Gemakw

Name ID 1610

See also

Finke, Jens The Rough Guide to Tanzania
Page Number: 446 (ed 1)
Extract Date: 2003

The Iraqw

Karatu's main tribes are the cattle-herding Barbaig (see p.262) and the agricultural Iraqw. The history of the 200,000-strong Iraqw, who occupy much of the area between Karatu and Mbulu town in the south, is a fascinating enigma, though the theory that they originally came from Mesopotamia (Iraq, no less) is too simplistic to be likely.

Nonetheless, the Iraqw language is related to the "southern Cushitic" tongues spoken in Ethiopia and northern Kenya, meaning that at some point in their history they migrated southwards along the Rift Valley, something you can also tell by their facial features, which are finer than those of their neighbours and similar to those of Ethiopians.

Exactly when the Iraqw arrived in Tanzania is not known, but a number of clues offered by their agricultural practices - the use of sophisticated terracing to limit soil erosion, complex irrigation techniques, crop rotation and the use of manure from stall-fed cattle - provide uncanny parallels to the ruined irrigation channels, terraces and cattle pens of Engaruka (see p.437), at the foot of the Rift Valley escarpment.

Iraqw oral legend makes no mention of a place called Engaruka, but that's hardly surprising given that Engaruka is a Maasai word. Instead, legends talk of a place called Ma'angwatay, which may have been Engaruka. At the time, the Iraqw lived under a chief called Haymu Tipe. In what is suggestive of a power struggle or civil war, the legend says that Haymu Tipe's only son, Gemakw, was kidnapped by a group of young Iraqw warriors and hidden in the forest. Finally locating him, Haymu Tipe was given a curious ultimatum: unless he brought to the warriors an enemy to fight, his son would be killed. So Haymu Tipe asked the cattle-herding Barbaig, who at the time occupied the Ngorongoro highlands, to come to fight, which they did. Many people were killed, and it seems that the Iraqw lost the battle, as Haymu Tipe, his family and his remaining men fled to a place called Guser-Twalay, where Gemakw - who had been released as agreed - became ill and died. Haymu Tipe and his men continued on to a place called Qawirang in a forest west of Lake Manyara, where they settled. The legend then becomes confusing, but it appears that Qawirang is the same as the most recent Iraqw "homeland", the lrqwar Da'aw valley, 70krn south of Karatu, where the Iraqw settled at least 200 years ago, shortly after Engaruka was abandoned. Subsequently, population pressure in lrqwar Da'aw led to further migrations; the first Iraqw to settle in Karatu arrived in the 1930s.

For more about Iraqw history, see Bjem-Erik Hanssen's "Three stories from the mythology of the Iraqw people" at www.leopardmannen.no/hanssen/tanz-eng.htm.

But the best place to learn more about the Iraqw is Sandemu Iraqw Art and Culture Promoters Centre at Njia Panda village, 9km west of Karatu (turn left at the junction for Mang'ola and it's 1 km further on). This recently established community based initiative aims to promote and preserve Iraqw culture. The centre is built in the form of a traditionally fortified house, nestling so snugly into the hillside that it only needs a front wall (a construction that is remarkably similar to the former fortified houses of the Rangi; see p.256). Historically, fortification and camouflage was essential to avoid the warlike attention of the Maasai and Barbaig. The centre also contains an underground bunker with escape tunnels, which contain a display of weapons, tools, grinding stones and furniture. The centre supports its work by selling crafts: mats, baskets, traditional clothes and jewellery, clay pots, gourds and calabashes.

Camping should be possible (but enquire beforehand in Karatu), and there's also Doffa Campsite (see p.445), 500m west of the junction to Mang'ola. Given enough time, the centre can arrange performances of traditional music.

Extract ID: 4286
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