Professor Josaphat L Kanywanyi, simply Joe to his close compatriots, was perhaps the longest serving academic in Tanzania. He grew up during the colonial era in a large family of modest means in a lush rural setting in northwest Tanzania. Diligence, determination and a sharp mental aptitude propelled him from that humble background to degrees in law from the University of Dar es Salaam (LL.B and Ph.D) and the University of Berkeley (LL.M) and a distinguished career in the academy, law and public service.
Starting in 1966 as a tutorial assistant in the UDSM Faculty of Law, Joe rose to become Professor of Law and eventually, Professor Emeritus of UDSM. Formal retirement in 1998 hardly meant throwing in the towel. Though age and illness were taking their toll, he continued to teach, attend meetings and supervise student research on contract terms well into 2020. Over this long academic tenure, he was a dedicated teacher, a meticulous legal mind, a fair and efficient administrator. Always calm and composed, he is universally and fondly remembered for his gentle, humble persona, a professor who treated everyone with respect, no matter their status.
Not only did he hold senior administrative positions within the academia, but Joe also was an advocate of the High Court of Tanzania, a judge in major judicial organs and a member of the board of directors of important public institutions. For 27 years, he sat on the Judicial Service Commission of Tanzania. Working for universities East and Southern Africa in various capacities like external examiner and consultant, he played an instrumental role in drafting the legislation and constitutions for ten public and private universities in Tanzania as well.
He also contributed to general legislation pertaining to higher education and provision of social services. His public service efforts are too numerous to detail. Joe Kanywanyi wrote extensively on a broad range of issues ranging from law, public policy to politics and Pan Africanism. He was no doubt one of Tanzania’s foremost authorities on banking and insurance law.
Yet, there was a rare side to Joe. In the 1960s, he became a dedicated socialist and Pan-Africanist. He and Walter Rodney were the only two UDSM academics who became associate members of the University Students African Revolutionary Front, a radical student organization that among other things published the internationally prominent magazine, Cheche. He worked tirelessly with progressive students, staff and members of the various liberation movements based in Dar es Salaam to promote the total liberation of Africa, pan-African solidarity and socialism. As the chair of the academic staff committee during the 1971 pro-democracy uprising at UDSM, he played a critical role in the formation of a united student, staff and worker front against a bumbling, reactionary university administration. The staff committee’s report was the seed from which the Academic Staff Union at UDSM eventually came into being. He also gave practical support to dissidents fleeing oppressive regimes in Africa and was an active supporter of the right of self-determination for the people of Palestine.
Yet, long term illness of his son, and the untimely demise of his wife and daughter and the changing political climate took a heavy emotional toll. As he candidly notes in his short autobiography, My Journey from Family to University: In Faith Searching for God, during the latter part of his life, Joe found solace in the ambit of the church. Though it represented a major political turnaround, he remained a compassionate humanist and teacher always desiring to be of service to his nation and his students. To me, he was a role model for selflessness, courage and wisdom, a man who smilingly transcended the narrow bounds of race, ethnicity and nationality, a comrade whose genuine warmth I cannot forget. His fine legacy will surely endure.