The Haya people, native to northwest Tanzania, have a rich history dating back over 2,000 years. Known for their advanced ironworking skills, the Haya produced high-grade steel in precolonial times. Residing near Lake Victoria, their culture is intertwined with the lake’s resources.

But it is not just their politics that have earned them a place in history. The Haya have been blessed with fertile lands and rich soil, which they have used to cultivate the land and shape their livelihoods. Agriculture, particularly the cultivation of bananas, is the cornerstone of their economy and way of life. Their fields of green are a testament to their unwavering commitment to self-reliance and hard work.

Artist impression of one of the villages of the Haya people in the form of digital art.

The Haya are not only skilled farmers, they are also master craftsmen. Their innovative spirit has led them to develop the art of carbon steel making over 2000 years ago, using pre-heating techniques that were way ahead of their time. Their metalworks are a testament to their ingenuity and a symbol of their tenacity in the face of adversity.

Through their strength and resilience, the Haya people have cemented their place in history as one of the most fascinating and culturally rich ethnic groups in Africa.

Early History of the Haya People

With linguistic evidence pointing to their arrival during the Bantu expansion, the Haya settled into the Kagera Region with a rich history of iron smelting, establishing their Early Iron Age settlements along the shores of Lake Victoria in Buhaya, dating back to around 200 BC. The Haya people were innovative in their agricultural practices, relying on a combination of root-cropping and cereal crop cultivation, such as finger millet and sorghum. Iron tools played a crucial role in expanding agricultural production and contributed to the gradual use of beans in the region, ultimately setting the foundation for a unique and thriving community.

In 100 AD, the Haya people of Tanzania invented carbon steel and they were making it for around 2300 to 2000 years. It is known that the elders were in charge of making the metal and they used mud and grass to make carbon. Iron was used with carbon over an open furnace to produce steel. When compared to European metallurgists, the Haya people were centuries ahead which meant they could create newer forms of pottery.

As fate would have it, the revelation of iron smelting by the Haya people came to light during Schmidt’s work at Kataruka village. The village elders shared an intriguing piece of information with him, revealing that their forefathers had once melted iron beneath a hallowed tree named Kaiija – a sacred site known as “the place of the forge.”

Artist impression of the Haya People making Carbon steel in the form of digital art.

The Bahaya people experienced a great transformation in their way of life between the 9th and 16th centuries, shaped by the arrival of Bantu people from the north in the African Great Lakes region. These newcomers, who went on to establish the kingdoms such as the Bunyoro Kingdom and Buganda, brought with them new cattle breeds and a variety of bananas, significantly altering Bahaya customs.

The reason for their arrival remains a mystery, but it is believed that severe ecological change caused by environmental stress was a factor. To adapt to these conditions, specialised cattle herding techniques were introduced, such as using manure to fertilise banana groves. This practice is still used by the Bahaya today, although cattle holdings have decreased due to the 1890s rinderpest outbreak.

The Haya people have a rich architectural heritage that dates back to ancient times. The Haya house, known as the mushonge, is a circular structure with a conical peak that is made out of reeds, wooden poles, banana fiber, and grass. For the Haya, constructing a mushonge is a sacred process that involves performing rituals and consuming alcohol.

The layout of each mushonge is carefully defined by wooden poles, with designated sections for men and women, animal corrals, and shrines honouring ancestors. The size of the mushonge is indicative of social status, with the chief’s being the largest. The Haya kings also had their own palace, known as a nyaruju, where they resided while travelling throughout their kingdom. Over time, the mushonge evolved to include mud walls, transitioning to the kiteti and banda designs.

Artist impression of the Mushonge with mud walls in the form of digital art.

Health and Medicine

The Haya people have a deep-rooted history of healing that dates back centuries. Using the knowledge of traditional doctors and diviners, the Haya have created a vast array of natural medicines made from dozens of plant species for treating a range of health issues from skin conditions to gynaecological problems. Today, a Haya person will often seek the services of both traditional and modern medical practitioners. 

Rise and Fall of the Haya Kingdoms

The Haya people have a rich history dating back to pre-dynastic times, with land tenure once controlled by powerful clan groups guided by spiritual beliefs and practices. These Bacwezi beliefs were based on channelling ancient gods and goddesses through spirit mediums, diviners, priests and priestesses, who played a significant role in social structure.

As Haya kingdoms emerged in the 16th and 17th centuries, some clans, such as the Bayango and Bakuma, played a pivotal role in their establishment. The Bahinda royal clan, who ruled Karagwe Kingdom to the west, took control of Kyamtwara Kingdom through King Rugamora Mahe in the 17th century. The Bahinda clan traced their lineage back to the first king of Ankole, Ruhinda. The Haya people’s story is steeped in powerful traditions and ancient beliefs, guiding them through centuries of cultural evolution.

Artist impression of the one of the many kingdoms of the haya people in digital art.

Downfall of the Haya Kingdoms

The late 18th century brought great unrest and conflict to Kyamtwara Kingdom, ultimately leading to its demise. In the aftermath, four new kingdoms were founded: Kihanja, Bukara, Lesser Kyamtwara, and Bugabo. However, the division of leadership between the Bahinda and Bakango clans did not bode well for the future. As accounts suggest, the Bakango seized the opportunity to overthrow the Bahinda who relied on their power.

By the time the German colonial government established its rule in Tanganyika, there were a total of seven Haya kingdoms, each with its unique traditions and customs. The kingdoms of Kiziba, Ihangiro, Kihanja, Bukara, Lesser Kyamtwara, and Bugabo, were joined by the kingdom of Missenye, north of Kiziba Kingdom, after the Anglo-German agreement of 1890.

However, the newly independent Tanzania government in 1963 abolished all traditional forms of kingship and chieftainship in the country. This led to the end of an era for the Haya people, as they saw their cultural heritage slipping away. Though some Haya kings accepted positions offered by the new government, others remained as honorary kings, continuing to perform their traditional religious and ceremonial duties. It was a time of great change, loss, and uncertainty for the Haya people.

Legacy of the Haya People

The history of the ancient Haya people of Tanzania is a story of resilience, ingenuity, and perseverance in the face of adversity.

These people were early inhabitants of the region, with a rich cultural heritage dating back to ancient times. They developed a deep connection with the land, cultivating crops and raising livestock to sustain themselves and their families. They formed close-knit communities, living in harmony with nature and each other.

Over time, the Haya people faced many challenges. They had to adapt to changing climates, fend off external threats, and navigate complex power struggles within their own societies. But they always found a way to overcome these obstacles and emerge stronger on the other side.

Through their struggles, the Haya people developed a unique identity and a rich cultural legacy that has endured to this day. Their traditions, music, and art are a testament to their resilience and creativity and serve as an inspiration to all those who follow in their footsteps.

The history of the ancient Haya people is a story of hope and triumph, a reminder of the enduring human spirit and our capacity to overcome even the most daunting challenges.

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“The Empire of Sun and Moon: The Story of the Haya People.”, Accessed 16 Feb. 2023. “Haya Tribe.” Accessed February 16, 2023.

Wikipedia contributors, “Haya people,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed February 13, 2023)