Tanzania was populated by various waves of migration, but the majority of today’s Tanzanians are descendants of Bantu-speaking people who came from the Niger delta in the first century A.D. Around that same time, Arabs traders began to frequent Tanzania’s coastal areas and eventually brought Islam to the region. The indigenous Swahili people of the coastal region were also skilled mariners and traders, and by the early 14th century they had established a thriving center of commerce at Kilwa, an island just off the coast south of present-day Dar es Salaam. At its peak the city-state of Kilwa controlled much of the Indian Ocean trade, controlling and profiting from the flow of items such as gold, ivory, and slaves from the interior of Africa, and a variety of products from India, China and Arabia.
By the late 1800’s, Germany and Britain had both aimed their sights on the fertile farmland in parts of interior East Africa. An agreement signed in 1890 granted control of what is now Kenya to Britain, while mainland Tanzania (Tanganyika) came under German colonial control. The Germans introduced new crops such as cotton and sisal (used in making twine), built several railroads, and established missions which included simple schools for African children. One vestige of this German colonial rule is the Kiswahili word for school, “shule” from the German “schule.”
The 1919 treaty of Versailles ending WWI granted a League of Nations mandate to Great Britain to govern German East Africa, which was henceforth known as Tanganyika. Britain placed Tanganyika under UN trusteeship in 1947. The country was granted independence in 1961 and Julius Nyerere became the first prime minister. In 1964 Tanganyika and the neighboring island nation of Zanzibar merged to become the Republic of Tanzania, with Nyerere as its president.
Witnessing with dismay the rise of a privileged urban elite class in post-independence Tanzania despite widespread and severe poverty in the most of the country, Nyerere decided to chart a new course for the nation. In 1965 he issued the Arusha Declaration, advocating for the pursuit of “African socialism”, with the aim of achieving both economic and political equality within the country and fostering an attitude of cooperation and self-reliance in Tanzanian society rather than depending on outside aid. Despite some success in reducing inequality and substantial improvements in education and healthcare, the experiment in African socialism brought economic decline rather than prosperity. Nyerere resigned in 1985, refusing to accept IMF terms for structural adjustment of the country’s economic and political system. The Tanzanian government subsequently accepted the IMF terms, including the eventual re-introduction of multi-party government, which occurred in 1992. Despite the failure of many of his socialist economic policies, Nyerere was beloved at home and respected as a moral leader throughout Africa. He was an outspoken supporter of majority rule in South Africa, a champion of the autonomy of “third world” nations, and an advocate for a more just global economic system.
Tanzania has been a pillar of political stability in Africa throughout its history, but the country—particularly the northwest region—has experienced multiple disruptions resulting from turmoil in neighboring countries. In 1978, the army of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin invaded and occupied part of northwest Tanzania but was eventually repelled by Tanzanian forces, who then joined with rebel Ugandans to drive Amin from power. Between 1993 and 2000, nearly 1.5 million refugees poured into northwestern Tanzania, fleeing genocide and political upheaval in Rwanda and Burundi. The HIV/AIDS epidemic was another huge disruption, and hit northwest Tanzania with particular severity. First discovered in Tanzania in 1983, by 1992, an estimated 7.2% of the population was living with HIV/AIDS. In 2014, roughly 36,000 Tanzanians died from AIDS-related illnesses and there were estimated to be nearly 800,000 AIDS orphans.