Swahili, socialism, slavery and superstition – I

Nyerere and “socialism” gave Tanzania a modicum of stability, peace, dignity and international standing that were sadly lacking in the neighbouring countries.  Tribalism and tribal violence do not stalk Tanzania as they do the countries around it. 

(Daily Times, 20 February 2013)

Dares Salam is Tanzania’s largest city, sea port, commercial centre and its capital in all but name.  Although all government ministries and offices are in Dares Salam, some legislative offices are now located in the more centrally situated town of Dodoma, which has long been planned as the future capital. 

Tanzania’s largest city looks rather backward and lethargic in comparison with Nairobi, Addis Ababa and even Kampala or Lusaka, not to mention Johannesburg or Cape Town. Its main road, Samora Machel Street, isn’t much to write home about.  The tourist information office on this road resembles a decrepit colonial government office and provides little information. 

Tanzania under Julius Nyerere, president from independence in 1961 to his voluntary retirement in 1984 (unprecedented in Africa at the time), chose to be a part of another planet, with its unique brand of “African Socialism”, which was proclaimed in the bombastic Arusha Declaration of 1967.  Written by Nyerere himself, it was officially called the “Policy on Socialism and Self-Reliance”.  Within less than a week of its launching, all banks and much more had been taken over by the state. Ten years later, even as the disaster wrought by this policy was unfolding, Nyerere penned a glowing 51-page commentary about its “achievements”.

The contrast between “capitalist” Kenya and “socialist” Tanzania is very well described by Shiva Naipul in his book North of South, an African Journey.  He was the younger brother of the celebrated author V.S. Naipul.  This book is Shiva Naipul’s account of his visit to both countries in the 1970s.  What he found common to both was corruption, but Tanzania appeared more bureaucratic, almost lazy. Some of the contrast the author described in the book is still obvious, in towns, streets, airports and airlines.  Kenya seems to be flourishing, while Tanzania is just beginning to get out of the doldrums.

But Nyerere and “socialism” also gave Tanzania a modicum of stability, peace, dignity and international standing that were sadly lacking in the neighbouring countries.  Tribalism and tribal violence do not stalk Tanzania as they do the countries around it, including Kenya.  Rogue battalions and mutinous soldiers do not roam the land.  Poor it is, but Tanzania has been an island of peace in an ocean of turmoil.  It is perhaps for this reason, as well as his personal charisma and incorruptibility, that Nyerere is still revered by his countrymen as Mualimu (teacher).

The country, as well as its name, is the result of the amalgamation of two states, Tanganyika and Zanzibar.  By far the larger of the two, Tanganyika was a German colony from 1886 to the end of the First World War, when it passed to the British.  Zanzibar was an island-state, 25-50 km from the coast, about 100 km long and 30 km wide, with a rather chequered and sordid history.  In 1698 Zanzibar fell to the Sultanate of Oman and in 1830s Said bin Sultan moved his capital from Muscat (Oman) to Zanzibar.  It came under direct British control from 1890 to its independence in 1963.  Tanganyika and Zanzibar joined together to form Tanzania in 1964.

The Swahili language is the national or one of the official languages of four countries, besides Tanzania: Kenya, Uganda, Congo and the Comoros.  Although the mother tongue of only five million people, Swahili is the lingua franca of East Africa, spoken by 60 million people, as far as Somalia and northern Mozambique, even Malawi, Burundi and Rwanda. 

There are many Arabic and Persian words in Swahili.  Even the name, Swahili, is derived from the Arabic “Sahil”, meaning boundary or coast.  The earliest Swahili documents are in the Arabic script.  Although German, Portuguese, English and French have influenced Swahili over the last five centuries, the Arabic and Persian influence are most evident.  Readers would have recognised at the core of the Swahili word mualimu, the Arabic/Persian ilm (knowledge).  The well known African safari (and safari suit) is derived from safar (journey) while Dares Salam is the “city of peace”.

My motel in the centre of the “city of peace” was a great meeting place of cultures, just like the language, the cuisine and city itself.  Besides the ubiquitous European backpackers, there were Tanzanian businessmen of Indian origin and also a few travelling businessmen from India. The Indo-Tanzanians were Agha Khani Muslims from Gujrat, traders in gemstones.  Despite being born and a lifetime spent in East Africa, it was hard to tell they were anything but Indian.  They spoke fluent Urdu/Hindi (besides their native Gujrati well as Swahili) and ate and dressed like Indians.  Their Indian connections were strong and flourishing and some sent their children to study in India.  Like them, the visiting Indians were also after Tanzanian gems. 

But one Indian I met here was an exception.  Though he had never been to Pakistan, he was a salesman for the Dollar brand, a popular Pakistani stationary, ballpoint pen and ink manufacturer, which, he told me, sold in 37 countries.  One of the local “Indian” businessmen, who refused to divulge his country except to insist he was “East African”, told me that he had moved his wife and children to Calgary in Canada. 

I wondered why it was Calgary and not, say, Toronto, which would be the natural place to lodge his family, given it was bigger, more cosmopolitan, nearer and better connected.  He told me that he preferred Calgary because his family received higher payments from the government of the oil-rich province of Alberta, than it would in Toronto, in the province of Ontario.

Later, hearing him denounce the West in very strong terms, I asked why he chose to leave his family in Canada and also claim payments from a Western government if he found the West to be so outrageous.  Without batting an eyelid he replied that he was happy to engage in “reverse exploitation” of the West to compensate for the past Western colonial exploitation of the East! Self-serving logic, or rationalising to gain advantage, is a much more common human trait than people admit.

By Razi Azmi


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7 Responses to Swahili, socialism, slavery and superstition – I

  1. Pradeep Kalra says:

    Another informative article Azmi Saheb.I always gain by reading your articles and look forward to reading them.Enjoyed the description of the man who went to Calgary because of the higher govt. allowances.Added a lot to my knowledge of history.

  2. sheela says:

    You are a shameless exploiter. It is in your veins. First exploited the locals in Africa putting the rest of the “asians” to shame and now you shamelessly continue the quest in a country that provided your sorry a** a secure home.
    Go back to Pakistan – you will fit right in. Go exploit your own country. ANd stop pretending to be who you are NOT i.e. “East African”. Shame on you.

  3. Zulfiqar Ali says:

    Razi sahib has candidly and beautifully reflected on the life and living in these African societies as it stands in the real life situations. It has much to offer to think about especially for the people living in other developing countries about improving their own experiences of living, governance and development.

  4. Foqia says:

    Very nice Dr Azmi. Really liked it. During the first two weeks of my stay, i stayed with Indian East Africans who moved to the UK 50 years ago. So I was quite interested to find out about the place. thanks for an interesting account.

  5. AG says:

    Hi Razi,
    I am a regualr reader of all your travel articles and have learnt a lot about America/Asia/Africa than I ever did while living in Kenya (East Africa). Your articles are well researched, factual and looks at issues objectively as an outsider.

    I find no value in people from Africa reacting viciously to Razi’s articles about poverty/corruption/endless wars etc just because an outsider tells us as it is. His comparison of Kenya and Tanzania is spot on and I am glad someone is writing something about it. Let us provide meaning counter arguments to his articles instead of attacking the writer.

  6. Javed Agha says:

    I have lived in East Africa for about ten years. Razi has candidly reflected on the life style and living in these African countries. I learned about few facts that I was not aware of. Thanks for addition in my knowledge.

  7. Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur says:

    Razi Sahib, once again has elegantly compressed very useful information about Tanzania in his piece.
    The “reverse explotation’ seems to be working more than the ‘reverse swing’ in cricket.

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