Shagihilu Ng'wana Shitapondya, a member of the Kadumu dance group of Washa Ng'wana Shagembe from Ng'wagimagi performing at the compound of the healer Nyumbani Shilinde (Mungu wa Pili), July 10, 1996, Ntulya village
Dancer competing at Bulabo, Bulabo 1995, Kisesa village 
Mzee Ng'wenwandege dancing with fire at the compound of the healer Nyumbani Shilinde (Mungu wa Pili), Ntulya village 

Sukuma Dancing and Dawa

The Bagalu and Bagika Dance Societies
Images of Sukuma Dance
by Aimee H.C. Bessire


Dancing is a vital part of Sukuma life. The Sukuma are famous throughout Tanzania for their innovative dancing styles. Dancers continue to perform and compete in annual competitions, creating new costumes and using new and old dances just as their ancestors did over a hundred years ago. Some suggest that many of the current Sukuma dances started through cooperative farming groups who traveled from farm to farm. Members assisted one another to till their own farms and also worked as a group in exchange for money. To help pass the long day and to maintain their energy, the workers composed songs and lifted their hoes to the rhythm of singing and drumming. Such cooperative groups still exist; yet, Sukuma dancing is not limited to farm work.
Young men dancing Sogota with Maganigani's group at Bulabo dance competition, June 20, 1995, Kisesa village 
View of the dance ground with nyumba ya masamva (ancestral shrines) prepared and used by Maganigani for Sogota dance at Bulabo dance competition, June 20, 1995, Kisesa village 
Young boy dancing Sogota with Maganigani's group at Bulabo dance competition, June 20, 1995, Kisesa village 
The competitive dance season begins in Usukuma in June when people have free time from their farm work and can celebrate their new supply of food for the year. The season can last through August or until people resume their farming activities. A good harvest will lead to a dance season with great celebration through singing and dancing. The festivals take place in a large field that has been cleared for dancing or sometimes in a small stadium. A competition can be as short as a day or as long as two weeks depending on the occasion or the number of dance groups scheduled. Both July 7, or Saba-Saba, and August 8, Nane-Nane, are National holidays to commemorate farming and commerce in Tanzania and provide two of the biggest festival days for dancers.

Bagalu and Bagika Dance Societies

Competitive dancing in Usukuma began with the formation of two dance societies: the Bagika and Bagalu. These societies were started in the mid Nineteenth century by two famous dancers and composers, Ngika and Gumha. Both of these men lived for many years with traditional doctors to gain the knowledge of potent medicines. Because they were also both famous dancers in Usukuma, they were encouraged to compete to test which one had the most powerful medicines. Both used their magical potions to attract the spectators to their side of the dance field and to force bad luck on their opponent. The matches between these men was fierce and in the end their supporters divided according to which man they thought was the most powerful. Ngika then became the first leader of the Bagika Society (people of Ngika) and Gumha of the Bagalu. The societies are still going strong and dancers are affiliated with either Bagika or Bagalu. The two groups continue to compete against one another during the dance season. While the leadership of Bagika is divided between Ibogo Muhangwa and Kabugume, Bulungute Muleka is the undisputed leader of Bagalu and grandson of its founder, Gumha. These men are considered all the more powerful because they received their knowledge from a direct ancestral line to the first dance society leaders, Ngika and Gumha. Bulungute, Ibogo and Kabugume are busy during the dance season administering special medicines to their followers to aid them in winning competitions.

Bulungute Muleka (leader of the Bagalu Dance Society) with medicinal root in the foreground and shigiti, a collection of medicinal calabashes, in the background, May 19, 1995, Ngiwabochuma village 
Ibogo Megi wearing headdress with multiple shilungu (polished shell disks) representing his leadership of the Bagika Dance Society, August 5, 1995, Ng'walwigi village 
Before going to a competition, the dance leader consults his trusted traditional doctor for special advice and medicines for good luck. He then wears certain medicines while the group is dancing or implants medicine on the dancing ground for good luck and to attract the crowd. The most popular dance medicine is called samba. This is a special powdered form of good luck medicine that is supposed to make the dancers and especially the dance leader very attractive to the audience. It can be used in three different ways. The dancers may rub the powdered medicine on their bodies with a lotion; mix some in water and allow it to wash over the body while bathing; or, sit in an enclosed space with the medicine over a fire and allow the open pores of the body to "inhale" the substance. During a contest, some dancers build semi-permanent ancestral shrines on the dance ground. Larger structures are also constructed where a constant fire might be maintained to heat the samba medicine. At the competition, dancers go into the house to allow the smoking medicine to enter their bodies through the pores.
Lubala Bumbulu, the leader of the Banungule dance group from Songongolo village in Sengerema District, meditating for protective and good luck medicines during a performance at Bulabo dance competition, June 16, 1996, Kisesa village 
Man with a mirror attempting to attract the crowd to his side of the dance ground to win the competition, Bulabo 1995, Kisesa village 
Man using fire to attract the crowd to win competition during Banungule performance of  the group of Lubala Bumbulu from Songongolo village in Sengerema District, Bulabo dance competition, June 16, 1996, Kisesa village 
During a match, two dance groups compete for the crowd at the same time. Each attempts to perform the most outrageous stunts to draw the rest of the spectators over. The crowd runs from one dance group to the other as the excitement builds and the cheers of the audience grow louder and louder. The winner is selected by judges based on the size of the crowd the dance group maintained during the competition. Costumes are diverse and new innovations occur each year in the hopes of victory. One famous dance family, the Lyakus, innovate new moves with each dance season. Hoja Lyaku, the family's grandfather, was a famous dancer of Bakomyalume. During a dance he would use large wooden figures, often with moveable arms and legs to parade in front of the spectators. The figures would often draw a large crowd because of their novelty and humorous moves. Hoja's grandson, Steven Lyaku, suggested that they no longer use the wooden figures. Instead they plan new secret weapons each year as a strategy to win. In 1995, Steven Lyaku won a dance competition when he wore a plastic monkey mask given to him by a Japanese traveler.
Black and white photograph of Bogobogobo or Bakomyalume dance group, courtesy of the Sukuma Archives, Bujora village
Maganigani after performance of Sogota dance at Bulabo dance competition, June 20, 1995, Kisesa village
Placing medicines for protection and good luck on the dance ground before a Wigashe composers' competition, Bulabo June 1995, Kisesa village
Maganigani is another young dancer who has achieved great fame in the Sukuma community through contemporary innovations. He dances Sogota which he and his dance troupe have helped to make popular all over Usukuma. Maganigani is frequently invited to tournaments during the dance season. The Sogota dance troupe travels from competition to competition from June until August. Sogota dancers wear thigh-high, multicolored striped socks and shorts and shirts in red with white appliqued designs. They also wear ankle bells which ring as the dancers jump high into the air and twist their bodies. Maganigani consults his traditional doctor before the dance season to gain advice on winning. The doctor prescribes special medicines to be used and recommends methods for honoring the ancestors to ensure good luck. For example, Maganigani may build ancestral shrines on the dance ground and then perform while moving in a special path around the structures. During a visit to the traditional doctor, Maganigani and other Sogota dancers may also receive scarification cuts in their skin, into which medicines for attracting the dancing crowd are rubbed. Although he relies on traditional medicines for good luck in winning, Maganigani's dance, Sogota, is pure innovation from traditional Sukuma dances. Its originality has helped Maganigani achieve status as a popular icon in Usukuma. Even in small villages, children can be seen attempting to imitate the unique dance steps made famous by Maganigani. This blend of the traditional with innovative changes reflects the richness of the contemporary dynamic in Usukuma.

Wigashe: the "Sitting Dance"

Wigashe composers' competition between Budelele (Bagalu Dance Society) and Dandamala (Bagika Dance Society), Bulabo June 1996, Kisesa village 
Wigashe composers' competition between Idili Dukila (Bagalu Dance Society) and Sita Kadulia (Bagika Dance Society), Bulabo June 1995, Kisesa village 
Wigashe composers' competition between Budelele (Bagalu Dance Society) and Dandamala (Bagika Dance Society), Bulabo June 1996, Kisesa village 
From June through September, Sukuma song writers compete in long festivals. The composer's groups are called Wigashe (pronounced "wee-gah-shay"). The composer, or mlingi in Kisukuma, stands and sings during the competition with a chorus surrounding him. The Wigashe competitions are also called the "Sitting Dances" because the chorus sits on log benches around the leader and, as the song progresses, begin to jump from their benches with the song's rhythm. After the composer sings the words, the chorus echoes the song. For the competition, each composer writes a new melody and a complicated series of lyrics. Some composers write six or more songs that will be performed during competitions and for commemorative festivals throughout the season. Wearing intricate costumes of beaded, embroidered or appliqued vests, hats and arm bands, the composer sings and sways slowly while rhythmically moving fly whisks in his arms. Most of the famous composers are men, but women also write songs and join in the chorus. Like the dancers, composers are affiliated with either Bagika or Bagalu. Two composers compete at the same time (one from Bagika and one from Bagalu) and try to attract a larger crowd than their opponent. They will often use medicines for good luck and to attract the largest audience. Composers write unique lyrics, which may be about anything from Sukuma history to recent National elections or even carrying a moral message about AIDS. In June of 1996, the composer Budelele, competed with a song about the tragic ferry accident in Mwanza to memorialize those who had died.
Denmark and Sukuma Dancing
Bana Sesilia from Bujora village performing to commemorate the death of Hoja Lyaku, a healer, blacksmith and dance leader of Bakomyalume dance (Bagika), Kongolo village 
Denmark has a vibrant intercultural exchange with the Sukuma. In the late 1960s, several Danes visited Bujora and other areas of Usukuma and formed a close relationship with the Sukuma community based on their love of Sukuma dancing. Each year Danish groups continue to visit Usukuma to practice dancing and to experience Sukuma culture. There are now many dance groups in Denmark which were created through these exchanges with Usukuma and are devoted to Sukuma dance. The Utamaduni ("Culture") group was the first of these, but Watoto na Wengine ("Children and Others"), Ikumbo ("Whip") and Kisiwani ("Of the Island") are among some of the many other active dance groups in Denmark. These groups invite Sukuma dancers to Denmark each year to teach and they also hold a week long Sukuma cultural camp at the end of July. Some Sukuma dancers have even settled permanently in Denmark.
Dominika Onken performing Bunungule at the opening of a new maize mill at Nyankunje village 
Bana Sesilia Society from Bujora village performing with group from Denmark to commemorate the death of Hoja Lyaku, a healer, blacksmith and dance leader of Bakomyalume dance (Bagika), Kongolo village 
Bana Sesilia Society from Bujora village performing with group from Denmark to commemorate the death of Hoja Lyaku, a healer, blacksmith and dance leader of Bakomyalume dance (Bagika), Kongolo village 
This relationship has led to a mutually beneficial intercultural exchange between the Danish and Sukuma. People in Denmark have the opportunity to learn about African culture through Sukuma dance classes and exhibitions. Likewise, the Sukuma have learned about Danish culture. Through this exchange, the Danish have had an impact on Sukuma dance. Some Danes have become famous for their dancing in Usukuma. More established Danish dancers have even innovated new moves with Sukuma dances. For example, Anders Jørgensen, whose Kisukuma name is Lubala, held dance classes for Sukuma children to practice Banungule, the porcupine dance, which he had learned through dance classes in Denmark and Tanzania. In 1995, Lubala taught the children a mixture of traditional Banungule steps, hip-hop and break dancing. These innovations add a new flavor to a favorite Sukuma dance and may be readily incorporated into Banungule traditions.

Images of Sukuma Dance

Dance group competing at Bulabo, Bulabo 1995, Kisesa village
Dance group competing at Bulabo, Bulabo 1995, Kisesa village
Dance group competing at Bulabo with dance leader emerging from nyumba ya masamva (ancestral shrine), Bulabo 1995, Kisesa village 
Dancers performing Ugodisha Jeshi la Satu dance in Kalwinzi's group, June 21, 1995, Bulabo competition, Kisesa village
A young member of the Bana Sesilia Society of Isesa performing Bugoyangi, a dance of the Buyeye (snake dance), April 19, 1995, Isesa village
Zinza dancers performing at the compound of the healer Nyumbani Shilinde (Mungu wa Pili), Ntulya village
Yarudutu Nderema a member of Bana Sesilia Society of Isesa performing Bugoyangi, a dance of the Buyeye (snake dance), April 19, 1995, Isesa village
Dancers of the Bana Sesilia Society performing Buyeye (snake dance) with python, Isesa village
Yarudutu Nderema a member of Bana Sesilia Society of Isesa performing Bugoyangi, a dance of the Buyeye (snake dance), April 19, 1995, Isesa village
Bogobogobo dance group from Nyang'hanga performing in shirts commemorating the Pope's visit to Tanzania, April 20, 1995, Nyang'hanga village
Bogobogobo dance group from Nyang'hanga performing in shirts commemorating the Pope's visit to Tanzania, April 20, 1995, Nyang'hanga village
Bogobogobo dance group from Nyang'hanga performing in shirts commemorating the Pope's visit to Tanzania, April 20, 1995, Nyang'hanga village
Member of Zinza dance group breast feeding while dancing at the compound of the healer Nyumbani Shilinde (Mungu wa Pili), Ntulya village
Kadete dance group performing at the compound of Nyumbani Shilinde (Mungu wa Pili), Ntulya village
Mashomali Lotema from Bukande village in Shinyanga performing Bademi, a dance of Bachunga ng'ombe (shepherd's dance), with his doll Mariam at the compound of the healer Nyumbani Shilinde (Mungu wa Pili), Ntulya village
Add/View Comments 
mbessire@meca.edu