Who’s to blame?

Kathryn Tidrick

  • The Black Man’s Burden: Africa and the Curse of the Nation-State by Basil Davidson
    James Currey, 372 pp, £9.95, September 1992, ISBN 0 85255 700 0
  • Hearts of Darkness: The European Exploration of Africa by Frank McLynn
    Hutchinson, 390 pp, £18.99, August 1992, ISBN 0 09 177082 3
  • African Silences by Peter Matthiessen
    Harvill, 225 pp, £7.99, September 1992, ISBN 0 00 271186 9

For a few years in the mid-Seventies I lived in Tanzania, my husband being at the time one of the horde of expatriate ‘advisers’ who flocked there hoping to be of service to Nyerere’s revolution, Even then it seemed the lights were going out in Africa, as country after country came under the control of greedy élites which used the power of the state to line their own pockets. Tanzania promised to be an exception to an already dreary tale of corruption and decline. Yet many of those who arrived in the early years of the decade feeling a modest hope for the future and a fine moral enthusiasm for the present, were to depart by the end of the decade sadder but not wiser men; or, if they did feel wiser, it was mostly because they had embraced that most conventional of all wisdoms, racism – this presumably being the only way they could find to account to themselves for Tanzania’s descent into a dark age from which it has only recently, with great difficulty, begun to emerge.

Towards the end of 1973 Tanzania’s philosopher president, Julius Nyerere, lost patience with his countrymen’s slow progress towards the collective utopia he had in mind – a utopia conceived so attractively and so modestly, with such attention to the local and the feasible, that it had us all enraptured so long as it remained on the drawing-board – and decreed that, as a first step towards becoming real socialists, all Tanzanians were to be brought together to live in villages. He then presided with increasing remoteness over a terrible series of abuses of state power. No sooner had a presidential decree been heard than it was obeyed by the instruments of government over which he had command, including the Army. There was a great in-gathering of the population: Nyerere later claimed that over nine million people had been moved. Countless home-steads were bulldozed and their inhabitants dumped by the sides of roads, where in due course they might be provided with the services on which their progress was thought to depend, not the least of which was the benevolent supervision of officials of the Tanganyika African National Union, the country’s only political party.

As a corollary to the movement into villages, all individual business enterprise, however petty, was crushed. Village shops, run up till then by a network of Indian traders possessing the virtues as well as the vices of their class, were closed down and replaced by shops run by committees. The shelves of these shops promptly emptied, leaving the new villagers bereft, not only of their homes, farms and gardens with crops already growing on them, but of such simple necessities of life as salt, sugar, soap, kerosene and matches. Not much was written about people’s sufferings at the time: they must be imagined. In Dar es Salaam the peanut vendors outside the government offices were denounced as petty capitalists and cleared off the pavements. They had been accustomed to wrap their wares in discarded government memoranda, a practice which seems completely appropriate.

Though food production, assisted by good rains after a period of drought, actually increased in Tanzania during the first few years after ‘villageisation’, the production of cash crops – as distinct from food surpluses offered for sale – declined drastically. Peasant farmers concentrated on avoiding starvation and were reluctant to make the investments of time and money required by, say, cashew cultivation. The process was helped forward by the Government’s abolition in 1975-6 of the farmers’ co-operatives, which were too independent for its liking, and replacement of them by government crop-marketing organisations which actually deducted the costs of operating their bureaucracies and their Land Rovers from the prices they fell able to offer farmers. With no cash crops to export there was no money for the schools and clinics which had been promised. Buildings with the appropriate signs on them were everywhere erected, in response to official exhortation, by the long-suffering peasantry – but providing the schools with books and the clinics with medicine was less easily achieved. By the early Eighties Tanzania had for all practical purposes reverted to being a subsistence economy.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in