Portraits of a People: The Story Behind the Iraqw

Amy Catling
Oct 12, 2018 · 5 min read

In the Arusha and Manyara regions of northern Tanzania, approximately 500 thousand people speak Iraqw. The Cushitic language is of a minority in Tanzania, as the Bantu language Swahili is used nationwide in primary education, as well as being thought to unite the people of the country by representing its majority Bantu culture. Although Iraqw is not an endangered language, due to the minimal use of it in writing and the increasing importance of other languages as the country develops and internationalises, it may be a future that is looming ahead.

Recently, we were able to add Iraqw to the Wikitongues collection as a part of its mission to document every language in the world. Within the recording below, the two speakers Xwatsá and Basilisa discuss in Iraqw the languages that they can speak and in what contexts they use them. Although Xwatsá states that he mostly uses Iraqw for everyday conversation (often mixing this with Swahili) and exclusively speaking Swahili is reserved for any administrative tasks or visits, he feels that in the future their children will prefer to use Swahili and English, currently taught in schools, as these languages will allow them to expand their career opportunities outside of the region they grew up in.

But how much change has there been in the past few decades? The traditional culture of the Iraqw has a rich oral literature. Historically, the Iraqw have been seen as outsiders from other peoples within Tanzania, and a large part of their songs and poetry are about living in peace with their neighbours. Performances such as the Slufay are strong wishes attributed with power that include hoping the Iraqw and their neighbours will have good health and recover from any illnesses, as they celebrate the first beer of the new harvest of millet. Other examples of their oral traditions include the poetic duels of the Girayda, in which poets try to best their competitor by singing the most well-versed metaphorical language, as well as stories which are referred to as being a Ti’ita (literally: ‘night story’), which the Iraqw have told for generations, naming animals such as lions, hyenas and hares that live in the regions as characters.

Like all Wikitongues’ recordings, there is a story behind the video. In this case, our Iraqw video was recorded during a research trip to document some of this traditional oral literature in action by a team from the Leiden University Centre of Linguistics in 2018. This included creating resources of past and present videos of performances of Iraqw Ti’ita, Girayda and Slufay, among many other forms of oral literature. To ensure that our resources and the information we had documented on each type of performance truly represented the Iraqw culture, we spoke with local specialists to ask for their opinion. Their response? What we showed them happily reminded them of their past.

Language and culture are strongly entwined, so much that as one changes, the other will follow. The process is continuous and to be expected. Traditionally, the Iraqw people are cattle herders, with the cattle dung providing economic value for its use as fertiliser. Increasingly more Iraqw people are leaving this culture behind as they move to the growing towns and become more accustomed to living with the western technology that is more commonplace outside of rural areas. Some Iraqw people that we spoke to felt that they must leave their culture behind to fit into an increasingly international world. Unfortunately, this may result in the language’s rich heritage to become easily forgotten, as even now many are unaware of its qualities that helped shape this small corner of our global population.

Internationalisation is on almost everyone’s lips. Even on a high plateau in Tanzania, surrounded by lush forest and steep hills lining a breath-taking view. Although there is no running water outside of towns, solar powered electricity is commonplace and there is a promise of Wi-Fi to soon be present in even the most rural of houses.

And whilst thinking about the future of the language and people, we stumbled into the past. During our research trip to Tanzania, we found within our database hundreds of portraits of Iraqw families, couples and friends taken in 1987. At that time, Professor Maarten Mous was completing his PhD on the Iraqw, and as the only person in the local area with a camera, he was asked to photograph portraits every Sunday.

There are a lot of languages in a similar situation to Iraqw. Within this group, there are many languages with a history that we do not know, and a past culture that we can barely piece together fragments to understand. This small selection of the hundreds of portraits of the Iraqw in 1987 build our knowledge of the people behind the language. The choice of fashion, people’s preferred poses and the beautiful landscape all give an insight into what it was like to be one of the Iraqw 30 years ago. Perhaps the changes will be even more stark in another 30 years.

All photos used in this article were taken in 1987 in the village of Kwermusl, Mbulu district, Tanzania by Professor Maarten Mous of Leiden University. We would like to thank Professor Mous for granting his full permission to re-post these photos.


Thanks to Kristen Tcherneshoff

Amy Catling

Written by


Wikitongues is a non-profit platform for every language in the world.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade