Safeguarding ritual practices in the limestone cave areas along the Swahili coast of the Indian Ocean in Tanzania

Writer : Maximilian Felix Chami, PhD
Year : 2021


The use and management of sacred limestone cave areas that local communities still use for ritual practices provide challenges to the country, because visitors (tourists) and researchers fail to abide by rules established by locals for the sacred areas. This study reveals that the country lacks sufficient guidelines or frameworks for best practices in safeguarding intangible cultural heritage (ICH). The study discovers that there are ritual practices, strict taboos and customary laws put in place by the local communities to control access to cave areas, such as the Kuumbi and Amboni limestone caves, which are sacred to the locals. The habit of visitors and researchers not adhering to the established regulations when visiting caves and their surroundings has created a disconnect between locals and their ritual practices, which prevents them from performing their rituals and other spiritual activities. This article proposes different measures to be adopted by the country to enable local communities to continue using the caves as a crucial part of their religious life without any disturbances. The article further argues that the country consider nominating ritual practices in limestone cave areas for inclusion in the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage.


Along the Swahili coast of the Indian Ocean in Tanzania, limestone caves have been regarded as places of mystery and intrigue for ages. Prehistoric people used these caves for shelter and even as dwellings. Some caves and rock shelters were decorated with some of the earliest known works of art (Baldwin 2004). Pirates used them to hide their ill-gotten booty (Baldwin 2004). Coastal limestone originates from coral reefs. When these coral reefs rise above the seawater, polyps that form the reef die, and the reef solidifies into limestone rock (McClanahan and Obura 1996). The largest part of the shoreline of Tanzania mainland and the islands are covered by limestone and red soil mantle above the limestone rock (Ngusaru 2002; Stockley 1928; Temple 1970). Caves form in the exposed limestone when water percolates through the cracks, causing the reef to become honeycombed. When the reef breaks down, the combs become limestone caves (Chami 2009; Ngusaru 2002).

These limestone caves have become unique and significant to archaeology, history, heritage, tourism and ritual activities on the Swahili coast of East Africa (Chami 2009; Kiriama 2009). This trend occurs in different parts of the world: limestone caves have been preserving human cultural evidence and settlement patterns for many years (Braidwood 1963). In many parts of the Swahili coast in Tanzania, limestone caves have been an area for the local communities to pray, worship their ancestors and perform other ritual activities. The local communities believe limestone caves are home to their gods (spirits) and must be left alone or approached with veneration (Chami 2009; Sinclair 2006; Chami 2019). Because of this belief, they used different methods and techniques to ensure ritual practices and sacred places are safeguarded for posterity. As Ingrams (1967) noted, Swahili communities along the coast of East Africa have been conducting ritual activities in the limestone cave areas to remember their ancestors even before the arrival of colonialists.

In this article, I examine the safeguarding of ritual practices in limestone cave areas in Tanzania, taking the case of the Kuumbi and Amboni Caves, to recommend the best techniques for safeguarding these ritual practices. Many studies in Tanzania have concentrated more on the management and conservation of movable and immovable cultural heritage (Chami and Kaminyoge 2019; Kaminyoge and Chami 2018; Juma et al. 2005; Kayombo 2005; Kamamba 2005; Lwoga 2018) and on archaeological excavations (Chami 2009; Juma 2004; Kourampas et al. 2015; Peter 2013). This emphasis has, unfortunately, affected how intangible cultural heritage (ICH) in Tanzania is managed by government bodies, which focus on the management and conservation of tangible cultural heritage.

From an African perspective, some African scholars have expressed how ritual activities have become important in traditional African societies (e.g. Mbiti 1975). Mhaka (2014) argued that, in the African world, traditional African religions and rituals are inseparable from culture. This argument means that any interference in African religion and ritual practices leads to the destruction of their culture. A ritual is described as a way to conduct a religious action or ceremony through word, symbol and action by communicating in a religious language (Mhaka 2014, 374; see also Mbiti 1975). The primary purpose of rituals in African societies is to create fixed and meaningful transformations in the life cycle (birth, puberty, marriage and death), including ecological and temporal cycles such as planting, harvest and seasonal changes (Kgatla 2014, 82). Mhaka’s argument was also supported by Mbiti (1975), who identified different traditional African rituals such as personal rituals, agricultural rituals, health rituals, homestead rituals, professional rituals and festivals.

Therefore, I argue that best practices should be developed to safeguard ritual practices in Tanzania to ensure that these cultural elements continue to exist for future generations. Finally, the data presented here have been drawn from various interviews with local communities (traditional healer, cave custodian and community elders). Because many of these limestone caves – including Amboni and Kuumbi – are also national heritage sites, managerial authorities (site managers) responsible for day-to-day supervision and management of the site were also interviewed in April–December 2018. Personal observations of activities in and around the caves are also included in this data. I have frequently visited these sites for heritage and archaeological research activities. During the last five years, I have visited more than five limestone caves on Zanzibar Island and along mainland Tanzania’s marine coastline. Time spent with more than 75 residents and at limestone caves has made it abundantly clear that caves, such as the Kuumbi Cave and Amboni Caves, hold profound social significance for current residents and their immediate ancestors, although local communities’ ritual practices have not been documented and safeguarded (Chami 2019).

Historical overview of the Amboni and Kuumbi Caves and legislation

The Amboni Caves are located in Kiomoni, a village in Tanga District; Kuumbi Cave can be found in Jambiani, a village on Zanzibar Island. The Amboni Caves are located at estimated geographical coordinates S 5º 04ʹ, E 39º 03ʹ; Kuumbi at S 60 21′ 40″, E 390 32′ 33″ (Chami 2019). The Amboni and Kuumbi Caves have religious significance among the local communities. These places are vital shrines where ancestral spirits are venerated and consulted, attracting visitors from all over the country and from nearby countries such as Kenya. In these caves, local communities pray and make offerings to what they deem as shrines. There are no visible rock paintings or engravings, and this is not especially surprising given the rapid depositional rate of the cave’s walls (Sinclair 2006). These caves are guarded by traditional custodians, continuing the long-standing local bond with this sacred place.

The main geological feature of the areas is coral. The areas are also a source of fresh water for the residents. Forest groves characterise the environment of the caves. These forests in the vicinity of the cave have been preserved largely owing to local cultural taboos against the destruction of the forest. Moreover, there are rare and endangered species of monkeys endemic within the forests (Chami 2009, 41). It is not known precisely when the Amboni Caves were discovered, but reports indicate that ethnic groups such as the Segeju, Sambaa, Bondei and Digo, who lived near the caves, discovered these places and started to use them for worship and rituals (Chami 2019, 67). The Kuumbi Cave was first reported as an archaeological site in 2004, by archaeologist Prof. Felix Chami from the University of Dar es Salaam, who was guided there by Jambiani residents (Sinclair et al. 2006). It has been suggested that the Kuumbi Cave was occupied until the early or mid-20th century by hunter-gatherers, who then moved to the coast to form or enlarge the towns of Jambiani and Makunduchi (Chami 2019:74).

Finally, the Ngorongoro Conservation Area Authority is currently the warden responsible for the conservation and management of Amboni Caves; the Antiquities Department in Zanzibar is the one responsible for the Kuumbi Cave. These caves were declared protected national heritage sites, and they are protected under the Antiquities Act of 1964, which was amended in 1979 (Cap 333), and the Ancient Monuments Preservation Act of 2002. This is the basic legislation for the protection and preservation of the country’s cultural heritage resources. These laws have been responsible for protecting, preserving and developing the country’s historical sites and approving matters related to restoration, rehabilitation, documentation and revitalisation of historical monuments, areas and sites. However, these acts have somehow not recognised ritual practices in caves. The acts also fail to explain clearly how research and tourism should be conducted or controlled in the areas used by the local communities for rituals and worship practices (see also Chami 2019).

Ritual activities and social structures in the Amboni and Kuumbi limestone caves

The limestone caves of the Swahili coast in Tanzania are important for worship, prayer and ritual activities for different ethnic groups, such as Sambaa, Digo, Bondei, Segeju and local people from the southern district of Zanzibar. Furthermore, local communities revealed that these ethnic groups performed different types of ritual activities in these two limestone caves. Some of these include rituals such as healing rituals, protection rituals, thanksgiving rituals, rituals for work, rituals for business and fertility rituals. These ritual activities are mainly conducted on specific days – especially on Mondays and Thursdays – specifically in the Kuumbi limestone cave in Zanzibar. While at the cave, participants cook and eat together to celebrate with their community’s ancestral and natural spirits (Larsen 2008). For example, a prominent healer at Jambiani (a village near the Kuumbi Cave) keeps a handwritten text (in Arabic) that documents healing and harming practices associated with the wider landscape. The python, a revered ancestor spirit, lives in the Kuumbi Cave and has been witnessed by people (Chami et al. forthcoming).

With other ritual activities in limestone cave areas performed along the East African coast such as in Shimoni Cave in Kenya (Kiriama 2009), the local communities further suggested that these cultural elements have been performed by the local communities before the coming of Europeans in the 15th century (Ingrams 1967; Peter 2013). The local communities along the coast of the Indian Ocean in Tanzania believe that their ancestors were buried inside these limestone caves. Therefore, the locals usually come to these limestone caves to conduct ritual practices and to pray for assistance from their forefathers and spirits during troubled times. These belief and ritual activities conducted by the local communities along the Tanzania coast are supported by the archaeological work that has been conducted inside the Kuumbi limestone cave, which found a human skeleton dating back to 10,000 or 12,000 BC (Chami 2009).

The local communities from the Kiomini, Makunduchi, Jambiani and Bwejuu villages have clearly used the Amboni and Kuumbi limestone caves along the Swahili coast for ritual activities and other cultural practices since before colonialism. These caves have been associated with these local communities, who have regarded these caves as their churches, mosques or temples. Ritual practices, worship and prayers have been part and parcel of their life and culture in general (e.g. Mhaka 2014). Ritual activities are powerful to the local communities, because they encourage social interaction among community members and other individuals to feel solidarity with one another and imagine themselves to be members of a common undertaking. This argument has been supported in the ritual theory by Collins (2004), who revealed that ritual activities usually instil social connection and unity among the members of communities. The Swahili communities have their traditional means of transmitting and maintaining these cultural elements from one generation to another through traditional oral education within families and through the involvement of young children in ritual activities; still, the country has to ensure this ICH element is nominated for inscription in the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Overview: Safeguarding intangible cultural heritage in Tanzania

Before colonialism in Africa and Tanzania, our forefathers created different mechanisms for managing the ICH in society. These mechanisms included the establishment of social institutions, social structures, taboos and social practices (Mahachi and Kamuhangire 2008). In social institutions and structures, the safeguarding of ICH was done at the individual level, family level, clan level, village level, state level and interstate relations level. In these levels, the ICH was managed and maintained by putting a lot of emphasis on the common language, myths, traditions, prayers, sacrifices and collective defence and security (Mulokozi 2005). Furthermore, ritual practices and festivals were another means used by the local communities to manage the ICH. These rituals and festivals were essentially social occasions and activities that enabled the participants to renew or re-enact their sense of communion and solidarity (Durkheim 1965; Chami 2019).

Some scholars such as Collins (2004) argue that ritual activities are powerful, because they bring social interaction to the community based on bodily co-presence and emotion. When engaged in ritual activities, individuals feel solidarity with one another and imagine themselves to be members of a common undertaking, and they become filled with emotional energy and excitement. Interference or intervention in the ritual and worship practices from outsiders – for example, tourists and researchers – could deteriorate the practices and sometimes produce little or no feeling, emotions or excitement in the local community (Chami 2019). However, Collins (2004) went further and insisted that the decay of ritual activities sometimes produces little or no feeling of group solidarity and no respect for the community’s symbols. The decay of rituals provokes a sense of stale ceremonialism. Therefore, the rejection of ritual activities and the destruction, intervention and interference in sacred heritage places leads to the collapse of social orders and structure as well as to violent reactions (Chami 2019).

With the coming of colonisation, local ICH was considered primitive or dangerous to the colonial order (Mulokozi 2005; Mahachi and Kamuhangire 2008). Colonialists introduced aspects of , including Christianity and other Western customs and education to replace or ignore the local ICH. For example, the European perception largely influenced the World Heritage Committee in the enlistment of properties into the World Heritage List. Monumental European buildings, churches and cathedrals were favoured to the neglect of the non-monumental and intangible cultural properties characteristic of Africa.This bias against the intangible and spiritual heritage of Africa became obvious, as was shown by the imbalance of the World Heritage List in past years (Eboreime 2008:3). However, since independence, the Ministry of Information, Culture and Sport and the Ministry of Education and Science and Technology have been responsible for the safeguarding of ICH. Other institutions that are involved include local governments, the National Council of Kiswahili, the Tanzania Arts Council, museums, archives, national services and other NGOs and private individuals (Mulokozi 2005).

Last, the safeguarding of ICH is the responsibility of the Ministry of Information, Culture and Sports both in mainland Tanzania and on the islands. As government bodies, they advise the country on the safeguarding and conservation of all cultural issues as stipulated in the cultural policy document of 1997. The main aim of this policy is to provide guidelines to promote and preserve the culture of the people of Tanzania. However, this cultural policy has not been able to specify how ICH elements can be safeguarded and promoted in the country. The local communities who worship, pray and attend rituals in the sacred limestone caves, including the Amboni and Kuumbi limestone caves, experience interference from tourism and research activities. Perhaps it can be argued that there is a need for the Tanzanian government to follow in the footsteps of the US, Australian and Benin governments to construct the legislative framework for managing and protecting sacred heritage sites (Benin’s Sacred Forest Protection Law 2012; Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984; American Indian Religious Freedom Act, Public Law No. 95–341, 92 Stat. 469 [11 Aug. 1978, codified at 42 U. S. C. 1996]) that provide rights for the local community to practise rituals and other religious activities in sacred areas.

Challenges facing ritual practices in limestone cave areas in Tanzania

Local communities face different challenges when practising ritual activities in limestone caves. Site managerial authorities and local communities have revealed challenges that include ritual equipment and sacrifices being stolen and a decrease in the number of local communities practising these cultural elements. Other challenges facing ritual practices in the local communities are tourism, education and research activities. Furthermore, a traditional healer in the Amboni Caves revealed during discussion that some local communities have abandoned their traditional beliefs and taboos and have converted to Christianity or Islam (see also Jopela 2016; Makhuvaza and Makhuvaza 2012; Chami and Chami 2020; Eneji et al. 2012). Moreover, the increased presence of secondary school students who come for geography lessons to learn about limestone features, a high number of tourists and research projects within the Kuumbi and Amboni limestone caves have all led to significant problems that have impeded the local communities’ ability to practise this ICH element.

Site managers also highlighted that tourism and research activities in the limestone caves have interfered and intervened in the local communities’ rituals and cultural practices and demoralised the local communities when going to the caves for cultural practices. This is probably because the local communities don’t have a friendly environment and space to practise ritual activities; this discourages them from conducting other cultural activities. It can also be argued that the existence of tourism, secondary school students and research activities at the sites has influenced the collapse of social structure, ritual activities and solidarity with the local communities.

The collapse of social structure, rules and norms has accelerated the disappearance of the ritual activities of the local communities in the caves, which they have tried to safeguard for many years through their traditional practices. This debate has been supported by Collins (2004), who further argued that the decay of rituals provokes a sense of stale ceremonialism. The decrease in number of the local communities going to the Amboni and Kuumbi limestone caves for rituals, while others opt to convert themselves to Christianity and Islam (Jopela 2016; Ndoro and Kiriama 2008, 53), is perhaps due to the lack of space and welcoming environment for them to conduct their cultural activities. The local communities lack a friendly environment in which to meditate and conduct their ritual activities due to the interferences and intervention from secondary school students, tourism and research activities. The development of science and technology also has a significant impact on the social life of the local communities in these areas, so there is an abandonment of their traditional beliefs and practices. Science and technology have changed the local communities’ perspectives towards their beliefs and practices, which are now viewed as a primitive way of life, so these ICH elements have started to disappear in Tanzania.

Furthermore, the existence of ritual activities within these limestone caves can benefit Tanzania, similar to Asian countries such as Nepal and Japan, which have been investing in tourism related to gods, goddesses and traditional religion at large (Shrestha 2017, 15; Bideci and Manhas 2016). Activities such as tourism, research and school trips have led to a decrease in the number of local communities going to the caves for rituals. Hence, a framework for the best practices in limestone caves should be developed to decrease interferences and problems facing the local communities.

Suggested best practices for the safeguarding of ritual practices in limestone cave areas

During the fieldwork in the Kuumbi limestone cave, I witnessed one of the interferences and conflicts between the traditional healer and tourists in the cave during the ritual practice. The traditional healer said, in Swahili: ‘Nyie Wazungu mbona mnatusumbua bwana? Kwanza hata hamjavua viatu. Subirini tumalize kusali kwanza basi’ (the literal translation: ‘You White men – why are you disturbing us? First of all, you have not even removed your shoes. Just wait for us until we finish our prayers.’) This was one of the incidents I witnessed in the Kuumbi Cave. Additionally, the site managers for the Kuumbi and Amboni limestone caves who were interviewed mentioned research activities, especially archaeological excavations, as the cause of interference in the local communities’ ritual practices.

From the study, it is clear that ritual practices in limestone cave areas are vanishing fast and are facing the threat of total extinction. This situation has been due to some of the issues summarised in this study. Therefore, measures are required not only to safeguard and promote this ICH element but also to ensure the best practices of the ritual activities in these sacred limestone cave areas. The following should be taken into account:

◦ Remove all entrance fees for the local communities who come for rituals and worship at these sites. Site managers and the authorities should be able to develop appropriate policies and practices within the sites that respect local communities’ rights to have access to and use these sites without paying entrance fees or having to follow complex and unrealistic permission procedures (e.g. Wild and McLeod 2008). ◦ Protect and conserve the water-collecting channels, wells and water pools inside and surrounding the sites. The site managers should ensure that the tourists who come inside the sacred caves do not contaminate the sacred water, which is used by the local communities – as was observed in the Kuumbi Cave. Furthermore, the geological make-up of the limestone caves and interlinking structures of different kinds of features and tunnels should be conserved and protected.

◦ Update legal instruments, especially the cultural policy and the Antiquities Acts by recognising sacred heritage places and ritual practices and by offering proper protection and practices. For example, the Kuumbi and Amboni limestone caves face many threats and pressures from the outside world. The cultural policy needs to be updated to promote the safeguarding of ICH and the sacred limestone caves in general.

◦ Document and safeguard ICH in the Amboni and Kuumbi Caves, which includes rituals, worship activities, festivals, chants, history and oral tradition for future generations. The country needs to allocate funds to record and register all these activities in the national inventory and specify measures to protect these activities. This intangible heritage needs to be protected for its cultural, religious, educational and economic value. Conservation practices should include the protection of everyday practices, which includes the festivals and rituals associated with the sites. Safeguarding and documentation of ritual practices will help to solve the problem of the disappearance of traditional practices within these sacred places.

◦ Conserve the cave chambers used for ritual and worship practices, and prevent people who are not associated or affiliated with sites from entering those chambers. Forest resources and animals around the Amboni and Kuumbi Caves should also be conserved and protected from illegal hunting and timber activities.

◦ Conduct all education programmes, tourism and archaeological research at the sites on the days when the limestone caves are not used for worship and ritual activities. This will help to reduce the problem of interference of ritual and worship activities.

◦ Include the community elders, especially traditional custodians and traditional healers, in all research and tourism activities. Site managers should make all possible efforts to ensure local custodians and traditional healers have access to and are included in all activities that may affect or benefit them (e.g. Bertucci 1996).

◦ Involve and integrate the local communities to adopt specific measures to protect the sites regarding their traditional knowledge and practices, and all authorities and other visitors should respect them. Site managers should ensure that local communities’ traditional knowledge and practices are fully utilised for the conservation and management of the Amboni and Kuumbi limestone caves by involving and integrating traditional custodians and traditional healers who have a wealth of knowledge on the biophysical environment in these places (e.g. Berkes 1999).

◦ Consider the nomination of this cultural element of ritual practices in the limestone cave areas along the Swahili coast of Tanzania for inscription in the UNESCO Urgent Safeguarding List, because the ritual practices in limestone cave areas, which have lasted for centuries, are vanishing fast and are facing the threat of total extinction due to a lack of sincere and serious measures or guidelines for safeguarding the practices.


This study intends to inspire reflection in archaeologists and tourists who engage with limestone caves in Tanzania. It is time in this region to fully recognise these caves as part of a heritage that deserves integration into scholarly narratives and respect. Any interference in the ritual practices of these local communities – from tourism or archaeological research – puts the viability of the heritage element (its significance and materiality) at risk. From different standpoints and as a result of my diverse experiences with local communities in Zanzibar and Tanzania mainland, I argue that it is essential to raise the expectations for archaeologists who work in these caves, because archaeologists working in Tanzania and on Zanzibar Island largely have not done so themselves (for general recognition of this problem, see Chirikure et al. 2010 and Chami et al. forthcoming). Such archaeologists may not genuinely value local communities or have an inclination to engage them. In addition, foreigners may neither speak Swahili nor be aware of the overall social atmosphere. All of these factors are unbecoming of informed and ethical practitioners. Ignoring local community ritual practices in published archaeological and tourism narratives about caves goes against the tenants of an ethics of care. Resolving this violation requires listening to and attending to community expectations – prioritising the community above the expediency of exclusively scientific projects.

Therefore, for a number of reasons, the country needs to recognise the sacred limestone caves and their associated practices by amending or establishing heritage legislation to provide a legal and institutional framework for the management of caves and for the safeguarding of ICH in Tanzania. This will also further help safeguard the ICH of the local communities, whose traditions are currently at risk of disappearance: local communities cannot practise their culture and traditions due to interference from different activities during their religious practices.


This project was funded by a research grant from DAAD – Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst from 2016 to 2020. I would like to take this opportunity to thank them for their financial support during my fieldwork in the Tanga region and on Zanzibar Island, Tanzania.

Finally, I would like to thank Mr. Abdallah Hamisi, Mr. Haji Othman Faki (Kuumbi Cave) and Mr. Jumanne Maburi (Amboni Caves), who helped me during my stay and assisted with data collection in the Tanga region and on Zanzibar Island.