Growing Up With Ujamaa: An Interview

Interested in learning more about the history behind A Girl Called Problem? Following Common Core and looking for a nonfiction supplement to the book? I hope you’ll be as fascinated as I was with this first-hand account of what life was like growing up in an ujamaa village, much like Shida did.

I interviewed my Tanzanian friend, George Mutalemwa, whom I first met in the late 1990s at Saint Augustine University of Tanzania. At that time, George was a stand-out student of Mass Communication and the editor of the student newspaper. George has since gone on to get a PhD, and he is now a professor at the same university where I once knew him as an undergraduate. George is currently on leave teaching at a university in Germany. I asked him to share some of his experiences growing up in Tanzania under the presidency of Nyerere and the ujamaa movement. Here are some snip-its from our conversation:


My friend, George Mutalemwa, who generously agreed to share
his perspective on growing up under the leadership of Nyerere.

KQ: Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me today, George. It’s such a treat for me and for my readers to get a personal, real-life perspective on what it was like to live in Tanzania during the ujamaa period. As you know, A Girl Called Problem, my middle-grade novel, is set in Tanzania in 1967.

GM: Congratulations and thank you for writing A Girl Called Problem. How I wish it were translated into Swahili already!

KQ: I would be honored to have it translated into Swahili—perhaps that’s a project you and I could work on someday. So, 1967 seemed to be a critical juncture in Tanzanian history—it was just a few years after Tanzania achieved its independence and the same year President Nyerere put forth his plan for ujamaa, or familyhood, in the Arusha Declaration. I’m assuming you weren’t born yet, but can you give us a sense of what was going on in your family’s life right around 1967? For example, where were they and what do you think their thoughts were about independence and then about the Arusha Declaration?

GM: Days following the independence of Tanzania or Tanganyika as it was then called were of great optimism–citizens felt they had ownership of the country. My mother was a housewife and my father a schoolteacher in Bukoba, North West Tanzania. Schoolteachers were then highly respected. They were few, well trained and reasonably well paid. The cost of living was also not as high as it is today. It is important to remember that our first President, Mwalimu Nyerere, was a schoolteacher too. Mwalimu is a Swahili word for teacher. I assume he was a role model for all teachers and he earned them respect.

KQ: It’s lovely to think of a society in which teachers are so highly revered. Going back to the Arusha Declaration, can you give us, as American readers, a sense of what it means to you? What do you think of when you hear ujamaa?

GM: The Arusha Declaration was a set of guidelines with principles, which were set to bind the nation together. These principles included equality and dignity of humankind, common ownership of national resources, self-reliance, work, and building a classless and just society. Although for some the Arusha Declaration is dead and buried, the principles are alive and kicking. When I hear ujamaa, I think of the neighborhood, how people used to come together to address common issues, celebrations, funerals and keeping rivers clean, for example. By extension, common national issues could be dealt with more collectively, at least through our representatives, for the common good. Now, we are becoming more and more individualistic and more and more egoistic.

KQ: That’s interesting. Certainly as an American, I was impressed by the collectivist mentality of people in Tanzania, even in the late 1990s. For example, I remember going to funerals and being asked to make a donation that was then publicly recorded in a log book—people really relied on the community in times of need.

Nyerere remained president until 1985 when he resigned. That was more than twenty years of leadership. How did Nyerere’s term affect your family’s personal history? For example, did your family end up relocating to an ujamaa village?  Did their access to education change during his term? What other aspects of their lives changed as a result of Nyerere’s leadership?

GM: Let me begin by saying that my family did not end up relocating to an ujamaa village. This was because in Bukoba, where I was born and bred, people had been living in villages long before Nyerere introduced ujamaa villages elsewhere in Tanzania. The same applies to Kilimanjaro and Mbeya regions, for example, where people lived a well-organized and productive life. So Nyerere did not do random villagisation, if you wish. If you think about how dispersed people were along, say, the central route from Mwanza to Dar es Salaam in large part, then you tend to see sense in Nyerere’s vision and action. Houses were simply too far from each other–you sometimes needed a kilometer to find your next-door neighbor, let alone a shopping center or dispensary! Not much has changed today.

KQ: The beginning part of that central route that you describe, near Mwanza, is where I imagine A Girl Called Problem taking place. I’m curious what legacy you think Nyerere left Tanzania? What were his greatest accomplishments?

GM: Nyerere helped Tanzania win its independence. He established the state called Tanzania. He made people identify themselves as Tanzanians first and foremost. He taught us that real development was people-centered. His stand against corruption was remarkable and getting people with 125 regional languages to speak one language–Swahili–was no small achievement. The list is long.

KQ: One thing that makes Tanzania remarkable, in my mind, is how peaceful it has been since independence. Its northern neighbors (the neighbors I’m most familiar with)—Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and the Congo–all have been plagued with some form of ethnic conflict and, sadly, even genocide in some cases. Tanzania, on the other hand, is home to more than 120 different ethnic groups. I read recently that it is the only country in Africa that has indigenous ethnic groups hailing from all four African language groups. Some of these people were traditionally agriculturalists, some were herders and some were hunters and gatherers. So, you have all of these people from very different cultural and language backgrounds whose borders were assigned to them by colonizers who certainly weren’t thinking first and foremost about national harmony, and somehow they have managed to get along. That’s a big deal! Can you talk about why you think Tanzania has remained so stable? What choices did Nyerere make that contributed to this stability?


A map of Central Africa, showing Tanzania and its neighbors.

GM: Fortunately Tanzania has remained relatively stable in comparison with our neighbors although nowadays fear is beginning to creep in from religious tensions, cheap politics and corruption. Nyerere was a mature leader. He worked for what he was convinced was the good of the nation. He avoided personal enrichment in favor of national development. He practiced what he said and was really trusted. Some people blame him for not developing his home region, Mara, for example. But he was not a leader for Mara but for Tanzania. Some leaders plunder national resources to develop their own regions and amass personal wealth. Tanzania has had four presidents since its independence, including Nyerere, and they all stem from relatively small regional groupings and no one knows where the fifth one will come from. In Kenya, for example, we can assume the next president will be a Kikuyu if not a Luo or its alliance—ethnic tensions begin there!

KQ: The main character, Shida, in A Girl Called Problem is a 13-year-old girl. Do you think Nyerere’s leadership had any particular effects on children and young teenagers?

GM: Oh yes, these were children who were brought up chanting the catch phrase ‘long live Nyerere’s ideas’. One of these ideas was education for self-reliance and for all children. Good conduct, work and sports were graded at school. At around the age of 13, each of us had a small garden in our family on which we worked after school or on Saturdays. This was part of self-reliance. Unfortunately, at that time schools were few and far between and usually one or two out of 45 pupils would be selected to join secondary school. I feel sad about many of my neighbors who were doing very well in class but ended up with only primary education. Nowadays, 98 out of 100 pass to join secondary school. We are doing well, in terms of numbers, thanks to the Millennium Development Goals.


Tanzanian school kids.                                      Photo credit:

KQ: That’s wonderful to hear. When Nyerere resigned as leader of the nation, he admitted that his economic policies had largely been a failure. Tanzania was and remains relatively poor—although, I have to point out that the early 1980s were a particularly hard time in the world to be a poor country. To what extent do you think Nyerere is or was to blame for Tanzania’s poverty?

GM: Yes, Nyerere left Tanzania a poor country but he had not inherited a rich country either. A number of external and internal factors are to blame for poverty. Nationalizing major means of production which ended up benefitting a few of Nyerere’s trusted civil servants was a let-down. The few industries that Nyerere had helped build became dysfunctional. Now we’re importing toothpicks from Taiwan and toilet paper from China. Should we blame Nyerere for this, too?

KQ: Nyerere was also criticized by groups such as Amnesty International for policies of coercion—meaning forcing people to do things they didn’t want to do. His government was said to have discouraged dissent. In other words, they didn’t allow people to speak out against Nyerere’s policies, and they eventually forced villagers to relocate to ujamaa villages. Do you personally know any people who were treated badly by Nyerere’s government for resisting his policies? Do you think Nyerere was justified in any of these tactics? And—just to saddle you with one more question–were there other mistakes Nyerere made that I have not mentioned?

GM: Personally not. However, as school children we used to sing bad songs, villifying Oscar Kambona, Nyerere’s first Foreign Affairs Minister. He had to flee the country because he was opposed to Nyerere’s socialism and villagisation program. Another man who lost his job or jobs was Aboud Jumbe. He was Vice-President of Tanzania and President of Zanzibar. He was blamed for ‘polluting the air’ because he challenged the Union of Tanganyika and Zanzibar, seeking more autonomy for Zanzibar. One of the persons who was said to be brave enough to challenge Nyerere was his college mate and later Justice Minister, Abdallah Said Fundikira. This one was opposed to one-party democracy and he is said to have been involved in a plot to overthrow Nyerere. He later joined the opposition before returning to Nyerere’s political party. Abolishing the chieftainship was a blow especially to chiefs and their clans. Nyerere too was a son of a chief. He preferred building a nation to maintaining chiefdoms. In all these issues, Nyerere was keen to do what was in the interest of Tanzania and this makes him stand out from the rest, despite some failures.

KQ: In spite of the failures we’ve mentioned, my impression is that almost every Tanzanian I met really respected Nyerere. I guess this impression comes largely from the year Nyerere passed away—1999. We were both living in Tanzania then. My memory of the month after his death was that everything shut down for a full thirty days: radio stations played the same mourning songs over and over again; graduations, sporting events, and weddings were postponed; and the nation really stopped to mourn. What is your memory of the month after Mwalimu’s death? Would you agree with my estimation that most Tanzanians were and remain proud of Nyerere? What do you think it is that makes him such an important person in African and world history?


Mwalimu Nyerere

GM: It was the passing on of a respectable father, Father of the Nation. The nation stood still, mourning and musing on the fate of Tanzania without Nyerere. I remember two months later, it was Christmas and you could hear some people listening to mourning songs instead of Christmas carols. Nyerere was exceptionally intelligent, hard-working, faithful and a person citizens wanted to identify with. He spearheaded the liberation struggles and the release of Nelson Mandela. He spoke for the poor of the world, especially as leader of the South-South Commission. He stood for justice, dignity and equality of all humankind.

KQ: Thanks so much, George. It was very moving for me to witness your nation’s reverence for Nyerere when I was living in Tanzania, and it’s inspiring to be reminded now as we talk that the world can and hopefully will continue to be graced by such principled leaders. What else have I not asked that you’d like to add?

GM: Thank you, Katie, for challenging me to talk about this special person and leader, an orator, an author, a teacher, a thinker, a president who was seen working in a garden, attending church regularly, riding his bicycle, translating some parts of Shakespeare’s works and the Bible into Swahili. There was a time when he was blamed for favoring fellow Catholics. Then he asked for the names and denominations of his cabinet ministers. He said he was surprised to find out that he and Sir George Kahama were the only Catholics, adding that Sir George was even a more advanced catholic because he had a second wife! He had a great sense of humor. Currently, a process is underway to declare him a ‘saint’, something I guess he would have laughed about.

About katiequirkauthor

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