Lessons from Nyerere's grass-roots socialism

No democrat: Blaise Compaore was deposed as president of Burkina Faso on October 31 after 27 years in power. (Ahmed Ouoba/AFP)

No democrat: Blaise Compaore was deposed as president of Burkina Faso on October 31 after 27 years in power. (Ahmed Ouoba/AFP)


In Ralph Ibbott’s new book, Ujamaa: The Hidden Story of Tanzania’s Socialist Villages, we can learn from what the great 1960s anticolonial movements accomplished. The central question for every African country after independence was: How, without capital or expertise, could they lift themselves up from the imperial legacy of poverty and underdevelopment?

Julius Nyerere, the leader of Tanzania’s independence movement and its first president, found a way. The first Tanzanian to get a British degree (a PhD from Edinburgh in 1952), he had left his village for primary school aged 12.

The village and its women remained his political framework.
“My father had 22 wives and I knew how hard they had to work and what they went through as women,” he said.

In Britain, Nyerere had seen how a welfare state could protect people from capitalism. Returning, he told Tanzanians that they had to reject exploitation of the many by the few. He proposed ujamaa: African socialism. In the village, all worked and all benefited. Decisions were made by consensus. He had “grown up in tribal socialism”.

Although traditional society was generally presumed to be backward, Nyerere saw its social and economic possibilities for overcoming backwardness. Rural people, 96% of the population, could adapt the communalism they already knew to modern needs and aspirations, thus bypassing capitalism. It was socialism without money, rooted in the native soil; a strategy for a poor country determined to pull itself out of poverty and remain sovereign.

Two major problems had to be overcome for rural communal life to flower. The first was the subordination of women. Even today his words are startling: “It is impossible to deny that women did, and still do, more than their fair share of the work in the fields and in the homes … The truth is that in the villages the women work very hard. At times they work for 12 or 14 hours a day. They even work on Sundays and public holidays … But the men in the villages … are on leave for half their life.”

The second problem was tackling poverty. This could be overcome by updating agricultural methods and, if men pulled their weight, this “could contribute more towards the development of the country than anything we could get from rich nations”.

Nyerere assumed that, with ujamaa, people who had just won independence and working communally, ­without bureaucratic interference, would themselves develop while resolving both problems.

Some people decided to put ujamaa into practice in 1960, even before Nyerere had invented the name for his bold and imaginative strategy. They succeeded brilliantly in Litowa, the first ujamaa village they ­created, organising production, distribution, housing, health and education. Others came to join and were encouraged to form new villages. The Ruvuma Development Association was formed, with its Social and Economic Revolutionary Army, to help new villages to establish themselves. By 1969, the association had 17 villages.

Several times a week the villagers had communal meals at which they made decisions. The women were encouraged to speak – a slow process – and their interests were considered. Housework and childcare counted as part of the village workday. Piped water ended fetching and carrying by women and children. Spare cash from the sale of surplus crops was divided equally among all, including to elderly and disabled people, who contributed by scaring wild animals from “sharing” food crops, or working in childcare facilities.

Child mortality plummeted. Pupils at the self-governing Litowa school came from all the villages, boarding at Litowa during the terms. They were trained to develop their exciting, caring rural society. Domestic violence almost disappeared and women’s status was rising.

Just as ujamaa was about to mushroom into a mass movement, the Ruvuma Development Association was destroyed by the greedy and ambitious new ruling elite. They hated the creativity of the people, which had Nyerere’s support. Where was the power for them? Thus a great grass-roots development that might have changed the history of Tanzania and beyond tragically ended.

Defeated, Nyerere continued to work for socialism and sexual equality. By 1985, Tanzania had the highest primary school enrolment in sub-Saharan Africa – 96% – and girls made up 50% of pupils. Women’s life expectancy increased from 41 years in 1960 to 50.7 in 1980. Maternal mortality dropped from 450 for every 100 000 births in 1961 to under 200 in 1973.

Ibbott, who had been living in Tanzania, returned to the United Kingdom and applied ujamaa principles as a community development worker in Greenock, one of Glasgow’s most deprived areas. The tenants’ association and youth club persuaded the council to build a sports centre, which the youth ran. Much was accomplished by young people previously dismissed as troublemakers. Such communal effort can succeed anywhere if it is able to bypass or defeat those greedy for power and control. – © Guardian News & Media 2014

Selma James is the founder of the international Wages for Housework Campaign and author of several books on labour, women and class. 

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