The two religions of Tanzania

Dar Es Salaam’s Kariakoo derby is fast becoming the continent’s biggest.

Image credit Alasdair Howorth © 2024.

They say in Tanzania there are two religions. The two faiths that divide families, run through communities, transcend politics and for 90 minutes split the nation in two. Those religions are of course Yanga and Simba.

From children playing football with bottle caps in Kagera on the banks of Lake Victoria, to elders sitting drinking coffee or chai after Friday prayers in Zanzibar, every Tanzanian is either green or red. There are no neutrals. But unlike previous years, Saturday’s matchup between the two sides wasn’t only witnessed by 50,000 plus fans in the Benjamin Mkapa Stadium, but also thousands of football fans from around the continent, who tuned in to watch the match. Millions more around the world took note of the result, a nervy 2-1 win for Yanga.

But how has this fixture that just 10 years ago was seen as a local derby in a footballing backwater now become the biggest fixture in the fastest-growing league in Africa?

Both clubs can trace their histories as far back as the 1910s they emerged from a team founded in 1935, Young Africans Sports Club. The club was made for African players in a time when playing football was often limited for the local African population and subsequently was intertwined with the anti-colonial movement in the 1930s. Such were its ties to the Tanganyika African Association—which later became TANU, the revolutionary party led by Tanzania’s first president Julius Nyerere—that the party adopted the club’s green and yellow colors as their own. A year later a group of fans broke away to found Queen Sports Club which would be renamed Sunderland before eventually being christened Simba Sports Club in 1971.

Unlike other major inter-city derbies around the world, the Kariakoo Derby is not split along religious, national, or political divides. It is not even based on locality as both teams call Kariakoo home. The district at the heart of Dar Es Salaam, which is now home to one of the biggest markets in sub-Saharan Africa, was at the time of the clubs’ founding, the home to the indigenous African population in Dar. And, it’s this inseparability that makes the derby unique on the continent and around the world. It simultaneously divides and unites an entire nation. 

In the five hours before kick off on Saturday, April 20, the area around the Benjamin Mkapa Stadium was more festival than derby, with fans from both teams in a partying mood. Multiple temporary stages were erected blaring afrobeats, amapiano, and hip-hop. Bars dotted the street and gazebos covered nearly the entire 500m stretch, full of shops and restaurants serving up a feast of coconut rice, beans, nyama choma, and street foods like samosas, viazi, and vitumbua. Fans were even seen doing some banking ahead of kick-off as the nation’s major banks and telecom companies had their own tents.

But, it wasn’t always this way.

As recently as five years ago, both teams were languishing in relative obscurity. As one Yanga senior administrator put it: “In 2019 we didn’t even have enough money to eat.” Things first began changing in 2016, with Simba restructuring the club to allow fans to own 50% plus one while the other 49% was sold to Mohammed Dewji, Tanzania’s richest man and Africa’s youngest billionaire. With millions of dollars being invested into the club, the Reds of Msimbazi won four league titles in a row and in 2018 returned to the CAF Champions League for the first time in 15 years. 

While retaining its 100% fan-owned model, Yanga responded by revamping their financial structure, bringing in new sponsors and leadership to compete with their rival. But, the final piece in the puzzle in the growth of the two teams came from outside Kariakoo. In 2021 Azam TV signed an astonishing 10-year TV deal with the Tanzanian Premier League worth $100m, more than 10 times the value of the previous deal. The TV company poured millions into the broadcasting of the league, building the broadcasting infrastructure at every stadium across the country. The deal with Via Azam means the Tanzanian Premier League has become the only league in Africa where anyone, virtually anywhere in the world, can watch every single match. Such has been the success of Azam’s coverage that last year they secured the rights to the Kenya Premier League (for a tenth of the price).

With this increase in visibility, the standard of refereeing,  attendance at stadiums, and the quality of the pitch have all improved. And with more money, visibility, and professionalism also comes a higher caliber of players and coaches. Before 2024, Yanga had never had a foreign player attend the Africa Cup of Nations and Simba were limited to a handful of Kenyan and Ugandan internationals. But at the 2023 AFCON in Côte d’Ivoire players from the two clubs represented Zambia, DRC, Burkina Faso, and Mali.

The two Kariakoo clubs backed up this dominance when they both qualified for the quarter-finals of the CAF Champions League for the first time. Indeed, Tanzania was the only country to have two clubs reach the final eight of the continent’s premier club competition. Simba and Yanga failed to reach the semi-final, losing to Africa’s most dominant clubs, Al Ahly and Mamelodi Sundowns respectively. But it is a narrowing gap.

The rise of the Kariakoo derby also coincides with the decline of many other of Africa’s great derbies.

Neither Orlando Pirates nor Kaizer Chiefs are the teams they used to be. The same can be said of TP Mazembe and AS Vita in DRC. Because of the political situation in Egypt, there has rarely been a Cairo Derby with more than a few thousand fans in attendance. And plenty of other major North African derbies have had similar restrictions on attendance because of historic fan violence. Just north of the border on Sunday in the Mashemeji Derby, Kenya’s biggest rivalry between Gor Mahia and AFC Leopards—one that would have at one point been on par with the Kariakoo Derby—saw police intervening and firing tear gas into the crowd at the end of the game.

For the first time in history, while the centers of power in African football remain in the north, south, and west of the continent, the heart of African football seems to be moving eastward to Dar Es Salaam.

Further Reading