How Julius Nyerere’s Ujamaa idea could form the basis of a new global political system

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Posted May 12 2015 by Dave Darby of Lowimpact.org
ujamaa Chanika village committee; the representative to the district committee is second from the left on the front row, and Mosha is standing on the right.

In 1991, I spent a couple of months in two Ujamaa villages in Tanzania. The Ujamaa system was introduced by Julius Nyerere in the early 1960s, and the World Bank effectively killed it as a system in the late 80s, although a few independent Ujamaa villages survived into the 90s. I’m going to briefly describe my experiences there, and especially the idea.

So here is the most important thing to remember when reading this article: it’s all about the idea. In the age of the internet, I think this idea could be implemented globally, and I think it could resist corporate corruption. People will point to problems with the original Ujamaa system, I’m sure – but that’s not the point. It’s the idea I’m talking about, not what happened on the ground in Tanzania. That was Ujamaa in one country – next time it could be global.

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An ujamaa, or ‘tree of life’ carving, where lots of different jobs are being done, and everyone is supported by everyone else.

Why we need a new idea

There are soon going to be 10 billion of us, and we’ll have some huge decisions to make – around ecology, economics, population, technology and conflict. For example, think about genetic engineering, nanotechnology, nuclear power & weaponry or artificial intelligence – the wrong decision about any one of those things could prove disastrous or even fatal – and more so in combination with the others, with a rapidly increasing human population and a degrading ecology.

So we need extremely intelligent, compassionate and honest people, with no vested interests, making those decisions. However, what’s currently happening is that either we’re not talking about those things, or the decisions are being made by a consortium of bankers, business leaders, career politicians and the military. They’re not our most intelligent, compassionate and honest people, and they have vested financial and career interests in the decisions made.

Pure democracy isn’t good enough, because the vast majority don’t understand enough about the issues to be able to make informed decisions, nor do they understand the system itself; and violent revolutions don’t change anything – decisions still end up being made by an elite with vested interests.

We need to find a way to get the most intelligent, compassionate and honest amongst us, without vested interests, to make the big decisions. I believe that the Ujamaa idea is the way to do it.

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The school provided by the government at Chanika village.

My stay in two Ujamaa villages

In February 1991, I took a bus from Kenya down the coast to Dar-es-Salaam. I’d read about Julius Nyerere and the Ujamaa system and I wanted to see how the villages really worked. I thought it would be relatively easy, but I was wrong. After two weeks, by way of the British High Commission, the Prime Minister’s office and a different government department every day, someone from the Ilala regional office turned up at my guest house with a jeep to take me inland to an Ujamaa village. The village was called Chanika, and a man called Mosha, who spoke English and had a degree from a university in East Germany, hosted me in his hut, and we spent most evenings talking about the system in depth. Other people joined in, and Mosha translated. We sat on the floor and everyone ate with a spoon from the same large, round metal plate. Meals included rice, maize meal, cassava, vegetables, fish, beans and chillies. They were great people – intelligent, passionate, trustworthy.

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Open-air furniture-making workshop.

How it worked

The system started with 17 villages in 1961, and by the 70s, 20 million people out of a total population of 24 million were living in Ujamaa villages. The average size of a village was around 3000, and each group of ten households elected one of their neighbours, who obviously they knew well, to sit on the village committee. Each village committee elected one of their members to sit on the district committee; each district committee elected one of their members to sit on the regional committee; and each regional committee elected one of their members to sit on the national government. That was it. That was how Tanzania was run from the sixties to the eighties. I have much more information about the development of this system, which I will make available online soon.

In the second village – Mvuti, I was hosted by Mawenje, who explained more about the practicalities of life in the villages. Everyone worked for a couple of days per week on the village plots, growing cash crops that government trucks took to Dar for export. The money was used to provide each village with a primary school and a clinic. The rest of the week, everyone worked on their own plots, growing food for their families, or tending their animals, cooking, brewing ngongo (coconut liquor), building houses, making furniture, fishing or playing football etc.

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Collecting spring water among lush landscape of cassava, rice and bananas.

The pros

Representatives were known personally to the people choosing them, and there were no election campaigns. There were no corporate political donations, no lobby industry and no corporate jobs for politicians to corrupt, pervert and ultimately prevent democracy. Everyone built their own home from local, natural materials, and there were no mortgages or locks. No insurance was required. Everyone lived close to nature; virtually all needs were met from the immediate environment – including food, all of which was organic; no-one employed anyone else. It was an African idea, at a time when a Europe-centric, capitalist system was destroying traditional systems all over Africa. Different tribes lived together in the same villages, as did the different religions. I met Muslims who celebrated Christmas and I witnessed Christians celebrating the end of Ramadan. By 1980, Tanzania had almost the same literacy and infant mortality rates as the Western European average.

The cons

There were serious flaws in the development of the system. Some people were forced into villages in the early 70s, and although by the late 70s people were scrambling to get into Ujamaa villages, you can’t force people to do things for their own good. As Kant said, people are ends not means. We just have to start building it and demonstrate that it’s better. The Chama Cha Mapinduzi party was formed, which, it is claimed, took control of the system, so that the elected government was subservient to the central committee of the party. But as I said, it’s the idea I’m talking about. Things happened in a pre-internet, extremely poor country that can be avoided in a 21st century, global system.

Also, because it was a poor country, things like cancer and psychiatric care were sparse – but I was told that because the healthy, organic, active, communal nature of the system, cases of cancer and mental health problems were relatively rare (don’t shoot the messenger here – this is just what I was told).

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Board game played with beans on a carved wooden board; I never quite understood it.

What happened to the Ujamaa system

I was told that the World Bank (representing the corporate system) pressured Tanzania to dismantle the system. The first demand was that Tanzania have multi-party elections. Their response was that the Ujamaa system is actually more democratic than a multi-party system, because representatives were known personally by their electorate, and there was no party line or any avenues for corruption (by money, at least). But their pleas fell on deaf ears, and because they required World Bank funds for things that needed to be imported, like oil or machinery, they had to give way and hold multi-party elections. Chama Cha Mapinduzi won the election, and so the Ujamaa system was saved. This wasn’t enough for the World Bank, who demanded that the system be unhooked from the governance of the country – and of course they got their way.

However, there’s a new book out by Ralph Ibbott, who lived in an Ujamaa village from 1963 to 1969, that suggests that the Ujamaa system was already dying before the World Bank put it out of its misery. The political class in Tanzania were threatened by this autonomous ‘peasants’ movement, and controlled it from almost the beginning, for their own advantage. He singles out Nyerere as a beacon of incorruptibility however, who fought for the independence of the system, and retired to live in his village when it became clear that would not be possible. More on that here and here.

Again, it’s the idea that’s important, whatever happened in Tanzania.

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Mvuti Ujamaa village.

What’s in a name?

Should the new idea be called ‘Ujamaa’ – or maybe ‘Ujamaa 2’? We’ve toyed with other names for it. The first was ‘8 Handshakes’ – because believe it or not, if this system covered the entire world, there would only be 8 levels between groups of neighbours and the centre group. This changed to ‘Philosophy Club’ when we started meeting in London (see below), but really, it was Nyerere’s idea not mine, and so I feel that it should be called ‘Ujamaa 2’ in honour of him. It’s a fine name too – it means ‘togetherness’, ‘unity’ or ‘oneness’ in Swahili.

However, another translation of Ujamaa is ‘socialism’. Now, this could mean that half the world would oppose the idea before they really understand it, because of the association with that word. Nyerere called Ujamaa ‘African socialism’, but when many people in the West, especially the US, hear the word socialism, they understand Marxism, or state control, or some sort of North Korean fascism. But Nyerere was using the word literally. Capitalism means that power is with capital, which he opposed, and so do I (and probably so do you if you’ve read this far). For Nyerere (and for me), socialism just means that power is embedded in society, rather than with capital. I support that idea, whilst at the same time fervently opposing the Marxist vehicle that was used to try to get there, and the awful systems that it spawned in the 20th century.

We could just as easily call capitalism and socialism ‘moneyism’ and ‘peopleism’ respectively; but there’s nothing ‘left’ or ‘right’ about this idea. It encompasses both the left’s principle of justice and the right’s of freedom.

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Mawenje and son.

Ujamaa 2

I have lots more information about the rise and fall of the Ujamaa system, and about my time in Tanzania, with many more details about the villages I stayed in. I’m writing a book that will contain all this information, as well as my ideas about how the idea could be extended globally, using, of course, the internet as the main tool – a tool that was unavailable to Nyerere.

I’ve done some preparatory work for the website. We’ve got the domain ujamaa2.org, and I’ve split the world into 15 blocs based on population, and then split each of those blocs into 15 – again based on population. So there are 225 regions, and people can find theirs on the website, to connect with other people in their region to start the ball rolling. The reason I’ve done this is that there needs to be a set number in each group from which representatives are chosen, and, just to kick start the idea, I’ve gone with 15 as that number.

The reason I’ve gone for 15 is that I lived at Redfield community for 13 years, and during all that time, the average number of people living there, and therefore in the meetings, was 15. It always felt as though there weren’t enough people if it fell below 15 – we were rattling around; and it always felt as though there were too many if it went above 15 – it was difficult to be heard. But 15 felt just right. I have to stress that this is just to kick-start the idea. When the centre group is formed, they can make all the decisions.

Also, we started something called ‘Philosophy Club’ in south-west London in 2012, to a) talk philosophy once a month with a group of 15 people, and b) to see if other people would find that an enjoyable experience. It’s still going, and people really like it. We meet in each other’s homes, we eat and drink together, talk philosophy (not academic philosophy – more ‘freestyle’ philosophy) and party afterwards. We’ve got to know each other quite well, and it’s spawned an interesting social circle, which has made me more convinced that an idea based on groups of local people getting together could work.

I don’t think the Ujamaa 2 idea can be started from the top, because how would we choose the people at the ‘top’ (or more accurately, and less hierarchically, the centre)? And it can’t be started at the grassroots because of apathy. But it can be started at the town level. I think it’s absolutely possible to find 15 people in any town who are interested in political change, and are happy to get together with 14 like-minded people for a social gathering and interesting conversation once a month. So, let’s do that in as many towns as possible, all over the world, and use that as a base for building a parallel system. We can then promote it, and talk about how we push it down to the grassroots and transfer power to it.

There’s a lot more information in the ‘implementation’ chapter of the book, and I’ll start to put it online slowly as it develops. I’m going to blog a lot more about it, and ask you good people to share it on social media, comment on the articles and talk to as many people as you can about it.

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If you want to build a house, cut some poles from the forest and put them in a pile where you want to build. If no-one’s moved them in a week, it’s OK. Get some friends together with a few beers, and build a timber frame house with cob walls and a thatched roof. No mortgage or insurance required.

Here’s the Wikipedia page on Ujamaa; and here’s a little something written by Nyerere.