the sukuma: do they eat people?

Kevin Linderman is a fellow missionary and friend of mine living in Mwanza, Tanzania.  He and his team work primarily in the rural areas with the Sukuma people.  We intend to begin work in the rural areas surrounding Geita within the next year or so — and this work will also primarily be with the Sukuma people.  So the vast experience and knowledge that resides in Kevin and his teammates is of great value to us.  Today, Kevin is “guest posting” on my blog with a piece about the Sukuma people and what they’re known for in East Africa.  You can find Kevin’s blog here.

This is Wilberforce, a gentle old Luhya man who guided our family through the Kakamega rain forest in Kenya last month.

After learning a great deal from him, sampling wild leaves and berrys, spotting endemic bird species, and identifying local herbal remedies, the conversation turned to our work in Tanzania.

“OOOOH. The Sukuma. We hear that they eat people. Is this true?”

Having lived in Sukumaland for four years, I’ve yet to be eaten.

But he went on to other rumors. “we hear that the Sukuma have magical powers, even to raise people from the dead.”

This, I had to concede, is true (at least in common belief). Traditional Sukuma religion has a strong belief in “the living dead”, aka zombies, and there are countless stories of people being harrassed by zombies.

I asked him what else he knew of the Sukuma. He said that Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania each had one tribe that was known for the strength of their magic and witchcraft. In Tanzania, it is the Sukuma people, and even the corresponding tribes in Kenya and Uganda can’t compare to the Sukuma.

And this isn’t just the talk of old men in the forest. Major research seems to cast light on this issue. The Pew Trust recently released a report compiling research about the status of religion amongst all the nations of Africa.

The results were telling: Tanzania has the strongest incidence of traditional religion on the continent, as defined by the percentage of people that exhibit a majority of these traits:

…belief in reincarnation, witchcraft, evil spirits, the protective power of sacrifices to spirits or ancestors, juju or shrines, “evil eye” or curses, and the protective power of spiritual people as well as possession of traditional African sacred objects, participation in traditional ceremonies to honor ancestors, participation in traditional puberty rituals and use of religious healers.

The study found that 62% of Tanzanians have a strong belief in traditional religion, far exceeding the neighboring countries of Kenya (11%), Uganda (18%), and Rwanda (3%).

If the study focused on the Sukuma tribe, which comprises 15% of the Tanzanian population, the numbers would be much higher, perhaps over 80%.

This is not merely an issue of “religion”, as curses, witchcraft allegations, poison, albino kiilings, and constant fear all stem from this belief system, as does the pervasive suspicion and fatalism that binds this people.

Though Wilberforce was relieved to know that the Sukuma do not eat people, in a similar fashion the Sukuma religious system consumes the hopes, dreams, and future of millions of people.



Filed under mission

13 responses to “the sukuma: do they eat people?

  1. These insights into the Sukuma reveal how critical discipleship will be because they will need a significant worldview shift. I am praying the DBS format will prove very fruitful within this tribe. Their life changes will be powerful testimony for other surrounding tribes since their worldview is so entrenched and widely known!

  2. I grew up in the old Geita of the 1950’s & 60’s, on the old gold mine. I am now a semi-retired psychiatrist in Cornwall, UK. I have published my book about my first 15 years, as a child growing up “wild” in Geita. It’s called “Speak Swahili, Dammit!” I’d love to know what more recent people who have been at Geita think of my (true) story. The book website is
    There are reviews to be seen there. Also, if the book title is entered in any search engine, several reviews will come up. I’d love to hear from you. My pen-name is James Penhaligon.

    Dr James Eva
    Falmouth, Cornwall, UK

    • dr. eva, that is so incredibly interesting. i do hope i can get my hands on a copy of that book. is there a meaning to “penhaligon?”

      • Hi James,

        Penhaligon is an old Cornish name (as is Eva), & the name of my paternal grandmother’s family. Her brother, my great uncle, Jack Penhaligon, was the youngest major in the British army in WW2, and was sadly killed in Burma 2 weeks before the war ended. I have a video for my book (11 minutes, freeview) on youtube. The link is
        I hope you’ll have a look.

        What about you? Please tell me about yourself.



      • Jambo James. Habari za subuhi? Mimi na furahi sans kupata imaili yako!

        Penhaligon is a family surname from my mother’s side. Cornish, of course. So is Eva, my father’s name. We live in Falmouth, my ancestral homeland, though I’ll always feel that “home” is in Geita.

        My wife & I are travelling to East Africa next month. We arrive in Dar on 15th October, & plan top stay there 4 or 5 days, then fly to Mwanza for about 3 days, before going on to Malindi, to stay with the lady who was my secret love when I was 8 years old. She’s now 62!!! On 28th we fly from Nairobi back to UK. This will be my first visit since we departed East Africa in May 1966! While in Mwanza, I hope to get to Geita area one of the days. I know it’s changed hugely. Is there any chance we could meet? If so, I’ll bring you a copy of my book, as a gift. You saw the short video on youtube, I’m sure.

        Salamu mingi,


        • james, karibu geita. i can’t imagine what it’s going to be like for you to see geita during this trip. i first visited here in 2005 and was shocked at how much had changed between then and 2009, when we moved here. i know electricity came to town in about 2002 and the first paved road in 2006. (some) people now have satellite television and indoor plumbing. you are not going to believe how much has changed since 1966. but the strangest thing is that really most of those changes were probably only in the last 15 years.

          i would love to have the opportunity to meet you when you come through, and to take you out to dinner and listen to your stories. i also would welcome a copy of the book. i’ve tried to watch the video a couple of different times, but our internet isn’t really fast enough to download videos that long. but what i saw was interesting, though i only got as far as you being the first of your family not born in cornwall (sp?).

          will you only be in geita for that one day — coming from, and returning to, mwanza on the same day? by what transport will you arrive? is there anything in particular that you’d like to see? and when you know which date you’ll actually be coming to geita, let me know — and i’ll clear my schedule in case you need a tour guide or a driver, etc…

          • james, i’ve been watching your video 20 second clips at a time for the last 15 minutes. i’m still not even half-way through it, but i just saw the video of the ferry you guys took across the lake. that same ferry is still sitting at the southern (busisi) ferry south of mwanza. i see it every time i pass there — it’s inoperable, of course, but still floating there in the water.

            also, i didn’t think to mention that i have a pass to the gold mine, so i can get you in to have a look around at the gold mine in all its modernity if that would be helpful. i wasn’t sure if you’d have any interest in going in there or not — or if you might have some contact yourself. all the same, just let me know…

    • There is now a promotional 11 minute video for “Speak Swahili, Dammit!” The link is

      It can be easily got to by going into youtube, then typing in Speak Swahili Dammit

      People are saying it’s an absorbing & interesting mini-documentary about Tanzania in its own right!

  3. merrosandra

    Thank you for knowing my country special Mwanza,I love mwanza the city i was born there im Sukumu,even i leave out of my country been always there in my heart and i still visiting home as much i can.Im so proud of you,talking a bout Mwanza.That makes me happy.
    All the best.

  4. Samuel Kamau

    well its good to get someone to give an honest opinion and not a biased as tobthe issue of the Sukuma tribe canibalism (sic) but i would appreciate any meaningfull literature by some one who has or who can give an informed piece of information thanks.

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