11 July 2010

there's something about tanzania

Apologies, dear readers, for my long absence. I spent the last week doing another round of field work in Zanzibar, and both time and internet access were once again scarce. I have a little bit of a backlog of topics to write about, so look for posts in the coming days about how I learned to love the World Cup, some more musings about Swahili, and what I do for exercise in Dar es Salaam. Surely they will all be as fascinating as always.

Among the countries in its East African neighborhood, Tanzania is something of a model citizen. As I mentioned in my first post, Tanzania has an enviable record of peace and stability. Its résumé of large-scale armed conflict is breathtakingly short. There was a short war with Uganda in the late 70s, and before that one would have to reach deep into the colonial era to the Maji Maji Rebellion in 1907. Contrast that with the troubled histories of many of its neighbors: Uganda (see Amin, Idi), Rwanda (self-explanatory), and the Democratic Republic of Congo (site of the bloodiest, most hellish and least-known war of the 21st century). Kenya, Tanzania's closest relative, teetered on the brink of mass electoral violence while a man of half-Kenyan ancestry was mounting a successful campaign for President of the United States. Tanzania has won plaudits in the international community for successfully absorbing refugees from its neighbors' conflicts. Tanzania's term-limited presidents have regularly left office voluntarily, and the current President, Jakaya Kikwete, is by all accounts sincere, competent, and well-liked.

Tanzania's record is all the more remarkable given that its boundaries are no less of a colonial fiction than those of any other African country. In most African countries, it is often said, people identify first and foremost with their tribe and ethnic group and little, if at all, with their country. Tanzanians, in contrast, really think of themselves first as Tanzanians. In fact, it is considered bad form here to make a fuss about or inquire too extensively into someone’s ethnic heritage. One of my coworkers, a Muslim from the north, is married to a Christian woman from the middle of the country. This fact obviously gives him pride, but he is also quick to emphasize how unremarkable such a pairing is in Tanzania.

Tanzania's cohesiveness is, more than anything else, a product of public policy. In that first entry I also briefly mentioned Julius Nyerere, the founder and first president of Tanzania, still known and loved as mwalimu (“teacher”). Nyerere launched a program of African socialism known as ujamaa (“familyhood”). In economic terms, ujamaa was an unqualified disaster, a fact that Nyerere ultimately recognized and that drove him from office. Still, Nyerere managed somehow to build a Tanzanian national identity, glued together with his promotion by word and policy of Swahili as a national language. “The policies didn’t last,” a senior official at the Embassy observed to me and some other interns, “but they were in place long enough for something to gel.”

There is one big caveat to everything I've said so far, and that is Zanzibar. I will save a discussion of the archipelago's complicated relationship with the mainland for another time. But its last two rounds of elections, in 2000 and 2005, were marred by violence, most notably a massacre of protestors in 2001. On political freedoms and human rights, the islands compare unfavorably to the mainland. Zanzibar's independence from the Sultanate was born of a bloody revolution in 1964, which killed and drove out many of the formerly powerful Arabs and South Asians. Among those who fled was the family of young Farouk Bulsara, whom the world would later come to know as Freddie Mercury.

There are two great ironies built into this contrast between Zanzibar and the mainland. The first is that Zanzibar, unlike the mainland, has significant competition between the two major political parties. Part of the mainland's political stability is, arguably, thanks to the overwhelming advantage of Kikwete's party in what we Americans call "party identification." Zanzibar, however, is close to evenly split, and "party ID" there has deep roots in historical power relationships and grievances. It's a useful counterexample if one is tempted to lazily equate liberal democracy with competitive elections.

The second irony is that in my experience, Zanzibar is a safer and gentler place than the mainland. In Stone Town, I regularly walk from place to place alone, after dark, with a laptop bag over my shoulder. I can do this without fear, while in Dar any two of those three things together would be inviting serious trouble. The welcoming spirit I have felt everywhere in Tanzania is especially strong in Zanzibar.

Both the mainland and Zanzibar are slated to have elections in October of this year, and Zanzibar's current president (again, explanation to come another time) is term-limited. Zanzibar's troubles are far from insoluble, and I sincerely hope that this will be the breakthrough election that sees a peaceful and untainted process. Zanzibaris have been waiting a long time for this, and they certainly deserve it.

1 comment:

Karen Palmigiano said...

Hujambo Shawn,

Habari yako? I came across your blog as I was reminiscing about my time in Tanzania as a Peace Corps volunteer. I lived there from 2002-2004 in a tiny town called Mtwara on the southeast coast. I still have a few friends that work there, and I was just wondering what development organization you are working for. If you would rather email the name than post it, please do so. My email is kpalmigiano@gmail.com.

Take care!