To determine the causes of stillbirths and neonatal deaths in the community in rural Tanzania and to evaluate whether the deaths were avoidable under the prevailing circumstances. Review of stillbirths and neonatal deaths. Rural northern Tanzania, Mbulu and Hanang districts. One hundred and nineteen stillbirth and neonatal deaths identified in a prospective cohort of antenatal attendees and 21 stillbirths and neonatal deaths identified retrospectively in a household survey in seven rural communities. Verbal autopsy was done to reach a diagnosis, in many cases supplemented with information from antenatal records and hospital records. The avoidability of deaths under the prevailing circumstances was assessed for each case. An account of risk factors detectable at antenatal clinic was done and compared with the woman's recall of the risk assessment and recall of being referred. Avoidability of stillbirths and neonatal deaths. There were 60 stillbirths, 49 early neonatal deaths and 27 late neonatal deaths. Infection-related deaths were most common (n = 53), followed by asphyxia-related deaths (n = 32) and immaturity-related deaths (n = 20). Malaria was the most common infectious agent observed (21 children and 20 mothers). Twenty-one deaths (15%) were probably avoidable and 13 (10%) were possibly avoidable. A patient-oriented avoidable factor was identified in 17 (51%) and a provider-oriented avoidable factor was identified in 22 cases (65%). Twenty-six of the 34 avoidable deaths had risk factors, but only two of the women were aware of it and only one recalled being referred to a hospital for the risk factor. There were eight deaths among the 133 mothers who experienced a perinatal death. Our data indicate that prevention and adequate treatment of infections and asphyxia in the newborn should have high priority in low-income settings. The relatively low proportion of avoidable stillbirths and neonatal deaths may be partly due to accessible emergency obstetric care in the area. Future efforts should emphasise improving the communication between midwife and women at the antenatal clinics, preparing the women-and their families-for the delivery and to be ready for complications.