Kilwa District

Our conservation work is centred in Kilwa District, south-eastern Tanzania, where some of the greatest remaining stocks of mpingo are to be found, and also some of the highest rates of logging.


Kilwa District (8°15’-10°00’S, 38°40’-39°40’E) is the most northerly district in the Lindi Region of southern Tanzania. To the east is the Indian Ocean, and to the west is the Selous Game Reserve. The District has an area of 13,920km², which is divided into two parliamentary constituencies and 93 villages.

Most of the district is well-drained sedimentary sandstone of low fertility and with low moisture-holding capacity. Three of the four main rivers of the Lindi Region, namely the Matandu, Mbwemkuru and Mavuji Rivers, eastwards run through the district into the Indian Ocean.


Kilwa District has been settled for over a thousand years. The small island of Kilwa Kisiwani, lying about 1km from the mainland, was once the greatest city on the East African coast. Shirazi Arabs settled there in the 9th century and created a town.

By the height of the Swahili civilization, in the 13-15th century, it was at the hub of trade between inland peoples, in what is now Zimbabwe, and maritime trade with Mozambique, Arabia, India and as far as China. Ivory, gold and tortoiseshell were brought from inland, to be traded for cloth and porcelain. There are records of "ebony" being exported from Kilwa, which may well have been mpingo. Kisiwani was renown as a prosperous city-state and centre of Swahili culture. Kisiwani had outlying settlements on other islands, including Sanje ya Kati and Songo Mnara. The city, as Quiloa, even gets a mention in Milton's Paradise Lost. Various impressive ruins remain on the three islands, the best recently restored.

In 1505 the Portuguese attacked and occupied the coast, destroying most buildings on Kilwa Kisiwani. It never quite regained its status. However, in the 18th century, Omani Arabs resettled the island and recommenced trading. Kisiwani became an important slave holding centre, where slaves captured near Lake Nyasa (which now forms the Tanzania, Malawi and Mozambique border) were held before being transported to Mauritius, the Arab Sultanates and India. As well as the nefarious slave trade Kilwa's renewed prosperity derived from dealing in commodities as rice, gum copal (which came from the local coastal forest tree (Hymenaea verrucosa) and tobacco.

At the start of the 19th century, the mainland port of Kilwa Kivinje supplanted Kisiwani as the terminus of the southern slave caravan. Kivinje has a broad sandy harbour, which to this day is an ideal landing beach for wooden boats. The slave caravan route probably passed from Kivinje, over Singino Hill, through Migeregere, southwest to Nanjirinji and leaving what is now the far southwest corner of Kilwa District by the Mbwemkuru River. By 1850 Kivinje had grown into a settlement of 12-15,000 including many wealthy families of Indian origin. The Sultan of Zanzibar, who had outlawed slave-trading, captured the last Sultan of Kilwa, sent him into exile and imposed new laws. Kivinje briefly rose to notoriety for its clandestine continuation of slave trafficking.

The coastal strip of Tanzania came under German control in 1886, and they established a regional headquarters at Kivinje. From this base the Germans suppressed a popular uprising called the Maji Maji Rebellion, which took root in the Matumbi Hills at the northern end of the District.

When Tanganyika became a British protectorate, it was decided to move the District centre to Kilwa Masoko and a deep-water habour was constructed for modern commercial vessels. Independence came in 1961, and the new national government kept the district centre at Masoko but built a new hospital on the site in Kivinje where the German colonial rulers hanged people during the Maji Maji Rebellion.


The 2002 census found that the average person in Kilwa District lives in a house built in the traditional way from wooden poles and mud, with a roof made of grass. They get their water from an unprotected well, and use a pit latrine. Their house is lit at night by a wick lamp made from an old tin can. Only 47% of people are literate.

Largely as a result of poor infrastructure the District's population has remained relatively stable. Currently it is estimated to be about 175,000, which is a density of 12.6 people per km². This is much less than the national average, because young people previously left the District in search of commercial and educational opportunities in Dar es Salaam and elsewhere.

As a result of the long history of Islamic traders living in the area, most of the District's inhabitants are Muslim. Many villages have not only a mosque but also a madrassa, where children learn to read the Koran in Arabic.

There are a number of Christian missions in the District, including the well-established Roman Catholic Kipatimu Mission. This has a large stone church and hospital, which is one of the very few two-storied buildings in the District. Substantial numbers of those who have recently moved into the District are Christian.

Some people still adhere to traditional beliefs; Kilwa is famous for witchcraft. Many people turn to witchcraft when they have a serious illness or dispute.


Farmers rely on traditional tools and methods; for example fields are cultivated by hand using hoes and irrigation and agricultural chemicals are very seldom used. The average farm size is 2 hectares. Typically the farm family consumes most of the harvest and a small surplus is sold. Modest annual increases in food production attained in recent years are insufficient to keep up with the District's increasing population. The main crops grown for local consumption are cassava, maize, sorghum and rice. Black cotton soil around Makangaga, Liwiti, Matandu, and Mbwemkuru are particularly fertile and give high rice yields. Upland rice is grown in the drier hilly areas around Chumo and Kipatimu in the north of the district. Sesame is grown in small fields as a cash crop for export, especially around Nanjirinji. In Kipatimu Division, which includes part of the Matumbi Hills, there has been commercial tree crop production for many years. Oranges and coconuts are the main species grown in the valley bottoms here. Elsewhere in the District, most notably around Likawage, Nanjirinji, Nainokwe, Njinjo and Singino Hill, there are small, low-yielding, family-owned cashew plantations. Apart from free-range chickens for household consumption, few farm families keep animals. The abundance of trypanosomiasis-spreading tsetse flies in the west of the District restricts rearing of cattle and goats.

Natural Resources

Kilwa District has an abundance of natural resources, and the vast majority of its people are reliant on natural resources to meet their daily needs. Over 90% of the Region's working population are either farmers or fishermen, yet the District still has a food deficit of over 30,000 tons per annum.

Forest Resources

The Kilwa Lowland Forest Mosaic in central and southern Kilwa where the Mpingo Conservation & Development Initiative works is a complex and dynamic patchwork of various Miombo sub-types and East African Coastal Forest variants. Local people are highly dependent on forest products, for example to make their home and as cooking fuel. A wide variety of species are used - see our Parataxonomy for Kilwa District. Villagers living along the Dar-Mtwara road produce charcoal from woodland trees and take advantage of passing goods vehicles to sell their charcoal, which is destined for urban residents. With the exception of Masoko, Kivinje, Nangurukuru and some of the larger villages along the Dar-Mtwara road, where food vendors and wealthier residents buy charcoal, there is sufficient fuel wood available that women and children can readily meet household needs from the surrounding land. The situation around Masoko in particular is different, with poorer residents struggling to meet their fuel needs, for example spending hours scavenging for bark on piles of timber logs. Beekeeping in the District is not well developed, although the miombo woodland has the potential to produce large quantities of excellent honey. Many village men collect wild honey in the traditional way. This involves making a hive by ring-barking a large Brachystegia longifolia tree and using a burning branch to smoke out the bees to collect the honey. Marendego and Likawage are noted for having skilled honey harvesters. However, this traditional beekeeping is an enormous fire hazard. Furthermore the yield is not as high as that obtained from improved beehives. Minor forest products include wild fruit, for example from baobab (Adansonia), Mikumi palm (Hyphaene), Vitex and Strychnos. These are of importance to village children, but are rarely gathered for sale. There are two small groups of mpingo carvers in Nangurukuru. Most of their carvings are sold to traders who transport them to Dar es Salaam, to be sold, usually to tourists, at the Mwenge carving market.

Sea Products

Fishing has long been an important source of income and nutrition to the people of Kilwa District. There are over 1700 registered local fishermen, who use nearly 600 small boats to catch about 4.5 million tonnes of finfish each year. Additionally there are some larger vessels, such as foreign prawn trawlers. The past decade has seen an increase in the diversity of sea products harvested in the District, and now finfish only bring in a sixth of fishermen's total income. Many of these new products, such as lobsters, seaweed and seas shells, are destined for export. Others, such as ‘changu’ fish, are sent by road to be sold in Dar es Salaam. Fishermen are now coming into the District, from as far away as Mtwara, because local fish stocks are high in comparison with the depleted stocks elsewhere.


Kilwa District has an abundance of large mammals owing to its high forest cover, low population density and proximity to the Selous Game Reserve. Species found in the District include lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo, Lichtenstein's hartebeest, eland, hippotamus and the globally threatened Cape Hunting Dog. Unfortunately many of these animals are a nuisance to local farmers, destroying crops and endangering lives. Much of the work done by the game guards in the District is minimise the damage game animals do. At present there are three game concession areas, which are areas in which an exclusive licence is given to a company for trophy hunting. These three areas are in the less densely populated west of the District, where eland, hartebeest and elephant can readily be seen. Large marine animals in the District include dugong, dolphin and giant turtle. There is substantial interest from donors in protecting these animals and ensuring that fishing continues in an environmentally sensitive manner. Additionally, the District supports a number of smaller species with restricted ranges in the biologically diverse coastal forests.


Kilwa District has several attractions for tourists wanting to escape the more crowded sights of Tanzania:

  • Its unique pull is the ruins on Kisiwani, which are a World Heritage Site. These are the best-preserved buildings from the golden era of Swahili culture.
  • Game fishing for marlin, swordfish and barracuda.
  • There are numerous, almost-pristine, reefs off the coast for snorkelling.
  • Beaches including Jimbiza Beach in the bay at Kilwa Masoko itself, as well as Masoko Pwani, an unspoilt, quiet, clean beach a few kilometres out of town.
  • Exclusive game concession areas which attract small numbers of foreign hunters.
  • Kipatimu caves, as yet not on the tourist trail.
  • The old town at Kilwa Kivinje
  • The Tanzanian governmen's promotion of the Southern Circuit, as an alternative to the overcrowded Northern Circuit, will boost tourism over the next few years. Aside from the attractions above the District's woodland and forests have potential for small-scale ecotourism based on the District's biodiversity.

Geological resources

There has been prospecting for petrochemicals in Kilwa district since the early 1970s, and even today there is commercial test drilling on the Pande Peninsula. Recently Songas have begun to extract natural gas from Songo Songo Island, which is 40km off the coast in the north of the district. The gas is piped to Dar es Salaam to fuel a large electricity generator. Currently a smaller electricity generating station is being constructed in the District as part of this project. This will replace the old, unreliable and expensive diesel-fueled station at Masoko, and provide the capacity to cope with Masoko's increasing demand for electricity.

Other natural resources

  • Salt production is important to many coastal communities. In the past areas of mangrove have been cleared to make way for salt pans. With the on-going Mangrove Management Project in the District villagers are taught how to make salt pans of an improved design in the optimal areas, which are away from mangrove.
  • Communities have also been involved in replanting mangrove, which serves as a nursery for many fish species.

Previous forestry projects

Between 2001 and 2004 there was a DANIDA-funded initiative in Kilwa called the Utumi Project which aimed to implement the new forest policy in Lindi Region and increase the capacity of forestry staff there. UTUMI is short for Utunzaji za Misitu, which is Swahili for Forest Conservation. The project had a specific regional focus, and provided a high level of support in the two districts (Kilwa and Lindi) in which it operated. In its three years of operation, Utumi achieved some impressive results introducing Participatory Forest Management to local villages, and substantially increased the capacity of the local district institutions (and the District Forestry Offices in particular) to carry out this sort of work. Unfortunately the Utumi Project came to an early close in 2004 as funding was re-prioritised. In an attempt to fill the gap the Mpingo Conservation & Development Initiative formed a new partnership with the Forestry Office in Kilwa, and continued the excellent work of Utumi in the district forests.