Sunday, 24 February 2013


by Martin Walsh

Nyerere as leader of the Legislative Council of Tanganyika
The dead can't slap super-injunctions on the living, but being the much-revered first President and 'Father of the Nation' provides fairly good insurance against scurrilous gossip, especially when your party is still in power, the Roman Catholic church is proposing your beatification, the national airport is named after you, and hip-hop artists continue to sing your praises. Julius Kambarage Nyerere continues to enjoy a very positive image, and hagiographies have proliferated in this era of the 50th anniversaries of the transition to Tanganyika's Independence and the political Union with Zanzibar. None of this is surprising, though I've always been dismayed by the extent to which older academics and Tanzaphiles have bought into the Nyerere Narrative. The good news is that a younger generation of scholars has been less willing to accept the received image (e.g. Fouéré 2009).

In Tanzania itself, multi-party politics, a freer press, and the new medium of the internet, have introduced alternative views and started to lead to the recovery of old histories as well as the invention of some new ones. This is especially so in Zanzibar, where there are even more political secrets to hide about the circumstances of the Revolution and the Tanganyika Mutiny, the hurried Union agreement, and the way in which political enemies were dealt with (cf. Fouéré 2010). During the Popobawa panic on Pemba island in 1995 it was said that trapped spirits, manifestations of the shape-shifting evil genie, had declared that they had come from Butiama, Nyerere's home village (Walsh 2009: 28). This provided cause for pointing the finger of blame at Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM), the ruling party, and was just one part of a counter-narrative that demonised Nyerere and his political heirs as the enemies of democracy and Pemban self-determination under the banner of the opposition Civic United Front (CUF).

My favourite popular pricking of the Nyerere balloon is a book I picked up in Iringa town in February 2000, a few month's after Mwalimu's death the previous October. Munga Tehenan's Siri za Nyerere, 'Nyerere's Secrets', is undated; the author himself died in 2008. His chapter headings give the flavour:

Nyerere's Secrets
1. Nyerere alikuwa ni Mrundi? [Was Nyerere a Rundi?]
2. Roho yake ilikoswa mara tano [His heart stopped five times]
3. Nyerere hakuwajali wanaye [Nyerere didn't care for his children]
4. Watoto wake ni walalahoi [His children are homeless]
5. Kifimbo chake na nguvu za kichawi [His stick and the power of witchcraft]
6. Kwa nini Mwalimu aliitwa 'Haambiliki' [Why is Mwalimu called 'He-can't-be-told']
7. Maisha yake Butiama yalishangaza zaidi [His life at Butiama was even more astonishing]
8. Butiama: mkulima halisi [Butiama: the dedicated farmer]
9. Nyerere na Waislamu wa Butiama [Nyerere and the Muslims of Butiama]
10. Mama wa Nyerere alikuwa mchawi [Nyerere's mother was a witch]
11. Mwalimu kama rafiki wa wote [Mwalimu as everyone's friend]
12. Mali zake Butiama [His wealth in Butiama]
13. Mwalimu: maradhi na utani [Mwalimu: illnesses and joking]
14. Nyerere alikuwa mdini [Nyerere was a religious person]

A lot of this is tittle-tattle about Nyerere's home life in Butiama. I've no doubt that more could be dredged up about his life abroad. I once knew a woman who claimed to have had a one-night stand with Nyerere. Her story was quite plausible. She was young, attractive, and worked for a state-owned enterprise. Nyerere was on a state visit to another African country, and she was invited to a party at which he was the guest of honour. They danced together, and when the evening drew to a close he took her to bed. I was tempted to ask for more intimate details, but she'd told me this in an unguarded moment, and I didn't want to pry -- any more than I'd want people to take a prurient interest in my own affairs. Bedding large numbers of women was one of the prerogatives of power in many newly-independent African nations, and in many countries it still is. Nyerere may have indulged, but he doesn't have the lurid reputation of some of his peers.

Nyerere's worst kept secrets were his Machiavellian political machinations and the economic ruin of the country in the name of Ujamaa, his personal version of state socialism. I first lived in Tanzania in 1980-82 when the ill effects of Nyerere's hubris and pernicious policies were all too evident. I can forgive him for dabbling in  witchcraft and enjoying extramarital sex -- if indeed he did -- but I can't forget the corruption and the queues, and especially the shortage of essential medical supplies and the consequent lack of basic healthcare, with all the deleterious consequences that this had and continues to have. Although I touched on some aspects of this in publications that arose from my doctoral research in Usangu (e.g. Walsh 1983; 1985), I haven't really written much about it. Perhaps I should.

Tom Molony is to blame for setting me thinking about the public and private images of Nyerere, but bears no responsibility for the rest. See also my earlier post about 'Okello, Babu, Mo, and photographic propaganda' (14 March 2011).


Fouéré, Marie-Aude 2009. J. K. Nyerere entre mythe et histoire: analyse de la production d’une mémoire publique officielle en Tanzanie post-socialiste. Les commémorations de la disparition du père de la nation. Les Cahiers d’Afrique de l’Est 41: 197-224.

Fouéré, Marie-Aude 2010. Sortie de clandestinité des années sombres à Zanzibar (1964-1975). Cahiers d'Études africaines 50 (1): 95-121.

Tehenan, Munga Undated. Siri za Nyerere. Dar es Salaam: M & N Publishers.

Walsh, Martin 1983. Fanta, Coca Cola and tea (three sugars) in the political economy of rural Tanzania: notes from Utengule-UsanguCambridge Anthropology 8 (3): 69-75.

Walsh, Martin 1985. Village, state and traditional authority in Usangu. In R. G. Abrahams (ed.) Villagers, Villages and the State in Modern Tanzania. Cambridge: African Studies Centre. 135-167.

Walsh, Martin 2009. The politicisation of Popobawa: changing explanations of a collective panic in Zanzibar. Journal of Humanities 1 (1): 23-33.

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