustration of the strength of collective hope. What these people saw in their spiritual beliefs may not have saved them, but it did inspire them for long enough to wipe out over 45% of the German held territories in their land. They rallied together, found strength in one another in a common, communal belief, all based on a shared knowledge that their liberation from the colonizer was inextricably linked to one another, as well as to the earth, maji.

When I look at the history of spirituality to social justice, there is of course its long and ongoing history of oppression. Colonization was much an act of radical Christianity, Catholicism, and Islamic conquest in many parts of the world. Today, some of the most viciously violent racists, homophobes, transphobes, sexists, and capitalists are enabled by a self-endowed religious exploitation. Our diasporic spiritual practices have gone anti-establishment to, well, establishments. Whiteness, as it stands today, as a relation to the means of production, violence, and political identity, is largely built upon Western religious institutions.

However, running parallel to these unavoidable and ugly religious exploits is the other history. A history filled with colonized nations using theologies of liberation to overturn oppression, one of Indigenous and First Nations peoples holding onto traditions older than Western society itself. Histories of enslaved Africans clinging to their original spiritual practices, often in secret or silence, and expressing these practices through their art. In many places, especially across the Caribbean, the enslaved mixed the Western religions forced onto them with their own indigenous beliefs, creating spiritualities such as Vodou and Santería that would later be a strong rallying cry for community, uprising, and strength.

The point is, I believe there is a lot to say about the relationship between spirituality and social justice, organizing, and activism. This relationship is often messy and unclear, painful and powerful. In today’s world, where religions function as essentially reactionary institutions rather than communal spirituality, the real question we should set our eyes on is not on the mere relationship between the two entities. Rather, if it is possible to salvage the radical, revolutionary spirit which once existed within spiritual communities. Can “religion” be turned back into communal spirituality, away from the institution of indoctrination and reactionary forces, empire, capitalism, and patriarchy it is now so heavily perched upon? I can’t answer these questions, but I do know that if the Maji Maji Uprising is a sign of anything, it is that a spirituality can communicate a potent, powerful, and effective amount of hope to a people ready for revolutionary action.