MAFIA ISLAND HISTORY
The first people to settle Mafia were the waMbwera, from the Rufiji Delta. The excavations in the Rufiji, on Koma Island and the Mafia archipelago conclude that Iron Age settlements were first established between 400 and 800 AD. The present site of Kinasi Lodge is thought to be one of these settlements.
The inhabitants of Mafia are recorded in the Kilwa Chronicles as the Mwera, who were ruled by Muslim settlers (Yemeni?) prior to the arrival of Bashat. But what of the first 1,000 years AD? Who were the people and what was the government of Mafia? Dr. Felix Chami of the University of Dar es Salaam believes that the first settlers were Early Iron Working and farming Bantu people, who crossed from the mainland and settled the islands, probably for their marine resources. This culture existed in 200-400 AD and was followed by a later native culture recognised as Triangular Iron Ware, which was extant with the settlement and domination from Arabia. The coast of Tanzania is known to have been originally settled by Late Stone Age people.
The defeat of the Portuguese by Oman in Mombasa in 1698 ended what had been a troubled and cruel Portuguese rule and gave the Sultan of Oman control of the coast from Lamu to Kilwa.
In 1829 Kua was destroyed by Sakalava cannibals from Madagascar and in 1872 Kisimani Mafia was destroyed in a cyclone. By then the seat of power had moved to Chole Island. The arrival of the Sakalava prompted the Sultan of Zanzibar to send a punitive expedition that included some of his personal Baluchi regiment. Descendants of these Pakistani people are to be found settled mainly in the area of Kitoni near Kisimani Mafia. There is also evidence for settlement of Mafia by Madagascans, Chinese, Malay and Indonesian peoples (who first settled Madagascar about 1,600 years ago). Pottery and coins indicate trade took place from at least the 8th Century.
Under a treaty in 1890 Germany took control of Mafia and in 1892 the first German Resident arrived and constructed the buildings still evident on Chole. Germany paid Sultan Ali ben Saad of Oman DM 4 million for Mafia and part of the mainland coast.
After its occupation by the Sultanate of Kilwa, there was a gradual influx of people from further south as well as slaves owned by the settlers and traders who followed. Excerpts from a passage in Dr Baumann’s report on Mafia (Baumann, O. (1896) ‘Mafia Island’ The Geographical Society of Leipzig) best describes the social evolution of Mafia and its extraordinary history of cultural inflow:
‘The Wambwera are the oldest of the inhabitants of Mafia, and are similar to the coast Swahilis between Kisiju and the mouth of the Rufiji. The name is derived from the village of Mbwera, situated in the delta, opposite to Kisimani Mafia, whence they emigrated long ago.’
‘They are dark coloured, and do not differ in dress and mode of life from the coast Swahilis. They belong to the Sunni sect…..They are a peaceable and contented people, and delight in agriculture and cattle tending. They have known no war for a long time. Even cases of youthful quarrels are rare. They live under petty chiefs.’
‘The Shatri are very old inhabitants of Mafia, of which they represent the nobility to an extent. They are the main inhabitants of Chole, and they also live at Kipingwi and Kipandeni, possessing estates all over the island. They call themselves Sharifu (ie descendents of the Prophet) and derive their descent from Hadhramout (Yemen). They are of the same line as the Shatri of Barawa, Siu (near Lamu) and Wasin, with whom they are related by marriage. Their emigration took place several centuries ago, and they are thought to be the Moors referrred to in Shirazi and Portuguese chronicles…..they are a mixture of Arab and Negro types….Their custom is to build mosques on their estates and bury their dead in walled graves with memorials like a type of pyramid.’
‘In addition to the above mentioned old settlers,…the slave population plays a great part. A large proportion of these came originally from the Rufiji District where they were sold cheaply owing to locust invasions. They belong to the tribes of the south…..being chiefly Nyasa and Yao. Most of them are the property of the Shatris and a few of the Wambwera.’
‘Probably soon after after the occupation of Seyyid Said (Salton of Oman), a number of Muscat Arabs settled on the island. Some of them founded a village near Kisimani Mafia and intermarried with the native women…..A few genuine Muscat Arabs live on Chole Island and near Kirongwe.’
‘Since some years, Suri fishermen from the Persian Gulf have settled on Mafia.’
‘Shihiri and persons from Hadhramout and Makalla are to be found on the island, of whom some are owners of estates, and others shopkeepers on Chole Island.’
‘Swahili from Malindi have settled on the south coast near ChemChem for two generations only. They are well off, possess estates and are of similar status to the Shatris.’
‘In Baleni there is a small colony of Comorians.’
‘……there are 22 Indian traders on the island. They operate only in connection with firms in Zanzibar, and periodically return home with their profits.’
In January 1915 Mafia was taken by British troops as a base for the air and sea assault on the cruiser Konigsberg. It was not until late 1922 that control of Mafia passed from Zanzibar to Tanganyika Territory, ending the martial law of WW1.
The current population of Mafia is estimated to be around 50000, located in fishing and farming villages and homesteads all over the main island, Jibondo, Juani and Chole. Mafia is now part of the Coast Province of the Republic of Tanzania and is governed from the mainland (not Zanzibar).
The majority of Mafia inhabitants live in small villages scattered along the coast and Chole itself and on the other islands nearby (Chole, Jibondo, Juani and Banja). Typically villagers have a number of sources of income and subsistence: fishing amongst the members of a family, including crop farming, permanent tree crops and skilled work (carpenters, weavers, sailmakers, etc).
The farms are smallholdings, growing plots of cassava, rice, pigeon pea, pineapples, pawpaws and beans; it is typical to also find cashew, coconut and mango trees on each household’s land. Farmed areas are usually surrounded by woodland, grassland or coconut plantations. Low-lying areas (mbuga) are adapted to upland rice (a variety that is not “paddied” under water, as in Asia).
Large areas of the island – especially the south and northern sides – are planted to coconuts, mostly by pre-World War II German settlers and descendants of Omani Arab, Shatri, Shirazi and Baluchi pioneers. These provide work for many inhabitants and a source of cash income, especially during the dry season when most coconuts are harvested and home-grown food is in short supply.
The north-east of the island is covered by a dense coral rag forest – Mrora Forest – which is protected. The north-central area is an undulating plateau that has spectacular baobabs, doum palms and Euphorbia.
Guests can make an excursion to any of the island villages, where the people are welcoming and friendly. We offer both road and boat with guides. The people of the villages of the islands of Chole, Juani and Jibondo are engaged in a variety of activities from boat building to animal husbandry. Small scale farming (rice, cassava, fruits) is practiced on fertile soils and fishing and fish drying contributes to their income.