The African resistance to colonization was a recurring thing. It is often summed up as one event but the resistance was omnipresent as it was constantly present in the lives of the Africans. One of the most tremendous eruptions of the 20th-century African resistance was the Maji Maji rising in German East Africa territory formerly known as Tanganyika modern-day Tanzania. This upsurge of African resistance found its ideological content from religious leaders.
The Maji Maji rebellion began as a peasant protest against a scheme, imposed by the German authorities, to force the indigenous population to grow cotton for export. Along with other unpopular German policies that affected the social fabric of the indigenous people sowed a lot of resentment for the administration.
Religion proved an extremely vital tool. The influence of the prophetic leaders inspired the spread of the rising from the Rufiji valley where it began and gave a degree of unity to diverse peoples. At the forefront of the movement was Kinjikitile Ngwale. He rallied the masses and made them rise up against their oppressors.
The people being vulnerable to their disdain for the administration turned to the powers of Kinjikitile Ngwale who practiced folk Islam that incorporated animist beliefs and claimed to be possessed by a snake spirit called Hongo. Ngwale later began calling himself Bokero and spread the gospel that the people of German East Africa had been called upon to eliminate the Germans. Kinjikitile gave people what he termed “sacred water” which was meant to protect the indigenous people from the bullets of the Germans.
Armed with resentment and the sacred water from Kinjikitile Ngwale the people of German East Africa had their first nationalist embers stirred. The indigenous people felt empowered and this sense of power spread among the people around German East Africa. The people were armed with faith and had a feeling that they were invincible because of the sacred water that had been given to them for protection by Kinjikitile. They went to war armed with spears and poisoned arrows with no coverage save for millet stalks which they wore around their foreheads.
After the Matumbi tribesmen marched on Samanga and destroyed the cotton crops as well as the trading post-Kinjikitile was arrested and hanged for treason. Before his execution, he declared he had spread the medicine of rebellion throughout the region. The seeds of nationalism he had sowed lived beyond his death the Ngindo and Yao tribesman joined the rebellion after his death attacking German forts.
Although they were killed by machine guns the uprising still attracted other tribes to join in a common goal of defeating the Germans. The Qadiriyya Brotherhood declared a Jihad against the Germans, with Sufi Muslims now making up the majority of the rebellion. During the apex of the rebellion, the Ngoni tribe joined bringing in manpower of up to 5,000 warriors. The Ngoni were recent arrivals in the region, descendants of the Ndwandwe who had been defeated by the Zulus but they also believed in the sacred water (Maji).
Two years since the beginning of the rebellion (1905-1907) and around 300,000 fatalities later the wrath of the machine gun and famine defeated the rebellion. The rebellion also failed due to a lack of coordination between the tribes.
However, despite differences between tribes, religion and belief in the sacred water of kinjikitile saw the indigenous people of German East Africa rise with a common faith and belief.
Kinjikitile Ngwale is often criticized for deceiving the people and sending them to their deaths. It should, however, be noted that it was Kinjikitile who lit the embers of nationalism and faith in the unity of the indigenous people. He empowered the people by faith and by unity, this was achieved by faith in the sacred water.
The nationalism that was sowed by Kinjikitile Ngwale and the unity he brought across tribes is what saw the eventual rise of leaders like Julius Nyerere and the birth of an independent Tanzania.