What we can learn from Tanzania’s hidden socialist history

Selma JamesAfter independence President Julius Nyerere applied welfare state principles to his own country and never lost sight of African traditions

Thu 11 Dec 2014 10.29 GMTLast modified on Sat 12 Jan 2019 17.59 

As we celebrate the 53rd anniversary of Tanzania’s independence this week and the publication of its hidden socialist history written by Ralph Ibbott, we can learn from what the great 1960s anti-colonial movements accomplished. The central question for every country after independence was: how, without capital or expertise, to lift themselves up from the imperial legacy of poverty and underdevelopment?

Julius Kambarage Nyerere, leader of Tanzania’s independence movement and its first president, found a way. The first Tanzanian to get a UK degree (a PhD from Edinburgh in 1952), he had left his village for primary school aged 12. The village, and its women remained his political framework. “My father had 22 wives and I knew how hard they had to work and what they went through as women,” he said.Advertisement

Nyerere had seen the welfare state created to protect people from capitalism. Returning, he told Tanzanians that they had to reject exploitation of the many by the few. He proposed ujamaa: African socialism. In the village, all worked and all benefited. Decisions were made by consensus. He had “grown up in tribal socialism”.

While traditional society was generally presumed to be backward, Nyerere saw its social and economic possibilities for overcoming backwardness. Rural people, 96% of the population, could adapt the communalism they already knew to modern needs and aspirations, thus bypassing capitalism. It was socialism without money, rooted in the native soil; a strategy for a poor but sovereign country determined to pull itself out of poverty and remain sovereign.

Two major problems had to be overcome for rural communal life to flower. The first was the subordination of women: Have we ever heard about women’s subordination from a head of state? Even today his words are startling: “It is impossible to deny that women did, and still do, more than their fair share of the work in the fields and in the homes. By virtue of their sex they suffered from inequalities which had nothing to do with their contribution to the family welfare.” “The truth is that in the villages the women work very hard. At times they work for 12 or 14 hours a day. They even work on Sundays and public holidays … But the men in the villages … are on leave for half their life.” The second problem was tackling the poverty. This could be overcome, by updating agricultural methods. And if men pulled their weight, this “could contribute more towards the development of the country than anything we could get from rich nations”.

Nyerere assumed that with ujamaa, people who had just won independence working communally, without bureaucratic interference, would themselves develop while resolving both problems.

Some people decided to put ujamaa into practice in 1960, even before Nyerere had invented the name for his bold and imaginative strategy. They succeeded brilliantly in Litowa, the first ujamaa village they created – organising production, distribution, housing, health and education. Others came to join and were encouraged to form new villages; limiting village size enabled all to have a voice. When there were a few villages, the Ruvuma Development Association (RDA) was formed with its Social and Economic Revolutionary Army to help new villages to establish themselves. By 1969, the RDA had 17 villages.

A couple of times a week the village had communal meals where they made decisions. The women were encouraged to speak – a slow process – and their interests were considered. Housework and childcare counted as part of the village workday. Soon piped water ended fetching and carrying by women and children. Spare cash from sales of surplus crops was divided equally among all, including to elderly and disabled people who contributed by scaring wild animals from “sharing” food crops, or working in the new childcare facility.

Child mortality plummeted. Pupils at the self-governing Litowa school came from all the villages, boarding at Litowa in term time. They were not trained to compete or join the educated elite but to develop their exciting, caring rural society. Domestic violence virtually disappeared. Women’s status was rising, and the disapproval of others was discipline enough.

Nyerere backed them. When people asked what he meant by ujamaa, he would send them to Ruvuma. Just as ujamaa was about to mushroom into a mass movement, the RDA was destroyed by the greedy and ambitious new ruling elite, capitalism by the back door. They, hated the creativity of the people which had Nyerere’s support. Where was the power for them? Thus a great grassroots development, which might have changed the history of Tanzania and beyond,tragically ended. Nyerere, defeated, continued to work for socialist equity, in general and between the sexes.

By 1985, Tanzania had the highest primary school enrolment in sub-Saharan Africa – 96%; and girls made up 50% of pupils. Women’s life expectancy increased from 41 years in 1960 to 50.7 in 1980. Maternal mortality dropped from 450 per 100,000 births in 1961 to under 200 in 1973. Ibbott returned to the UK and applied ujamaa principles as community development worker in Greenock, one of Glasgow’s most deprived areas. The tenants’ association and youth club persuaded the council to build a sports centre which the youth ran. Much was accomplished by young people previously dismissed as troublemakers. Such communal effort can succeed anywhere if it is able to bypass or defeat those greedy for power and control.