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The Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure

Department of Geography and Faculty of History


Historical demography in Tanzania, 1900-2000

Historical demography in Tanzania, 1900-2000

This a doctoral research projected recently completed by Sarah Walters under the supervision of Professor Megan Vaughan

Knowledge about past population trends in Tanzania and across sub-Saharan Africa is lacking because of the paucity of data from the pre-1950 period. In this project, I improve the evidence base for historical demography in Tanzania at the national- and local-level. National-level trends in Tanzania are calculated by applying new techniques to old census data to create models based on the data contained in censuses and surveys from 1948-1999. At the local level, I confront the methodological challenge of using parish registers for African historical demography, with a case-study of Mwanza Region, northwest Tanzania. Parish registers have played a key role in reconstructing the European demographic past. Despite their availability in Africa, there have been few studies that have used them for population history in the region. I digitise and link the registers of baptism, marriage and burial from the four oldest Catholic parishes in Mwanza Region and use family reconstitution techniques to create the Mwanza Historical Demographic Database (MHDD). This database contains 82,000 individuals and includes 72,000 births, 22,000 marriages and 15,000 deaths from the period 1893-2000. Event history analysis is used to estimate the trends in fertility, child mortality and marriage age. The national and local-level analyses show that child mortality began declining from the 1940s, coinciding with a substantial fertility rise. Marriage age rose over the twentieth century and the rise in fertility was driven in part by shortening birth intervals between the 1940s and 1970s.

The thesis makes a methodological and substantive contribution to African historical demography, showing that parish registers can be used to expand the population history of the continent. This is important because historical demography has been fundamental to our understanding of cultures of reproduction and demographic development in the West. The project shows that finding and processing data to take the long-view of population history in sub-Saharan Africa will similarly illuminate current cultures of demographic behaviour in the region.


Conference papers

  • 'Historical demography in Tanzania (1920-1961) using census data' British Society for Population Studies Annual Conference, Canterbury, 2005
  • 'Past and present approaches to demographic field research in Tanzania, 1920-1961'. Locating the Field: the Ethnography of Medical Research in Africa: an Exploratory Conference. Kilifi, Kenya 4th-9th December 2005.