Tanga: Once City of plenty, now quiet

Friday June 01 2018

An aerial view of Tanga, Tanzania. The once vibrant city are rundown and forlorn factories, ravaged by the effects of the changing seasons and degraded by human activities over decades. AFP PHOTO | JACK GUEZ


Bongo Flava artistes Wagosi wa Kaya released their popular but controversial hit Tanga Kunani? (what’s going on Tanga?) in 2017. It was a lament about everything that is wrong today with the once thriving port city on Tanzania’s north coast.

Today, Tanga may have lost the economic and cultural allure of past decades, but it is potentially the most productive region in Tanzania.

The city is actually little more than a sleepy town with aged buildings; life there is characterised by a palpable slowness and apathy — a ghost of pre- and post colonial era glamour when its economy boomed.

What is now left of the once vibrant city are rundown and forlorn factories, ravaged by the effects of the changing seasons and degraded by human activities over decades.

In their lyrics, Wagosi wa Kaya wonder why everything died: That airplanes, trains and ship now avoid the city.

They decry the religiosity that has engulfed the region and the desperate poverty of the people, despite having a rich hinterland and swathes of arable land for both food and cash crops such as sisal.


Women sorting sisal fibre at Magoma Sisal Estate processing plant, Tanga. FILE PHOTO | NMG

The artistes even decried the disposition of Tanga people, whom they accuse of not doing enough to help the situation preferring instead to drink mnazi (palm wine tapped from the coconut tree) instead of tea or coffee for breakfast.

Arab-influenced buildings

Geographically, Tanga is breathtakingly beautiful as it tapers towards the Indian ocean. Its Arab-influenced buildings sport ornate mahogany balconies, four-foot walls, coloured-glass windows, heavy, dark doors, and courtyards where cats slink in the deep shade.

The better maintained buildings are whitewashed and sparkle in the sun.

The town centre is prim and wellplanned — streets are well aligned with flower hedges and huge old jacaranda, neem and fig trees along some streets — its railway lines, port, the 21 Megawatt Hale dam in Pangani and the presence of now defunct factories are indicative of a city that German colonial administrators and past Tanzanian governments had given much consideration to as the epicentre of Tanzania’s tourism, agriculture and manufacturing.

By bus from the southern Kenyan border post of Lungalunga/Horohoro, it is a beautiful drive on a new highway through the quiet Mkinga district, with the rising Usambara mountains in the west as you approach Tanga.

But to do justice to the beauty of Tanga, one has to see it from above. Fying over the city, one is greeted by breathtaking vistas of myriad rivers snaking their way into the Indian Ocean from the Usambara mountains.

Tanga was initially intended to be the capital of Tanzania as per the plans of German colonialists. Had this been achieved, maybe today the city would have grown into a thriving commercial and tourism hub.

In a few minutes of an unhurried stroll through the town centre, you will have seen all you want to see. The central business district is nothing to write home about, with streets lined with modest shops, a couple of bars, a bus stop and a number of daladalas, minibuses, ambling along the streets.

Unlike Dar es Salaam, there is no hurry in Tanga. Cool wind blows from the ocean but there is a heaviness in the air because of the coastal humidity. Cool shade from trees is important here, and Tanga has plenty of them.

Residents of Tanga are in agreement with Wagosi wa Kaya. They recall with nostalgia a bygone era when the city was the place to be.


Back then, the town’s slogan was Tanga ni Raha (Tanga is fun). That ceased being true decades ago. Azim Mohammed of Magomeni B says that Tanga provided to many fun activities in its better days.

“Tanga and Mombasa were popular with fun seekers. Tanga teemed with people from all over Tanzania, Mombasa and beyond.

Tanga was the first town to have a police station and a post office in Tanzania. Back then when the government used to run retail outlets, shops countrywide were stocked with products manufactured by Tanga-based factories,” he recalls.


ARM's Tanga cement plant under construction in Tanzania. FILE PHOTO | NATION

Tanga was the country’s industrial base with factories manufacturing soap, blankets, steel, fertilisers and many other products.

Today, save for a few cement factories — the Tanga Cement, Rhino Cement and Kilimanjaro Cement plus a miller — the old decrepit ghosts of factories  stand as a stark reminder of the once thriving manufacturing scene in the city.


The earliest documentation about Tanga comes from the Portuguese. A trading post was established by the Portuguese as part of their East African coastal territory and controlled the region for over 200 years, between 1500 and 700.

The Sultanate of Oman ousted the Portuguese and gained control of the settlement by mid 1700 along with Mombasa, Pemba Island and Kilwa Kisiwani. The town continued to act as a trading port for ivory and slaves under the sultan’s rule.

Tanga continued to be a prosperous trading hub for slaves bound for the Arab world up until 1873 when the European powers abolished the slave trade.

In the 19th the scramble for Africa brought the Germans to Tanga. The Germans bought the coastal strip of mainland Tanzania from the Sultan of Zanzibar in 1891. This takeover saw Tanga designated a township, the first establishment in German East Africa.

The port of Tanga is historically the oldest operating harbour in Tanzania and its roots date back to around the 6th century.

It is the second largest port in Tanzania and is a vital part of the city’s initial development and economy.

The port operates at 90 per cent of its installed capacity; its main cargo is coal for the cement industry and is a new gateway for crude oil products. The Tanzania government has major plans to upgrade the port, increase capacity and provide an alternative route for cargo flowing into the country.


Tanga has great potential for tourism. The town’s periphery is dotted with quaint restaurants, hotels and historical sites; and the ocean offers great dhow sailing and a rich coral reef for diving enthusiasts. Tanga has what it takes to be East Africa’s tourism hub.


A fishing boat docked nearby the Mwambani bay in Tanga, Tanzania. FILE PHOTO | NATION

The Amboni Caves, proximity to the Saadani National Park, the Amani National Reserve, hikes on the Usambara Mountains, Totem Island, Yambe Island, nature trails, culture, safety and a polite and friendly people offer a unique experience for tourists.

Nairobi takes pride in being the only capital city in the world with a national park, but Tanga’s proximity to the Saadani National Park makes it the only city with a wildlife sanctuary incorporating a marine park in the region.

The city, being on the highway between Mombasa and Dar es Salaam, is well served by bus services from both Kenya and the northern Tanzania regions of Usambara, Moshi and Arusha.

A defunct railway link also still exists between Moshi and Tanga. A small airport in the city is served by only two small local air operators.

The decline

According to Bakari Mwapachu, a former minister and MP for Tanga, the once thriving economy of the city was hard hit by a fall in sisal production following nationalisation of the plantations and a subsequent drop in world demand and prices, and a shift from natural sisal fibre to synthetic fibre.

Up until 1961, Tanzania was the world’s leading sisal producer. Sisal was the preferred material for agricultural twine — binder and baler twine. With the coming of synthetic fibre, sisal lost half its global market share.

“Sisal plantations were the biggest employer in Tanga. However, the slow death of the sisal sector led to a decline in production and subsequent unemployment. Tanga’s sisal sector made it only second to Dar es Salaam in government revenue collection. Back then the Dar es Salaam-Moshi railway service was functional,” he said.


Workers feed sisal into threshing machine at the Magoma Sisal Plant in Tanga. PHOTO | COURTESY

Mzee Shamte Hadhumani, a sisal farmer in Muheza, avers that the politics of the time led to the decline in Tanga’s economy.

“Tanga was intended to be the German colonial capital but was overtaken by Dar es Salaam after Independence following nationalisation of the factories in 1972, an extension of the Arusha Declaration of 1967. Unfortunately this move adversely affected the port, the railway and all industries,” said Hadhumani.

“Ignoring of formal education and concentration on Islamic studies alone have had a hand in dragging Tanga backwards. The few people who received a formal education got it through the missionary schools,” he adds.

Great potential

All is not lost. A glimmer of hope arising from the proposed Tanga-Hoima oil pipeline and the rising demand for sisal products could restore Tanga’s lost glory.

Media reports in March said that over 10,000 jobs are expected to be created during the construction of the pipeline. Besides, many formerly defunct sisal plantations are now operational in response to the rising sisal prices in the world market.

However, to tap into these new developments, Mr Mwapachu says, there is a an urgent need to refurbish the now decrepit infrastructure and introduce vocational training for the youth in preparation for the good times ahead.

He is also keen on the creation of industrial parks like the Pongwe Industrial Park, — which is yet to attract investors.

“Our growth goals cannot be easily attained unless the infrastructure including the railway, the port and roads is improved. The only way to support the growth of industry and reclaim Tanga’s lost glory is to develop Tanga.

“In view of this, the youth should be encouraged to hone their vocational skills in preparation for an industrial takeoff. Tanzania envisages becoming an industrialised country by 2025,” concludes Mr Mwapachu.