This is an account of my visit to two ujamaa villages in Tanzania in the early 1990s, plus a lot more background information on the system itself. The ujamaa system has since been dismantled after pressure from the World Bank, but at its height, 20 million people out of a total population of 24 million in Tanzania were living in ujamaa villages. For me, the most interesting part of the system was the super-democratic way that they chose their representatives, from face-to-face contact, right the way up to the national government (see here for summary). I believe that in the age of the internet, something like this could be developed at the global scale that couldn’t be closed down by corporate institutions like the World Bank. Over to my younger self.
I’d come to Tanzania (TZ from here on) to try and get to see an ujamaa village, but had no idea whether I was going to be successful or not. I was pretty sure they existed, as I’d read articles about a network of communal or semi-communal villages started in the sixties by Julius Nyerere, then President of TZ, but I didn’t know anything about them, or how many there were. After my travels, I joined the British Library, and so was able to find quite a lot of secondary information on the ujamaa, but at the time I didn’t have a clue – I hadn’t been able to find a single book on the subject. I even went to the TZ High Commission in London, but they were unable to give me any information at all, or even any addresses I could write to. They suggested that if I was really interested, I should just go to TZ and take it from there, which is exactly what I did.
I arrived in the country by bus on the coastal road from Kenya, and spent my first few days in a dilapidated but beautiful old rambling colonial hotel in Tanga, before taking the sleeper train into Dar-es-Salaam, the main port, biggest city and one-time capital (before it was moved to Dodoma, 320km inland). This was my first time in sub-Saharan Africa, but I’d already found out about the phenomenon called ‘African time’ after spending a few months in Kenya. Bus departure times are meaningless, as they leave when they’re full, and I made friends in Nairobi and Mombasa who regarded two hours late for an appointment as punctual, as did everyone else. So, I’d settled into this frame of mind. Even so, nothing had prepared me for the palaver in Dar, trying to get permission to see an ujamaa village. It went like this: my first day in Dar was a Sunday, which I spent talking with anyone and everyone about the ujamaa system. I was surprised that quite a few people I spoke to had never heard of it, but then again they lived in the city, and maybe had no connection any more with the countryside. Everyone had a great reverence for Julius Nyerere though. The consensus seemed to be that if I wanted to find out anything about the ujamaa villages, the best place to start would be the Prime Minister’s Office. Day 2: Went to the Prime Minister’s Office, hung around all day, and was eventually told that I needed a letter of introduction from the British High Commission. I don’t think they knew what to make of me, really. Day 3: British High Commission. Closed. Day 4: Back to the High Commission. They were a bit nonplussed, but gave me a letter of introduction anyway, after deciding that I wasn’t dangerous. Went back to see the people at the Prime Minister’s office, who looked at my letter, were suitably impressed, and sent me to the Ministry of Agriculture and Co-operatives. Waited there for the rest of the day, then I was told that I had an appointment at the Prime Minister’s Office the next morning at 7.30. Day 5: The Prime Minister’s Office had a letter for me, permitting me to visit three ujamaa villages. I had to take it to the Dar-es-Salaam Regional Office 2 days later. Day 7: Saturday; I was told that there would be nobody to see me until Tuesday. Day 10: Success (or so I thought)! Saw the Regional Officer who told me I could go to a village on Friday, and to report to Ilala District Office first thing. Day 13: Arrived at the Ilala office with my rucksack packed, at about the same time as the letter from the Regional Officer, so of course they weren’t expecting me. Told to come back on Monday. I was sitting despondently outside the District Office when I was befriended by Juma, a local wide-boy who told me of his adventures stowing away on cargo ships to Europe and the Far East, where he worked until he was caught and deported back to TZ. So, instead of taking the bus back into Dar, I got a room in a guest house in Ilala, a suburb on the outskirts of town, and spent the weekend with Juma, his friend Superstar, and the rest of his gang, taking trips to the beach, and drinking ngongo, the local coconut liquor. Day 16: Went back, not very hopefully, to the Ilala district office, to find a Land Rover waiting to take me to Chanika ujamaa village. First we had to make a stop at my guest house though; I was so sure I was going to be disappointed that I hadn’t bothered to pack or check out.
Before I tell you of my experiences in Chanika and Mvuti, the 2 villages I managed to visit, I think it would be useful to put the ujamaa experiment in perspective by briefly summarizing the modern history of Tanzania.
1884: Germans colonized the area which is now mainland TZ, and seized the best land for plantations. Africans wouldn’t work in them, so the Germans introduced a ‘hut tax’ to be paid in cash; the locals then had to work in the plantations to get the cash to pay the taxes. Conditions were very bad under the Germans and there were often rebellions.
1916: Britain gained control of German East Africa after the First World War, and colonialism became more refined. Britain was allocated what was then Tanganyika by a League of Nations mandate. From about 1925 the British ruled indirectly through the local chiefs – a ploy similar to that used by Apartheid South Africa with their Black Homelands – and declared Tanganyika multiracial and not African despite a population of 17,000 whites, 55,000 Asians and 8 million blacks. Also, Britain imposed strict land-use rules and limitations, and encouraged white farming and settlement. Not surprisingly there was resentment and opposition to these policies amongst blacks.
1951: 3,000 Africans were evicted to make way for white farmers, and multiracial councils were introduced, even in exclusively black areas.
1954: Julius Nyerere formed TANU (Tanganyika African National Union).
From 1956: the ‘Focal point’ approach was implemented by the British, whereby larger farmers were encouraged to mechanize, use chemicals and grow in size, in the hope that they would provide employment and help to increase output overall. Backed up by a World Bank mission in 1960, which recommended large-scale, export-oriented agriculture with massive use of fertilizers, pesticides and machinery, to increase productivity. These policies continued after independence and up to the Arusha Declaration in 1967.
1958-9: TANU won Tanganyika’s first general election.
December 9, 1961: Independence Day.
Because of the legacy of ‘indirect rule’ there were political vacuums at the local level. Party resources were very sparse, which weakened TANU. Peasants, seeing their autonomy and traditional way of life being destroyed, were resentful of focal point policies. In Ruvuma region, the Ruvuma Development Association was formed by peasants. More co-operative, labour intensive and using traditional methods, they ignored and were largely ignored by the government because they didn’t need outside help or money. Ruvuma turned out to be the only area that showed an increase in productivity. Their efforts inspired Nyerere (although they didn’t farm communally).
1963: Zanzibar gained independence from Britain.
January 1964: violent revolution in Zanzibar led by Field-Marshall Okello, who had no political experience and so turned to the recently formed Umma party of blacks and Arabs, who took power. They were socialist, which persuaded Nyerere to unite.
April 1964: union with Zanzibar, and the formation of the Republic of TZ. Zanzibar’s president would henceforth be vice-president of TZ. Western development aid became difficult to secure because of the union with revolutionary Zanzibar, which was receiving a lot of help from East Germany and China. Nyerere’s socialist policies didn’t help in this respect either, nor did his criticisms of the British in Rhodesia and the Belgians in the Congo.
1965: the first (one-party) elections were held.
1967: the Arusha Declaration, amplified in a series of pamphlets from Nyerere.
Its aims were: to encourage rural community development villages instead of large farms; to prevent the small urban sector from exploiting the countryside; to gear education towards serving the masses, not training an elite few; to nationalize commercial banks and many industries; to promote greater self-reliance.
1971: food shortages. Government relief was conditional upon living in an ujamaa village, so many were formed at this time.
Early 1970s: decentralization: service centres (market, communications, commercial, administrative and judicial) grew in number from 180 in 1967 to 450 in 1976.
This facilitated, and in turn was itself facilitated, by the formation of ujamaa villages.
TZ hired McKinleys, an American management consultant firm, to help with the decentralization. They did a good job apparently, and remained admirably neutral as far as ideology was concerned (in the British Library, I came across a portentous October 1972 Guardian article praising TZ’s decentralization, saying that it hadn’t been done on racial or religious lines as in Yugoslavia, where they might have laid the foundations for conflict in the future).
1975: 9.1million people, or 65% of the population, were living in 6,940 ujamaa villages.
Late 1970s: TZ was moving along a socialist (but not statist) path. Nyerere rejected both the capitalist and communist models. Decentralization of government entailed the moving of the capital 320km inland from Dar to Dodoma.
After 1976: Operation Maduka replaced private retailers near ujamaa villages with co-ops.
1977: Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM), The Revolutionary Party of TZ, was formed by the merging of TANU and the Afro-Shirazi party (associated with Umma) of Zanzibar.
In the late 70s TZ became embroiled in many Pan-African struggles. Their troops, along with Ugandan exiles, fought and defeated Idi Amin, during which time Nyerere severely criticized Colonel Qaddafi of Libya for supporting Amin. Friendly regimes such as Angola, Mozambique and Zambia were supported by means of defence and trading links, and these four, along with Botswana, exerted sustained pressure which helped to bring about Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980. TZ also provided military training facilities for the Zimbabwean nationalist guerillas.
TZ was one of the 9 members of the Southern African Development Coordination Conference (SADCC) which aimed to reduce the economic dependence of the area on South Africa.
1980: 90% of the rural population was living in 8,230 ujamaa villages.
1985: Nyerere stepped down as president and Ali Hassan Mwinyi was elected. There was a shift in economic policy: the private sector was encouraged, and some IMF proposals were accepted, notably devaluation of the shilling and the removal of many subsidies. Foreign companies were allowed in with some repatriation of profits. Nyerere remained as chair of CCM and opposed these policies.
1987: Nyerere stepped down as party leader. Later he retired to an ujamaa village – Chamwino, near Dodoma.
So the ujamaa system had not grown organically in TZ, but had been imposed from above. A major criticism was that people had been forced into villages. Was it true? How do Tanzanians feel about ujamaa villages now, and has the system benefited ordinary Tanzanians? These were some of the things I hoped to find out.
The political setup in TZ had also come in for criticism, especially the fact that there was only one political party – anathema from the European standpoint. I wanted to get a Tanzanian perspective.
Some criticism had come from the extreme Left (Nyerere hadn’t followed Marx closely enough and there was no class analysis), but predictably most criticism was from the Right1. For example: the currency should be devalued; export crops should be encouraged; capitalist farmers should be helped to expand; user fees should be set for water and education; foreign capital should be invited in to find and develop mineral resources; and large-scale tourism should be encouraged. It has been discouraged, they say, because it would undermine socialist values. (Personally I think that large-scale tourism should be discouraged everywhere, but of course it won’t be because there’s a lot of money to be made from it. For me, the old colonial hotels in Tanga were infinitely preferable to the resorts of Mombasa, where the only Africans tourists get to meet are waiters and bar staff inside the resort compound, and wildlife is frightened away by the numbers of safari vehicles in the national parks. More discerning modern tourists prefer family guest houses dispersed amongst the local population, rather than resorts, which is encouraging.)
It had been suggested that the TZ parliament was like a standing committee of the party, subordinate to the central committee, national executive and conference, and that MPs can only be party agents, unable to do anything but toe the party line2. Furthermore, although there was a high turnover of MPs generally, that certainly wasn’t the case at the top. If favoured ministers lost a direct election they would probably be appointed back to the cabinet by the president.
Some of these criticisms appeared to be valid, and with TZ’s best interests at heart, but it seemed to me that the situation was better here than in a lot of African countries, and that many of the criticisms were purely ideological, from predictable sources such as the Times, Economist and Spectator, where left-wing regimes are not going to get an easy ride whatever they do.
Chanika Ujamaa Village: African-style democracy
Although not far from Dar, by the time we arrived at Chanika I was wearing a thin film of red dust from the road. I was hardly a picture of sartorial elegance anyway, in my worn T-shirt and jogging pants with a hole in one knee, so imagine my utter horror to find that the village committee had formed a welcoming party for me, along with the elderly village leader dressed in his pure white robes and skull cap. Embarrassed, I shook hands with everyone in sight and we were all ushered inside, where I sat down facing everybody, along with a man called Mosha, who was introduced to me as my translator; I had to make a speech. Panic-stricken, I babbled on about something or other; I forget what now, but it was along the lines of Julius Nyerere being my all-time hero and that the whole world should live in ujamaa villages. I paused after every sentence and waited for Mosha to translate, gripped with terror in case I’d inadvertently said something offensive, but each time his translation was met with a round of applause. Maybe he was making it up as he went along. It was an awful experience though; I felt very colonial, and treated with undue reverence. I wanted to melt into the background, which was difficult, as children were walking into trees, boggle-eyed, as I walked along the road.
My ordeal over, Mosha showed me to my room in the guest-house, the only brick building apart from the school, clinic and committee room. I had to pay, but it amounted to pennies. We entered the building in blazing sunshine, I was shown my room, I dumped my bag, we had a chat, and when we reappeared what seemed like ten minutes later it was so dark that if I took two steps outside the building and turned around, I couldn’t see it. Nightfall is like that in the tropics.
Mosha was taking me to the Branch Secretary’s hut for dinner, and so I followed close behind him so as not to get lost. On the way I had my first experience of African fireflies – thousands of them – doing a fair impersonation of a galaxy in the trees fringing the village, and reflecting the real stars themselves, several times brighter and more numerous than those we can see through the pollution of Europe.
An oil lamp hung over the entrance to the Branch Secretary’s hut; we ducked underneath and went in. Three men were sitting on the floor around a large round table, and we joined them. Where were the women? In the yard preparing the food of course. One of the principles of the Arusha Declaration is the absolute equality of men and women, but tradition always means there is a lag between reality and the ideal. At least it’s a stated aim.
Dinner was delicious, as well as a perfect example of togetherness (which is one of the translations of ‘ujamaa’). Two women brought in a metal tray the same size as the table. On it was a mountain of rice containing chillies, vegetables, chicken and fish. Each of us around the table was given a spoon and we began to tuck in.
After dinner we had a long conversation about how the ujamaa system works, and how politics in Africa differs, and indeed should differ, from Europe. I was asked about my conceptions of democracy; I think they were trying to establish whether I was approaching the ujamaa system from a hostile or a sympathetic standpoint. Whatever they decided, I was told many things which increased my understanding of the country and its politics.
Pre-colonial TZ operated under ‘ujima’ – a system of clans (practising subsistence agriculture) whereby everyone’s basic needs were met and people were helped in times of need (building a hut, harvest, death of a family member etc), although agriculture was not communal. The Arusha Declaration tried to resurrect some of these co-operative African traditions, but not via the rigidity of Marxism, which arose from conditions in Europe. Some inequalities were seen as inevitable, but not millionaires – accumulation of wealth was an idea alien to Africa. Also rejected was the Marxist idea of class conflict and the theory that there must be a capitalist stage before socialism. Ideas of class were alien to Africa too. Re-structuring of society for Nyerere should be conflict-free, and African. Nyerere was friends with everyone (except South Africa, Rhodesia, Israel and South Korea), but wouldn’t come under any outside influence. The Chinese, for example, helped to build the railway to Zambia, but didn’t get any power, and were unable to change the African nature of TZ’s development. The cornerstone of this policy is ujamaa, a Swahili word with no direct equivalent in English, but roughly meaning ‘familyhood, socialism or togetherness’; a good society should be like a family.
There were two aspects of traditional African society that Nyerere wanted to avoid however: one was the subordination of women, and the other was a lack of a surplus, hindering the country’s development. Agriculture accounts for 80% of export earnings and employs 90% of the economically active population, but only 5% of the land is cultivated and 2% irrigated.
A barrier to the production of a surplus in Africa is that peasants lack the incentive to develop, as most own their own land, whereas only around half do so in Asia and Latin America. They don’t want to lose their traditional independent lifestyles, where they don’t produce much surplus and they don’t need to buy very much either. To develop, countries usually try to destroy peasant agriculture – to take away their land and tools so that they have to sell their labour in the capitalist sector to survive. This was done with coercion in Europe. In Africa though, people still generally tend to own, or at least have a home on a farm, so wages have to be relatively high to tempt people into industry, and discipline is difficult. Nyerere tried to produce a surplus, not by destroying peasant agriculture or by coercion, but mainly by providing clinics, schools and clean water in the villages, hoping that work on communal plots would produce a surplus. Not surprisingly though, people didn’t work on the communal plots as hard as they did on their own; some things are as predictable in Africa as they are everywhere else.
Each ujamaa village contains on average around 3,000 people, or between 250 and 600 families. Usually about 10% of village land is communal, and people spend about 20% of their time working on it. Villagers are not paid for their communal work, but when produce is sold, money is used to buy things needed by the whole village (e.g. a truck, petrol, or corn-grinding machine). Any money left over is distributed according to how much work people put in.
Between 1967 and 1973, collectivization was voluntary (with incentives), but after 1973, it became compulsory, and was intended to cover everyone by 1976. Not much relocation went on though, just demarcation and registration of existing villages; the government didn’t have enough power to move people en masse to new villages, and certainly not to keep them there if they didn’t like it. Most people moved or registered voluntarily because services were provided to the villages.
A decisive moment came in 1975, when the Ujamaa Villages Act created the village assembly, which consists of every village member over the age of 18, and which elects the village council (25 members) annually and ratifies all its decisions. Also elected are committees dealing with planning and finance; production and marketing; defence and security; construction and transport; education, culture and social services. The act gave much more power to the villages, which then became legal entities and could raise their own revenues and deny access to communal services, or even evict members who were prepared to take those services, but not to work for them, which was becoming a major problem.
Decisions taken at the village level are co-ordinated at the district level (the 450 service centres); district decisions are co-ordinated at the regional level, and regional decisions at the national level.
Alongside the ujamaa system, by the way, capitalist farmers were still operating, condemned but not banned.
The two main objectives of all this were:
To improve social well-being, by sharing more equally the fruits of agricultural output and by the villages acting as centres for education, health and infrastructure improvements.
To increase output.
How did they do? Well, some comparisons of figures for 1960 and 1980 speak volumes3.
Adult literacy rose from 10% to 73%; children in primary school: 25%-95%; life expectancy: 34-51; villages with clinics: 0-35%; villages with clean tap water: 0-40% (even this was not as much as expected because of a shortage of diesel for pumps).
Furthermore, fewer people were applying for seasonal or permanent plantation jobs (for this, read slave labour), and fewer people were moving to urban slums than in other developing countries.
I don’t think anyone could deny that there were enormous strides made in meeting the basic needs of the people, but the economy was in a mess. The question was, why? a question to which there were many different answers, which we shall discuss later.
The next few days I spent trying to persuade people to let me work, which they found highly amusing, and fell about laughing every time I tried to do anything. This I think was less to do with the effectiveness of my work than the fact that a European, who could make lots of money at home, preferred to come to a Tanzanian village to help clear land. At least I hope so. I also had plenty of time to talk to people and to take photographs. It’s hard to imagine more friendly or hospitable people. Everyone I came into contact with was prepared to spend time to talk to me and to show me how they lived and worked. Or played; one old man tried for hours to teach me a game where beans are moved around holes carved into a flat wooden board, after which I was more confused than when I started. It seemed that suddenly, and for no apparent reason, one of the players would decide that he had won, and that would be it; end of game. I decided that this was a seriously arcane game that needed years of practice for an outsider to gain even the merest grasp. A couple of years later a friend of mine came back from a holiday in Malawi with a board, and declared that she’d spent many an evening playing with the locals. She did try to show me but I was (and indeed am) still baffled.
I paid a visit to the village school and clinic, which were basic (breeze block and corrugated iron) but effective and well-attended. While I was there I was approached by a man who introduced himself as a journalist working for Radio Tanzania, and who had heard that I was in the village, so had come out from Dar to ask me if I would mind coming along to the studios in a couple of weeks time to be interviewed. They wanted to hear my views on the ujamaa system, and for me to make some comparisons with the kibbutz system. I replied that of course I wouldn’t mind, and I would call to make an appointment when I was back in Dar.
My evenings in Chanika were spent sitting under the stars, drinking beer by the light of a small oil-lamp and having long conversations with Mosha. He was well-travelled and well-educated, having gone to university in what was then East Germany. He was also a passionate believer in ujamaa, and was keen to answer the criticisms I had read about his country and its system.
Western governments, he said, together with rich expatriate Tanzanians, want TZ to change. They say that the economy is in a mess, and they’re not wrong. However, where they are wrong is in blaming the mess entirely on economic mismanagement and the ujamaa experiment. There were other factors which were out of the direct control of the government, such as:
drought in 1973-4 and ’79-80.
the OPEC oil price rises of 1973, which led to an increase in the price of all imports, and not just oil.
the break up of the East African Economic Community in 1978, which cost TZ around $250m.
war with Uganda, which cost around $400m.
the colonial economy and infrastructure, which had been organized for the benefit of Britain; on gaining independence, TZ found itself impoverished and in no position to compete with more developed countries. It had to borrow heavily, and now a large chunk of its GNP is needed to cover its massive interest repayments. All other sub-Saharan countries have similar problems, but without having met so many of the basic needs of their people.
There have been criticisms from the West because of the perceived undemocratic nature of the one-party system. Mosha explained why it is not only democratic, but preferable for TZ.
Multi-party politics developed out of the European class system, which just didn’t exist in Africa. Multi-party elections would inevitably divide a country like TZ on tribal or religious lines, with potentially disastrous consequences, as subsequent events in Rwanda have shown. As it stands, candidates in TZ are forbidden from making references to race or religion.
National unity is an important prerequisite for a poor country trying to develop in a co-operative, egalitarian way, especially in preventing the rich from having a disproportionate voice, including expatriates, many of whom would like to destroy the co-operative structure in order to make money. Just how can you employ people in factories and on plantations if they are happier in co-operative villages? Furthermore, some would have the money to fund expensive and persuasive campaigns, which the government would have to match, resulting in a drain on precious resources (the money would stay in the economy of course, but are advertising agencies really more deserving recipients than schools and clinics?).
CCM, as mentioned before, has a large measure of internal democracy and more ideological openness than most parties in the West. Elections are held every five years, when usually half the sitting members lose their seats; anyone can apply for election, and you don’t need to be a millionaire to run a campaign, as you do in the US for example, just the written support of 25 voters.
The party, powerful though it is, regularly comes in for criticism from parliament, which is reported openly in the newspapers, often as front-page news (a small point, but rare in Africa).
The strength of the party is a major factor in ensuring that a dictator such as Amin could never come to power in TZ. There have been strong anti-corruption measures too, and safeguards to ensure that party power doesn’t translate into individual wealth or privilege. Senior government and party officials are forbidden to have other incomes from business or rents, and there is a progressive tax system. Income differentials between the highest and lowest paid fell from 1:100 before independence to 1:10 in the 1970s.
Finally, I was told that the party’s ideology was not carved in stone anyway, and indeed may change radically in the future. A previous prime minister called Sokoine had already liberalized the economy a little. Private buses were allowed, for example (although many bus owners moved to Dar to make better profits, with the result that there were too many buses in Dar and not enough everywhere else), and restrictions on the movement of agricultural produce were eased (which, however, caused shortages in some areas where there used to be surpluses, as food disappeared to the richer areas, and even to Kenya). There have been many occasions too, when government bills have been rejected by the legislature.
The bottom line though is that the party is in control in TZ , but after talking to Mosha, I realized that this was not necessarily a bad thing in a country where the overriding concern is to make sure that people have enough to eat. Besides, coming from a country which has a monarchy and an unelected upper house, I didn’t feel in a strong position to criticize.
Mvuti Ujamaa Village: three thousand people, no TV
Mr Mawenje came to visit me at Chanika. He spoke good English, and explained to me that he’d taken a horticulture course, and so if I liked, I could come with him to spend some time in Mvuti, his village, and he’d teach me a bit more about the crops they grow. I could stay at his house; he’d prepared a room for me. I agreed, and so we set off to walk. Mvuti was the next village, half an hour’s walk away. When we arrived, he introduced me to Mama Mawenje (his wife) and their two children, after which I discovered that Mr Mawenje’s idea of preparing a room seemed to be to fill it with coconuts, except for a space just big enough to lay a single mattress. Never mind though, it was comfortable, and I considered it a great honour that I’d been invited into their home.
They decided to have chicken stew to welcome me, but first we had to catch the chicken (of all the things Africans find strange about developed countries, the two strangest are: dogs being taken for a walk on a lead; and free-range eggs. Aren’t all chickens free-range?). I have to say here that I hope I’m not offending any vegetarians with my talk of killing and eating animals. I was a vegetarian myself before I started travelling, but it’s so difficult to refuse food after you’ve been invited into someone’s home, especially in countries where there is no real concept of vegetarianism, and when the meat offered hasn’t been factory farmed, or raised in a particularly cruel way.
I spent the next few days being shown round Mvuti, and helping where I was allowed, which wasn’t often. This of course was when I wasn’t drinking ngongo or playing football. Mvuti was a hive of activity, an image which was enhanced by the fact that everyone was going about their business outside in full view of everyone else. In just a short walk I saw people grinding maize, making furniture, milking cows, building a house, collecting water, carving, fishing, planting, harvesting, cooking; all of course without the tyranny of boss or clock. If something needs doing it gets done. If it’s light, people work; if it’s not they don’t; if they’re hungry they eat.
I was shown fields of rice, maize, oranges, vegetables, and the versatile cassava, the roots of which are fried and eaten, the leaves used in salads, and the stems as poles in building and fences. Cassava and maize are often interplanted, as they grow at different speeds, so one (I forget which) can be harvested and replanted, which then lets enough light through for the other to finish growing. I was also shown how fish are caught with traps (baskets of reeds with a funnel-like entrance at one end which the fish can easily swim into but not out of) and I was told how they build their homes. People cut poles from the forest and pile them where they want to build their hut. Other villagers will then help them to build it, after which it is regarded as their property.
Meanwhile, talking to Mr Mawenje, and referring to an article written at the end of the seventies about villages in one particular area of TZ4, I was able to build a picture of some of the practical problems facing ujamaa villages, and their potential solutions.
Yields on communal plots tend to be lower than on individual plots because people paid more attention to their own land. They were unsure about returns from the communal plots, which was also reflected in fluctuating attendances when it came to communal work.
It had been found that the smaller the number of people in the village, the higher the communal area cultivated per head. Sumra said that in most villages there is a core of committed people, and that it would be better if the membership was restricted to these few. I think this is a valid point generally, not just for the ujamaa, and is a major cause of many of the problems currently faced by the kibbutz system.
The problem of poor attendance on communal plots can be mitigated by growing different crops than on the individual plots, so that periods of heavy labour requirements don’t coincide. Good examples of communal crops would be non-basic foodstuffs, like tree crops, livestock, coffee, cardamom or poultry.
There were criticisms about excessive government control (again a point I agree with generally; people tend to work more efficiently and happily under their own initiative). For example, the government controlled the co-ops which organize marketing, and they usually required export crops to be produced. So if villagers decide to grow, for example, tomatoes, or some kind of fruit, to improve their diet, there would be no market for any surplus. Also, villagers are sometimes instructed that they must have at least half a hectare of a certain crop that the government is eager to export, e.g. cotton. This robs villagers of initiative and reduces the quality of their diet. Cassava is recognised as an extremely beneficial crop for villagers to grow, but Sumra suggests that there may be problems in that it has to be guarded a lot – from baboons by day, and from pigs at night. He recommends building huts in a ring around the cassava plots. Cassava was growing everywhere on the communities I visited, largely unguarded. Sadly, I imagine that this is because of a reduction in the number of wild animals since the article was written in the seventies.
Back at the Mawenje household, Mama Mawenje was grinding maize in a large tub by pounding it with a long pole. Maize meal is a staple in TZ, and so this is a job that has to be done for an hour or so every day. Foolishly, I asked if I could help. What should have been obvious was that because it wasn’t something that I’d done every day (or indeed ever), the skin would be removed from my hands in a matter of minutes, which is exactly what happened. Technology may have made our lives much easier, but it’s also softened us up.
Meanwhile, the Mawenjes’ nine-year-old daughter was doing what she loved best; looking after her baby brother. It sometimes seemed that they were joined at the hip, as she carried him with her wherever she went. All young girls, in fact, were doing the same thing with their younger siblings. Who needs dolls? I didn’t see any boys doing it though – maybe they will in the future. Anyway, everyone involved seemed to get something out of the arrangement.
What the boys did do however, was play football; very well, as it happens. On every bit of available land in TZ there was a football game going on. Interest in football in Africa had been stimulated by the marvellous performances of Cameroon and Nigeria in the World Cup. No-one in Mvuti had seen any of those performances though, as there wasn’t a TV in the village. As we left the football field after a game, one young guy said to me that he really hoped they would be able to get one before the next World Cup. Three thousand people and no TV. One year later, I would be given a TV by a Japanese friend who didn’t need it because he’d just bought another one, and anyway, he already had seven. It was very kind of him, but there’s something wrong somewhere.
The last thing I did in Mvuti was to visit the people who produce the carvings that TZ is famous for (known as ujamaa carvings in fact), intricate little towers of people supported on each other’s backs, each one carrying out a specific task: carrying bananas; rowing a canoe; playing a drum. A group of about six men sat around chipping away, and one man was rolling the finished carvings in the ashes of a fire to blacken them and make them look like the tropical hardwood that thankfully (from an environmental point of view) they’re not. I was shown a finished one. Waist high, it consisted of a spiral of, I guess, about a hundred characters and had taken its creator a week to make. He told me the price in shillings, and I made a quick calculation; about five pounds. I’ve since seen a similar piece for sale in London. Admittedly, it was bigger than the one at Mvuti, but it was going for four thousand pounds. Someone was making a lot of money from them, and it wasn’t the villagers. I didn’t have room for the big one in my rucksack, but I bought a smaller one for about two pounds. I didn’t haggle.
Leaving Mvuti was dangerous and exhausting. It consisted of a bicycle race to Chanika, from where I was to catch a bus to Dar. The contestants in the race were myself and Mr Mawenje; the danger was provided by the road conditions; and there were handicaps. On the back of my bike was my rucksack, and on the back of Mr Mawenje’s bike was the person who was going to ride my bike back to Mvuti. I won, but he had more of a handicap.
On the bus back to Dar, I reflected on how completely open everyone had been, both in the villages themselves, and in the government departments, even though it may have been my intention to write uncomplimentary things about the TZ system, which they had no guarantee I wouldn’t do.
I arrived back at the same guest-house in Ilala on a Saturday to find a message that I was to be interviewed on ‘Africa Today’ on Monday and it would be broadcast across the whole of Southern Africa. In the meantime I tracked down Juma and Superstar – not exactly difficult, as they’re not what you’d call shrinking violets – and spent the next day on the beach with them. I talked in glowing terms with Juma about the ujamaa, but from his responses I could tell that he would never consider living in a village; he would sooner take his chances ducking and diving in the city, seduced by the attractions of a pseudo-Western lifestyle, as regards music, food, clothes, cigarettes, films; and like so many of his compatriots, instead of coconut juice, which is natural, cheap, nutritious and Tanzanian, he would always prefer to drink Coke, which isn’t any of those things.
My radio interview was no big deal; just an informal chat where I was asked to compare various aspects of the ujamaa system with the more famous but much smaller kibbutz system, which I’d visited several years earlier. The conversation was punctuated by selections of traditional music from TZ and Israel. I think that by now they’d gathered that my opinions of the ujamaa system were favourable, and I was participating in a mild propaganda exercise, not that I minded at all.
On the day after the end of Ramadan, I left Dar by train for Moshi in the north to have a look at Mount Kilimanjaro before continuing on to Kenya, from where I hoped to fly to India. Before I left though, Juma had another surprise for me. I was with a group of his friends in the yard of his brother’s house, doing some exercises with his home-made weights. It was around sunset, and we were waiting to catch a glimpse of the moon, which would signal the end of Ramadan – party time for the Muslim half of the country – when Juma appeared in full-length white robe and skull-cap. I told him that I was surprised that he was Muslim, especially as even in the short time I’d known him I’d noticed that drinking and womanizing were among his favourite activities.
‘I’m not’, he said. ‘But I’m going to visit my Muslim friends. After all, they celebrate Christmas with me.’
Apparently, it’s not uncommon for Christians and Muslims to intermarry either, and the religions, as well as the tribes, were deliberately thrown together when the ujamaa villages were formed, in an attempt to generate greater national unity. Many countries could learn a lot from TZ in this respect, I think.
In concluding this article, I’d like to add a little postscript: ujamaa as a system doesn’t exist anymore; a fact I verified by contacting the TZ High Commission in London (although some individual villages retain their ujamaa structure, they are now without the previous state support). It seems then, that TZ has finally bowed to IMF / World Bank pressure. Actually, the International Monetary Fund had been active in TZ for many years, without greatly influencing its socialist policies. This was a situation both sides found beneficial: TZ because of its balance of payments crisis, due to its debt servicing, and a gradual drop in the price of its exports together with a rise in the price of its imports (problems common to all poor countries); the IMF and the World Bank because they wanted a client on the left to deflect criticism for withholding support for Allende in Chile, but then propping up the Pinochet regime that was responsible for his assassination5. So for a while TZ received loans and also got to keep its policies.
Now it’s different; no more Mr Nice Guy, as far as the IMF is concerned. So what can a poor country do: renege on its debt and get no more loans, or take the aid and water down its policies? Usually they have to give in because of a lack of foreign exchange to buy essentials like oil. In 1980, Nyerere said that he would accept IMF conditions if they were concerned with preventing corruption or waste, but not if the conditions were of an ideological nature6. He went on to point out that the IMF is not an international organization anyway, but is controlled by a few rich countries, especially the US, and is geared, not to improving conditions in poor countries, but to maximizing profits for Western investors. The truth of this statement can be grasped with a brief glance at Western financial publications, whose readers are generally less interested in the living conditions of peasants in poor countries than in the potential for generating profits from investing in them. The reorganization of an economy for profit maximization is often hailed as an ‘economic miracle’. One such country is Mexico, whose recent ‘miracle’ also involved a rise in the number of people living below the absolute poverty line, from 13% to 25 %7. The Economist is quite open about it. For example: ‘Reagan achieved the aim of pulling Nicaragua and other Latin American countries off the socialist path’8.
In 1985, Mwinyi accepted some conditions and got TZ’s first IMF loan for six years. TZ has since caved in, and accepted an IMF austerity programme. To be fair, I think that their massive bureaucracy needed to be curbed, but any exercise involving belt-tightening, as far as a country like TZ is concerned, is a bit of a sick joke.
There have been many suggestions as to ways of altering IMF policies to benefit the Third World, and I’m going to mention some of them9.
Reforms within the IMF itself – its overemphasis on cash crop production for export has led to surpluses of raw materials and so their prices have fallen, which is good news for rich countries but disastrous for poor ones. Stabilization programmes should be development oriented: food production targets, labour intensive production for full employment, stimulation and fulfilment of mass domestic demand, basic-needs oriented investment, selective world market integration and diversification of exports. Furthermore, negotiations should be democratized and made public.
Yes, debtors do need structural changes to stabilize their economies. They need to reduce the size of their bureaucracies, and to balance payments and the budget, but not at the expense of social aims. So, for example, they may need to devalue the currency but never to the extent that it upsets basic needs provision.
Creditor nations too, have a duty to adjust, which the IMF should be encouraging them to do. If poor countries are to claim a larger share of the earth’s resources, which is their right, then we in the more developed world have to learn to live with less.
Following on from point 3 above, I believe that by organizing themselves into communities people can choose to use fewer resources by sharing, or, in poorer countries, make do with the fewer resources that are available. Government-inspired programmes though, spawn a bureaucracy which poor countries can ill afford. Change needs to be from grass-roots, by the people involved, and not imposed from above. For this reason I feel that communities have much more potential in developed countries, at least initially, because people can only consider social, environmental and quality-of-life issues once their basic needs are provided for.
TZ now has multi-party elections (the first of which CCM won). It was inevitable really, I suppose. It just seems to be the way that the world is going, which is preferable to the Cold War after all, notwithstanding all that Mosha said about the benefits of the one party system for TZ.
Nevertheless, I think that the ujamaa experiment was a noble attempt by Nyerere at an alternative way of developing. He was always at the forefront of the fight against Apartheid, and against Amin in Uganda. Both have now gone. He was a major opponent of the IMF’s neo-liberal ideology (which hasn’t gone), and was committed to equality and ensuring that Tanzanian people were supplied with basic necessities via the ujamaa system. I’m sure that many of the excellent values inherent in that system, such as co-operation, and religious tolerance, will have been instilled in the people, to the benefit of TZ in the long-term.
Much later, I would have a conversation with a director of the Thames Valley Chamber of Commerce, who had also visited TZ, but with a very different agenda from mine. He came not to praise Nyerere, but to bury him, along with his ideas. He did have a soft spot for the man though, and suggested that he would have been more successful with a two-pronged approach to development. The first would have been pragmatic, involving sound economic policies to avoid bankrupcy, and the second idealistic, to try to force change in World Bank policy, obtain reparations for colonialism, and to provide inspiration by example for other developing countries. It could be argued however that there was nothing about his economic programme that wasn’t sound (or at least any less sound than other countries, with their collapses, bail-outs, austerity and unemployment), except that it didn’t suit corporate capitalism and was unacceptable to the World Bank. Consequently TZ is now well into an IMF structural adjustment programme10. There has been a 900% devaluation of the currency, and huge cuts in health and education budgets. All aid, even from enlightened Scandinavia, is now conditional on fulfilling IMF restructuring conditions. There are fees for education, health and water, whilst teachers’ and nurses’ salaries have been slashed. School enrolment had fallen from almost 100% to 75% by the early ’90s and child malnutrition is rising.
1 See James H. Weaver and Alexander Kronemer, ‘Tanzanian and African Socialism’, World Development, Vol. 9, Sep / Oct 1981, pp. 839-49.
2 See Jan Kees Van Donge and Athumani J. Liviga, ‘In Defence of the TZ Parliament’, Parliamentary Affairs, Vol. 39, Apr 1986, pp. 230-240.
3 James H. Weaver and Alexander Kronemer, ‘Tanzanian and African Socialism’, World Development, Vol. 9, Sep / Oct 1981, pp. 839-49.
4 Suleman Sumra, ‘Problems of Agricultural Production in Ujamaa Villages in Handeni District’, in Kwan S Kim et al, Papers on the Political Economy of TZ, Heinemann, 1979.
5 Cheryl Payer, ‘Tanzania and the World Bank’, Third World Quarterly, Vol. 5, October 1983, pp. 791-813.
6 Julius Nyerere, ‘Guest Columnist’, The Guardian, March 17, 1980, p. 10.
7 Noam Chomsky, lecture at Westminster Central Hall, June 16, 1995.
8 Economist, August 23, 1986, p. 46.
9 Peter Koerner et al, The IMF and the Debt Crisis, Zed Books, 1984.
10 ‘Pride Falls to Market Demand’, Guardian, May 25, 1990, p. 10.
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