Background Complications of childbirth and pregnancy are leading causes of death among women of reproductive age. Worldwide, developing countries account for ninety-nine percent of maternal deaths. The United Nations’ fifth millennium development goal (MDG-5) is to reduce maternal mortality ratio by three fourths by 2015. Aim The aim of this study is to explore the levels, trends, causes and risk factors associated with maternal mortality as put forward by World Health Organization (WHO) in rural settings of Tanzania. Specific objectives To establish the trend of maternal mortality ratios in Rufiji health and demographic surveillance system (RHDSS) during the period 2002-2006. To determine the main causes of maternal deaths in RHDSS during the period 2002-2006. To determine the risk factors associated with maternal mortality RHDSS during the period 2002-2006. Method Secondary data analysis based on the longitudinal database from Rufiji Health and Demographic Surveillance System was used to study the risk factors and causes of maternal death. Data for a period of 5 years between 2002-2006 was used. A total of 26 427 women v aged 15-49 years were included in the study; 64 died and there were 15 548 live births. Cox proportional hazards regression was used to assess the risk factors associated with maternal deaths. Results Maternal mortality ratio was 412 per 100 000 live births. The main causes of death were haemorrhage (28%), eclampsia (19%) and puerperal sepsis (8%). Maternal age and marital status were associated with maternal mortality. An increased risk of 154% for maternal death was found for women aged 30-39 versus 15-19 years (HR=2.54, 95% CI=1.001- 6.445). Married women had a protective effect of 62% over unmarried ones (HR=0.38, 95% CI=0.176-0.839). These findings were statistically significant at the 5% level. Conclusion This analysis reinforced previous findings pointing to the fact that haemorrhage and eclampsia are the leading causes of maternal mortality in Tanzania and other developing countries. This indicates the need for better antenatal and obstetric care, particularly for women over thirty years of age, as well as implementing health care delivery strategies according to the regional specific risk factors of maternal deaths and not the global factors.