MAFIA ISLAND TANZANIA image branding - people of Mafia Island

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Population and ethnicity

As might be expected from its chequered history, the population of Mafia is heterogeneous and also shifting. Many people call themselves Wambwera or Washirazi and claim to be the earliest inhabitants. They are found throughout the island, particularly in the north, where there are also people calling themselves Wapokomo. In the south, where the plantation system utilised first slaves and later free labourers of mainland origin, there is a wide variety of 'tribal' affiliation, as well as Wapokomo and Washirazi. There are also small numbers of people who claim Arab descent, a handful of 'Indian' traders and a small number of Europeans engaged in the tourist industry or aid projects. Ethnic identity tends to shift not only because of population movements but also because of changing contexts or historical circumstances. Today, most Africans would describe themselves simply as Waswahili or as Tanzanians.

Girls tease the photographer, Chole PrimaryThe lingua franca of Mafia, as of the rest of Tanzania, is Kiswahili. Mafia Island has its own dialect - Kingome - now only spoken in the north of the island and studied by the Tanzanian linguist Ahmed Kipacha (2004).

Most people on Mafia are Sunni Muslims, but there is also a minority of Christians (Catholic, Lutheran and Pentecostal) including some of the government servants posted to the island. These are mainly in the district capital Kilindoni, but there are also churches in a small number of villages.

The 2002 Population and Housing Census of Tanzania shows that Mafia currently has a population of just over 40,000 persons:

This represents an increase from the previous census held in 1988, when it was just over 33,000. The population actually decreased in the early years of the 20th century during the period of German rule, and then began to rise steadily during the years of British rule, as the following figures show

Athman KJombo's family on their verandah

Population figures, Mafia Island, Tanzania from early 20th century to 1988

  • 1910 - 14,450
  • 1911 - 11,950
  • 1912 - 11,514
  • 1919 - 9,795
  • 1924 - 8466
  • 1957 - 12,199
  • 1967 - 16,748
  • 1978 - 23,104
  • 1988 - 33,056
  • 2002 - 40,557

For more details of census figures, please see this pdf - 84K