Thursday, December 3, 2009

House of Peace (Still)

Dar es Salaam was like a breath of fresh air after Nairobi. Literally, as a breeze blew from the ocean. There were tree-lined boulevards and the traffic was completely tolerable. The Indian Ocean coastal city whose name translates into ‘House of Peace’ from the onset appeared to live up to its meaning. The harbour was protected from the worst outbursts of the sea by being secluded in the middle of the city, surrounded by land from all sides with just a narrow opening to the open water. I was staying with a less aptly named Harbour View Hotel that could only boast a sea view from a handful of rooms on the upper floors. I didn’t really mind, as my room was otherwise more than adequate (never mind the pigeon nest partly blocking my non-harbour view) and the walk to the seaside was rather brief.

On our first afternoon in the city, my travel companion Jed and I went for a long walk on the waterfront. At the pier where the ferries for Zanzibar departed, we were immediate accosted by persistent men who tried to sell us a boat trip to the island. We were only left in peace when we explained that this was our first day in town and that we couldn’t possibly travel immediately again. With the phone number of the most insistent tour promoter in hand, we left the port area. Jed would use their services some days later on a trip to the island. This afternoon we strolled on the lively but not too crowded Sokoine Drive, then up to Kivukoni Road and on to Ocean Road. The traffic was sparse and the sidewalks clean. Well-dressed ladies in colourful African dresses mingled with equally fashionably, but less colourfully dressed Muslim women with their heads demurely covered with scarves. A shoe salesman had spread his selection on the broad pavement in the shade of trees. In front of a white Christian church a choir was singing joyous gospel hymns.

A traditional felucca with its white sails contrasting against the blue sky was silently heading towards the ocean. Seeing the boat I fantasized of the fabled days maybe five centuries ago when Arab and South Asian traders prowled the coast of what is today Tanzania. What a cosmopolitan mix it must have been in the trading posts at that time, where a huge variety of wares, fish, spices and other things were traded. That was the time when Swahili, the lingua franca of most of East Africa, also developed, as the Arabic traders mixed with the native Bantu populations. Indian Ocean has almost a mystic glamour to me.

We entered into the fish market that was almost closing for the day. There were still many fishermen and women selling the morning’s catch of octopi and sleek silvery fish, although their supplies were getting depleted. On the beach behind the market, fishing folks were taking care of their nets and boats, while children were playing in the shallow water.

Further north, in front of the huge grounds of the presidential palace, the strand was wide between the thinly trafficked road and the sea. People were strolling leisurely or lingering in the late Sunday afternoon sun. A family with a child strapped with African cloth to the mother’s back; young couples holding hands exchanging glances; an elderly man with a white Muslim cap on his head sitting on a boulder contemplating the vastness of the ocean. The afternoon mood was tranquil and beautiful.

Unlike in most large cities on the continent, a walk through Dar es Salaam is not to invite trouble. Even two muzungus as clearly from out of town as we were are mostly left alone, except for the few eager trip salesmen around the pier. Not for a single moment did we feel insecure, let alone threatened. Even in the evening after dark when we would walk along Samora Machel Road to find a restaurant to eat dinner we felt no danger, despite the fact that even in the city centre the streets at night are dark and quite deserted.

Amidst all the bad news from Africa, Tanzania seldom grabs international attention. In Tanzania’s case, no news is indeed good news. The country has lived peacefully and rather harmoniously for the decades since its independence. It is a place where people of different cultural and religious backgrounds mingle peacefully. The name itself implies an amalgamation of two separate countries and cultures: Tanganyika and Zanzibar. Tanganyika, before the war a part of the German East Africa, then a British colony, gained independence in 1961 under the leadership of Julius Nyerere. Even the independence struggle was quite peaceful and the transfer of power uneventful compared with, say, neighbouring Kenya. The island of Zanzibar off the coast had in turn been ruled by Arabs for centuries. They had sailed there from Oman with the assistance of the monsoon winds. It too became a British colony but there the overthrow of the colonialists in 1963 was more sudden and not quite as peaceful. That story is told brilliantly by Ryszard Kapuściński who was among the handful of foreign correspondents to reach the island just days after the coup by Abeid Karume, the leader of Zanzibar’s Afro-Shirazi Party representing the black African population on the island. The two newly independent nations merged in 1964 to form the United Republic of Tanganyika and Zanzibar.

Nyerere became the long-term president and TANU (Tanganyika African National Union), the party he had formed in 1954 to oppose the Brits, would be the only one in the country until the mid-1980s. The president was known as Mwalimu or teacher in Swahili, his profession before turning fulltime into politics. A modest man who avoided the excesses of many of the other leaders on the continent, Nyerere made turning Tanzania into a socialist paradise as his priority. For its well-meaning socialist policies, the country became the favourite of ‘progressive’ donor countries, such as the Scandinavians. Taxpayers in the Nordic countries chipped in when Mwalimu launched his disastrous Ujamaa policies. The goal of Ujamaa—‘Familyhood’—was to collectivize farming and to bring about benefits to the community from rounding up the farmers into planned villages. Many a Northern socialist thought this a great idea.

In fact, Nyerere’s worldview had been strongly influenced by Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China. Tanzania sought the support of China, which willingly complied. Luckily while the teacher modelled his nation accordingly, the policies were implemented somewhat half-heartedly. Traditional villages were systematically destroyed and people were herded into the brave new planned settlements. Thousands perished, of course, but Ujamaa never resulted in quite such terror as the Cultural Revolution or mass starvation like another one of Mao’s lunacies, the ‘Great Leap Forward,’ had done in China. Yet, the collective economics continued in Tanzania much after China had abandoned its most extreme social experiments and decided that getting rich was actually glorious. The Tanzanians were to wear Mao-inspired safari suits long after the Chinese themselves has switched to dark business suits and designer silk ties.

The decades of socialist experimentation did impoverish this beautiful nation, rich in natural resources. According to the United Nations Development Programme, Tanzania ranks 159th in human development out of the 177 countries ranked. Almost 90 percent of its population lives with less than US$2 per day. Tanzania possesses huge wealth by way of gold, diamonds, platinum, uranium, coltan and many other precious minerals. Tanzanite is a precious stone that has only been found in Tanzania and has a higher price by carat than diamonds. The problem is that Tanzania has not been able to develop any industry and all of its valuable raw materials are shipped out in their unprocessed form providing the value added to foreigners from South Africa, Europe and North America.

Another, obvious, source of wealth in Tanzania is its fabulous nature, which holds enormous potential for tourism. Kilimanjaro that rises close to 5,900 metres above the sea level is the highest mountain on the African continent. Its snowy cap shines bright white above the surrounding savannah beckoning climbers from all over the world. World famous game parks like Serengeti with their still abundant wildlife, including lions, giraffes, elephants and other large animals, are also in Tanzanian territory. The crater of Ngorongoro is unique on earth with its stupendous landscape and animal wealth. In 2000 when I was in Serengeti I could observe the different levels of accommodations that had been put up for the safari tourists. Some of them were truly upscale catering to the wealthy foreigners who want to experience their wildlife watching without having to spend the night in conditions lacking adequate facilities. Others were closer to the bush. Either way, visitors would have a wonderful opportunity to experience the dramatic African nature.

The former US ambassador to the United Nations, Andrew Young, has recently produced a film focusing on the positive sides of Africa, choosing Tanzania as the scene for the movie. In my view, Young places far too much trust on tourism and associated services and industries as the saviour of Tanzania. However, commenting on how the wildlife in the park has become accustomed to the four-wheel drives hauling tourists as being just other peaceful animals, the good ambassador makes a sweet point saying that that’s how we all should be approaching Africa, like “just another peace loving animal.”

Unfortunately, environmental challenges are mounting. There has been a prolonged drought that threatens the farming communities. Agricultural production is naturally dependent on the erratic rains and food shortages are looming. It is predicted that there will be famine, at least in some parts of the country, in the coming season. I asked Damian Gabagambi, a senior researcher at a non-governmental centre for research and training on poverty reduction in Dar es Salaam, REPOA, what his thoughts were about the situation. He explained at length the challenges that the agricultural systems have feeding the rapidly growing population. The expansion of agriculture is leading to deforestation and farmers are invading protected areas, like the Kilombero Valley floodplain in the south that has been designated as a protected wetland under the Ramsar Convention. In an attempt to intensify production, the government is promoting the indiscriminate use of inorganic fertilizer, which will have serious environmental consequences.

According to Dr. Gabagambi, the free range of livestock is catastrophic. Especially with progressive land degradation in their traditional homelands, the pastoralists are roaming everywhere, their goats and sheep clearing the land of all vegetation.

One of Tanzania’s greatest challenges when it comes to both economic development and the environment pertains to population. The country today has more than 41 million people and still growing at an estimated rate of just over 2 percent every year. The population is young: the median age is just 18 years and 43 percent of the population is in the 0-14 age bracket. This puts an enormous strain on agricultural land. The limited availability of farm land and decreasing size of holdings forces people to move after better livelihood opportunities.

As people are pushed out of agriculture, small-scale mining has become one of the biggest environmental problems in this country of ample mineral resources. There is a veritable gold rush as people scramble to open up open pits for mining. In several parts of the country these mines have created a landscape pockmarked with unattractive scars. Habitats for plants and animals are destroyed as farmers cut the trees to gain access to the land perceived to contain their future fortunes and to provide fuel for its exploitation. At the same time, the mines are a major health hazard to the miners themselves. Many use mercury and other dangerous chemicals to extract the minerals. Many do not know about the huge risks they are taking for their lives, as the chemicals destroy their health and the heavy metals affect their central nervous system, like in the famous historical mercury pollution case of Minamata in Japan. Others know, but do not care. Like a assistant director in the Ministry of Finance and Economic Affairs, Servus Amo Sagday remarked when we were discussing the issue: “People don’t worry about the longer-term consequences as they want to make money now.”

Said another official: “Tanzania is committed to environmental conservation, but if a foreign firm now discovered uranium in one of the national parks, many members of parliament would be tempted to grant a concession for a mine.”

Many rural people move to the cities. The population of Dar es Salaam, the largest city in the country, has burgeoned from a medium-sized town of less than half a million inhabitants 30 years ago to the current 3 million. For how long can the city remain as liveable as it still is today? Many of the migrants have a hard time finding jobs. And as Tanzania’s education system has been able to train an increasing number of school leavers unemployment becomes a ticking time bomb.

Since the first democratic elections in 1995, there have been certain tensions. Some of the elections have been contentious and there have been squabbles between the mainland and Zanzibar. One day when we were driving through the city, Jed asked Blandina Chege, our counterpart in the Vice President’s Office, a question about Zanzibar. Her response was revealing: ”They are so much trouble,” she sighed. ”They don’t want independence but they want to be different. All the small islands are troublesome. You go to international meetings and they are always talking as if they were afraid someone annexing them. All the small nations are like that. Not Swaziland, but when you go to African meetings, the Lesotho representatives are always talking endlessly. Same with Uganda and Rwanda and Burundi; they want to have their way.”

Mwalimu, with all his mistakes, demonstrated that he actually was a descent chap by officially retiring from politics in 1990 and keeping to his word that Tanzania would be a democratic country. With this gracious exit from the national politics, he truly achieved the status of an elderly statesman. He continued to be active on the world scene and was the chief mediator in the conflict in Burundi towards the end of his life in the late-1990s.

In 2009, the Ibrahim Prize was not delivered. The news hit the stands while I was in Tanzania. In 2007 Mo Ibrahim, the Sudanese-born business mogul and founder of Celtel, established the Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership. The prize is awarded to a “democratically elected former African Executive Head of State or Government who has served their term in office within the limits set by the country's constitution and has left office in the last three years.” The selection committee is chaired by Kofi Annan, the past UN Secretary-General, and consists of such luminaries as the former president of Finland Martti Ahtisaari (who was awared the 2008 Nobel Peace Prize), Mary Robinson (the former president of Ireland and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights), Mohamed El Baradei (the high profile head of the International Atomic Energy Agency) and others. This year the committee refused to nominate anyone for the prize. This is sad testimony to the fact that in recent times no African leader can claim to have the qualities required to actually deserve such a prize. What is it with these people that makes them—allows them!—go against people’s will year after year, often decade after decade?

On my last day in town when there was a drizzling rain, Blandina, Jed and I searched for a place to have lunch. We entered a simple establishment with a few tables and coal grill visible from the dining area. Its name, Al Basha, and the menu suggested Middle Eastern specialties. We sat at a wooden table and after a while were approached by a large Tanzanian waiter with a friendly smile on his face. We said that we were a bit in a hurry and wanted to know what items could be served rather fast. The bearlike waiter slowly explained that, because the food was prepared on the premises, it would all take some time and it would be difficult to rush. There were no other customers in the restaurant. Three cooks were visible loitering around the grill. Deciding to try some other place—there were several in the vicinity—we got up to go, when a young Lebanese woman rushed from behind a counter and asked us to please sit down again. She was apparently the proprietor of the venue and had witnessed our interaction with the kind but inefficient employee. She immediately told us what would be fast and what to combine for a fulfilling lunch. In 30 seconds or so she virtually told us what to order and we were soon sitting contented with glasses of fresh mango juice in front of us. I couldn’t but help to wonder whether the lack of urgency displayed by the Tanzanian staff was not another legacy of Nyerere’s socialist experiment.

Still today Dar es Salaam remains a pleasant place, but one must be concerned about its future, as well as the future of the entire country. Coping with the challenges of a youthful and rapidly growing population, environmental degradation and climatic variability will require that the economy will be able to expand to absorb all the new entrants into the modern sector. Otherwise, the enviably harmonious lifestyle in the House of Peace will be threatened. It is up to the Tanzanians to create the conditions for such economic development that will provide opportunities and incentives for