A picture of Mount Kilimanjaro from a campsite. Image by Chris 73 from Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Tanzania, the most populous nation in East Africa and the most sought-after destination for safaris in Africa, is situated within the African Great Lakes region. It shares borders with eight countries: Uganda to the north, Kenya to the northeast, the Indian Ocean to the east, Mozambique and Malawi to the south, Zambia to the southwest, and Rwanda, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the west. 

The country’s stunning geography features the highest mountain in Africa, Mount Kilimanjaro along with numerous lakes that embellish its landscape. Through the 1980s, Tanzania’s conservation-focused national parks, including Serengeti and Kilimanjaro — with Mount Kilimanjaro recognized as the tallest freestanding summit on Earth — were designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

There are about 120 ethnic groups and over 100 languages spoken in Tanzania, making it the most linguistically diverse East African nation. Although Swahili and English (inherited from colonial rule) are widely spoken as the lingua francas, none of the languages spoken in Tanzania are native to a majority or a significant portion of the population. While both languages serve as working languages in the country, Swahili is recognized as the official national language.

A brief history of Tanzania

Some refer to Tanzania, as “the cradle of mankind” because of significant archaeological discoveries of hominid fossils there, including those dating back six million years. Countless civilizations can trace their roots back to Tanzania, such as the Southern Cushitic speakers from present-day Ethiopia, Eastern Cushitic people from north of Lake Turkana, and Southern Nilotes like the Datoog from the South Sudan–Ethiopia border region. 

Tanzania's modern history is also marked by darker chapters such as slavery and colonization.

In 1840, Omani Sultan Said bin Sultan established his capital in Zanzibar City after claiming the coastal strip, leading to Zanzibar becoming a hub for the East African slave trade. Slavery persisted until its abolition in the 1890s.

Meanwhile, in 1885, Germany conquered the regions now part of Tanzania, forming German East Africa (GEA). After World War I, the Paris Peace Conference awarded GEA to Britain on May 7, 1919, despite Belgium's objections. A subsequent Anglo-Belgian agreement on May 30, 1919, saw Britain cede northwestern GEA provinces to Belgium. The Treaty of Versailles in June 1919 confirmed this transfer, with Tanganyika becoming British territory. 

Between 1905 and 1907, the Maji Maji rebellion erupted in German East Africa, fueled by grievances over forced labor and deportations, which, combined with famine, caused over 300,000 deaths among the population.

During World War II, Tanganyikans enlisted with Allied forces, making up part of the 375,000 Africans who fought alongside them. Tanganyika also played a vital role in supplying food during the war, leading to economic growth despite wartime inflation.

In 1954, Julius Nyerere founded the Tanganyika African National Union (TANU) with the aim of achieving national sovereignty. Nyerere's leadership saw Tanganyika gain independence in 1961, with him serving as prime minister following independence.

Zanzibar attained independence in 1963 after the Zanzibar Revolution, which resulted in the overthrow of the Arab dynasty and the deaths of thousands of Arab Zanzibaris. Subsequently, on April 26, 1964, Zanzibar merged with mainland Tanganyika, forming the United Republic of Tanganyika and Zanzibar. Later, on October 29 of the same year, the country was renamed the United Republic of Tanzania.

To this day, ethnic divisions remain rare in Tanzania despite its status as one of Africa's most diverse countries, largely due to the successful ethnic repression methods Julius Nyerere implemented. Since gaining independence, Tanzania has shown greater political stability compared to most African nations.

In 1967, Nyerere's presidency shifted toward left-wing politics following the Arusha Declaration which formalized a dedication to socialism and Pan-Africanism. Consequently, Tanzania nationalized banks and many large industries. Additionally, Tanzania formed an alignment with China, which financed and helped build the TAZARA Railway. However, despite these developments, the country's economy eventually took a downturn. The country faced economic challenges from the late 1970s, amid a global economic crisis. 

In 1978, neighboring Uganda invaded Tanzania under Idi Amin‘s leadership, leading to a counter-invasion by Tanzania and the removal of Amin from power, but causing severe damage to Tanzania’s economy.

Recent years and the promise of a better tomorrow

Following the death of President John Magufuli in 2021 due to heart complications while serving in office, his vice president, Samia Suluhu Hassan, became Tanzania's first female president.

In recent years, Tanzania's economy has shown resilience, with a growth rate of 5.2 percent in 2023, up from 4.6 percent in 2022, as reported by the World Bank. Moreover, approximately 82 percent of the population is now literate, and the unemployment rate is low at 2.6 percent. Despite this economic growth, a significant portion of the population lives in poverty.

Nevertheless, projections from the World Bank suggest that the poverty rate will decline, if the country’s economy continues to grow and the government’s agricultural budget aims at boosting productivity through the promotion of agricultural intensification.

Despite the challenges it has faced and continues to face, Tanzania has shown remarkable political stability and economic growth. As it charts its path forward, guided by the legacies of leaders like Julius Nyerere and the vision of its people, Tanzania is poised to embrace a future filled with hope and opportunity. Learn more about Tanzania in the special coverage below. 

Stories about Tanzania: Diverse, united, and resilient