The strangest thing about Tanzania was how familiar it was to me in February of 2016 after a gap of nearly fifty years.
I left Tanzania in 1969. When I was there long ago, I was young and Tanzania was young. Now I am old and Tanzania is still young, very young, with a huge portion of its population under 20. It has an enormous and stunningly diverse youthful population that needs an education, work, a sense of purpose and meaning, pathways to dignity and integrity, pathways not so easy to find in the maze of the modern world in which traditions have been radically disrupted.
My very first trip to East Africa took place when I was eight. I travelled through the portal of triangular postage due stamps issued by the Nyassa Company of Mozambique, then a Portuguese colony. These stamps showed wildlife within their escalloped borders. I remember giraffes and zebras, each with a hint of the savannah behind them. These hints conveyed the vastness of the savannah and so, too, the existence of another world in which I was wholly absorbed.
I would have loved to own these stamps, but knew better than to ask because I knew we did not have the money for such luxuries. So they remained in their glass case at Halle’s. In retrospect this was a stroke of good fortune. The imaginative experience remained free of the weight of concrete possession. So it possessed me all the more deeply. I recently looked for these very stamps and found them figured on the internet, even as they still figure in my imagination.
My first actual trip to Tanzania came after I had gone to college and done well but failed to find any specific direction. This was 1967. I had been in Salvador, Brazil the summer before, living in a favella, Alto do Cruzeiro, I fell in in love with the light of the tropics and the sounds and smells and rhythms of this most African of New World cities. Three people were killed in drunken knife fights very near the house of Donna Olga do Anjos Santos where I hung my hammock. Luciano, three years old, woke me each morning, saying “Quero pao.” “I want bread.”
I came back to Cambridge for my senior year. I was lost.
I was passionately opposed to the war in Vietnam. I felt it was my responsibility to stop it. It played in my head all day long every day. Perhaps it was the only subject I studied that year. The gambler Antonio de Boi had spotted a plane in the sky over his lush little garden in a ravine in Bahia and asked rhetorically out loud “What would I do if that plane started dropping bombs on me?” He answered his own question, “Nada, nadinha, nadezinha” He got it.
I was one of the organizers of the Boston Draft Resistance Group , but readily accepted a deferment to allow me to go to Tanzania with Harvard Volunteer Teachers for Africa. I had leftist leanings, but, having grown up in Cleveland, knew that talk of violent actions radicalizing American workers and bringing on massive social change was perilous nonsense. Tanzania had just declared itself a socialist nation, but in an African mode. I wanted to see how this socialism worked. I wanted to see if this socialism worked.
I lived then in a closet of my own making. It had complicated interior lighting that passed through many shades. Red for anger was certainly one. It had many different intensities. It was more often uncomfortable than comfortable. In this closet, I lived alone both with myself and without myself. Was it a matter of not letting myself in or of not letting myself out or both? I did not trust myself or others in any deep way. I did not trust life. My friends gave me a farewell Chinese dinner at Peking on Mystic and a pair of hiking boots that walked a long way with me, including to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. My family was less demonstrative.
A week in Paris. Four days in Athens. I landed in Dar es Salaam at mid-day . My lone suitcase weighed twelve pounds. I climbed down the stairs from the airplane onto the tarmac into the blazing equatorial sun. I saw my own shadow joined to the shadow of my suitcase in one of the loneliest moments of my life. I put one foot in front of the other on my way to the terminal, which was also the beginning.
Much as I have said about it, to myself and aloud, much as I have written about it, I do not have words for my experience of Tanzania. Photography is hard, capturing just the right image in the right light. Feel-ography is even harder. Or maybe impossible. Almost fifty years later, I feel the stirrings of so much of what I experienced of Tanzania inside me. Not Cleveland. Not Boston. Something precious and dangerous, orienting and disorienting, beautiful..
Who was I then? Who am I now? Kivukoni College, the Rainbow Hotel in colonial times, stood at the edge of the harbor across from the main city of Dar es Salaam which at that time had no more than perhaps 150, 000 inhabitants. In Swahili “kivukoni” means “ferry.” After dark the only ferry was a power boat that could tow a metal raft that could accommodate just two cars at a time. The purr of the motor, the inky water, sometimes the moon rising out of the Indian Ocean stretching to Gujarat far off to the east…
A huge mango tree stood by the ferry. There you could buy oranges or mangoes or sometimes even unripe coconuts – delicious thirst slaking “madafu”, almost all liquid inside with just the first slivers of what would become true coconut meat. Kivukoni College was itself a ferry. Its students were adults of promise, many already with positions of authority in their home districts, who came for varying periods of instruction that would help them become competent leaders in modernizing Tanzania. This was no simple crossing.
Mzee Maella, with his shiny bald dome and his genial reserve. .. Mary Kabigi, who met no strangers… I could go on and on. I taught practical economics with stories instead of graphs. I played volleyball with them as darkness came down out of a huge never tinted twice the same way sky. I ate ugali na maharagwe (corn paste and beans) with them and listened and talked in an unending Swahili tutorial.
Ambition did not show so much among them, but hope did. There was hope that independence would bring a better future, that Nyerere’s inspiring ideas of an African style socialism, ujamaa, literally, “familyhood” would get them to it. That and hard work, to which these students were not averse. This was before HIV, before Iddi Amin and the war with Uganda, before economic collapse, before so many troubles. They had family, children, major stakes in what they hoped was to come.
As a group they were anything but radical, even as the firebrand young instructor Ngombale harangued them that it was essential to follow the great leader Kim Il Sung of North Korea and form leading revolutionary cadres. Ngombale had received advanced education overseas and showed his gratitude by expressing contempt for everything Nyerere did.
The students, most of whom were older not only than me but than him, listened politely and did not even bother to shrug. Ngombale went on to have a prominent career as a Tanzanian politician, always a gadfly, always knowing better. I think it bothered him that the students would not argue with him. I did not take him on because I felt that was not my place, not at all. There were always complicated borders to be respected. That was part of the fascination of Tanzania for me.
When I landed in Dar es Salaam, I knew no Swahili. My first learning came from the Foreign Service Swahili manual, whose focus was on prepping you to tell your houseboy what you wanted done. This already said something. It had the bare bones of the language. I sat on the beach in front of the porch of Kivukoni and studied for fifty minutes of each hour and then swam in the harbor for ten minutes. I did this for two weeks and then set off on a hitchhiking trip to the south near the Mozambique border.
Stoned Somali drivers of huge rigs carrying oil to landlocked Zambia cut off from its normal supply routes by conflict with Rhodesia were only too happy to offer me rides. Perhaps they simply wanted company. Perhaps I looked so strange, a white kid just there by the side of the road. I climbed up into the cab. Lumberingly we set off south on roads that were treacherous even when dry. These rigs were double tankers with a hitch joining the two tanks.
They were unwieldy, too. Every few miles we came across one wrecked on the side of the road. Most were red. The Somali drivers travelled through the night but some of the wrecks happened in broad daylight. There were tractors, too, rotting in the fields, there as a result of US AID’s misconceived efforts to remake Tanzanian agriculture in the image of America’s. We didn’t tip over. I went to where no one spoke English, so I was on my own in Swahili. I managed clumsily and learned. I was received with a mixture of courtesy and amazement. But always there was warmth.
In the very center of Dar es Salaam was an Arab in long white flowing robes, selling kofias, white embroidered hats like the one that he himself wore. He spoke the most beautiful Swahili, ornate, endlessly inventive, as if he found joy in every sentence rolling off his tongue like a white crested breaker from the Indian Ocean. I bargained with him endlessly, enriching my Swahili.
I could see from the gleam in his eye.that he was certain I would buy, if not three kofias as he proposed , then two or at least one. We had many encounters. I never bought a kofia from him Why not? A peculiar youthful competitiveness? I won’t because I can see you are so sure I will? Nothing to be proud of. Rather something to be regretted. His kofias were lovely. Was it that deep inside I thought of covering my head to honor a different god than his?
Travelling around the country to visit ujamaa villages, small villages that were trying to implement Nyerere’s vision of an African brand of collaborative socialism, that had sprung up spontaneously became part of my work with Kivukoni. At Litowa, Suleiman Toroka, a charismatic proponent of ujamaa inspired the schoolchildren in his charge to outproduce the adults. At Liweta, an extremely intelligent man, Nungu, who happened to be illiterate, was trying to meld the villagers, most of whom were related to him, into a self-reliant unit cultivating in common. One of his strategems was to make the pombe – the local fermented brew – unavailable until work in the fields was done. Mtatereka, Mbambara. There was a village, Njaaa Matata, whose name got right to the point, Hunger Trouble.
Walking between villages one day a troop of baboons accompanied me. In one village, hardly a word was ever spoken, After three days, I became very anxious. I was used to living immersed in human chatter. In this village there was not much need to talk. Most of the cues were non-verbal and most of what was done was done according to habit. I had but the briefest look at the villages I visited. There were no tractors. There were no generators. The seeds of ujamaa were barely sprouting but there were green tips. To these green tips, many villagers had pinned high hopes based on the very special relationship they had with Julius Nyerere, Baba la Taifa, the father of his country.
I wrote about what I had seen.. These reports were useful to the center because the linkages with the countryside were thin. Nyerere and those around him were aware that they knew little about what went on deep in rural Tanzania. This was before wireless. Large segments of the country were cut off during the rainy season.
A few months before going back to Tanzania, I got an email from a historian here in the United States.who wanted to know about an article I had written titled “Uchawi: Matatizo la Ujamaa Vijijini” or “Witchcraft: A Problem For Ujamaa Villages.” I had no memory of having written it. Internet searches proved to me that I had. Dim recollection came back like the feeling as novacaine wears off after a dental procedure: an uncomfortable semi-numbness that produces a clumsy awareness. These searches also turned up a number of other articles I had written about these villages that I had forgotten.
I had forgotten large pieces of myself. There is nothing unusual about this. How crowded we would be, if we did not jettison some cargo. Still, it is a peculiar kind of surprise to be reunited in this way with what you were not aware you had lost.
For most of my time in Dar es Salaam I lived in a spacious suite on the top floor of Kivukoni College overlooking the harbor and looking out eastward towards the rising sun. . In disrepair, more than a bit shabby, it was still the most beautiful place I have ever lived. The shimmering silver glory of the Indian Ocean, the breathtaking blues, the dhows coming and going, an occasional large cargo ship, some with Chinese characters on their hulls, the long view of approaching rain out over the water.and my ever present loneliness, the set of longings that had no names, that changed intensity within me even as the ocean changed each day through the day.
Hinged at the side, my windows cranked open. One day I opened one a third of the way. I went out. When I returned , an enormous black and yellow spider had spun a large web and taken up residence. I never closed that window again. Embossed on the silver of the ocean, this monster would occasionally bestir itself to the periphery to devour what insects were trapped there. I was not curious about what kind of spider this was. It was the sheer spectacle of it that fascinated me. Not a pet, but an exotic companion.
I fell in love with a woman who was not what I took her to be. There was passion and pleasure and joy in the enthrallment before there was misery, but, when the misery came, it was deep and disturbing, lasting decades in my mind, even as I lived another life.. This was part of my Tanzanian experience I did not lose. I was permanently chastened by it. Did I cast a spell on myself? Did she cast a spell on me? Did we cooperate in casting a spell that served neither one of us well? She was even more lost than I was and never found her way. She was ruthless because impoverished, a territory I was to map much more thoroughly in my later work with myself and as a psychiatrist.
Shauzi was tall and thin. I knew him hardly at all, He came from the slopes of Kilimanjaro and had a post in the district administration. One morning he stood in the strong sunlight pressed up against the white stucco of a wall just below a set of maroon stairs. His long arms were spread wide. From time to time, he would say softly “Nitakufa muhenge” (I will die as a sacrifice). He stayed motionless not just for hours but through days. The other students avoided him, for what reason I do not know. Maybe they just did not know what they could do. Maybe there were witchcraft fears.
The faculty did nothing. I could not stand the sight of this man, obviously in trouble, standing against the wall and declaring that he was going to die like Christ. I knew there was one psychiatrist in Tanzania. Kivukoni had an old Volkswagen Beetle. I put Shauzi in the socialist bug and drove him off to see the psychiatrist., a Quaker from Philadelphia.
Shauzi confided that he had told a lie to get a place at Kivukoni, a small lie that seemed enormous to him. The psychiatrist told him that he should go back to Kilimanjaro to spend a month with his mother and then come back for a return visit. He did as advised and was much better when he came back, but never returned to his studies. A psychotic break. No drugs. No hospitalization. Just mother and time.
An impulse led to climbing Kilimanjaro. This one seized three of us “mzungus”, including the Canadian principal of Kivukoni and a fellow Harvard guy . “Mzungu” means weirdo, or crazy. Shauzi was a mentally beset “mzungu”. White people are weird enough to qualify as wazungu. Impulses are almost always extensively premeditated , but mostly out of awareness. Majestic Kilimanjaro was there. Its influence extended throughout the land. It had not quite the status of Fuji-san, but something like it. How could I not respond to its pull? In that time, there were still few climbers.
Up through groves of coffee sheltered by bananas. The sound of cold water rushing in irrigation channels. Out onto a lovely open heath, much cooler, misty, with its own plant life. Emmanueli, our guide, started out slowly, too slowly for our taste, because we were eager to see what came next.
“Haraka, haraka, haina baraka,” said Emmanueli, who had carried the commanding general of the Tanzanian army down from 19,000 feet. “Haste haste brings no blessings.” Many times over since, I have quoted Emmanueli to impulsive patients, first in Swahili, then in English. It seems much less reproachful to them when it is presented first in an exotic shell, then cracked open to English. Or so I believe. Needless to say, at high altitude on the yielding black stuff of the volcanic cone, I struggled behind Emmanueli, whose pace never changed.
The night at 15, 000 feet brought no rest, just inner agitation. I felt sick when we set out the next morning just before dawn. I despaired of my ability to go much farther. I counted one hundred paces and puked, then did it again and again. Then I got a physiology lesson. After the fifth time, I completely lost my temper. I was more enraged than I have ever been. It was all inward. I had not climbed all this way to be defeated. Was it a huge jolt of adrenaline? My body found a better state and I marched to the rim of the black volcanic cone.
I got another physiology lesson coming down the mountain A better supply of oxygen was exhilarating, not an intoxication, because oxygen is no toxin. There was joy in touching, in looking, in moving, in smelling, even inside me in thinking. This experience is with me whenever I encounter someone who is struggling to get barely enough oxygen…
As I write this I am up in the night riding the treacherous ranges of memory. Particulars come back. Of my vulnerability. Of my shame. Of what I left behind, like my appendix at the Aga Khan Hospital in Dar es Salaam. I was mortally lucky that it did not rupture while I was out in the bush. The surgeon, doing his own anesthesia, appeared with a large syringe of sodium pentathol. I asked whether he was well-trained. I asked whether I had any alternative. He answered “yes” to the first question and “no” to the second. I never knew his name. I woke up in a clean white bed in a room looking out on the blue vastness of the Indian ocean. It was at least a decade before I could begin to feel how terrified I had been. I was surprised to be alive.
The story I write is true, but perhaps not true enough. What eludes my “pen”, the pressure of my fingertips on my wireless keyboard, is the story of my wrestling match with my depression, as if with a djinn that had voyaged with me within me since quite early in my life. Relatives of my djinn had a long history with my family both on my mother’s side and on my father’s side. But this family of djinns did not like to be spoken about, did not like even to be named. The rule coming out of the Jewish ghettos of Eastern Europe was, “If it is important emotionally, consign it to silence, otherwise it will become intolerable.”
After I left Tanzania, after a bout of malaria in Cleveland, after my mother had a breakdown that had been a long time in the making, after a quickly failed attempt to make a life with the woman from Tanzania, the djinn of my depression pinned me. For more than a year that felt minute by minute like forever, as if I were in a dungeon, I was undone. I got treatment, excellent and clumsy, state of the art for the late sixties. It helped then and later as I started to let myself both out and in.
My father became tender in the face of my sorrows and stood by me.. Only in the last week of his life just shy of ninety did he admit that he was on intimate terms with the djinn of depression through long gray stretches. Or should I say the dybbuk? This set of experiences had everything to do with my becoming a psychiatrist. I never forget that I was a patent before I was a doctor. This makes a difference.
In time I recovered and rediscovered myself, changed in changed circumstances. I was at once young and old, as perhaps are most who have been seriously ill. I had little sense of my worth and no confidence in my abilities. I had an older cousin who was trying to develop integrated housing. I asked him for a job, scrupulously telling him that I would most likely be quite useless. He guffawed and pronounced , “What one idiot can do, another idiot can do as well.” He gave me the job. And so it was.
My stint as a housing developer was not so different than my work in Tanzania. I found myself in worlds I had not imagined. Lunch in a wonderful Italian restaurant in Manhattan with two Mafia connected contractors who vied with each other about how much money each gave the Metropolitan Opera. Did they real give it? Cash in a suitcase to pay off a carpenters’ union. An ugly fight over building integrated housing complete with bullet holes in the roof.
A night flight with Floyd McKissick who was a leader in the civil rights movement: “Roger, do you want to know what the ultimate humiliation is.” “Sure” “Being human, that’s the ultimate humiliation.” A meeting with a high HUD official who said, “You’re right. I know what we’re doing makes no sense, but I have no way to stop it. So you have to live with it.” Realizing changing a 7 to an 8 on a federal estimating form produced a million dollar impact was a bit of a shock, since the cost of the building was at that point imaginary. One day I tried to find out how much cash our company had on hand. I could not. I realized bankruptcy would come sooner or later. It dd..
My life changed one winter’s day when I picked up a young hitchhiker with very long blonde hair standing in the snow by the side of the road. I was on my way to work and he said he was on his way to his new alternative school. The school catered to teen-agers who were disaffected and wanted something different from school. He said they were looking for teachers.
He turned out to be an effective recruiter. I was intrigued. I knew business was not quite for me, even though it fascinated me. I went and checked this new school out. The students were huddled like refugees in a train station in the hall of a synagogue school wing.
I asked my cousin if it would be all right if I disappeared two or three mornings a week. He said it was fine as long as I got my work done and it did not interfere with travel. I started by teaching poetry. The blonde hitchhiker drew a picture of a vinyl record on a turntable. The record had a huge scratch. “That’s my adolescence,” he proclaimed.
One morning I could not find my glasses when it was time to leave for work. It turned out a shy, quiet girl had hidden them. A few years later I taught her how to read. Very smart, she had made it up into high school without knowing how to read. The first work she could read was Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” It was an easy read because, with her neurological set, the meter was a big help. After finishing “The Tempest” with her, I thought, “It would be ok to die now because I have done something I think is really worthwhile.”
I gave up working as a housing developer to teach at the school whose director I became after a short time.. Some people did not understand my choice. It was economic folly, but wise in terms of my emerging knowledge of myself as a person who cared about caring.
I learned so much from the school. It was where I met my first wife, a teacher by training with a gift for quiet kindness. Each student was a set of lessons, some more difficult than others. Often the kids made no sense, but they did so with the verve of teen-agers. They were incandescently alive and also obnoxious. They were disputatious. They argued about everything with me, intensely. I didn’t mind. One morning, a little knot of them presented me with a large cookie they had baked in the school kitchen, “But, Roger…” said its frosting
I have so many stories of the school. The kids had no idea about how their city, Cleveland, made a living. We took them to see the port. We took them to see manufacturing plants. We took them to see a huge sewage plant. We took them to see city hall when we realized that some of them had no idea what it was or where it was or that they could walk into it. I told them stories about Tanzania. I was bothered how little they knew about the so-called Third World. I wrote a workbook about Tanzania, called “Why Produce?”
When I was working on refurbishing my Swahili in preparation for a return to Tanzania, I showed the workbook to Juliah, my weekly conversation partner and tutor. She suggested that I translate some of it into Swahili, which I did with great pleasure. This was a return trip of its own kind.
But I get ahead of myself. That may be the underlying theme of this, that I am always both behind myself and ahead of myself.
Life can be so sweet and so painful. I got married and left the school to do medical training, four years as a medical student, then four years as a psychiatry resident. I was thirty-one when I started medical school. During the application process, it was intimated that, given my advanced age, it might be more appropriate for me to seek entrance to a nursing home. The large sorrow of these years was that reproduction was a problem. But they were rich years. Alas, my wife collapsed and died without regaining consciousness when I was forty-one, leaving me with a lovely nineteen month old little girl. Autopsy revealed a rare congenital defect of the coronary arteries.
So many people helped me in so many different ways. I needed all their help. The biggest help was my little daughter who through a period of shock and sorrow not only kept on steadily growing and developing but gave me a mission. One hard morning when she was completely distraught, she looked up at me in tears and said, “Daddy, it’s a nothing helps time.” I kept on seeing patients but came home for lunch each day, eliminated Saturdays and made my days a good deal shorter. There were “nothing helps times.” We kept faith with life in the face of loss.
I still come home for lunch, even though my daughter is grown and living on the other coast. In this hard passage, my second wife and I found each other. Her approach to my little daughter was quiet and graceful. Their coming together was an exquisite dance. Rachel had a mother and I rejoiced, as deeply as I ever have in my life. Remarkably, Joan was able to make room for my grief, not hurrying it, but abiding with me. My grief over my first wife still returns, sometimes in dreams, sometimes in broad daylight. Sometimes I live her catastrophic collapse yet again.
What does all this have to do with my return to Tanzania? It has to do with providing something of the flavor of who was returning and how I came to be that person.
I have treated psychiatric patients, many very sick, taught and supervised psychiatric residents, written about treatment, both in clinical and in imaginative ways now for more than thirty years. In all this joy and consternation have been mixed, but with enjoyment having most of the time the upper hand. Even now people come to see me with problems I have never imagined. Every patient is a new exploration, some of territory that is remarkably exotic. It is a great pleasure to help as I have been helped. I have had one or two patients whom I detested, but this is very rare and may not make working with them impossible. What have I learned.? There is no way to say exactly. Everything and nothing. Suffice it to say I still think of myself as a novice,
Our trip to Tanzania came about in a peculiar way. When I was in Tanzania as a young man, people, politics and policy were at the center of my attention. I noticed the natural world because I was in it and mostly could not help it. The huge baobob by the side of the road. The millions of waterbirds on the shore of Lake Victoria when I went to visit the Wasukuma. There was a bus that ran from Arusha to Musoma. Once, when I was riding this slow bus packed with people and chickens and a goat or two, it broke down at twilight in the Serengeti: antelopes leaping hoops in the fading light, giraffes running with still necks as if they were marionettes dangling from the sky. As I grew older, I found myself wishing I had immersed myself more in the natural, in the wildlife, in the millions of miracles that evolution had wrought there.
On this trip to Musoma, I had tea just east of Lake Victoria with Chief Edward Wanzagi, the older brother of Julius Nyerere. He had paid the school fees of the father of his country, his younger brother. Not only that, but he had, if I remember correctly, seven or eight wives whereas Julius had only one. Julius always mocked his own tribe, the Wazanaki, a rhetorical device that went over very well among the other almost one hundred twenty tribes. When he left office, Julius returned to live with his own people in Butiama, the village of his birth. Chief Edward had a special one room brick structure in a field where he received visitors, of whom there were a good number. He was courteous and reserved. He left let me wondering what in the world he made of me.
In Dar es Salaam we did sometimes rent a small dhow to take us out to the coral reefs in shallow water. The fish were a revelation. Their skins and scales made textiles like no others on the face of the earth. How they darted and drifted, like submerged rainbows that had been snipped into fantastic pieces. How sensually luxurious it was to be submerged in the tropical ocean with them, not precisely of their kind, but not utterly different, given the kinship that all life shares. Cold beer has never tasted better than after these snorkeling expeditions. I fell asleep with images of coral and fish dancing before by eyes, combining and recombining until the nightly oblivion took me. I wonder if those reefs still survive.
One day, probably in March of 2015, Joan and I were sitting around and looking at a catalog. Actually, it was a Wilderness Travel catalog, full of lusciously seductive photographs. I was within nine months or so of my seventieth birthday, surely a milestone, but more poignantly so since my best friend had died short of it after battling cancer for long hard years. We happened to look at a trip to Tanzania. The pictures came alive for me just as so many years earlier the pictures within the escalloped borders of those triangular Nyassa Company postage due stamps had done. Elephant, lion, giraffe, wildebeest in vast numbers on their annual circuit.
Imagining plays the overture to living, which comes in its wake and both borrows from it and contributes to it. My imagination was awake and engaged. Anticipation and recollection may be two thirds of any trip. While traveling our travels possess us. Afterwards, we come to possess them in deeper ways.
“I think we could do this,” I said, “What do you think?”
“I’d love it, “ said Joan who had never been to Africa.
We chose a trip to Tarangire, Manyara, Ngorongoro and the Serengeti. This was a luxuriously appointed trip for wealthy foreign tourists. I did not want to go back to Dar Es Salaam, now with more than four million inhabitants a radically different place than the small city by the ocean that I had known. I feared that a return to Dar, far from adding anything, would destroy what I already carried within me. I wanted to see a different Tanzania than the one I had known.
It became quickly clear to me that, if we were going to go to Tanzania I needed to refurbish my Swahili. This meant remembering, reawakening, relearning it and also some new learning. One of the more remarkable features of this process was that words I had not thought of in many decades would pop into my mind in stray moments Mahali (place), smooth as a pebble that has been for so long submerged in a stream bed. Mahali popote (any place)…this couple took me by surprise as I was tying my shoes one morning before going to the office . There were many other examples, each filled with wonder. Where had these words been? What had led them to contact me anew now?
I needed a real Swahili speaker to help me by talking with me in real time. My daughter, infinitely more digitally savvy than I am, placed an ad on Craig’s list for a native Swahili speaker to come to our house for an hour a week to converse with me. We offered good pay. There were eight responses. One stood out. This was Juliah, who was an experienced medical interpreter with a husband and two children who was living here in Baltimore as she pursued a master’s degree.
Juliah turned out to be a treasure, a friend as much as a language guide. Her warmth reminded me of Mary Kabigi and others I had known at Kivukoni. Juliah’s English was better than my Swahili, although there were a few gaps. English was her third language, Kikuyu her first and then Swahili her second. She was Kenyan, with a family connection to the Mau Mau uprising. She explained gently that Kenyans as a rule spoke better Swahili than Tanzanians. Tanzanians almost always are at pains to make it clear that they speak better Swahili than Kenyans and coastal Tanzanians take special pride in their brand of Swahili. Still, it is the same language and they understand each other when they speak with each other.
Juliah’s husband brought her because, she said, she had no sense of direction and would have gotten lost every time. At first, John stayed in his car, working on his laptop. Juliah and I sat on the screened in porch and talked. She supplied words I could not find, guided me through constructions that escaped me. Joan started providing tea, mine black, Juliah’s with a healthy dose of milk and sugar, the way they drink tea in East Africa. Not wanting to seem inhospitable, Joan took tea down to John and got to know him. Juliah and I wandered through the neighborhood naming what we saw and speaking of this and that.
When Juliah’s daughter who had just finished university in Nairobi, came back to this country, Juliah took to bringing her along. She loved math and dogs and cats. She developed a special relationship with Athena, our tabby. The three of us talked and laughed in Swahili with occasional switches back into English when the going got too hard for me, which it did from time to time. Annie wondered at this old Mzungu who was so interested in Swahili.
One day I used a Swahili word – rushwa (corruption) – that Annie did not know. The idea that I had taught her a new word convulsed us. Juliah mock scolded her. She should have known. After all corruption was a huge problem in Kenya, really the reason Juliah and John were here. At Christmas Annie brought special presents for our dog and cat who much appreciated them.. With her love of math, she was admitted to a graduate program in civil engineering (uhandisi) at Morgan State University which has a contingent of Kenyans.
The day of my seventieth birthday in January was marked by the beginning of a huge blizzard which produced the largest snowfall ever recorded in this area. It had been an usually mild winter up to that point. We took off for the tropics the first day that Dulles Airport was back to operating normally. With the memory of shoveling snow still lodged in our sinews, we disembarked into the moist fragrant warm Tanzanian night at Kilimanjaro Airport in Arusha. The formalities were done easily and politely. I rolled out my Swahili and found that it was welcomed. While not especially heavy, our suitcases (actually duffels) weighed more than twelve pounds each.
This time I was very aware of not being alone in two senses. Joan was with me and I was with myself in a way I had not been all those years ago. It was an hour’s drive in the dark on a road that was sometimes very rough. This was the rainy season. The potholes were full. There was a good bit of traffic. The driving was adventurous on the way to our lodge overlooking Lake Duluti. Below Mount Meru, one of whose vents formed it, Lake Duluti is said to be the deepest crater lake in the world. Our driver was not only adept but friendly and interested in my time in Tanzania’s long ago. We spoke in Swahili which was hard work for me, given that I had been in transit from the United States for so long. It occurred to me that I was describing a time before he was born. Another random encounter with my age.
The next morning Joan and I hiked around the lake with a sharp-eyed ranger. We saw fish eagles, juvenile and adult, cormorants, enormous monitor lizards basking in the sun. Their gray green stillness conveyed a sense of menace. We saw large patches of papyrus growing gracefully at the water’s edge. Nothing hinted at the birth of paper and writing and all this has meant. We saw army aunts on their long march beside the trail, formidable invaders indeed. We saw butterflies that were different than any we knew. Two hours of hiking in the heat both tired us out and helped us to get our legs and locate ourselves.
The next day we set out from Arusha after an hour and a half stop at a large gas station on the main road, which was in the process of being widened with Chinese help. The goal was, as it always is, to relieve congestion, the whole jumble of traffic. But as Robert Moses and the New York Port Authority have taught us, the effort is vain, for, if you build it, even more of them will come and overwhelm the new road’s capacity. We needed to have a rip in a large tire repaired. While this took place, Mzee, our guide, took me around and introduced me to many of his “sisters” and “brothers” He regaled them with my previous sojourn in Tanzania in the time of Nyerere.
It had been Mzee himself who met us at the airport, although I had not realized that he was to be our guide, a superb, keen eyed and knowledgeable one at that.. Arusha had been a small and charming town with neither traffic jams nor large gas stations or big auto repair shops. Now there were more than a million inhabitants. Now there was a monument at a traffic circle, marking the half-way point between Cairo and Johannesburg. Now it was a bustling, crowded city with even an international airport, the gateway to Kilimanjaro and the Serengeti.
Our group was small, three couples with not much in common who nonetheless got along amicably through out the trip. We were all pleased to exit the traffic of Arsuha and head into Masai country. There were Masai, many of them children, herding cattle and goats along the road west. When we pulled off the road for a picnic lunch, some Masai came over to greet Mzee. Among them were three teen-agers dressed in black with white chalk patterns on their faces. It was a spooky look, declaring that they were recently circumcised on their way to becoming full fledged Morans.
We headed south for Tarangire National Park. When you have seen an elephant in a zoo, you have not seen an elephant. When you have seen a giraffe in a zoo, you have not seen a giraffe. When you have seen a lion in a zoo, you have not seen a lion When you have seen a leopard in a zoo, you have not seen a leopard, When you have seen a gazelle in a zoo, you have not seen a gazelle. When you have seen a wildebeest in a zoo, you have not seen a wildebeest. You have certainly not seen and heard and felt through the ground a million of them on the move following where the grazing is good. You have not seen white ink flowers scattered across the savannah. Nor have you seen ancient baobobs or felt yourself a small flesh pin under a huge open sky…
It’s the all of it that is it. You can not detach a piece and believe that that piece remains itself. You can not take a little bit and pretend that you have sampled the whole in a way that represents it fairly. I suppose this is called ecology. If it is, then ecology is existential as well as aesthetic and biological truth. Many of the elephants we saw in the rainy season in Tarangire had a reddish cast. They were not gray, but ruddy moving lumps. They had borrowed this color from the iron rich mud in which they lay and wallowed. No doubt this earth cooled and soothed their skins. We entered Tarangire in the sunshine and thrilled to what we saw, the giraffes, the elephants, the antelopes, the baobobs, the baboons, a whole world we had come a long way to see.
The rain was visible directly ahead of us on the mountain in the direction we were headed. The road was not a kindly one, especially since there had been a lot of rain. There were huge potholes and the Toyota Land Cruiser bucked and jolted, even before we actually entered the downpour. Considerable skill in driving was required. Mzee, who knew his way and loved driving, was able to spot game and point it out, even as he navigated the bumpy track. The younger guide, Arnold, while not quite so assured, managed to get his vehicle through as well.
We arrived at the camp, really a small tent city, after dark amid the crash and boom of a thunderstorm. In the next days, there was not only a good bit of rain, but rainbows, even one or two double ones, arching gracefully through the sky. It was hard not to think of Noah. This tent city was moveable, disassembled at the end of the season and trucked back to Arusha to be trucked out again at the beginning of the next season and reassembled sometimes on the same spot, sometimes not. This pitching and striking of camp was no small piece of work.
The tents were of a luxury and intricacy that surprised. There was a front porch, then a large bedroom with room to sit, a dressing space with a sink and an interior toilet and shower. The walls were zippered canvas panels that opened to screens that provided for bugless ventilation and sweet cross breezes. The entry way was similarly screened. Solar energy powered the lighting. Solar charged flashlights were provided. Not only did it all work, but it had been designed and engineered to be aesthetically pleasing. There was a large main tent for dining and, at a little remove, a cooking tent, a virtual food factory where delicious meals were cooked. In another touch of luxury, the water for nightly showers was heated there
Yet the wild was not quite tamed. In the night, animals moved through the camp – elephants, lions, hyenas, perhaps others as well. As they moved, they talked in their own tongues. The elephants rumbled so that they could easily have been mistaken for lions. The lions had much more variety to their low pitched sounds than I would have imagined. We did not hear the hyenas laugh, but rather make a whoop that neared the sound of an oboe. The nocturnal acoustics were a gift, as was the fact that the animals travelled so readily through the camp. It was still their territory..
“Shikamoo, mzee” says the young person, meaning, “I clasp your feet, elder.”
“Marahaba,” says the older person, meaning “Thank you, welcome.”
I remembered the pleasure with which I deployed this Arabic derived formula of greeting when I was in Tanzania in my early twenties. Now time had silently turned the tables, so that I was the one receiving the formal greeting of “Shikamoo mzee,”
I muffed the response the first few times, but was then helpfully corrected. “Marahaba” I said . embracing my new station. Tanzanians still respect their elders.
Their culture has not yet become as youth crazed as ours. This may be partly a matter of demographics. There are so many youngsters and relatively fewer older people. Cultural traditions erode slowly. Tanzanians convey their respect in matter of fact ways, in subtle deference and consideration. It is not a matter of thinking, so much as of feeling and doing As an old one, as an “mzee”, I can testify that it feels good and that it feels different than how things are in our country. I recently stopped a well turned out young lady who was brazenly trying to cut in front in an airport line. At least she blushed.
The guys who worked in the camp, not all from the same tribe, liked each other. Nyerere said in later years that most of what he had tried to do had failed but that he had succeeded at one thing of paramount importance, namely, making one nation out of Tanzania’s 120 tribes. Mzee, who in his forties may well have been the oldest person in camp except for the paying customers, and Arnold, the other guide spoke good English. Mzee had leaned some German, too, in order to deal with German travelers. Everyone, including Kimani, the tall, quiet Masai tracker, spoke Swahili, Tanzania’s lingua franca, the language both of banter and of work..
Noeli, an astute tracker and game spotter, who also revealed the complicated ecological mystery of the whistling thorn acacia and found us African basil to sniff, admitted that when he was younger he liked to drink and to fight. He had the powerfully muscled physique to go with the fighting part. Now he had a wife and three children in Arusha. I fell twice clambering down from the high platformed roofless vehicle with the collapsible windshield that we used for some game drives. Noeli was very concerned. He put himself in a position to catch me every subsequent time I executed the maneuver. I was unharmed and did not fall again, but was touched.
“Bwana Rojah,” Noeli said, “you love Tanzania”
“I do,” I agreed.
“Why don’t you come back here to live and build a factory and give people some work?” Noeli questioned.
This was an utterly friendly proposition. It shined a beam of light on how Noeli saw me. In his eyes, I was very rich, indeed, an intercontinental entrepreneur. I tried to explain to him that I was a doctor, that I had patients in the United States, that I knew nothing or next to nothing about business. I did not have the qualifications to be a Tanzanian capitalist. My demurral did not wholly satisfy.
Ah, the birds! Feathered flying singing legatees of the long departed dinosaurs. Do they punctuate or decorate? Or both? Blue neck patch of scurrying guinea fowl in dialogue with the sky. Lilac breasted roller, lovely as its name. White storks passing through in numbers. Vultures dark as the darkest thunderhead circling, marking a fresh kill. The utterly elegant gray crested crane , national bird of Uganda. (The crowned crane is the national bird of Tanzania.) A pair of secretary bids perched atop an acacia, then marching seriously along in search of snakes. A hanging garden of weavers’ nests. And, of course, the ostrich which neither flies nor sings, but can be heard to bellow. This haphazard catalog of sightings is hardly even a beginning…
Part of the glory of immersion in the natural world of Tarangire and Manyara and Ngorongoro and the Serengeti was that I did not think, at least not in the ways that I am accustomed to think. This immersion was more sensual, immediate, charged with fascination, the unexpected cropping up from instant to instant. The surprises were not dreadful, but enticing. This change in thinking, this set of ongoing breaches in the rut, is hard to convey after the fact, because to convey it requires thinking of a more ordinary kind to find words and get them to work. One way of naming it is relaxed alertness.
See, there’s a leopard stretched out along a branch in the tree just bordering on the light green rainy season swamp. She is where she belongs. She is doing just what she does. No need for her to even consider changing her spots because she is beautiful, startlingly so in this tree under this sky. After a long time, she elongates herself and slowly slinks down the tree’s trunk, pauses for a moment, turns her head and then disappears in the rainy season grass.
In the Serengeti we followed a much more massive older male leopard as he considered whether he had a chance at a small group of Thomson’s gazelles and then decided he did not. His walk conveyed enormous force moving slowly and mellifluously. What was he in himself and for himself? After almost a mile in the open he reached a tree which probably was his destination all along. He was up it with a suddenness that belied his considerable bulk.
Mzee (more formally named Festus) was the oldest of fourteen. His mother was Moslem, his father Christian, a tailor and skilled tent maker. They had a unique solution to the mixed marriage problem, Mzee was Moslem, his next brother became a Christian priest. This “every other” pattern was continued all the way down to the last child, apparently amicably so. At least this was his story. Mzee did have the capacity to pull your leg and to pull it hard.
Mzee, who was from Tanzania’s Morogoro area, had simultaneously trained as a wildlife guide and as a mechanic in Nairobi. He had also at the same time traded car and truck parts between Kenya, where they were more readily available , and Tanzania. He took his role as the eldest son very seriously. He and his wife had taken in a niece whose parents had died. He had helped build a school in a Masai village. He described himself as a man of the wilds, not a man of the city, but he was a man of the wilds with a sense of ethics. He worked with a number of conservation groups.
His wilds are threatened. You could even say besieged. While we were in Tanzania a surveillance helicopter was shot down by heavily armed poachers who proceeded to murder four elephants for their tusks. The black rhinos on the Ngorongoro crater floor are under twenty-four hours a day surveillance, lest they be killed for their horns. Poaching is a huge problem, demand driven, It has involved Tanzanians all the way up to the ministerial level. Human shortsightedness may well destroy what can not be replaced.
There is an irony in the recent declaration that the bison, which we almost exterminated, has been designated our national mammal. Conservationist zeal is often based on a reaction to the worst depredations. Often it partakes of guilty indignation. It is not just poaching that threatens Tanzanian wildlife, but also the inexorable pressure of human population. Our explosion in numbers threatens not just Tanzanian wildlife, but wildlife everywhere. We may be destroying ourselves by destroying the environment that holds us. Should we be listed as an endangered species, perhaps the all-endangering self-endangering species?
When we arrived at Olduvai Gorge overlooking where Mary Leakey found the first inklings of an erect primate, homo erectus, the wind was blowing over the gorge at a good clip. I could not help wondering how long it had been blowing like this, probably millions of years. Homo erectus has been dated to 1.5 million years ago. Many different strata were exposed at the gorge. An exceedingly clear Tanzanian docent took us through about three million years of human evolution. The Leakeys, Mary and Louis, made of this place a kind of navel of human development.
In his hand as he stood with his back to the gorge as he talked to us, our soft-spoken middle-aged docent held a drab green long narrow pointed leaf of a native sisal that grows in the gorge, a plant known in Masai as “oldupai.” A German anthropologist corrupted this to “olduvai”. As part of the ongoing decolonization process, Tanzanians are trying to restore the correct Masai name. Now is embedded in forever. We can and do think about this anywhere, but the thought is given a special drift at a place like Oldupai, where our unfathomably distant ancestors struggled to survive and were sometimes predators and sometimes prey, as of the saber tooth tigers that shared the land with them long before the dawn of what we call history. Oldupai’s tiny sliver of forever is yet incomprehensibly huge when set against the swift spans of our own lives.
Walking through lower Manhattan on a sunny spring day after having been in Tanzania, I saw construction cranes perched high up in the air, really high up in the air, probably fifty, sixty, seventy or even more stories up. The engineering plan was just the same as the giraffe’s, a base that was the anchorage for a radically elongated neck that could crane and even swivel. I thought of them as giraffes of the air, all the way up in the air against steel and glass. They were neither as intricate nor as beautiful as the reticulated giraffes who graze from above, their heads and necks silhouetted against the sky.
Giraffes deployed and grazing on the tops of trees form a composition at once abstract and concrete, elegant in their long lines against a big sky, reticulated with patterns that would be the envy of the most assured old time Japanese potter. Sometimes the design, the giraffes being themselves in their world, could take your breath away. There were striking symmetries and asymmetries as well and then a much smaller version of giraffe, a juvenile, visibly on its way to being the real grown up creature. When giraffes start to move, break into a run, it is a dance of vertical grace effecting horizontal translocation, mediated by sinuous curves of neck and shoulders and legs and rear, accented by ears, stubby horns which are not horns at all, but rather bony protuberances of their skulls, and tails.
The wildebeests we saw in the Serengeti were not numberless as the stars set like diamonds in sky that was deep black because there was no light pollution out there on these plains. Kampuchi ,the Masai tracker who was with us in the Serengeti, wore blue cloth instead of red and carried a small sword at his waist. One evening as we sat around the fire, Arnold pointed up at Orion, which was almost directly overhead, and asked, “Kampuchi, do you see that there is a Masai up in the sky?” Kampuchi only grinned, but this exchange transformed my view of the constellation, so when I came back north and looked up I saw a Masai in the sky, joining here and there.
But there were very many wildebeests, moving like a very slow river, casting a dark blanket over the land. Only every once in a while, just as antibiotics produce circles in culture dishes where bacteria are grown, there appeared an open spot, a large green circle. At the center of the circle would be a lion lying in wait. The wildebeests cleared out. Only the most foolish remained the nearest. Wildebeests have bad press, getting knocked for being stupid and for lacking maternal instincts. The fact is they are what they are, as is the all fertilizing dung beetle, who, in the process of producing its progeny provides the land with essential riches. It rolls its dung balls along like a Sisyphus released from the slope.
From the point of view of the big cats – the lions, the leopards, the cheetahs and the other big predators like hyenas, wild dogs and jackals – the arrival of the massive herd of wildebeests is like a grocery delivery on a stupendous scale. The lions spend most of their time sleeping and are family creatures who value skin to skin contact and play with a recognizable sense of freedom. But they do kill. There are odd moments. I watched a lioness feasting on wildebeest ribs. I could not help picturing in my mind the rib joints that abound around our college campuses. We are different but the same. And the hyenas and the jackals waited their turn, a much less wasteful arrangement than ours in which forty percent of our food stuffs get thrown out.
Tanzanians’ take on Nyerere is split. They revere him as the father of the country. However, Tanzanians , especially younger ones, speak derisively of Nyerere’s project for ujamaa, an African socialism inspired by traditional communal values. “How would you like to go to a school in which everyone was guaranteed the same grades?”” was one of the arguments by analogy that we heard. As someone who had run a school that did not give grades and had reclaimed teenagers who had failed in other schools, this argument feel a bit peculiarly on my ears.
However, it was true that Nyerere’s economic thinking was always based more on ethos and ethics than on incentives. Keeping food prices low by fiat in the name of social justice diminished supplies of essential commodities like maize. He was an idealist who wanted to refine human nature rather than accepting it and utilizing it. Tanzanians’ economic situation did not improve during his tenure as President, even though this was the goal closest to his heart.
But Nyerere got so many things right. He understood the importance of conservation. He grew up in Butiama, a village on the rim of the Serengeti. He understood the economic importance of conservation, but also he seemed to see the wild animals as fellow “wananchi”, citizens, more literally, “those who have the land.” As Tanzania urbanizes, as the pressure for cultivable land grows, this lived bond, deeper than thought, frays. Nyerere understood the importance of literacy, too, and during his time Tanzania was catapulted into becoming one of the most literate nations in Africa. How to meet the wider world and yet retain identity is a problem that all nations face.
All peoples face it, too. For no group is the issue more alive than for the Masai. On our way out of of Tarangire we stopped at a MasaI boma, a village somewhat off the beaten track that Mzee with connections over a good many years knew. Chief Loboulu spoke good Swahili. He explained that he had four wives, for each of whom he had had to build a house because two women in the same house was never good. He went on to tell me that he had never been to school but had taught himself to read and write while working away. He had corralled all the neighboring chiefs into helping build a school for the children because he was convinced that they would need that. The government provided teachers, books and materials. The Masai see themselves as Tanzanians with their own ways.
Prestige among the Masai depends on how many cattle and how many children you have. Chief Loboulu asked me how many children I had. When I answered that I had one daughter. He asked, in a friendly manner, “Why?” When I answered, “Maisha ni maisha”, “life is life,” he said, with unmistakable empathy, “Ah, matatizo,“ “Ah, troubles”. We connected.
When the Masai women, having dressed her up, invited her into the circle of their dance, Joan, who has been a dancer all her life, accepted and instantly grasped the beat and the step. A huge smile broke out on her face and on the faces of the Masai women, too. The dance took on delight’s energy. This was another connection, an ecstatic one, a signature moment in the trip. Mzee clicked a picture, so we have its image.
Nyerere was one of the staunchest in the fight for the liberation of Africa. He believed strongly that all Africans had a bond and that Pan-African union was a vital goal. Tanzania harbored all the liberation movements. While I was in Dar es Salaam, Eduardo Mondlane, the head of Frelimo, the Front for the Liberation of Mozambique, was destroyed one morning by a letter bomb. I found this terrifying and much too close. Nyerere was willing to spend vast resources to overthrow the tyrant Idi Amin in Uganda. Tyranny was tyranny, Nyerere knew, whether spearheaded by Europeans or by Africans. This war, though successful, imposed a burden the economy could not easily bear.
But he was a man who loved peace and brought it to his people who have kept it. While there are tribal tensions in Tanzania, for example, envy of the prosperous trading Wachagga of Mount Kilimanjaro, these have never borne the internecine fruit that has bloodied so many African countries. Nyerere’s spirit lives on in the sinews and bones of contemporary Tanzania.
Were we really in Tanzania? Yes and no. In some sense, despite my facility with the language, we were in a hermetically sealed compartment. We did not hear a word about HIV/AIDS, possibly in part because the Manyara region and the north of the country in general, has the lowest HIV burden in the country. But HIV is still there and it is a huge factor in Tanzania, even though Tanzania has performed impressively in improving the HIV situation both through prevention and through treatment over the past ten years. I refrained from asking about HIV, perhaps a bad decision, but, again, a matter of borders.
Also, we heard little about poverty, “umaskini.” In the late sixties this was the prime preoccupation. I have never recovered from my awareness that, when I was first in Tanzania, my monthly pay of 700 shillingi was greater than the average yearly income of a Tanzanian family with many children. This established a visceral standard of comparison by which to take the measure of a wealthy consumer society. Much of poverty has moved from the countryside to the cities but much remains in the countryside. How to reach all these quite young people with a better life with greater margins of safety is no simple question. The neo-liberal social canon has no good answer.
We curate experience, involuntarily, out of awareness, ongoingly. Left in, left out – subtle strings connect what is left in and what is left out, even as both are changing. When we mind again, when we remind ourselves of what and where and how we have been, the mind is not what it was, but something new and old at once, always rearranging. I vouch for both the accuracy and the inaccuracy of what I write. It is strange and beyond fathoming that, even as death makes it be for us as if we never were, we nonetheless, like homo erectus at Olduvai, leave small stray traces behind. I see a warthog followed by her young trotting into the high grass, disappearing. Julius Nyerere died of leukemia in 1999.
Virtually everyone with whom we spoke in northern Tanzania was enthusiastic about John Pombe Magufuli, Tanzania’s new president.. They see him as a man who really means to fight corruption which is a blight in Tanzania, even though arguably not nearly as bad as it is in Kenya. His initial actions were consonant with this view. He cut down on many of the prerogatives of government officials, from limos to foreign travel. He fired government workers who were conspicuously not doing their jobs, some who were showing up in the morning, hanging their coats up and then simply leaving. He canceled lavish Independence Day celebrations in favor of a nationwide community clean up. His nickname is “The Bulldozer.” He needs the force of a bulldozer, because corruption is deeply entrenched.
Julius Nyerere, who in no way enriched himself during his time as president, would approve of Magulfuli’s determination to fight “rushwa”, corruption. In fact, the problem, completely unsurprisingly, goes back a long way. When I was in Dar es Salaam all those years ago, the popular imagination had named a new tribe, the Wabenzi. The chief features of Wabenzis were that they had Mercedes Benzes at their disposal, that they congregated in bars to drink beer, mostly Tusker, and to discuss matters important to them and that they had no shame. Most had very responsible government and army positions. Beer, Benzes and bureaucracy displaced vital work on important national problems. When I talk about corruption in Tanzania, I am mindful also that corruption is rife in the United States.
Is a government position mostly a means to access perquisites and privileges or is it a trust? Government positions in Tanzania have always involved temptations. The closer you are to the trough where nourishment flows, the easier it is to dip in and feed your appetites. Honest government depends on mores, convictions – in both senses of the word, and checks and balances. Checks and balances are not easy to install under the best of circumstances and extremely difficult to craft under conditions of serious resource constraints. Audits are not common in Tanzania. If you are a government official, to whom do you look up? Who is watching you? How is your performance to be measured? This last question is not a simple one at all. I believe the students I taught at Kivukoni back in the sixties had little propensity to be corrupt, but I have no way of knowing what their actually trajectories turned out to be.
Measurement is a big issue for a country like Tanzania. Without measurement, baselines for targets are impossible. So accountability remains approximate and subjective. Measurement requires the wealth to measure, the will to measure and practical ways to measure. The launch of a culture of measurement requires the human capital of many quantitatively educated persons in many different disciplines. This is not cheap. Measurement is required to know what the problems are and how big they are, as well as to know what progress is being made or not being made. In rich, developed countries we measure everything. The flood of measurements like economic statistics, public health statistics, temperature and rainfall statistics and more is a distinguishing feature.
In countries like Tanzania, there are huge data deserts, so much that cannot be tracked. When I was in Tanzania, part of what made me useful was that so little was known to the central government about what was happening in the agricultural, peasant periphery. This was true at the level of plain description let alone any quantitative assessment. Nyeyere’s disastrous forced villagization policy, which ripped the peasantry from private plots using the army to compel compliance was just coming under discussion before I left Tanzania.
I knew it was a bad idea because the average Tanzanian farmer would resist and this resistance would represent a threat to crop production. Part of the appeal of the notion was to let the center communicate with the rural sector more effectively, so as to be able to deliver schools, clean water and clinics. Also, clustered,, the rural population could be counted, their production and their predicaments more easily assessed.
The army was the only truly integrated large organization in Tanzanian society. It was temptingly available to implement a change, because it could be commanded from the center. It was not just the best candidate but the only candidate. Even for someone whose basic instincts were not only non-coercive, but anti-coercive, the temptation proved irresistible. Nyerere and his close collaborators felt an enormous obligation to be active, to try something, to benefit the rural population with initiatives that sovereign independence made possible.
In camp in Tarangire I discovered to my amazement that I had wireless service. How to manage a rural economy in a country like Tanzania is still a big problem, but one important change has been improved communications. Tanzania, like other developing countries, has simply leap-frogged the landline stage to enter the wireless universe. How much cheaper to build a few cell phone towers than to string hundreds of miles of wires on poles. Land lines were prohibitively expensive. Now, so many people have phones and use email and text. So information flow is much more extensive. This should make innovations in agricultural policy and technique possible. What is required is real creativity with an awareness that mere mimicry of American or any other agriculture will not work, a proposition that has been repeatedly demonstrated. Certainly hip-hop music is everywhere now.
Noeli was right. He proposed to me that I open a factory in Tanzania and give people work. His only error was that he had the wrong guy. Tanzania has experienced enormous population growth over the past fifty years and also tremendous flows of people, especially young people, from the countryside to the cities to seek their fortunes. Unfortunately, there is not much fortune to be found in the cities, where so many remain, if not unemployed, then radically underemployed. Work, as Noeli knew, was the missing ingredient, one that Chinese neo-colonialism is not likely to supply. Again, education is the great buffer against unemployment and it is not cheap or easily supplied. An information based, high tech economy is well out of reach.
Tanzania will have to find its own way, but Nyerere’s notions of ujamaa, “familyhood”, a nation built upon the human task of taking care of each other, may become very relevant again, if in a new way. Could Tanzania employ people taking care of the young and give them the means, both economic and moral, to implement the program? In our country, too, we worry about work, about vanishing jobs, when we have vast needs not just in taking care of the young but massively in taking care of the old and disabled. Could there not be millions of jobs in these sectors, if we had the moral and fiscal resolve to bring them into being? After all, historically, the very idea of nation was born in its European context from an idealized view of brotherhood, not to say family-hood.
Since my return home, I have been thinking a lot not only about Tanzania, but with my experiences of Tanzania long ago and just recently. Some experiences are catalytic. They change you and they keep on changing you. They are never really over. I am simultaneously an attached and detached observer of Tanzania. It means more to me than the deep blues and near purples of Tanzanite or the sublime green of Tsavorite found in a geological singularity near Arusha. It means more than the animals and my felt kinship to them. It means Mzee and his daughter who wants to be a doctor and his brothers and sisters and Arnold and Kampuchi and Kimani and Noeli and Gregory and… It means my youth, when I was someone I still may be, but transfigured by the disguise of age.
It represents my continuing sense of sorrow and near despair about my helplessness in the face of the wealth gap not only between rich and poor nations but between rich and poor here. I do not mention climate change or mass extinction, but I often want to apologize to my daughter for the kind of world I will leave her. Like young Tanzania, my generation was very hopeful. The disillusionments have been more radical than our radicalism was.
Tanzania, though, is of, for and by Tanzanians. I am a detached observer not from indifference but from a variety of humility. I know this is not mine to do, but mine simply to abide with as supportively as I can. Immersion in another culture, especially, when we are young and relatively unformed, can go very deep in us, as it did for me in Tanzania. As it ripens within us, it teaches us not to presume but to respect . I went deep enough to understand that I did not understand. Sometimes I think that this understanding of lack of understanding represents a kernel of wisdom, a seed that can grow. I can not say what the full grown plant might look like. This is a different kind of agricultural development, still not so simple.