Sunday, 31 October 2010


One of the blog posts I enjoyed last week was my colleague Duncan Green's review of Small Acts of Resistance: How Courage, Tenacity, and Ingenuity Can Change the World, a popular book by Steve Crawshaw and John Jackson about popular protests that in some cases have had far-reaching impacts. This reminded me of an incident that took place in the Tanzanian town of Iringa in early 2003, when an elderly woman bared her buttocks at men sent by the municipal council to destroy the maize she was growing on her urban plot. Deliberate exposure of the nether regions in this way is widely understood in East Africa as an act of excommunication (hence its Swahili description, kumwaga radhi, literally 'pouring away blessing', 'spilling forgiveness') and the equivalent of a grave curse, especially when undertaken by a parent or elder. I learned this some years earlier when a group of British squaddies in Nanyuki made the front-page headlines for collectively sticking their bare bums out of the windows of the bus they were travelling in. What to them was playful mooning was treated by the Kenyan media as an affront to the nation that demanded a high-level apology. (If I ever find the newspaper cutting I'll post it here. For those who want to reflect further on the humorous side of this cultural misunderstanding, then I suggest starting with Carry On Up the Khyber.)

The Iringa incident happened in February 2003, a month or so before I was due to depart after living there for almost six years. It was soon the talk of the town, and in early March I asked my local research assistant, Justin John Kitinye, to gather what stories he could about this act of resistance and the crackdown on urban maize-growing that had led to it. By the end of March he'd filled two 40-page exercise books with people's accounts of the crackdown and in particular the indignation that they felt about it. I left Iringa before I could follow up on the council's side of events, including the institutional and legal background to its actions, though I can now guess at the general outline of what happened. In 1997 Iringa joined Tanzania's implementation of the Sustainable Cities Programme (SCP), a joint UN-HABITAT/UNEP facility established in the early 1990s to build capacities in urban environmental planning and management (Nnkya 2005). Danida funding of the Sustainable Iringa Project (SIP) began in 2000 and supported a wide range of activities to improve the urban environment (Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs/Iringa Municipal Council 2004). Although government policy and the SCP projects promoted home gardens and horticultural production in urban areas, this encouragement didn't extend to all forms of urban agriculture in every zone. The cultivation of maize and other tall crops in built-up areas has been perceived as an environmental hazard since British colonial times, and legislated against accordingly (Foeken et al. 2004: 3, 26). The crackdown on maize growing in Iringa in 2003 evidently began as the over-zealous revival of an old by-law, unmitigated by the more relaxed attitude that prevailed in other towns with SCP Projects. And this revival may have been inspired by memories of the colonial period, when such by-laws were strictly enforced and believed to have resulted in the virtual eradication of malaria from the town, as anthropologist Alison Redmayne has reminded me.

Townspeople interviewed by Kitinye placed the blame for the crackdown squarely on the Municipal Director. It was believed that he had decided to take drastic action without reference to his peers, who anticipated a more measured campaign in which education would take precedence over enforcement, which wouldn't be contemplated until the next growing season. It was also alleged that regular council staff had refused to do the destructive work that he had ordered; instead he was compelled to employ local youths - layabouts and bhang-smokers - at a daily rate of Tshs. 2,500 each. Indeed their depredations took place in the very parts of town in which many government staff lived: parts of Kihesa, Kleruu, Gangilonga (where I lived) and Ilala. The victims of this exercise were incensed that it had begun without warning: there was no announcement that the by-law against metre-tall crops would be enforced. They were especially angry that growing crops had been destroyed and their livelihoods threatened as a result; it would have been more acceptable if they had been fined and warned not to grow corn again the following season. But their plots of green maize were slashed without notice in the name of protecting them against the malaria-carrying mosquitoes and robbers that they might harbour. Not surprisingly the crackdown produced widespread fear and dismay, as well as individual acts of resistance, often in the form of verbal threats of physical or spiritual retribution against the maize-slashers. And the most notorious protest, of course, was that of the old woman who lifted up her clothes and displayed her buttocks to the youths who were cutting down her plants.

According to Kitinye the full meaning of her action wasn't immediately understood by the young men sent to do the council's dirty work - why was this old woman showing them her butt? - and they carried on slashing. What they didn't know - or chose to ignore - was that in local Hehe culture this was a curse that could result in them going mad, blind, deaf, dumb, or physically handicapped in some other way. And so after this incident people watched and waited to see what would happen to the cursed perpetrators in the days ahead. Sure enough, the curse began to take effect. One youth was heard talking to himself out loud as though he was still giving orders while cutting maize and mocking the victims of the exercise. One man involved in the operation was said to have got up in the middle of the night and slashed his own child with a machete while imagining that he was cutting maize: his wife snatched the child off him and rushed it to the hospital, where it was treated in time. Another man started frenziedly chewing maize leaves like a cow. Yet another was suddenly stricken by stomach pains and began to defecate maize plants... Such were the tales circulating in March 2003, along with the more prosaic news that the Iringa Urban MP, Monica Mbega, had hurried back from parliament and met with victims of the exercise and local leaders to discuss the gross injustice that had occurred. As a result the regional administration halted the operation against  maize growers. This was a small victory for the protest, but it didn't end the council's use of its by-law against tall crops, and reports from Iringa in February this year (e.g. on Francis Godwin's blog) indicate that urban cultivators continue to be harassed for what is supposed to be their own good.


Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs/Iringa Municipal Council 2004. Project Document: Sustainable Iringa Project - Phase 2: January 2005 - December 2006. Dar es Salaam and Iringa: Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Iringa Municipal Council.

Foeken, Dick, Michael Sofer, and Malongo Mlozi 2004. Urban Agriculture in Tanzania: Issues of Sustainability (African Studies Centre Research Report 75). Leiden: African Studies Centre. 

Nnkya, Tumsifu Jonas 2005.  The Sustainable Cities Programme in Tanzania 1992-2003: From a City Demonstration Project to a National Programme for Environmentally Sustainable Urban Development. Nairobi: UN-HABITAT and UNEP.

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