Independence, Unity, Family
“The Legacy of Julius Nyerere”
As we approach the fifteenth anniversary of Mwalimu Nyerere’s October 14th passing, it is important to remember not just his name this month, but also why he made such a big difference in the eyes, minds, and hearts of all Tanzanians today.
When I ask someone from Tanzania where they are from, it’s with a proud smile that they reply, “Tanzania”. The national anthem of the country includes a line of which states, God bless Tanzania, sustain independence and unity. And unlike many other African countries, where regional dialects and tribal affiliations reign supreme, the entire country boasts one national language- an indigenous one, at that.
Independent. United. Family. Words that Tanzanians use to describe themselves and their fellow countrymen. Words that other countries might also use to describe Tanzania as a country. Words that, without Julius Nyerere, might not be such an accurate description.
Nyerere is consistently regarded as Tanzania’s most influential leader, certainly one of the most respected political figures of his time. His legacy is everywhere in Tanzania – literally. From the airport, to his photo that adorns the walls of many homes, offices, and public spaces. His nickname, Mwalimu, is fondly recalled by many, and quite often.
When Nyerere graciously stepped out of office in 1985, he certainly hadn’t fixed all of the country’s problems. He even created some new ones, and from a world economist’s standpoint, he hardly addressed poverty levels nor boosted Tanzania’s trade economy. Tanzania was heavily reliant on Foreign Aid. So why, then, does he remain such a loved and respected figure today?
Nyerere’s Push for Humanity
In 1961, newly independent from Colonial reign, Tanzania faced an uncertain future looming ahead. Unlike many of its neighboring countries, Tanzania was very lucky to have a leader rise within the system, a leader with a clear vision and a heartless dedication to the progress of its people.
Nyerere had hopes to establish structures of society and government deeply intertwined with one another, rooted in socialist theories he learned about while attending University overseas. Nyerere believed every man and woman to be equal beings regardless of color, class, religion, or tribe. In an era where women were struggling for suffrage, and blacks were oppressed by whites, Nyerere spoke out openly and loudly against these issues.
In his own country, he condemned the rich for suppressing the poor, and the elite for separating themselves from the peasants. He stressed not the development of economy, or wealth, or goods, but the development of Man instead. He focused on the people that would make the economy, not just on the economy itself, and created a robust ideal of public morals and ethics that could be passed down for generations to come. His vision was not a temporary band-aid for a struggling society newly independent from colonial power, but a more permanent and viable national skill set that incorporated education, unification, and community involvement. This, perhaps, was Nyerere’s most admired quality: that he selflessly and profoundly dedicated his work to benefit the growth of his countrymen.
An African Family
Such abstract ideals certainly had its fair share of protestors, but his dedication for Tanzanians to achieve this higher set of moral beliefs left even the greatest of naysayers respecting his authority. Moreover, Nyerere enacted his ideals of socialism through an African way of life, which was a new way of thought and the first of its kind. Coined ‘ujamaa’, meaning familyhood, a strong sense of community and communal living were of utmost importance to Nyerere and he used these ideals to pave the way to forming a new Tanzanian government with new priorities. In a piece written on the website Vijana FM last year, one author so eloquently commented on Nyerere’s foundation of this new concept:
“At a time where the quest for development seemed like attempts to be European, Nyerere’s philosophy attempted to define development taking into account our culture and social structure. Villagelization was an original concept and no doubt very Tanzanian. It was different. It was not a cut and paste concept from the western school of thought. It may not have worked, but the attempt was commendable. Finding African solutions to our African problems.”
At a time when other African countries were going through times of violent cultural strife and division, Nyerere had the foresight, the mental strength, the will, and the discipline to transform Tanzania into a single, united country. Tanzania was able to come together as one African nation, under an African school of thought.
The Legacy of Nyerere
The blossoming into one united nation during Nyerere’s time in office was achieved without bloodshed, without political unrest, and without the mass uprising of any class or race. Nyerere never used his political standing for his own financial or power benefit, a strong contrast to many politicians then, and even today. Perhaps one of the most humble and selfless men I Africa’s history – maybe even of all time – he was a major proponent of equality and the stabilization of social policies to benefit a unified Tanzania.
Nyerere retired from Presidency in 1985, though he remained as advisor and board member for numerous political causes. After he stepped down from office, some scholars criticized Nyerere for leaving his successor and Tanzania worse off than before, heavily reliant on Foreign Aid and imported goods.
Later on, near the end of his life, Nyerere defended his own leadership by saying:
“At the World Bank they asked me, ‘How did you fail?’ I responded that the British ruled us for 43 years. When they left I took over a country where 85% of the adult population was illiterate; there were two engineers and twelve doctors. When I stepped down in 1988 there was 91% literacy, and nearly every child was in school. We had trained thousands of engineers and doctors and teachers. The per capita income was $280.
Ten years later, the per capita income had halved to $140. Enrollment in school has fallen to 63%, and conditions in health and other social services have deteriorated. In those ten years Tanzania has done everything the IMF and World BAnk wanted. So I asked them: ‘What went wrong?’”
Though it might seem to the Western world that Nyerere left office poorer than it was when he started, he in fact laid a strong foundation for Tanzanians to prosper. The most shining example, and perhaps his greatest feat and a testament for his love of teaching, was his success in improving education and literacy rates. Moreover, he instilled a way of Tanzanian thought to be passed down far after his time. Tanzania has, according to some in the Western world, a long way to go to reach any Western ideal. But maybe Nyerere never intended for Tanzania to go there in the first place.
The Future of Tanzania
In the book My Life as an African, Tanzanian author Godfrey Mwakikagile offers an excerpt from a letter from a friend, written at the time of Nyerere’s death:
“The people went in their hundreds of thousands – more – wherever the coffin was. For the most part they stood in quietness. The grief was palpable. Honestly, millions of Tanzanians were involved because they wanted to be – to have some way of expressing their feelings. The police just stood back and let them go where they wanted to, only gently keeping a path clear when necessary. Some people were crying but there was none of the formal wailing. For the most part it was the quietness, the standing in sorrow and slow movements afterwards which made me want to cry, at the same time as it stopped me from doing so. There was no pushing or shoving. I really cannot express their feeling or mine resulting. It was a depth of community mourning in which there was nothing formal or forced. It was individual as well as a coming together.”
It perfectly exemplifies the type of unity and familyhood that Mwalimu Nyerere strived to achieve in his countrymen and countrywomen. And in his lifetime, aside from unity, Nyerere also implemented a strong sense of humanity, education, morality, and self-reliance that gave his country tools to succeed, if not immediately, then to be passed down to future generations. When he retired, Tanzania’s literacy rate peaked at 90%, it had halved its infant morality rate, and was politically stable. Now, what the country can do next, with the teachings left from Nyerere’s time, is up to the people of Tanzania- all students of the teachings of Mwalimu Nyerere.