Tanzania's Founding Father
This Monday morning, I meet Rosemary, one of nine children born to Julius Nyerere, at her home in Dar es Salaam. Rosemary was born in the year before her father became the first president of the newly independent “Republic of Tanganyika”. She lives in a modest one-story house with her daughter. Some of her siblings live here in the city, and some live ‘in the village’.
Immediately, I’m struck at how similar she looks to the pictures I’ve seen of her father. Her hair is cut short, and she has the same smile with crooked teeth as her father. Someone later told me that all of the children resemble their father. We sit in the shade of her driveway and engage in a lively, jovial conversation. She is good humored and clearly enjoys laughter.
I ask her if she is soon departing for Dodoma to serve another session as a member of Parliament. “No, I got out of politics a while ago,” she says. “Now, I am not trying to set up a business in the village.” The village she refers to is along the northern border with Kenya, and is where her father is buried and her mother currently lives.
“How do you remember your father and how do you think others remember your father?” I ask.
“I think he is remembered well. Many people were very fond of my father. Of course, there are also some who didn’t like what he stood for.”
I ask about her childhood. “He didn’t want special treatment. So, we were just like all the other children, and we went to public schools.” She and her siblings were all born in Tanzania. They lived in a moderate house in an area just past the current location of the big American embassy compound. Nyerere had insisted that he and his family would live simply, like his countrypeople. Therefore, when I say, “He was probably the only African president to leave his position still as a poor man,” she just laughs.
Unlike other African leaders, the history books don’t write much about Julius Nyerere before he became president, other than being an intellectual figure. When I ask about how her father came to power, she replied, “Tanzania was not colonized by the British, but they had a mandate to protect the country. When the British said you can take over the country when you are ready, my father said, ‘okay, we are ready now.” Nyerere then found himself at the forefront of the movement for autonomy from the British Empire.
Rosemary has a continual energy that I imagine she acquired from her parents. After I told her I do research on HIV and nutrition, she said, “Oh, I’m very interested in this topic” and practically ran into the house. She emerged five minutes later with a small booklet on HIV and nutrition and wanted to discuss this more at length. Later in our conversation, she says, “I’m sorry about the mosquitos,” as she quickly rose from her chair and pulled some leaves from the bushes alongside the driveway. “They say this is a natural mosquito repellant,” she says. She beat the leaves against her legs and ankles, before handing me the bunch of green leaves. “It is just basil,” she says.
I ask her about the famous Ujama (“socialist”) system. She replies, “You know, it is just pulling people together to combine resources. It is like if you have some people here and there, and you bring them together to form a school. I still believe in it.” She says this last line with an air of caution that I don’t know how to interpret.
“Does the government still talk about that system?”
“You know they are. But, now, the government talks about forming cooperatives.” After describing the idea and structure of cooperatives, she says, “It is really the same thing, but now they don’t use the word socialism.”
I ask her more about Tanzania’s political history. She explains that when the country became multi-party state in the early 1990s, it was the other political parties, not her father’s party (which has been in power since independence), that first starting paying voters for their votes. Then, after seeing this, the ruling party decided that they had to do the same, “So we started giving out more money (than them),” she says with a rollicking laugh.
“Back then, it was okay to pay (for votes). When I was in Parliament, we passed something called the African friendship bill, which essentially made it okay to give out money during campaigns. We just called it friendship,” she says making quotation marks with her fingers. “Now, the current government has nullified the bill.” She explains that she didn’t enjoy going to Dodoma (Her father established Dodoma as the political capital of the country due to its central geographic location) and didn’t like the campaigning, so she ended her political career.
Given the country’s history of political stability, I ask her why development hasn’t taken hold in Tanzania more than the neighboring countries, which have suffered decades of civil wars and rampant political corruption. “I’m not sure I can answer that one,” she says before taking a long pause. “I think maybe we haven’t been honest with ourselves or with our contracts. If I can use the example of the mining industry. They (foreign mining corporations) have taken a lot of resources, but not much of that money has come back into the country. They have the technology and we have the resources, but there hasn’t been an equal partnership. I think the current government is doing more about this.”
“What do you think about the development assistance from donor countries, is it good?” I ask.
“There are many people who don’t do something because they are waiting for the donor money. This is what I saw when I was in Parliament. They are all chasing the donor money. Sometimes they choose not to do something because they are waiting for the money.”
“Is this making the people lazy?” I ask.
“In my opinion, yes it is. My father would always tell us, ‘don’t be a bug… or a parasite, be self-reliant’. He would say this over and over to us and to the people.” She repeated the Swahili phrase several times, bringing her fist down onto her thigh each time she did so.
“Do you think the country would be better if the donor countries stopped giving money and assistance?” I ask.
“The problem is there are so many different groups and organizations. I think it would be best if they would give it all (donor money) to one place, like the government. But then you have to make sure the government uses it the way they should. It should be clear that the money is for a specific project. We need to be able to police the government.” She then describes some examples of when she felt the government had not been honest with the money they had received for certain projects.
“There is a lot of optimism with the current government,” I say.
“Yes, there is currently a lot of optimism around the president,” she says. “We are all watching closely and hoping, praying that he does well.”
After I thank her for her time and carry the two chairs back to the sunlight porch, she says, “How do you find Tanzanians?” with a large smile. I told her my story of taking a train to Selous National Park and being stuck in a small village after sunset without food or accommodations. I told her that after providing two meals and a mosquito-net-covered bed, and escorting us 8 kilometers down the railroad tracks to the park’s main entrance, my host didn’t ask for any money. “Sure they won’t ask for money. It’s just some of the people here in the city. The Tanzanian people are really very friendly.” It is clear that she genuinely loves her country and its people.
I say, “Some people say the greatest legacy of your father is that he successfully united 120 different tribes into one nation.”
“Yes, he united 120 tribes and we all speak the same language.”
Then, she says, “Ah, it’s too bad I didn’t get to know you sooner, I could have taken you to the village.” I asked her if her mother still lives there. “She does. She is 76-years-old and she still works in the fields. You know after the rains came, a couple of months ago, after the drought, she was out in the fields planting crops with all the young boys.” She makes the motion of an old woman bent at the waist and working the ground with a hoe.
“If you have the time, I can arrange for you to go to the village. I can just call my brother. That’s how we operate, I just call one of the others,” she says with another chuckle.