The author I refer to is Moez G Vassanji (MGV) who has previously written nine books of fiction, a travelogue of India, and a biography. His Indian heritage, immersion in the Ismailia community led by the Agakhan, birth and early life in East Africa, almost five decades as a Canadian, and training as a physicist, accord him identities within diverse socio-cultural environments. Not surprisingly, his writings, some of which have won major awards, echo this diversity.
And Home Was Kariakoo (AHWK), his latest work, derives from a recent pilgrimage to the land of his upbringing. Enjoining five distinct strands –- travel diary, memoir, interviews, history and socio-political rumination -– its span is wide in time, terrain, people and topic. His trips, by bus, rail and air, took him across the landscape of Tanzania, and the two main cities of Kenya. Smattered with colourful incidents, interactions with persons of distinct backgrounds, histories of communities and places, observations on life today, it has a bellyful of anecdotes and items for thought. It is organized, albeit loosely, around the themes of race, community and nation. At its root, it is cogitation on the human condition from a person past the prime of his life yet still perplexed by the age old query: Who am I?
MGV wants to rectify the distorted image of Africa prevalent in the West. He seeks to do that by depicting it through African eyes, highlighting, its beauty and failings, but in a balanced way. The high points of AHWK include evocative portraits and histories of places like Kilwa and Kigoma, caustic takes on the practice of omba-omba (begging from donors) entrenched in Tanzania, and a preliminary foray into the world of East African-Asian writers.
Yet, the few strengths it embodies are overridden by numerous, grave shortcomings affecting all its strands. They include errors of substance; unwarranted selectivity; biased, racial perceptions of then and now; sloppy, fragmented conceptualization of social reality; an ingrained cynicism; and the convoluted construct of human identity; that characterize this work.
Fact or Fiction
A reader barely acquainted with the places and people visited by MGV can detect, with relative ease, the mis-statements on elementary matters strewn across the pages of his work.
Let us begin with the clock tower monument gracing one end of Samora Avenue in Dar es Salaam (DSM). MGV misleadingly states that when it was unveiled, the colonial era Askari monument was ‘the only other monument in the city …’ (p 5). A couple of days earlier, on the eve of Independence from colonial rule, the famed Uhuru Torch had been inaugurated. These structures were (and still are) located in Mnazi Moja, right near his then place of residence. Yet, they evade his recollection.
A monument is a structure of enduring cultural significance. To be one, it does not need the word ‘monument’ appended to its name. By 1961, other famed structures existed in the city as well. MGV had intimate links with two; namely, the clock towers atop the city centre and Upanga Ismailia prayer houses. His declaration is not just factually incorrect but as well implies that as a nation, we are not inclined to construct historic landmarks.
Moving on, MGV says that the tower ‘stands intact now, surrounded by the same one- and two- story buildings of yore …’. ‘Now’ being 2013, he distorts reality; the buildings he refers to have been three storied or higher at least since 2010. He goes on: ‘Heavy traffic runs both ways past it …’ Actually, the tower is at the centre of a five-way roundabout. He adds that it has ‘a clock face at the top …’ No, it has four clock faces. A key, missing fact is that the old, unreliable clock has been replaced by a solar powered clock. He also does not state that there are now two main and one subsidiary official clock towers in the city centre.
Referring to the take-over of rental properties in Tanzania in 1971, he states that ‘the mad dictator of Uganda …. had just expelled Asians …’ (p 8). Not true: This expulsion occurred in 1972. As it lends greater weight to a vital point being made at that juncture, it cannot be considered a random error. But later on, he places these events in the correct time sequence!
MGV begins his portrayal of DSM at one of its sea front areas. Though not stated, he describes the patch from the Agakhan Hospital to the Ocean Road Hospital. Contrasting the past and the present day visitors to this recreational area, he remarks: ‘Nowadays, the Asians arrive in their cars or their oversize 4×4s …’ (p 4). Does this statement stem from an on-site visit? I wonder. Yes, vehicles now dominate the foot traffic of the past. But the occupants are not Asians but largely well-to-do African and Arab families. The Asians, even of the adjacent Upanga area, have forsaken this area for more than two decades now. Other than a rare oddity, the well-to-do prefer the more exotic places like Coco and Bahari beach, while the others are glued to the tantalizing pedantry on their TV screens. His take on the ‘varieties of street food’ at this beach area is also not much more than a half-truth.
He maintains silence on a salient change from the yore: the two stone piers that used to drain city sewage out to the ocean have disintegrated completely. Raw sewage now spills out at the shore line, rendering the area more malodorous than a rotten king fish. Yet, on weekends and holidays, you see scores, if not hundreds, of kids and adults frolicking happily in the pathogen laden waters. If MGV had taken the trouble to walk along water line, he would have observed that quality and quantity of sea shells lying around has gone down markedly compared to what existed in the days of his youth. As an avid collector of sea shells, I can personally attest to this fact. A product of global climate change: I wonder.
Strangely, MGV garbles the names of people, some well-known, whom he met or talks about. Take Mahmood Mamdani, a globally acclaimed, highly influential Asian African political scientist. On p 312, he is ‘leftist intellectual Hassan at Makerere,’ but two pages down, he is ‘Mahmood Mamdani of Uganda’. Strangely, in terms of names, his family also receives a similar short shrift. A prominent Tanzanian media personality, whose identity is clear from the context and whom MGV met a number of times, has been rechristened.
A puzzling inaccuracy relates to his visit to one of the best bookstores in DSM. He remarks on the presence of the Bible but not the Quran. He hears: ‘No, the attendants are women and they don’t know if they’ll get into trouble handling the Muslim holy book’ (p 23). Anyway you think of it, it is a bizarre statement. First, the reason why Islamic books are almost never found in the general books stores is simple. In front of every one of the more than ten mosques in DSM, and elsewhere as well, a vendor or two sell Islamic books including the Quran. At least three specialized Islamic outlets exist in the city. They out-compete the regular bookstores in terms of price and location. What sells at 25,000 shillings in a bookstore can be had at 7,000 shillings here. It plainly is a case of economics. And this is not a new situation; it has been like that for decades.
What is more perplexing with MGV’s declaration is that not only does that bookshop have male attendants, who could conduct the sale of the Quran if what he says is true, but that it does stock the holy book. Only that it is an imported version (the Wadsworth classics edition) shelved in the English language classics section. I can personally attest that it has been there since around 2011 when the store began stocking the classics, and have observed female attendants dusting the shelves. Further, I conducted a test by taking a copy of the Quran to a female sales clerk and asked her a question about it; she had no qualms about handling the holy book.
Another foible concerns why the overcrowded minibuses that ply the streets of DSM bear the name Dala Dala. MGV ascribes it to a Swahili rendition of the phrase ‘dollar, dollar’ - the fare collectors used to utter when these privately owned buses started operating in the early 1980s. He adds that the fare was equivalent to one US dollar (p 24). That is a partial truth. When private buses retook the streets, the five shilling fare was paid with the polygonal coin of that denomination in circulation at that time. A smart Alec branded it a ‘Dala,’ in imitation of a dollar. By happenstance it gained wide currency due to usage by the bus conductors. Hence, it became attached to the buses.
But it had no connection with the dollar value of the fare. In 1983, five shillings were, at the official rate, about 0.30 US dollar, and at the market rate, about 0.10 US dollar. In 1971, the fare charged by the state run buses for the five mile UDSM to city centre trip was 1 shilling, around 0.10 US dollar. Today, it is 400 shillings, about 0.20 US dollar. Bus fares remain a politically charged issue. A slight raise and the public is up in arms. A government seeking to push it up courts unpopularity of an extreme kind. I do not recall a time when the basic bus fare exceeded the equivalent, in market terms, of a quarter of a US dollar.
Those five shilling coins are history now but the name has stuck. Giving exotic names to things is a hallowed local custom. Money is often mentioned in indirect terms. If a taxi driver tells you the fare is ‘buku tano’ (five books), he means it is five thousand shillings.
You can find Internet material that has exactly the same interpretation given by MGV. Some articles say that ‘Dala’ is the Swahili word for five! Did he rely on such sources? To get the facts right, talks with long term residents of the city, and consulting a scholarly study on transport and bus fares in Tanzania are essential. As his take on the issue is laden with inaccuracies, it does not seem likely that he took the latter route.
What is disconcerting is that a few of his informants (who do not want to be named) have told me that what he has written does not well reflect what they conveyed to him. In a meeting MGV had with one group, a person he claims was present was not. And yet, quotes of an offensive nature are ascribed to him. He is so aggrieved that he has begun the process of instituting legal action against MGV and his publisher. At the time I write this, MGV and his publisher have agreed to issue a formal apology and make the necessary corrections in a second edition.
In themselves, a few such errors are not of vital significance. But they are numerous and distributed from start to the end. They point to superficial investigation and sloppy record keeping. Paragraphs penned in haste were not reviewed. His editors did not conduct basic fact checks. In some instances, the queries posed and his embrace of the explanation given reflect the shallowness of his approach to issues.
Another vital factor is that the errors are not random but are affected by selection and confirmation bias. They reinforce a particular world view that incorporates the prejudices he harboured when he left Tanzania, or those he has internalized in Canada. And they as well enhance the penchant towards one-sided cynicism under the influence of which major issues are dealt with in a cursory way while mountains are made out of imaginary molehills elsewhere.
One least expects a seasoned master of words to engage, in a work of non-fiction, in terminological obfuscation. Yet the practice adorns many parts of AHWK. Intended or not, the effect is to convolute the reality on the ground.
For example, take the term ‘Khoja,’ frequently deployed in AHWK. It refers to the Hindus, mainly from the Indian regions of Kutch and Gujarat, who were converted to (Nizari) Ismailism. A sizeable portion of the initial converts were from the Lohana caste. Because of internal disputes arising in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in India and Zanzibar, a sizeable number of the Khojas joined the Ithnasheri sect while a smaller portion became Sunni Muslims. Since those days, the two principal groupings of the Khojas of East Africa are: The Khoja Shia Ithnasheris and Khoja Shia (Nizari) Ismailis. The frosty relationship emanating from ancient history between them was intensified by these splits. Over time, the unitary term Khoja fell into disuse. The Ismailis refer to themselves and are known by others as Ismailis, and are globally marked out by the fact that the Agakhan is their spiritual leader. Their place of worship is the Jamaat Khana or, in Swahili, Jamatini. The Ithnasheris are just that, the Ithnasheris, and their place of worship is the Ithnasheri Masjid. This terminology has prevailed in East Africa for a century, and in Canada, for a half century, now. Note that the Bohoras, who also form an Ismailia sect, do not fall under the Khoja label.
This is not theological purism, but has socio-political ramifications: During the colonial era, Ismaili children were schooled, for the most part, in the Aga Khan schools, while Ithnasheri children attended other Indian schools. From the 1950s, Ismailis began to adopt Western life style. Women adorned Western dresses and children learned English from early age. The Ithnasheris were more conservative on these fronts. After Uhuru in 1961, the Ismailis led the Asians in taking citizenship of the new nation. Till 1971, they were also the numerically and economically dominant of the two groups and their leader had a special relationship with Mwalimu Nyerere. But when it came to the mass exodus of Asians from Tanzania after 1971, it was the Ismailis who stood at the forefront, in numbers and timing.
The numbers tell the story: In 1971, there were 30,000 to 35,000 Ismailis in Tanzania. The Ithnasheris were less than half their number. In 2014, an estimated 14,000 Ithnasheris lived here while the number of Ismailis had dwindled to about 4,000, or about a third of the former. The 2014 count for the Ismailis includes new immigrants from India and Pakistan. While the absolute numbers are subject to debate, there is general consensus about the changes in the relative size (and economic weight) of these two Shia denominations.
What is of global import, the Ismailis led by the Agakhan are seen in the Western eyes as a model Islamic sect. The Ithnasheris, on the other hand, with their cultural ties to Iran, are placed at the other end of the socio-political spectrum. I do not say this because I concur with that view; far from it. I am just pointing out what prevails under the hegemony of US imperialism.
AHWK is littered with references to the history and institutions of the Ismailis. Yet, nowhere does it clearly lay down the basics. Instead of straightforward designations, it has archaic words like Khoja and Khoja Khana, which are used inconsistently. Here he demarcates the groups; there he mixes them up, without a sound justification for either. Where it is appropriate to mention the Agakhan, he does not, and where it is secondary, he does. His reference to the ‘rather sweet Kutchi-Swahili’ spoken by the Zanzibari Asians overlooks a key distinction: while almost all the Ithnasheri families used Swahili at home, only a small portion of Ismaili and basically none of Hindu families adopted the practice. With the effusive invocations of the term Khoja, it takes a time for a reader to figure out that MGV hails from the Ismailia community. Here and there, he talks of ‘my tribe,’ but you wonder what it is. While he may disfavour being pinned down in terms of ethnic identity, the key facts of history, personal and societal, have to be laid down with clarity.
AHWK is inundated with misleading wordplay, of which this is but an instance. As we shall see later, it enables MGV to do or say one thing here, and, with a straight face, do or say the converse there.
A factually grounded, logically guided critical stance on societal issues is not to be conflated with reflexive cynicism. MGV, for his part, falls short on the former, and generally veers towards the latter.
An example: His remarks on the clock tower appear in relation to the raised status of DSM from town to city. He opines ‘… by what authority we were not quite sure but we were now in the big league.’ This expression of doubt on the legality of the move derived from the fact the population of DSM was still under 300,000. Yet, it is a classic instance of the snide retorts heard from the Asians of that era, the inference being that ‘these Africans just run after symbolism and status, even when there is no basis to it.’ It is as well an empirically unfounded remark. The number 300,000 does not come from a law of nature or nations; exceptions to the rule abound. In the UK, where city status is granted by royal charter, there are cities with population under 20,000 as there are towns with population over 100,000. Culver City in California, famed for movie studios and locations, has had a population below 50,000. In any case, the nations of Africa had no say in setting the supposedly cut-off number. As a sovereign nation, furthermore, we had all the moral and legal authority to call our capital a city.
That would be the patriotic stand. Our development had been constrained by colonial policies, but now we were not obliged to obtain the blessings of Her Majesty the Queen for all we did. The ‘we’ that MGV refers to were not the ordinary residents of DSM. They welcomed our new status. Rather, his ‘we’ were members of a racial minority that was unhappy about the demise of colonial rule. It is astounding that MGV nonchalantly regurgitates such racist views to this day. Is this what he means by showing Africa through African eyes?
In places, MGV voices concern about the lack of preservation and maintenance of sites and places of historic value. True enough; but the bland explanations he accepts convey the impression that we do not have a sense of history. Had he talked to his taxi drivers, he would have found to the contrary. He fails to observe that the trend is global in nature. Neo-liberal economics is wreaking havoc on the conservation of history and tradition everywhere.
Many pages of AHWK are devoted to sorcery, witchcraft and magical cures in Tanzania. Indeed, they seem to be on the ascendance of recent, and are associated with violent outcomes. But again, we are not an exception. For example, in India, MGV’s ancestral homeland, thousands of worshippers are, almost each year, trampled to death in quests for divine blessing. An army of gurus peddles flaky cures for varied ailments. The aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall witnessed a veritably astronomical rise in irrational, paranormal beliefs and practices in Russia and Eastern Europe. The USA is not an exception either. Its alternative health sector, abounding with quack practices like homeopathy, crystal and flower therapies, and colonic cleansing is a multi-billion dollar industry. On nightly TV shows, famed evangelists perform miracle cures. These shows have millions of devoted followers. Taking a comparative perspective on this and other matters is not to excuse or rationalize what is going on here. But it is needed if we are to unearth underlying causes and tackle the problem. Growing economic insecurity, huge life disparities, the lack of an effective, affordable system of health care for the masses, extensive joblessness, the failure of the education system and mass media to promote and instil scientific perspectives on issues, and the political and financial benefits of extremism and pseudo-science to the powers that be, all reinforce the proliferation of irrational beliefs in society. When people are engrossed in seeking out-of-the-world explanations for the miseries, pain and injustices they encounter in here and now, they are less inclined to unite with their brethren to seek down to earth avenues for changing that state of affairs.
If you seek to transform the one-sided image of Africa in the Western media, you must bring these broader issues into relief. But if you are blindsided by a cynical outlook, you focus on the negative in restricted ways that cement those images. In AHWK, despite his declaration to the contrary, MGV generally adopts the latter stand. And that hardly marks him as a person having genuine pride in the land of his upbringing.
In a talk to history students at the University of Dodoma, MGV deplored the dearth of an ‘African angle’ to history. He said: ‘We should be telling our own stories.’ (p 147). Coming from him, the exhortation has two pitfalls. First, though about a fifth of AHWK is devoted to historical narration, it largely attends to European explorers and missionaries. In his visits, he often seeks the traces of Burton, Speke and their ilk. When criticised by his companion, he responds that we should not neglect the stories of our oppressors since they also form a part of our history. True enough; yet we should not hear their stories just from their sources and viewpoints. But that is what MGV gives us. And he gives disproportionate space to writers with a positive take on the historical role played by Asians in East Africa.
Second, it displays ignorance of the significant contributions to pan-Africanist, progressive history at the University of Dar es Salaam in the 1960s and 1970s. Its Department of History played a major, influential role in the production of methodologically innovative, thoroughly researched, papers and books on East African and African history. These works form a tiny portion of MGV’s sources. Twice he quotes John Sutton, who was once based at UDSM. He lists three recent books by the eminent historian Abdul Sheriff but does not quote him. Sheriff was at UDSM for over two decades. Other than that, he is oblivious to the volumes of stellar historical and socio-political works issuing from UDSM in those days. These include the principal tome on African history of the last century, namely Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, and the pioneering exposition of the impact of colonialism on health and environment in East Africa, namely Helge Kjeckshuses’ Ecology Control and Economic Development in East African History.
Besides the ABC of the resistance to the imposition of German colonial rule, AHWK has little to say on the fight for Independence on mainland Tanzania. Other than noting the role played by a few Asians, it is virtually silent on the tumultuous years of the 1950s, when people valiantly rose all over our nation to eject the colonizers. The dirty tricks of the colonial power to frustrate their aspirations evade his scrutiny. What was the general role of the Asians in this struggle? What were their attitudes towards Independence? We are not told much.
To value ‘our own history,’ you have to give ample anecdotes and stories from this singular aspect of our history. Before pontificating about historical authenticity, do your homework.
With his declared interest in the subject, and having been a guest at the Department of History at the University of Dodoma, he could have told us about the type of books and papers used in its history courses. He would have found out that even our historians have forgotten about the major works of history produced in and from Tanzania, by local and external scholars. Neo-liberalism has triumphed. Externally inclined, biased literature prevails once more. Academic standards have gone down the drain. MGV gives us a hint of the rote but his comments are superficial. We expect better. He could have also told us of the travails of his young host, Natasha Shivji, as she strove to do the right thing in an NGO-driven environment. But he is content with surface level banalities.
Race and Religion
At an eatery in Dodoma, MGV is asked by the (Ismaili) owner: ‘Are you Hindu or Ismaili?’ He says he is an Ismaili, though the readers are told that he was being polite, and that actually, ‘I no longer make these distinctions.’ After the meal, he is invited inside but Joseph, his African companion, is not. He goes in, by himself, but recalls the disturbing thoughts he had later: ‘why didn’t she invite Joseph inside? I was family, he wasn’t.’ (pp160-1).
I ask him: Did Joseph not feel bad? Why did you not take him inside with you? How come you were so sensitive about not offending the brown person (and a stranger at that) but took the direct insult to the black person (and a friend, after all) in stride? Did you apologize to Joseph? He does not say.
He manifests such a dualistic ethic at several points in his trips. In some towns, he seeks lodging at the local Khoja (Ismaili) guest house. Established in the colonial era, they provide, for the Ismailis, a safe, cheap and convenient dwelling adjacent to the prayer house, where, moreover, one can buy homemade food at quite low prices. However, due to the exodus of Ismailis from Tanzania, many of them were closed in the 1980s. But where one is closed, MGV is offered free lodging from some Ismaili family, which he gratefully accepts as a gesture of communal solidarity. When in DSM, he puts up at a ‘guest house called Flamingo ….. where for five dollars you could share a room and at night as you lay awake hear the tales told to each other by young Asian businessmen ….’ (p 20).
The last sentence expresses but a half-truth: Those businessmen are not just Asians but Asians of a particular religious denomination, his own. And, he seeks such lodgings only when he travels alone. If accompanied by Joseph, who would not be welcome at those guest houses, he maintains a discreet silence about them. Both seek out a public hotel. Is it acceptable to stay at a place that discriminates effectively by race and openly by religion just because you are alone? In line with his common usage of the term Khoja, why does he never stay at a Khoja Musafar Khana? Does he make such distinctions or not?
Moving on, MGV talks of his discussions with Harko Bhagat, a big local tycoon of Asian origin. One point concerned the appointment of the first Tanzanian to head the Tanzania Publishing House. It was 1970. Bhagat tells him that even though he was the person most qualified for the job, he was passed over. Walter Bgoya, an African, got the job instead. MGV accepts this as one more instance of reverse racism faced by Asians in that era. Yet, it is not a likely explanation. In those days, Bhagat was a known self-styled Marxist Leninist. He was as well allied with Adulrahaman Babu, the Zanzibari Marxist politician. Mwalimu Nyerere would definitely not want a person with that radical a stance overseeing the principal publishing house in the nation. Bgoya was a socialist but of a milder disposition. And once at the helm, Bgoya made it an international success story; as MGV himself admits. For about two years, Bhagat did occupy a senior post in that firm. His early departure, moreover, had nothing to do with race but everything to do with the contentious nature of Zanzibari politics.
Both were qualified for the job. Who got it was a matter of ideology, not race. That MGV swallows the race-based explanation without much ado is, in this instance, most amazing. On the one hand, he talks of Bgoya as the person towards whom he feels the closest affinity to in terms of general outlook and disposition. He met Bgoya and his family on several occasions during his visit. I ask: Noting the strong aspersion cast on Bgoya’s professionalism, that he got the top job because of the colour of his skin, do not his views on the matter deserve to be heard as well? Did MGV elicit those views? We are not told.
In order to get the story from the other side of the political divide regarding life in Tanzania, MGV, to his credit, contacted the radicals of the socialist era. Yet, other than Walter Bgoya, no African radicals are featured in AHWK. As Bgoya is a prominent publisher and the main marketer of his books locally, MGV had other reasons to approach him. I ask: Why are Henry Mapolu, Adam Shafi, Ibrahim Hussein, Salim Msoma, Jenerali Ulimwengu, Zakia Meghji, Patrick Quorro, Ngombale Mwiru, to name a few, absent in AHWK?
Nizar Visram is a prominent Tanzanian journalist of Asian ancestry. His popular, progressive weekly columns have been a staple of local Swahili papers for four decades now. He not only belongs to MGV’s ‘tribe’ but was also MGV’s neighbour in the 1960s, and continues to reside at the same place. With these and more incentives to reconnect with him, Visram is nonetheless conspicuously absent from AHWK. Persons who have long shed their radical garb and stand at the other extreme end of the rich-poor divide, however, do feature as radicals therein.
With a racially biased sample, MGV paints a misleading picture: that the radical stage in that era was overwhelmingly occupied by Asians.
After giving a talk before a large audience at the Kenyatta University in Nairobi, MGV bemoans the absence of brown faces in the audience. He is told that it is a question of educational quality and social class. In all likelihood, the children of rich black parents were absent too. Yet, he persists with his race-based mind set. Later in DSM, he addresses a graduating class of, as he puts it, members of ‘my tribe’. He does not say it, but most students are brown skinned; only a few are of black and mixed race. That is almost how it was in the colonial days: an all Ismaili student gathering with a few token black faces. Emigration and intermarriage have made the token slightly larger. His sole complaint is about being misled regarding the ages of the students. Not only is he at ease with educational exclusion based on religion, not only does he elevate a minor change to an indicator of major progress, but MGV does not as well realize that in terms of racial and religious representation, what he observes is a step backward compared to what prevailed in the 1960s.
At one point, MGV remonstrates on the exclusive neighbourhoods of the colonial era. But he gives a spin to them by branding them ‘unofficially segregated’. And he does this despite the fact, which he acknowledges, that they derived from the plans laid down by the German and British authorities. He as well fails to inform us that in the beloved ‘Gaam’ whose loss he bemoans, Africans could not, until the early 1950s, venture out at night without a permit and light, had poor education and health services, could not buy property without special permission, faced major hurdles in securing bank loans, and could not attend classes in subjects like commerce and accountancy. The Asians did not make these rules but they supported and benefitted from them. It was an enforced Apartheid style of life. There was nothing ‘unofficial’ about it.
In the years MGV studied engineering at the University of Nairobi, of the Tanzanian students, there were as many, if not more, Asians than Africans. Yet, Asians formed barely 1% of the population in Tanzania. And all were being educated at public expense. Where was the reverse racism he is fond of highlighting?
On the issue of race as well, a comparative perspective is absent. The USA, the supposed citadel of freedom and democracy is a society still riddled with overt and institutionalized racism of a virulent variety. In the fifty years between 1960 and 2010, the numbers of race-based violent assaults, rapes and killings in the UK exceeded that in mainland Tanzania, even if you take population size into account. Racism also exists in Canada. MGV gives us a hint of that by noting the case of indigenous Canadians. Overt racial politics were a standard feature in Uganda and Kenya in the 1960s and 1970s. In the former, it began before Idi Amin took power. The Asian exodus in these places started before it did in Tanzania. Under Nyerere, racist rhetoric was officially frowned upon, and the policy of Africanization was officially terminated two years after Uhuru.
Are these not relevant matters? A comparative view neither justifies nor rationalizes. It provides a context for understanding the phenomenon in focus, traces its historic, economic and societal roots and allows us to devise more effectives means of changing the situation. By avoiding it, you fertilize an ideal ground for reflexive cynicism.
I can continue with more examples including outlandish tales of threats of a sexual nature faced by Asian women on mainland Tanzania. But the point has been made. On the race issue, MGV wants his cake and to eat it too. He uncritically trumpets Asian views on race, but mutes African views on the issue. Racism by Africans is noted in harsh judgmental terms but that practiced by brown persons appears in moderate, rationalizing terms. Africans are almost always the perpetrators of racism, and Asians, victims of history and politics, whose valuable contributions to the nation have been ignored. The racism of an economic variety widely practiced by Asians during the colonial and post-colonial days is glossed over or rationalized in mild terms such as insularity. Yet, MGV boldly claims that he has transcended the narrow bounds of race and religion.
Let me not be misunderstood: I am not saying that only Asians practice racism. Racist sentiments and views are alive and well on both sides of the divide. You can hear and read openly anti-Asian views in the media today. And they are expressed in ways that would not have been tolerated under Nyerere. Fifty years after Independence we are still afflicted by the malady of racial, communal and religious intolerance and divisiveness. If we are to combat such unethical, narrow minded outlooks, we must expose and condemn them wherever and whenever they manifest themselves, be that in our own circles or beyond.
Socialism and Capitalism
The chief villain responsible for the evils listed in AHWK is, in MGV’s estimation, socialism of the Nyerere brand. It was a fomenter of bitterness; precipitator of heart attacks; looter of the hard earned property of Asians; restrictor of travel; destroyer of sisal and cashew farms, and forests; creator of ghost towns; originator of corruption; installer of austerity, food lines, inefficiency and wastage; fountain of dormancy and sloth; persecutor of Asians; demolishers of the education system; purveyor of venomous politics; depicter of diligent simple folk as blood suckers; fountain of racism, etc. Given the terms used to describe it, the socialist regime was, in his eyes, the worst calamity this nation has ever faced. His unmistakeable message, which no doubt will secure him accolades from Western pundits, is that only now that we are rid of it is there room for hope.
Capitalism, on the other hand, gets a mild slap on the wrist. Kenya, for all its problems, remains a land of efficiency and order (p 230). He does not, for example, dwell into the horrific post-election violence in Kenya. Is that because it did not affect Asians that much?
The takeover of buildings in 1971 singularly illustrates the flawed nature of MGV’s take on socialism in Tanzania. He depicts it as ‘confiscation of all rental property …’ (p 7). Not exactly, only rental property above a certain value was expropriated. Only the landlord was affected; no tenant, Asian or not, had to vacate his/her place. In fact, due to the strict rent control and tenant protection laws, the renter was better off under state tutelage. But MGV does not see it that way. For him, it meant that ‘two generations or more of family savings invested in property disappeared at a stroke. Of course, most families, including mine, did not possess such savings’. A word play enables him to have it both ways. In several places in AHWK, he blames this act as the major force behind the Asian exodus from Tanzania. But why was that the case if it did not affect ‘most’ families?
The reality was more complex than the half-truths he conveys. Even as it did not target any race, the legacy of colonialism meant that most of the property taken over belonged to Asians. Nonetheless, it was also true, and this key fact is obscured, that the bulk of the modern style dwellings not taken over also belonged to Asians. If you resided in a building owned by yourself and had no tenants, even if you had mortgage payments due, even if it had 20 rooms and even if it was worth a million dollars, it was not taken over. A large proportion of the Asians, and a majority of the Ismailis, lived in owner occupied middle-class modern dwellings. This type of property remained in their hands. A few such flats taken over in error were returned to the owners. The two-story apartment I occupy now was nationalized by mistake. But the error was rectified, and I now have the title deed. It was the wealthy Asians, barely 5% of the community, who were affected by the takeover.
MGV also disguises another key fact. In the years between 1971 and 1976, the heyday of the Asian exodus, by and large, it was the Ismailis who packed their bags and left Tanzania for good. It was not the Ithnasheris, Bohoras or Hindus, but mostly members of ‘his tribe’ who succumbed to the anti-Nyerere hysteria. He drops veiled hints about this but does not clarify the matter and ask why?
There is as well an ethical problem. He brands the upcountry ‘Indians’ who stepped into the shoes of the ‘Khoja Ismailis’ as the ‘wreckers’ of his beloved ‘Gaam’. First, note that this is one of the few places he does not use the singular term ‘Khojas’ in this context. The usage of the term ‘Indians’ is rare in AHWK. But he uses it here. Why? It is a roundabout reference to the non-Ismaili Asians --- the Ithnasheris, Bohoras and Hindus --- who bought, at ludicrous prices, the houses and businesses of the panicking Ismailis. These properties are now worth, in US dollar terms, ten times their original value. Many Canadian Ismailis harbour regrets about what they did in those days. But, let it be clear: no one was compelled by the state to do what they did; it was a purely voluntary transaction. By branding the ‘Indians’ as ‘wreckers’ of the historic city, his evasive word play implies that had the Ismailis not emigrated, they would have behaved differently, and preserved the historic face of Dar es Salaam.
That implication flies in the face of basic social psychology. The deterioration of historic sites in major cities is a global issue; as common in Ghana as in India. Even long term residents of San Francisco are up in arms. The forces driving it are known. Financial and property speculation, the hallmarks of neo-liberal capitalism, do not respect history or tradition. It has nothing to do with race or religion. Banks and wealthy people, Asian and African, Ismaili and non-Ismaili, citizen and outsider, seek massive short term profits through real estate booms that invariably backfire. The trend occurs in country after country. The common person is pushed aside and can only look on as bulldozers erase history and tradition. Their place is taken by ill-planned luxury high rises for the elite guarded by men with guns. A low population density area is converted into a congested, fume-filled, crime ridden typical Third World city in which fake goods, fake medicines, fake education, fake NGOs and fake experts abound.
While MGV rallies against modern day corruption, he does not locate it within a socio-economic framework. In line with the prevailing Western perception of Africa, he presents it as an all explanatory factor for the ills afflicting the continent. It is an approach whose ultimate basis is the proposition that corruption is embedded within our genes or that we have been cursed by some deity. And he does not state that corruption, high and low level, is a hundred time worse under capitalism than it ever was in ‘socialist’ Tanzania. Asian and African, Ismaili and non-Ismaili, local and foreign, business people and others collude with the state bureaucrats to defraud the nation. The masses miss out on what is due to them. The ensuing exacerbation of the problems they face in their daily lives together with the reinforcement of gross inequalities on many fronts provides an ideal setting for social disharmony. Accordingly, modern capitalism revives and cements divisive, extremist, racial outlooks, and social and residential separatism, in Tanzania, India and elsewhere. Even within family relations are driven by the cash nexus. When you lack a rational perspective on why things are the way they are, you fall prey to evasive ideologies that blame ‘the others’ for your misfortunes.
MGV maintains discreet silence on villagization, a major pillar of Nyerere’s Ujamaa policy. Millions of African families were forcibly relocated from their homes. Many rural people suffered major losses. But not a single Asian family was affected. Is that a valid reason to ignore such a vital issue?
MGV needs to distinguish socialism from the World Bank supported underdeveloped form of state capitalism that prevailed in Tanzania under Nyerere. How does that socialism compare with, say, the socialism under Fidel Castro? What are his views on the Canadian brand of socialism; on its public health and education system, and public support for the elderly? Have he, his family and members of ‘his tribe’ originating from Tanzania not benefitted immensely from this socialism?
MGV recounts a conversation in which the Asians in the group (including him) defended the legacy of Nyerere while the Africans spoke out against him. Yet, it was an interaction involving intellectual type Asians and the elite from the African side, an atypical sample. Mostly, Asian Tanzanians do not have a favourable opinion of Mwalimu Nyerere while African Tanzanians in general revere and respect his memory. Elsewhere, he notes the enduring popularity of our first president but fails to ask why, if his socialism was that bad, is that the case. Is it because in the eyes of the common person, it is a better system than the intensely corrupt, uncaring, brutalizing modern day capitalism? The extremely high cost of living, reflected in the prices of food and basic goods, rents even in the poor neighbourhoods, good health care, educational supplies and electricity combined with stagnant incomes make the more than 80% of the city dwellers live an insecure and precarious life.
At one stage, MGV calls Nyerere a man of the people. But this remark flies in the face of everything else he says in AHWK. Overall, there are a host of issues where much credit is due to Mwalimu, but MGV fails to accord it. Again, it is a matter of having your cake and eating it too.
Then there is a conundrum for MGV to consider: Malawi under Kamuzu Banda was an ally of the West, a friend of Apartheid South Africa, and staunchly anti-communist. Tanzania under Nyerere had good relations with Mao’s China, vehemently opposed Apartheid rule, and espoused the policy of socialism. Yet, in the 1990s and to this day, the basic problems faced by the people of Malawi and Tanzania, in health, education, transport, housing, employment, democracy, governance, accountability and freedom of the press are quite similar. Why, despite their divergent ideological trajectories, is that the case? Since it does not encompass the political economy of underdevelopment and imperialism, MGV’s conceptualization cannot satisfactorily resolve this question. The best he may offer would be a right wing race based explanation.
In fairness, it must be noted that MGV does not stand alone on this question. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, a host of Western and local scholars have taken to topics like race, identity, nationhood, citizenship and diaspora communities particularly in the context of East Africa. Their works are characterized by effusive methodology, hidden neo-liberal biases and economic myopia. Their general conclusions come close to the stand taken by MGV. Though some of them adopt progressive sounding terminology, the underlying, implicit aim is clear: to undermine the political economy based approached that had made strong inroads in African history and social sciences. I am not saying that MGV has such an agenda; what I am saying is his conceptualization and conclusions are disturbingly similar to those of these Western scholars who effectively project an imperial agenda onto Africa.
To clarify my personal stand, I note that in 1974, I was unceremoniously ejected from UDSM for criticizing Mwalimu Nyerere’s policies on education. I am thereby not one who will defend Nyerere’s policies in a blind fashion. But I differentiate between a systematic, evidence based critique from biased, unprincipled ramblings. I fault MGV for taking the latter route.
To rectify his approach, MGV must address all major pertinent issues, and consider key socio-economic factors. AHWK is not that type of work that calls for a scholarly analysis. But it does need a basic, fair summary of Nyerere’s policies, their practical implications, and a discussion of their gains and failures. A foundation to contextualize the incidents and anecdotes offered in AHWK would then be at hand. Volumes of factually grounded papers and books critically evaluating those policies already exist. One standard work, now in its second edition, is Andrew Coulson’s Tanzania: A Political Economy. For some topics, MGV refers to relevant material. But on the issue of socialism in Tanzania, his reference list stands empty.
A primary reason why I take exception to MGV’s anti-socialist rhetoric is the recent emergence of an important scenario in the nations of the West. After the financial crisis that engulfed global capitalism starting from 2008, more people have become aware of the rapacious nature of the big financial institutions and the alliances they had formed with reigning parties. The increasing insecurity of life and the enormous and growing gap between the rich and the poor is now a major concern. Traditional centre-right politics are being replaced by two opposed tendencies. On the one hand, fascistic and anti-immigrant parties and politicians are making unprecedented gains. But, on the other side, more and more people are coming to regard themselves as socialists. It is the case not just in Greece and Spain but in the UK and USA too. The expanding effects of computerized automation on jobs and job security worry people in the media and economists. Open discussions of socialistic ideas like providing a guaranteed basic income for all citizens are heard in outlets like the BBC. Imagine: a minimal living wage regardless of whether you have a job or not! Scandinavian nations have put such measures on their agendas. Research by UN agencies indicates that cash disbursements also promote economic growth in the poor nations as well.
It is also happening in MGV’s present day homeland. The province of Ontario has plans to implement provision of universal basic income. If successful, the rest of Canada may follow suit. It is not that the nations of the West have plans to change their basic economic system from capitalism to socialism. No, these are measures designed to shore up the increasingly fragile and unstable system that modern capitalism has become. Yet, they have returned the idea of socialism into mainstream politics. What was said to have been totally discredited by the fall of the Berlin Wall is now gaining credibility. Socialism is once more on the mental horizon of ordinary people.
Yet, instead of taking such promising humanistic political trends into account, MGV hoists upon his readers a slew of crude, Cold War era, spiteful anti-socialist verbiage. Even as he stands to benefit more from socialistic policies in his homeland, for Africa he only prescribes the neo-liberal capitalist framework whose failures are now legend. And that framework is contorted by his tendency to view everything through Asian eyes, and often through the eyes of the Asian elite. What he then delivers is not just a distorted, simplistic, race based exposition of what transpired in the Nyerere era but also a political rhetoric that stokes the fires of right wing and fundamentalist agendas. He may not realize what he is doing. But then, he certainly needs to. The West has always had a double standard towards Africa. But with his declared aims presenting Africa fairly and thus protecting African interests, he should not exhibit that tendency.
Role of the West
Where MGV falls short by a decisive margin is in his depiction of the role of the Western nations in post-Independence Tanzania. For example: In 1975, I visited an expansive state farm in the Rukwa region. It was an amazing site. Rows, upon rows of agricultural machines of the latest kind --- mechanized planters, combine harvesters, irrigation equipment --- lying idle, rusting. The output was a few tons of wheat per year. Within a year of inception, it was a failure beyond redemption. Yet, it had been funded by Canada, derived from a Canadian feasibility study, and was set up by experts from that nation. Who benefited from this debacle? It was the Canadian suppliers, by the millions, Canadian experts, by the hundreds of thousands, and local bureaucrats, by the thousands of dollars. Who lost? It was the people of Tanzania. It was typical of the hundreds of projects funded in ‘socialist’ Tanzania by the World Bank and Western nations. These parties bear equal responsibility for the economic debacle it became. And Tanzania was not the only place; throughout Africa and Asia, these nations funded dependency, debt generating, ill-conceived projects that landed the poor nations in a position worse than they were at the start.
This is a complex issue requiring informed analysis. In his critique of foreign aid, even as it forms a high point of AHWK, MGV barely scratches the surface, and draws misleading conclusions. It is not that foreign aid does not work; it is designed not to work. He evades the companion issue of foreign trade and investment, and how the net financial outflows from Africa always exceed the net financial inflows. He does not examine the military funds and arms from the West that kept and still keep authoritarian governments in power. And he does not name names. His silence on the operations of Canadian mining firms in Africa is majestic. He does not ask why, when the Tanzanian parliament wanted to review unfair mining contracts, and establish transparency, the Canadian high commissioner lobbied against the move.
At times, what he writes misses the mark in toto. The US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was visiting Tanzania at the time it was experiencing serious power problems. His words imply that a saviour was at hand. It seemed like another case of the donor begging mentality that has gripped our nation. But if MGV had dug under the surface, he would have seen that Clinton was not a neutral party in this affair. Not only was she accused of lobbying on behalf of a US power company linked to the shortages but also that she had connections of a personal nature with it.
Instead of basing his comments on right wing type of sources, MGV needs to look up the illuminating books and articles on foreign aid written at UDSM in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as scores of penetrating analyses of corporate globalization written of recent. Again, that would provide a sound foundation upon which his specific observations can be placed.
An Overall Verdict
My critique has not covered all the key flaws in AHWK. Without going into the details, I saw that the exposition of the history, life and politics in Zanzibar is one-sided and has major omissions. The assessment of book publishing in East Africa is not well informed. Despite spending much time at the place, and with its owner and his family, MGV’s account of the history and current operations of the Tanzania Publishing House leaves out a lot of essential stuff. The portraits of several locales of Tanzania have significant omissions and inaccuracies. AHWK as well does not live up to the elegant expressiveness and enticing style of MGV’s earlier works.
A work that aims to integrate travel reportage, histories of places and peoples, early life memoir, and socio-political commentary has to be grounded in a sound methodology, systematic background research and extensive fact checking. It has to avoid selective information gathering and inconsistent terminology. All key issues need attention. Deploying uniform ethical standards and controlling one’s social biases are essential. Especially in a historically sensitive, politically charged setting, it demands a degree of intellectual integrity that brooks no fear or favour from any quarter. The task is more onerous if it pertains to a place and people one has been essentially estranged from for five decades.
AHWK is in places an informative, illuminative and entertaining work. Yet, as my review shows, it falls desperately short of such fundamental criteria. MGV ponders on his ‘fractured being’ and ‘an in between-ness’ as if he has one foot here and one foot abroad. AHWK reveals otherwise. His footing in East Africa is now of a rudimentary kind. He has failed to shed the vital elements of the colonial mentality of his childhood days. Too many biases persist, some of which he perhaps is not aware of.
AHWK is primarily a work by an outsider, for outsiders. As its selectivity and slant will conform to their views on Africa, East African Asians in the diaspora and neo-liberalized pundits will hail it. But critical readers cognizant of local conditions and history will not be taken in. With the minor and major factual and conceptual shortfalls it exhibits, they will realize that it does not live up to the primary tenets of investigative journalism and good writing. Unrobed as a work produced in haste, it will be put aside in no time. Perhaps a more fitting title for the book would have been Adios Kariakoo.
Even as I write these words, I nonetheless feel that all is not lost. There is a sense that MGV’s heart continues to beat, at a fundamental level, with the rhyme and rhythms of Kariakoo. If so, he can demonstrate it with a second visit. But this time, he has to cast aside the racially tinted lenses and focus on linking up with the ordinary persons at large, experience their ups and downs, examine matters in due depth and, in his usual vibrant style, render to his audience a truer picture of the beautiful but deeply suffering Africa. We will then know that his local roots are not of the superficial sentimental variety but embody a genuine, humanistic vitality. May we look forward to And Home Still Is Kariakoo?
@ Karim F Hirji, March 2016.