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Nyerere’s ujamaa villages: Death of a dream

Ralph Ibbott with Ntimbanjayo Millinga (centre), a founder of the RDA, and Ado Mgimba, its vice-chair, in 1969

Ralph Ibbott with Ntimbanjayo Millinga (centre), a founder of the RDA, and Ado Mgimba, its vice-chair, in 1969

More often than not, Africa’s progress is measured by the number of shiny shopping malls opening up or double digit growth figures on the back of booming commodities demand. But just look what happens to these burgeoning consumer societies when the international price of crude oil or copper plummets, as is the case right now. The sprawling slums at the edge of the central business district just get bigger.

While surveying the ruins of his country as it emerged from the shackles of colonial rule in the 1960s, the Tanzanian leader Julius Nyerere predicted that such a thing would happen if Africans merely stepped into the shoes of the departing Europeans and maintained the status quo.

The future, he believed, lay in adapting the communal foundations of traditional society to modern needs, a strategy based on the ordinary people of the soil – the majority of the population – working together for the common good. It not only meant self-reliance, but also ending the subservient role of women and the idea that the quick route out of poverty was via the individual pursuit of wealth. Nyerere, one of a visionary crop of leaders thrown up by the anti-colonial struggle, called it ujamaa or Africa socialism.

Rome was not built in a day and the principles of ujamaa were first successfully put into practice by a group of villages located in Rumuva in the Southern Highlands of Tanzania near the Malawi border. Despite the fact it transformed rural society through higher agricultural productivity and improved amenities and services, the Ruvumu Development Association, or RDA, was abolished eight years later, defeated by the very forces it sought to challenge.

The story of its rise and fall is told in ‘Ujamaa: The hidden story of Tanzania’s socialist villages’ by Ralph Ibbott, an English quantity surveyor who lived with his family in one of the villages. Ibbott, who had worked on a 10,000 acre co-operative farm in apartheid Southern Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe), had jumped at the opportunity to be part of collective development work in the progressive air of Tanzania.

The number of settlements within the RDA grew to 17 and money raised by cash crops like tobacco, maize and groundnuts was shared equally among all adults, including husband and wife. Village industries like milling and weaving were developed to increase income and self-sufficiency, and building skills were taught. Great emphasis was put on health care, leading to a dramatic fall in the mortality rate, and the school curriculum was integrated with the work of the RDA.

Now in his 90s and living in Scotland, Ibbott is at pains to point out that, although he could be called on at any time for his advice, as a foreigner he was never part of communal decision-making. But he had a bird’s eye view of what was going on and, as the veteran activist Selma James states in the introduction, “the book has no resemblance to academic speculation. Rather, from the description of events and people, we get not only the history but how it was made.”

Ibbott records that, inspired by the RDA’s success, 50 similar associations were springing up elsewhere in the country. However, it soon became apparent that government officials, flushed by their own sense of self-importance, felt frustrated by the grassroots democracy being rolled out by a group of articulate and well organised peasants more knowledgeable about the task in hand than themselves. Over time, they put the knife in and in 1969 Nyerere was overruled in a vote to ban the RDA. Instead, the government launched the enforced ‘villagisation’ programme, a top down approach that was antithesis of ujamaa and later deemed a failure.

Ibbott wrote the book some 40 years ago and, though quoted by academics, it lay unpublished until it came to the attention of the James and the Crossroads Women’s Centre in Kentish Town, the subsequent publishers. In the light of Africa’s painful post-independence trajectory, in which it remained firmly tethered to western markets, this is a fascinating read and demonstrates the forces weighted against any radical change in the absence of a mass movement.

Ujamaa was hardly storming the Bastille but the author concludes that establishment opposition was inevitable. “Changing the pattern of living of a people is not a thing that can be done quickly, particularly when government officials put their own interests above the interests of those they are paid to serve,” he says. “For them, villagers working hard and planning and building their future collectively were the enemy.”

As for Nyerere, he was in a difficult position. Hemmed in by those who did not share his socialist ideals, had he gone against his government he risked stoking internal divisions that had already destroyed other progressive leaders like Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana. When asked by a journalist in 1983 what his greatest achievement was, he replied: “That we have survived.”

Ujamaa: The hidden story of Tanzania’s socialist villages by Ralph Ibbott is published by Crossroads Books
This story was first published in NewsAfrica, January 2015

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