Julius Nyerere, Tanzania's legendary teacher-President, dies at 77
On October 14th, as the twentieth century faded out, Julius Kambarage Nyerere (1922-1999), former president of Tanzania and great African leader, died of leukemia in a London hospital. He was known nationally and abroad as Mwalimu ('teacher' in Kiswahili), not only because he worked as a high school teacher in the 1950s, but also because he was a long-term advocate of the importance of literacy and education in promoting endogenous development, self-reliance, solidarity, peace and social justice.
Nyerere was born in March 1922, in the village of Butiama, Tanganyika. He was the son of the eighteenth wife of Chief Nyerere Burito. He was slight in stature, fine-featured, dapper, with curly hair. A practicing and devout Catholic, a believer in modesty, socialism and cooperativism, and a leader known for his wisdom and honesty, he fought a bloodless war against colonialism, and made an uninterrupted contribution to African development for five decades.
After returning from Edinburgh University in 1952, he devoted the rest of his life to achieve the political autonomy of his country and to improve the living conditions of its citizens. In 1955 he gave testimony before the United Nations Trusteeship Council in favour of independence for Tanganyika Trusteeship Territory. Not only did he lead Tanganyika to a peaceful process of independence from Britain (finally achieved in 1961), but he was also able to maintain peace and unity among the more than 100 ethnic groups living there. In 1963 he founded the Organization of African Unity, from which he promoted economic sanctions to the apartheid regime in South Africa. In 1964 he became the president of the Tanganyika African National Union (TANU), and in the same year, following the unification of Tanganyika and Zanzibar, he became the first president of Tanzania. Since the beginning he had a sense of urgency in improving the living conditions of Tanzanians: "we must run while others walk," he used to say.
In the following years, Nyerere guided his country towards stability and independence while most of the rest of Africa was suffering violence and poverty. During his presidency, he promoted a Tanzanian version of local-based socialism and self-reliance known as 'ujamaa (familyhood) socialism' organized around co-operative villages. Nyerere's 'ujamaa socialism' has three main principles: equality and respect for human dignity, sharing of the resources which are produced by the efforts of all, and work by everyone and exploitation by none.
His belief in the importance of both formal and non-formal education translated into massive efforts that dramatically expanded children's access to primary education and rapidly raised literacy rates among adults. His government contended that "the nation cannot wait until the children have become educated for development to begin," and then implemented a mass literacy campaign that won the Unesco Literacy Award. As a result of other policies, health indicators improved, and widespread corruption practices were eliminated. A close friend of Nelson Mandela, he was the embodiment of the twentieth century African liberation struggle and continental solidarity; not surprisingly, during his term in office he provided support and shelter for many African freedom fighters who were persecuted in their home countries, transforming Tanzania into a safe heaven for many people. While governing the country he also found time to translate Shakespeare's Julius Caesar and the Merchant of Venice into Kiswahili. Interestingly, neither of those two languages were his Native tongue: he began learning Kiswahili at 12, and English at 15. A strong advocate of the importance to recognize the wisdom inherent in local culture and to decolonize people's minds, he advanced several policies to that end, such as the establishment of Kiswahili as the national language and the implementation of a more African-centered curriculum in schools. Nyerere resigned the presidency in 1985, being one of the the first post-colonial African leaders to leave office on his own free will, and to hand over power in peace and political stability.
Many of his writings focused on development, socialism, education and African liberation. In 1967, he released the Arusha Declaration, one of his most influential pieces. The Declaration defined the meaning of socialism in the context of Tanzania, laid out prerequisites for all those holding leadership positions and working in public services, and demanded true commitment to self-reliance in Tanzania's development process.
Inherent in the Arusha Declaration, therefore, is a rejection of the concept of national grandeur as distinct from the well-being of its citizens, and a rejection too of material wealth for its own sake. It is a commitment to the belief that there are more important things in life than the amassing of riches, and that if the pursuit of wealth clashes with things like human dignity and social equality, then the latter will be given priority. (p. 2)
One of the central themes in the Arusha Declaration was "Socialism and Rural Development." By socialism, Nyerere meant
the practical acceptance of human equality. That is to say, man's (sic) equal rights to a decent life before any individual has a surplus above his needs; his (sic) equal right to participate in government; and his (sic) equal responsibility to work and contribute to the society to the limit of his ability. (p.10)
Nyerere's conception of socialism is based primarily on the African tradition of the extended family, where working together cooperatively for the common good instead of competitively for individual private gain was the purpose of work. At the same time, in the Arusha Declaration he recognized that cooperative work had yet to address gender inequities, particularly among women in the countryside:
The truth is that in 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. Women who live in the villages work harder than anybody else in Tanzania. (pp. 195-196)
Another issue raised in the Arusha Declaration was "Freedom and Development." In Nyerere's view, people, land, good policies, good leadership and hard work are more important prerequisites for development than money. Money, and the wealth it represents, is the result and not the basis of development. At the same time, Nyerere did not dismiss the necessity of financial resources, and thus did not reject international assistance. However, he refused the inherent right of any foreign power to dictate Tanzania's development pattern and limit its freedom to determine its path.
Not surprisingly, given Nyerere's background as a teacher, the central concept in the Arusha Declaration was "education for self-reliance." Nyerere defined education as the development of one's consciousness to think, decide and act; hence it should be aimed at improving people's physical and mental freedom, in order to increase their control over themselves, their own lives, and the environment in which they live.
The ideas imparted by education, or released in the mind through education, should therefore be liberating ideas; the skill acquired by education should be liberating skills. Nothing else can properly be called education. Teaching which induces a slave mentality or a sense of impotence is not education at all. (p. 10)
Throughout the years, Nyerere incorporated many adult education principles and methods into the Tanzanian liberation movement first and into the development strategy after independence. The framework and strategies of education for self-reliance proposed imaginative and constructive connections between learning and development, between children and parents, and between community and teachers. Mwalimu was a long-term friend of educators, and particularly adult educators. He was closely associated with the ICAE (International Council for Adult Education) since its inception and, at the request of Roby Kidd and Budd Hall, he graciously hosted ICAE's first world assembly in Dar Es Salaam in 1975.
The news of Nyerere's death was announced at the United Nations by Namibian Foreign Minister Theo-Ben Gurirab, the President of the General Assembly. While making the announcement, Gurirab was probably remembering that many years before that moment, in the midst of African's liberation struggles, he found refuge from persecution in Nyerere's Tanzania. "The African people as a whole," said Gurirab to the silent chamber, "have lost an ardent pan-Africanist, a man of high principles, a man of self-abnegation and the champion of Africa's self-determination, liberation and independence." These laudatory words of mourning were shared by most Tanzanians in the streets and by many African leaders. Among them was former South African President Nelson Mandela, who said that Nyerere was one of Africa's greatest patriots and a friend of the oppressed. "We benefited from his leadership and wise counsel," added Mandela, "in pursuit of development, peace and justice not only in our countries, our region and our continent, but throughout the world."
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