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Tanzania: A country of not enough complaints; A response to M.G. Vassanji

Written by Hafiz Juma :The opinions and views expressed in this post are the author’s and may not be representative of TEDxDar. TEDxDar claims no responsibility for the views expressed herein.

On September 13th of this year, celebrated Canadian-Tanzanian writer M.G. Vassanji published a piece in MacLean’s Canada titled “Tanzania: land of constant complaints”. The piece was a summation of what he feels is the problem with Tanzania today based on a recent trip through the country. This articulate account of what many people in Tanzania certainly believe to be true-to an extent- has been circulated amongst policy and social commentators and the social media cliques of the country with fervent fanfare and admiration for its ability to express a facet of the Tanzanian condition. For all its richness and flourishes, which should be commended, I am compelled to provide a rebuttal-come-compliment to the piece, which in my opinion significantly lacks in multiple areas.

There is a glossing over of historical context to the point of obtuse condescension as well as a misleading representation of everyday realities and governance processes demonstrated through confounding contradictions that periodically appear in the prose. This is not intended to be an admonition but rather a critical examination (albeit a meek one) of what I feel to be a skewed perspective.

Perhaps I am too dense to grasp an intention of irony, however, the sub-title to the piece “The country seems well, but corruption is rampant” is blatantly contradictory and a mere superfluous device. Let me explain. Vassanji speaks about the way “the nation has charged forward” “print media is bold and vociferous” and how “paved roads connect every part of the country” while further along expressing his amusement at English language papers “trotting out business statistics”, that there is “construction…with callous disregard for zoning, safety or heritage” and “the gulf between the rich and poor [is] so vast it’s embarrassing”.  Correct me if I’m wrong, but aren’t all these issues integrally related. The “charge forward” as the product of the economic liberalization he speaks of is the same policy shift that birthed the many woes we face; yet it is more efficient “governance” and more “accountability” that will solve them. This sounds like the same “idiomatic trot” that he despises- reminiscent of the ‘west knows best’ rhetoric of Structural Adjustment that got us here in the first place.

I am not saying that corruption and poor governance are not problems that are essential to address, far from it, what I am alluding to is that you cannot take the good without the bad. The superficial enamel of progress is simply the cosmetic appendage of a broken system. We cannot tout yoghurt factories “whose product now reaches all over the country” and entrepreneurs who “own a hotel in the capital” as success stories in a narrative that clearly highlights the duplicity and morally malleable nature of business as usual in Tanzania. I am not pointing fingers but I am also surely not going to pat anyone on the back.

To put it bluntly, the private sector, the burgeoning middle-class and the entrepreneurs we adore all need to closely examined and recognized for their role in a structural issue.

To go back to the specific points expressed by Vassanji please indulge me in briefly providing my take. The “vociferous print media” has consistently failed Tanzanians when they have needed them most. During the Gongo la Mboto armoury explosions in Dar-es-salaam there was a media blackout during the height of the crisis and when the media did finally begin doing their job, the investigative quality was weak, there was limited appeals for oversight or arraignment of individuals due to criminal negligence and the follow-up has been non-existent. This certainly may be due to a governance problem and fear through intimidation, but it raises the question is the success he speaks about only purely economic? Is more papers sold because of increased belligerent and unethical journalism “charging forward”?

The same charges of spectacle before substance, economics before society can be said about the media in its handling of the Zanzibar Ferry disaster-there was a media blackout, false images circulating and a beauty pageant held the same day of the disaster. Similar manifestations of the same structural problem can be seen in relation to TANROADS and its plentiful road construction projects (Serengeti Highway) and those contracted (donor partners), Kiwira Coal Mine (which I presume is the one referred to in Vassanji’s piece), Education levels versus Grand Advertising (unfortunately media is filling the education vacuum), nakadhalika.

The crux of my issue is the cavalier shrugging off of the “rigorous though idealistic socialist regiment” as a nostalgic relic only to be appreciated for a sense “national identity and the pride of a national language”. When the laundry list of problems of this country that is doing oh so well are symptomatic of an uncritical stance of acceptance, adoration and implementation of the capitalist ideal how can one simply negate the Tanzanian foundation to the appendices of our history let alone our present?

Those who benefit from the current ideological doctrine (myself included) occupy a minority, a faithfully self-absorbed bunch that exist within the fulcrum of distinguished urbanity.  For the rest of the country (and perhaps I speak out of turn) it is the politician thrashing, the cursing of Ngeleja, Pinda, Kikwete and of course Tanesco, social bickering during drinks at the corner bar and yes the COMPLAINTS that will save us from the folly of simplicity and the blind faith in implanted ideologies (one in a global crisis at that). That is our Tahrir Square-the consistent grumblings of the frustrated masses in the ear of the middle-class, “stop propping up the status-quo!”

I admire Vassanji and I believe that to an extent I am simply reinforcing his argument, however, I think it is of the utmost importance to recognize that to say that issues of governance and corruption are the root problems also means that the success stories need to be taken with a grain of salt. I feel Vassanji knows the same but for some reason I feel he never really makes the point explicitly: if corruption is rampant then those who prosper nefariously or not are inevitably complicit.  It is not that we complain too much, it is that middle-class narcissism, the true sepsis that plagues us, is far to self-congratulatory and vain for anyone to hear anything of value over the cacophony of clinking champagne flutes so enthralled by how “they are charging forward”. We have a view from above and from here everything looks plush and fertile. “There is no way anyone can actually be starving. They are simply lazy”  we say to ourselves in disgusted tones.

I dare you to find one person [who doesn’t] long for modern amenities such as a hot shower…[somewhere] under a tree all day picking the occasional weed, and not starving” to agree.

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