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Thursday, October 14, 1999 Published at 09:21 GMT 10:21 UK


World: Africa

Nyerere: A personal recollection

Everyone called him Mwalimu, a Swahili word for teacher

Vicky Ntetema, a Tanzanian journalist working for the BBC Swahili Service gives her personal recollections about the "father" of her country and assesses why he had such an important influence on his people.

I have met Julius Nyerere many times.

The last while he was critically ill in hospital in London.

It was hard for me to believe that the great statesman was now lying in bed, speechless and so helpless.

He first began to make an impact on me when I was small child in the Southern Highlands of Tanzania.

What puzzled me was the way everyone called him Mwalimu, a Swahili word for teacher.

All my teachers at school were called mwalimu too - but with a small 'm'.

My mother told me that Nyerere could see both sides of a coin and make his argument understood to both sides no matter what the subject was.

But he was also a hard nut to crack, who feared nobody and who would always stand by his word.

Songs of praise

As I was getting older, I started listening to songs on the radio.

There was no single day which passed without hearing songs praising Mwalimu or Baba (Father) Nyerere.

Tanzania Bands sang of how he fought for the country's independence "without spilling blood" and how he was still fighting for the liberation of those nations under colonial and apartheid regimes.

One song was about his work as a leader of the then political and ruling party T.A.N.U. The words that I remember most were, "Nyerere, build more prisons to jail those who oppose T.A.N.U.".

Another said "Father Nyerere, build and spread socialism throughout the country and eliminate all parasites, capitalists and puppets of imperialists".

He preferred to call socialism "Ujamaa", which means brotherhood.

In school we were taught some of those songs and we would sing one or two at our daily assembly before and after classes.

Sharpened teeth

One day in Iringa, Southern Tanzania, I was one of the few schoolgirls who carried bouquets to welcome President Nyerere.

He was just an ordinary person with a great personality and a big smile which revealed his baby-like small sharpened teeth.

I remember him cracking jokes and laughing and the crowd echoed his laughter.

He was a leader whose ideas, ideology, policies, decisions and directives were respected and adhered to by all citizens.

But some were not amused by the announcement of his nationalisation policy.

They were going to lose their massive maize farms to the state as Ujamaa farms were established.

It was the end of capitalism in practical terms.

I can look back today and say that if it wasn't for the Ujamaa ideology and policy, maybe I would have not had the chance to reach where I am today.

Under free medical services I was able to have a major operation 23 years ago.

I went to school at a time when primary education was compulsory and education was free up to degree level.

I was one of a family of 10 and I know that my father, a medical assistant then, would not have managed to send all of his children to school on his salary.

Not 'one of them'

I was sent to the Soviet Union on a government's scholarship where I acquired a Masters of Arts Degree in Journalism.

Many thought that Mwalimu was obsessed with Marxism and Leninism and that is why many students were sent to the U.S.S.R.

In fact while some of us were sent to the communist countries many others went to Europe, the United States, Australia and India.

The Soviets actually disliked Nyerere because he was not "one of them".

Whenever we went to the History of the Communist Party class I was attacked by my lecturer for being a Nyerere follower.

The lecturer did not like the idea of Tanzania being a member of a Non-Aligned Movement.

"You are either a communist or a capitalist ... we do not like people in the grey areas ... they can be easily swayed to the enemy side..."

Donating blood

Listening to Radio Tanzania we followed the struggle of Mwalimu and other African leaders for the liberation of the whole of the continent.

Twice a year we donated blood and clothing to our brothers and sisters in the struggle in Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Namibia.

We had to welcome and accommodate exiles from South Africa. They became our half-relatives and were given the best of everything, from education to health.

It was when I was in a boarding school in Mwanza that the war with Idi Amin's Uganda started.

We had to be evacuated when a Russian Mig 16 narrowly missed our dormitories along the shores of Lake Victoria.

The previous week we were taught by the army, under the air raids how to build trenches and how to stock food and sleep in the trenches.

Two years after the war with Uganda, the Tanzanian economy went down the drain.

Shop display windows and shelves were filled with dust and spiders' cobwebs.

One language, many voices

Many were angry at the situation. But Tanzania had been attacked and Nyerere had had to defend his country.

He was just as tough defending the Union of mainland Tanzania with Zanzibar.

Nyerere used the Kiswahili language to unite Tanzanians.

He allowed Tanzanians to speak with many voices, but in one language. This was his vision of a nation free of tribalism.

The nation, especially my generation, will remember him for his smooth and voluntary exit from government leadership in 1985 and party leadership in 1990.

People were overwhelmed with grief at life without his active politics and governance. They were pleading with him to reconsider.

In fact he had made up his mind long before the war with Uganda that he would retire.

But after the war he told Tanzanians that it would be very unfair if he left the country with a dilapidated economy in the hands of a new leader.

But the truth is that Tanzania never completely recovered from that war.

Living 'for others'

Four years ago I met him in London.

We spoke for more than two hours during which he asked my opinion on the multiparty system in Tanzania.

"Corruption has infested the country," he said

"Would you like to go back to a single party state?" he asked me.

I was taken aback by his question. But I told him that Tanzania cannot live as an island in the new world.

I last saw him when he was critically ill at St. Thomas' Hospital.

He had lived all his life for others, for the betterment of his country, Africa and the rest of the world.

He will go down in history as one great African leader and world statesman who knew the right time to make his exit both in politics and in life.



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