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Remembering Nyerere in Tanzania

Marie-Aude Fouéré

Part 5. Politics & Poetry

Chapter 10. The Poetry of an Orphaned Nation: Newspaper Poetry and the Death of Nyerere

Mary Ann Mhina

Note de l’auteur

This text was first published in the Journal of Eastern African Studies, vol. 8, no. 3 (2014), pp. 414–537. It is reprinted with permission. The translations of the poems are my own and reflect my own comprehension. I am grateful to Farouk Topan and Erik Bakilana for their patient help with words or expressions I was not familiar with when I originally translated them, as an undergraduate at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, in 2000. The poetry used in this article has been sourced from the Uhuru newspaper, Tanzania.

Texte intégral

1I arrived in Tanzania in September 1999 to take language classes at the Institute of Kiswahili and Foreign languages in Zanzibar. On 14 October, the first president of Tanzania, Julius Nyerere, died in a London hospital. Thereafter President Benjamin Mkapa declared 30 days of national mourning. The ‘Father of the Nation’ had been ill for sometime and was known to be in hospital. I had noticed since I first arrived in Zanzibar that there had been a growing awareness amongst the general public of his worsening health and lively discussion about when he might die; some people hoped for a swift recovery, others that he would die soon, still others claimed he was already dead but that his death was being concealed.

2After Nyerere’s death was confirmed and the mourning period had begun everybody seemed to be more forgiving of their former president. The television stations devoted themselves to constant coverage; the mass which was held in Westminster cathedral, the body arriving back in Tanzania, the funeral and the burial proceedings were all televised, interspersed with speeches Nyerere had made whilst alive and various tributes to him, often in the form of song. Sometimes the singers became hysterical, began to cry and fell to the ground in grief. For those 30 days, news other than that of Nyerere’s death was minimal. Dancing and listening to music were officially forbidden and sports events were cancelled.

3Within a week Nyerere’s body was returned to Dar es Salaam and the funeral procession paraded through the streets of the city as people watched and some wept. Then the body was taken to the national stadium, where it was placed in a specially erected glass building through which people could pass and view the open coffin and see the face of the ‘Father of the Nation’ for the final time. Leaders from many countries around the world came to pay their respects to a man who was often considered the only African statesman of his generation to have held to his principles. Once they had filed past the body, the wider public was invited to do the same. Finally, Nyerere’s body was transported to his home at Butiama in northwestern Tanzania, where it was again driven through the streets. Nyerere was buried there, next to his father and mother, on 23 October 1999. All of this was viewed widely on national television, a medium which Nyerere had during his Presidency resisted establishing in the country (Sturmer, 1998: 191). It was therefore, perhaps the first local event of its kind of this size and scale (Askew, 2006) and I and the Zanzibari family with whom I was staying at the time watched it with interest.

4In this article, I review the specific form of Swahili readership poetry printed in a specific Tanzanian newspaper, Uhuru, as an instance in which ‘poetics may illuminate representations of ethnographic phenomena’ (Caton, 1990: 20). The poetry it concentrates upon was all published during the mourning period for President Nyerere in Uhuru (Freedom/ Independence), a newspaper established by the CCM (Chama Cha Mapinduzi, the Party of the Revolution) political party that has ruled Tanzania since independence. These poems were originally written in Swahili and are also here translated into English. The translation of language itself presents a challenge, which is never wholly surmountable; to understand the meaning of language for the author and the readers of the texts one is working with. However, as Steiner explains, language is communication through translation even within any given language: “inside or between languages, human communication equals translation” (Steiner, 1975: 47). The poems have become part of my text and compliment my voice. They appear in this project in my own English translations of them alongside the original Swahili versions. Whilst the original poems respect the rhyming form of shairi which is explained below, my translations of course do not.

5This very specific kind of poetry leads me to consider the place of a dominant discourse in the maintenance of Nyerere’s powerful position as ‘Father of the Nation’ in contemporary Tanzania. The media was one important factor in the creation of that discourse and I show how poetry played its part in that. The discourse by which Nyerere is ‘Father of the Nation’ is one that makes him central to the conceptualisation and imagining of that post-independence nation (Anderson, 1991). I use the term discourse here, and elsewhere in this article sense to describe sets of signs, images, notions and metaphors shared by politics and, in this case, literature to ‘imagine’ the nation. The intensity of the period of mourning makes the salience and utility of that discourse apparent. Some of the poems also use Nyerere’s pivotal position in discourse as a means to try to obtain power for the party, CCM and Mkapa as its leader and the nations reigning president after his death.

Uhuru Newspaper

6The newspaper Uhuru, launched on Independence Day on 9 December 1961, was the successor to the TANU (Tanganyikan African National Union) party publication ‘Sauti ya Tanu’ (the voice of TANU) (Sturmer, 1998: 103). It became a daily issue in 1964 (Mzee, 1995: 79). This made Uhuru the first African national newspaper to be established by a post-independence governmental party. In 1980, when it was still the only daily Swahili newspaper in Tanzania, 100,000 copies of Uhuru were printed every day. This made it the paper with the highest publication rate at the time (Ng’wanakilala, 1982: 15) and in fact it “dominated the Tanzanian press sector for a period of over 30 years” (Sturmer, 1998: 265). The key local language publication for the duration of Nyerere’s direct leadership of Tanzania, its circulation reduced substantially following the proliferation of non-state media that emerged during the nineteen-nineties (Grosswiler, 1997). Still selling 80,000 copies a day in 1991, circulation figures for Uhuru had dropped to 26,000 by 1996 three years before Nyerere died (Sturmer, 1998: 140, 178). This article concentrates on poetry from Uhuru and accepts that it is known to be restricted to reporting the one-sided party line of CCM – the successor party to TANU which was formed in 1977 when TANU was united with the Zanzibari Afro-Shirazi Party (ASP) (Grosswiler, 1997). The first reason for concentrating on poetry from Uhuru is pragmatic; the poetry from Uhuru newspaper was available for review. The second is that it offers an opportunity to explore how poetry was presented during the mourning period and played its part in portraying that ‘party-line’.

Swahili Newspaper Poetry

  • 1 Called kituo bahari which means the sea coming back again; it returns again and again.

7Swahili poetry has what are normally known as a set of rules (Abedi, 1954) that date back some time. On the coast, where Swahili is a first language and Swahili poetry has been written down (initially in Arabic script) for at least four centuries (Knappert, 1979; Biersteker, 1996), these prosodic rules are regarded as indispensable to the writing of shairi. Shairi is the Swahili word usually translated as ‘poem’ but it often refers to the specific fixed form of verses of four lines of sixteen syllables each, which rhyme internally, and with a repeated refrain at the end of each verse which rhymes with all the other final lines in the verse of the poem.1

8In the context of newspaper poetry, the invitation for readers to contribute their compositions for publication sets up a potential forum for debate on issues relevant to the readers and in which locally written literature can be circulated in a country with a limited publishing industry. Such poetry has been printed in Tanzanian newspapers for some time (Biersteker, 1996: 13). Chalamanda points out that newspapers may be shared by three or four different readers and poems may even be read to those who are unable to read themselves thereby increasing the actual circulation beyond that suggested by distribution figures (Chalamanda, 2001). Readership poetry is an opportunity for a named but invisible citizen to pass comment on events and issues and enter into a ‘national’ discursive realm with their ideas. Debates often emerge on readers’ poetry pages concerning topics such as the role of women, the importance of education or the role of language.

We will cry for our father

9The party-control of the press in Tanzania during Nyerere’s presidency (Sturmer, 1998) was an important force in the maintenance of a discourse that revered Nyerere as ‘Father of the Nation’, and it continued to do so when he died. This poem was printed in Uhuru on 26 October:

Baba Tutamlilia ( “We will cry for Our Father”) Saidi A. Likongine Uhuru, 29 October 1999

(1) Pongezi yangu ya dhati, Redio

(1) Congratulations to you Radio

Kazi zenu madhubuti, Mola atawajalia,

On your honest work, God bless you

Pamoja na magezeti, ya chama na jumuia,

Together with the newspapers of the party and the people

Baba tutamlilia, ingawa hatumpati.

We will cry to our father even though he isn’t there

(2) Ingawa hatumpati, baba tutamlilia,

(2) Although we cannot see him, we mourn our father

Katu hatufurukuti, shimo tumedidimia,

We cannot sleep, we have sunk into a deep hole

Mwananchi gani kiti, atakae kikalia,

Upon which chair will the people sit to cry?

Baba tutamlilia, ingawa hatumpati.

We will cry to our father even though he isn’t there

(3) Juhudi ya Barakati, uhuru kupigania,

(3) It was a blessed project to fight for freedom

Tamaa aliishiti, mali kulimbikizia,

He hoped that he could build up wealth

Akitetea umati, wengi ni wala bamia,

He defended the underprivileged masses

Baba tutamlilia, ingawa hatumpati.

We will cry to our father even though he isn’t there

(4) Tangu kwenya utafiti, landani kujitibia.

(4) Since he went for the consultation in London

Radio kila wakati, hali mkifuambia.

The radio has been telling us how he is all the time

Hivi sasa kwa bahati, hali yake yaridhia.

And now that his condition is confirmed

Baba tutamlilia, ingawa hatumpati.

We will cry to our father even though he isn’t there

(5) Mara ikaja ripoti, mambo yalipozidia.

(5) A Report came saying that things were more serious

Kwamba yuko mahututi, pumzi ina mwishia.

Saying he was ill and his breath was near to its end

Usingizi awapati, wana Mama

Give them rest Mama Maria and her children

Baba tutamlilia, ingawa hatumpati.

We will cry to our father even though he isn’t there

(6) Ukasitushwa umati, Mkapa kutuambia.

(6) The masses were shocked when
Mkapa announced

Baba Mwalimu maiti, mpendwa katukimbia.

That the body of the beloved
Teacher had left us

Waume na mabinti, nyuso tuko jinamia.

Men and women, we stand together

Baba tutamlilia, ingawa hatumpati.

We will cry to our father even though he isn’t there

(7) Tumepoteza yakuti, ni kati kuti na njia.

(7) We have lost a gem, the gem which lit our way

Mgumu huu wakati, wenye tekenolojia.

It is hard in this time of technology

Nani atakunja goti, njia kuifatilia.

Who will bend their knees to follow the way

Baba tutamlilia, ingawa hatumpati.

We will cry to our father even though he isn’t there

(8) Televisheni kidhati, nayo haikutulia.

(8) Sincerely the television hasn’t stopped showing it

Moyo mhjizatiti, yote kutuandalia

They put their hearts into it to show us

Yaliopita maiti, hadi walipozikia.

The body passing, even the burial

Baba tutamlilia, ingawa hatumpati.

We will cry to our father even though he isn’t there

(9) Nimefikia tamati, natunga huku nalia.

(9) I have reached the end, this composition makes me cry

Kumvumilia sipati, twamuombea jalia,

I cannot bear it, we pray he will be blessed

Akae pema janati, milele bila udhia,

That he may rest in a good place forever without trouble

Baba tutamlilia, ingawa hatumpati.

We will cry to our father even though he isn’t there

  • 2 In many speeches and articles, Nyerere espoused the idea of a return to ‘traditional African’ ways (...)

10Likongine wonders what will happen in Nyerere’s absence. Nyerere, the ‘jewel’ has gone, his body has left the people of Tanzania and there is nobody now to light their way. He continues ‘in this time of technology, who will bend their knees to follow the way?’ These lines suggest that the poet sees Nyerere as a person from a time before technology. It is as if Nyerere is being seen as a bridge from a pre-colonial ‘imagined’ past,2 into a technological world. He sees the contemporary world ‘of technology’ as preventing anyone else who would be like Nyerere emerging again. In a sense Nyerere, as the first president of Tanzania, is irreplaceable – no one else can be first. No one else is seen to have contributed to bringing about independence as Nyerere is. In many ways too, given what we now know about the potential of technologies to challenge autocracy, there is much truth in this sentiment. A modern day Nyerere, restricting the availability of television and information as he did in the 1960s and 70s, yet retaining the love of his people, seems an unthinkable political ‘animal’ now.

11This poet also pays tribute to the media for their reporting of Nyerere’s death. The response to Nyerere’s death, which we see in Likongine’s poem and which we will continue to see in poems from Uhuru was paralleled in many other local newspapers and was also echoed by the international media.

Revered in death

  • 3 Nyerere said that he preferred the title Mwalimu to anything more ostentatious since he had himself (...)

12Nyerere referred to himself as ‘Mwalimu’, the Swahili word for teacher,3 and it was used repeatedly to refer to him in the poems of mourning. A poem called ‘Farewell Teacher’ (Buriani Mwalimu) published in Uhuru on 16 October was based upon the metaphor of Nyerere as educator of the nation. In it he is described as the ideological leader of his people who taught them the way to go:

(2) Hayupo Mwalimu wetu, wanafunzi tuna shaka,

(2) Our Teacher is gone, we the students are in trouble

Na nani darasa letu, wa kutufunza kwandika

Who will take the class, who will teach our lessons,

Mawazo ya kila mtu, mbali sana yamefika.

Everyone’s thoughts are far away

Mwalimu ametutoka, daras letu na nani!

Our teacher has left us, who will teach us?

13In this poem Bibi Nasrah N. Nyoka asks “Who will teach us now?” She also suggests that ‘Bad people will come and seek to destroy the peace’ and asks how, without Nyerere, they will be put off? She again describes Nyerere as a person who gave light, and has hope that a “good person will emerge to be like Nyerere and shine over our country”.

14Another poem entitled simply “Nyerere” (Nyerere) and published in Uhuru on 15 October 1999 is a prayer like petition to God that Nyerere might rest in peace. The author of the poem, Abdallah R. Chekanae also prays that, when he dies, Nyerere be waiting in heaven:

(7) Mbele yake nyuma yangu, Yarabi unisikie,

(7) Before him behind me, Hear me

Ikifika zamu yangu, Nyerere anipokee,

When my turn comes, may
Nyerere receive me

Nimejawa na uchungu, acha nisiendelee.

I am filed with sadness so I shall end here

Mlaze mahali pema, Julius

Rest in Peace, Julius Kambarage

15Here the request that Nyerere should be waiting for the poet in heaven to receive him seems to suggest that Nyerere has a personal and spiritual relationship with his people. Such assertions seem to confer upon Nyerere saint-like qualities and seek to cement his super-human legacy.

16The poem “He lays in a good place in heaven” (Kalale Pema Peponi), by Fedelis Manyota also explicitly takes its theme from the speech in which Mkapa declared a period of national mourning, reminding the reader that in death Nyerere’s legacy should be respected:

(2) Kimetupata kikuli, Mkapa akatumka

(2) Mkapa said that it was a tragedy

Ya kwamba wetu halili,
Kambarage msifika

That our beloved, the praised

Kama taa ya kadili, Mwalimu ametuzimika.

Like the light of a candle,
Mwalimu was extinguished

Kalale peema peponi, mpendwa wetu Nyerere

Sleep peacefully in heaven, our beloved Nyerere

17Clearly that this should happen was not only testament to Nyerere but was also politically important for Mkapa, president and leader of CCM at that time, whose position was apparently challenged by Nyerere’s death. Mkapa needed to capitalise on Nyerere’s death in a certain way in order to try to negate a loss of stability in its aftermath. In this context, the near God like achievements attributed in the poem to Nyerere are also intended to consolidate Mkapa’s position:

(5) Utumwa metutoa, mkoloni kaondoka

(5) You freed us from slavery, and got rid of the colony

Uhuru tukapokea, bila damu kumwagika

We got our freedom, without blood being shed

Kiti ukakikalie, kakujalia

You occupied the seat, God granted it to you

Kalale pema peponi, mpendwa wetu Nyerere

Sleep peacefully in heaven, our beloved Nyerere

18The poem “Nyerere has left us” (Nyerere Ametutoka) by Rajabu M. Kianda gives Nyerere a plethora of different titles and descriptions. In the second verse he is called a ‘general’:

(2) Katutoka JEMEDARI kote aliyesifika

(2) He has left us our praised general

Aliyekuwai MAHIRI wa siasa

Who was skilled in the politics of Africa

Tumegubikwa na hori, nimuhali kutoweka.

Who led us out of the darkness

Mola amghuhrie, ametutoka

God help us, Nyerere has left us

19Thereafter he is described as both the Founder and Teacher, while in the fifth verse he is referred to as ‘Glorious’:

(5) NYERERE ni maarufu, kota alifahamika

(5) Nyerere is famous everywhere he is known

Ni sawa na mtukufu, jina lilivyotajika

He is like a Glorious one wherever he is known

Leo amekuwa mfu, daima tamkumbuka.

Today he lives no longer, we will always remember him

Mola amghuhrie, ametutoka Nyerere

God help us, Nyerere has left us

20In the eighth verse he is likened to a ‘light’:

(8) Hakuonyeshwa kmvaa, kila mtu kumshika

(8) He wasn’t disgusted to be touched by anyone

Kweli alikuwa taa, tuliona ikawaka

Truly he was a light we saw shining

Nuru yake iling’aa, kila pembe ilifika.

His beam shone everywhere that it reached

Mola amghuhrie, ametutoka Nyerere

God help us, Nyerere has left us

21In the final verse, verse 20, he is ‘Our pilot President’ (Rais RUBANI Wetu). It is worth noting that all of these analogies also appear in poems reproduced in the poetry collection about the Arusha Declaration published in 1971 (Kamenju and Topan, 1971). Therefore, while they are being reiterated in death, these analogies are not new. They cannot be viewed merely as the positive descriptions necessitated by mourning, but must also be seen as a continuation of an existing discourse. “A grief like this”, emphasises the immense sorrow felt at Nyerere’s death, which the author compares to a big ulcer; “Grief has gripped us, like a big ulcer”. The poet asks that people remember the positive legacy of Nyerere rather than the things he did which were controversial. In doing so, the poems contribute not only to the sense of national mourning, but also the silencing of that which is controversial which is so critical for the maintenance of Nyerere’s political legacy. The apparent necessity of sombre and reverential mourning again leads to a call for political stability in the present. In this way, poetry plays a part in imagining the nation and consolidating Nyerere’s legacy as a fundamental part of that (Anderson, 1991).

We should concentrate on the future

  • 4 I refer to the proverb ‘Yaliyopita si ndwele, tugange yaijayo’. In the poem, only the first half (‘ (...)

22Finnegan suggests that praise poetry was often ‘an essential part in rites of passage’ because it celebrated what had been and marked status for the future (Finnegan, 1970). Some of the poems in Uhuru more blatantly used the mourning for Nyerere as a time to recollect and to plan for the future. The poem “Farewell Teacher” (Buriani Mwalimu) by Saidi Nyoka uses the first section of the Swahili proverb: ‘That which is past is past; we should concentrate on the Future’.4 His poem focuses on how the nation has now lost its teacher Nyerere, but also advocates looking to the future in search for someone who can be his replacement.

23In another poem published on 16 October 1999, Nyoka mobilises the same proverb again and compares Nyerere to a Lion:

Mwana wa Simba ni Simba ( “The Child of a Lion is a Lion”) Saidi Nyoka Uhuru, 16 October 1999

(1) Kufariki kwa Mwalimu, kuna watu wanatamba

(1) There are those who assert that because of the death of

Kwamba sasa CCM, utata itaikumba

That CCM will now be plunged into trouble

Na Mkapa hali ngumu, itamfanya kayumba

And this situation will cause
Mkapa to sway

Mwana wa simba ni simba, hababaishwi na nyani

The child of a lion is a lion, he is not threatened by a baboon

(2) Wanasema Ikulu, mageuzi itasomba

(2) They say State house, it will handle the changes

Kwa sasa watafaulu, amekwishakufa mwamba,

For now they will succeed, he has already died the courageous one

Kifo hiki kwao lulu, kana kwamba waliomba

This death for them a pearl, what they had prayed for,

Mwana wa simba ni simba, hababaishwi na nyani

The child of a lion is a lion, he is not threatened by a baboon

(3) Nyerere amefariki, hii kazi ya

(3) Nyerere has died, it was the work of the Creator

Kwa sasa watfaulu, amekwishakufa mwamba

For now they will succeed, the courageous one is already dead

Kifo hiki kwao lulu, kana kwamba waliomba

For them this death is a diamond, that they had prayed for

Mwana wa simba ni simba, hababaishwi na nyani

The child of a lion is a lion, he is not threatened by a baboon

(4) Tuongelee msiba, ulio katika nyumba.

(4) We should grieve this calamity which is in our houses

Tunamzikaje baba, sio mengine kuomba

Is it too much to ask

Tumzike kwa mahaba, tushikana sambamba,

That we should bury our father with love, together side by side,

Mwana wa simba ni simba, hababaishwi na nyani

The child of a lion is a lion, he is not threatened by a baboon

(5) Hababaishwi na nyani, Mwana wa simba ni simba,

(5) He’s not threatened by a baboon, the child of a lion is a lion,

Utulivu na amani, kila pembe utawamba

Calm and peace, it will spread in every corner,

CCM tambueni, imeshika namba moja

This CCM recognise, it is the most vital matter

Mwana wa simba ni simba, hababaishwi na nyani

The child of a lion is a lion, he is not threatened by a baboon

(6) Kampeni zenu mbovu, mazishini zitafumba

(6) Your dirty tricks campaign won’t spoil the burial

Na kwamba ni upumbavu, Ikulu!
Ikulu! Kwimba,

It is stupid to call out State

Ni wenu sio werevu, kichwani umewapamba,

You have not been clever, it is written on your faces

Mwana wa simba ni simba, hababaishwi na nyani

The child of a lion is a lion, he is not threatened by a baboon

  • 5 The poem does not appear to refer to a specific group of people who might be a threat to political (...)

24This poem’s repeated refrain draws on an image of Nyerere as a lion and connects Mkapa to him as his direct descendent by also referring to him as a lion. In seeing Mkapa as a direct descendant of Nyerere, the author perhaps asserts that, just as Nyerere held CCM strong so will Mkapa. He might also have been instead suggesting that Mkapa was not worthy to succeed Nyerere. Nyoka implies in this poem that there was an opposition group,5 hoping to pounce on the opportunity to contest Mkapa’s position in the wake of Nyerere’s death. He refers to those who seek to make trouble as “baboons”, a characterisation, which implies that people who like to scorn and laugh at others do not realise that they have the same faults (Ndalu and King’ei, 1989: 153). Nyoka suggests then that people who contest the leadership of CCM are foolish and idiotic.

25Certainly there was also speculation in the press that Nyerere’s death would signal an end to political stability in Tanzania (The Guardian, 23 October 1999; The Daily Nation, 16 October 1999). Nyoka scorns those who sought to take advantage in the wake of Nyerere’s death, he asks instead in verse four “that Nyerere be buried with love by a population united – united in grief”. The message of this poem is that those who saw Nyerere’s death as a signal for change should leave things to be and bury Nyerere in peace. He advocates a unified memory for the nation’s father to solidify the role of his successor. By seeing the right leader for CMM as Nyerere’s child the poet suggests a kind of natural lineage between Nyerere and the current leadership, more akin to a monarchy than a political leadership. This reifying of Nyerere and by implication his successors seeks to link them to Nyerere not just as leader but also as a liberator, teacher and father of the Tanzanian nation.

26In her study of Oral Literature in Africa, Finnegan charts a development in praise poetry from oral traditions to modern praise poems for political leaders and party candidates (Finnegan, 1979: 90). She looks at traditions of praise poetry composed for kings and chiefs in the kingdoms which existed in pre-colonial times in parts of Africa. Oral poetry was recited by men who were employed as bards by the courts (Ibid: 116), and was sanctioned and commissioned by rulers as a means through which they could reiterate their importance, power and legitimacy. As Finnegan says, praise poetry can ‘validate status’, stress ‘accepted values’ and draw ‘attention to one’s achievements, preserving accepted versions of history’ (Ibid: 120). The author has studied a long tradition of such praise poetry amongst what she describes as the Southern Bantu (Ibid: 129). Analysing texts from across East and Central Africa Finnegan identifies praise poetry, which shares many of the characteristics of the poetry in newspapers about Nyerere. As in the poetry here she notes in her analysis the use of comparisons between the object of praise and various concepts of greatness (as in ‘Nyerere has left us’) as well as comparing them with animals (as in ‘The Child of a Lion is a Lion’) and inanimate objects (such as a light and a jewel in the poems above). This form also used repetitive refrains and similar prosody and structure to that observed in these newspaper poems.

27The poem ‘Advisors of the Nation’ by Saidi Nyoka, published on 23 October 1999, links Nyerere with a number of major political figures in CCM:

Washauri wa Taifa ( “Advisors of the Nation”) Saidi Nyoka Uhuru, 23 October 1999

(1) Tulikuwa na Mwalimu, Kawawa,
Jumbe na Mwinyi

(1) We had Mwalimu, Kawawa,
Jumbe and Mwinyi

Na washauri muhimu, la kinyume hamfanyi

It is the important advisors who got things right

Mwalimu ni marehemu, nguzo zetu sasa nyinyi.

Mwalimu is deceased, you are our shield now

Washauri wetu nyinyi, baada kufa Mwalimu

After Mwalimu’s death you are our advisors

(2) Mwalimu amekwachia, Kawawa huu upenyi

(2) Mwalimu left Kawawa with wisdom

Tutapo tingwa na njia, kuja hatujikanganyi

When the road ahead is shaky, we won’t hesitate

Haraka tutakujia, twaamini hutusonyi

To come to you for the help we believe you will give us

Washauri wetu nyinyi, baada kufa

After Mwalimu’s death you are our advisors

(3) Mwalimu kakwacha jumbe, watoto hututawanyi

(3) Mwalimu left a message, that we should not be divided,

Tutakuja tukuombe, ushauri hutubinyi

We will come to you for advice

Mwazo bora tupumbe, nasi hatuparuganyi

To get good ideas so that we don’t ruin things

Washauri wetu nyinyi, baada kufa

After Mwalimu’s death you are our advisors

(5) Palipo kinga na kinga, moto haujigawanyi

(5) Where there is defense and protection, Fire doesn’t divide itself

Utatoa kila mwanga, wala haufinyi finyi

You will give out light, and it will not decrease

Hazina tumeipanga, vyema hatuitapanyi

The treasurer is arranged, hopefully it won’t be dispersed

Washauri wetu nyinyi, baada kufa Mwalimu

After Mwalimu’s death you are our advisors

28Now that Nyerere is gone, the poet suggests Mwinyi (Tanzania’s second president from 1985-1995), Kawawa (prime minister in 1962 and again 1972-1977), and Jumbe (second president of Zanzibar under whose control, in 1977, the Afro-Shirazi Party merged with TANU to become CCM) should replace him as the nation’s advisors. Kawawa returned to Tanzania from London after it became clear that Nyerere would die but had been with him before that. Perhaps that is why in verse two the poet emphasises Kawawa’s role in carrying forward Nyerere’s wisdom. On the day of Nyerere’s death The Daily News published comments about Nyerere by some, whom they called his “close associates”. One of those featured was Kawawa who commented on Nyerere’s determination to use an African language and his passionate belief that education was more important than wealth. He ends his tribute with the words: “If you cannot grow up (kukomaa) under Mwalimu Nyerere, you cannot make it elsewhere.”

29Kawawa suggests that, anyone who could not mature under the government of Nyerere could not have matured and grown well anywhere. This is the ultimate tribute to Nyerere. Apparently Kawawa felt that Nyerere provided everything the Tanzanian people needed. The idea that Nyerere somehow provided all that was needed reflects the discourse we have explored; Nyerere is the best option, the most honest, he has integrity and ultimately the inference of all of these texts is that he was and is the only option.

30These last two poems reiterate the importance of following on from Nyerere. They certainly do not contest his power but view him as a legitimising force in the power of others. The discourse that views Nyerere as fundamental for Tanzania is being extended to others in his death. Nyerere is canonised to legitimate and affirm the credibility of the continuation of CCM as the only credible – and even possible – party to lead Tanzania. In post-Nyerere Tanzania, to have Nyerere on your side and to claim him as your ‘ancestor’ is to gain a place in the legitimising discourse of the nation of Tanzania. Phillips has shown how the image of Nyerere as the ‘Father of the Nation’ has indeed continued to have salience since (Phillips, 2010). Observing the 2004- 2005 election campaign of the incumbent President Jakaya Kikwete’s, she identifies the use of Nyerere praise songs and the political impact of CCM’s continued use of the Nyerere ‘myth’ in which there is a party lineage from Nyerere to Kikwete through the party and in which the party remains “institutionally senior to the government” (Ibid: 117).

Nyerere as Discourse

31Through the poems of mourning published in Uhuru, I have begun here to sketch a picture of Nyerere as discourse. Our impression of Nyerere, and the mourning for him, has been mediated by the dominant discourse articulated in the poetry itself. This discourse was not just seen in the poetry; on the contrary it pervaded all reporting about and reflections on Nyerere’s death. Nevertheless examining the poetry in this way has allowed us to explore a view of Nyerere which can help understand his place as ‘The Father of the Nation’ of Tanzania as a source of power which legitimised his rule, the authority of his successors and the state’s conception of national identity in Tanzania. The possession and use of this pervasive discourse in Tanzania society, it seems, can remain powerful even after Nyerere is dead.

  • 6 The Daily News is Uhuru’s English language sister-publication.

32Barthes recognised that the ‘claim to “decipher” a text’ was futile since once the author has committed text to page he is no longer there (Barthes, 1986). The text, he says, stands alone ready for interpretation. The texts in this project stand alone, their authors remain absent in all but name. My analysis however, is embedded in a discussion of the particular situation that the poets were writing for and about. We must read this poetry with an awareness of the social, political and historical context in which it was originally created. The necessity to do so becomes evident when we realise that the tropes of respect and reverence which appear in the poetry of mourning are also echoed in various other mediums: for instance, the Daily News6 led on 14 October 1999 with the comment, “Nyerere was a towering figure; endeared to his Tanzanian people and acknowledged by people in the rest of the world as a unique statesman”. The African, another daily newspaper in Tanzania, explained on the 15 October 1999: “So, when we today mourn his death, we are not alone. Thousands of people – the world all over – who shared Mwalimu’s vision of a friendly and just world, feel the poorest without him. They share with us the deep grief we feel – of losing an internationalist and defender of the defenceless and voice of the voiceless. At this saddest moment of our nation, we join our fellow compatriots to pray that may our nation stick to the ideals that Mwalimu believed in sacrificed his life for”.

33As we have seen the term Mwalimu, the Swahili word for teacher is recurrently used when referring to Nyerere. Many newspapers also carried condolence messages from their advertisers. One for example placed in The Guardian by Vodacom (then one of the two main cellphone companies) simply reads: “We extend our deepest sympathy to the Tanzanian nation for the loss of Mwalimu” (The Guardian, 23 October 1999). The sympathy extended is to a whole nation who called Nyerere their teacher. Speaking to a teacher whose school had closed when they heard news of Nyerere’s death a reporter from The African was told: “The pupils were disturbed after hearing the sad news, adding that they regard Mwalimu Nyerere as their grandfather” (The African, 15 October 1999). Everywhere the message echoes; a nation grieving the loss of its teacher, father, and even grandfather; champion of independence, peace and stability. There may have been those who were not so keen to celebrate Mwalimu but their voices were not heard in the media during the mourning period.

34Biersteker explains that poetry composed in Swahili is usually in “response to another poem and/or to elicit a poetic response” (Biersteker, 1996: 12). As further evidence of poetry ‘as praxis’ or debate, Biersteker mentions a book of poems published in newspapers in the 1960s on the subject of the Arusha Declaration (Ibid: 113). The editors Kamenju and Topan introduce their book as follows:

Kiswahili literature is now a literature of the farmers and the workers of Tanzania... The socialist revolution which is being carried out in this country fuels the spread, development and establishment of a Kiswahili literature (Kamenju and Topan, 1971: ix).

35For them, readership poetry was about giving a voice to the grass-roots organic intellectuals who had, they suggest, been empowered by Ujamaa (their socialist revolution) to create a popular literature for the masses. Yet, it is striking that this supposed ‘literature of the masses’ uniformly sings the praises of Nyerere and his party. One poem from the book entitled The Policy of Ujamaa refers to Nyerere as a ‘brave president’, who gives ‘good leadership’ which the people approve of. There are many other poems expressing similar sentiments in their book and all of them are written in prosodic form. It is striking to note the way in which the poems reproduced in their book, collected from newspapers published in the 1960s, revere Nyerere in a similar way to the poems which were published when he died in 1999. Were these poems of the 1960s really the literature of the ‘farmers’ and the ‘workers’ establishing a literary form which they could understand and find meaningful? Did the people of Tanzania all really think that Ujamaa was a wonderful idea, and that Nyerere and his party were to be praised for everything they were doing? Or, was that party, with Nyerere at its head, and the discourse that surrounded it in fact losing touch with the ‘workers and farmers’ it claimed it had freed from oppression? Is it possible that these poems rather than facilitating a literature of, and for, the masses as the editors claimed, in fact facilitated the dissemination of a dominant ideology espoused by the government? As Hunter explains, the presentation of Ujamaa at the time was a ‘new narrative (...) presented as an all- encompassing package of solutions’ (Hunter, 2009: 479), but as she points out, the narrative had limits and was only partly successful in creating the post-colonial nation of Nyerere’s imagining. Clearly the poems selected for publication in the 1960s, like those published in Uhuru after Nyerere died were part of the creation of this new narrative.

  • 7 Saadani Kandoro was, at one time a member of the governing council of CCM; he was “a leading activi (...)

36Indeed Nyerere himself wrote poetry, as well as often being the subject of it. Biersteker analyses a poetic debate which took place in the 1960s with Kandoro, which Kandoro himself published in and anthology called Mashairi ya Saadani (The Saadani Poems) in 1972 (Kandoro, 1972). Kandoro was an important writer and politician.7 In the poetic debate, they discussed the principles of Ujamaa. She claims that their debate illustrates Ujamaa as ‘praxis’; a practical exercise (as opposed to a purely theoretical one) in which they ‘struggled to create a progressive discourse based in mutual respect and equality’ (Biersteker, 1996: 134). Biersteker implies that the dialectical nature of poetry shows that Ujamaa was open and debatable as a concept. Biersteker views the apparent internal debate between Nyerere and Kandoro, as evidence of the potential for dialogue about Ujamaa ideology (Ibid: 137). Yet, Nyerere and Kandoro were, by the time they engaged in this poetic debate between 1964-69, both powerful members of a ruling party that controlled post-colonial Tanzania. The ideologies of equality and freedom from domination which they debated were, paradoxically, continually legitimising their actual power.

Poetry and debates

37Bloch has explored the ways in which forms of political oratory often limit what can be said. He is writing about speech and language when he says: “as soon as you have accepted a form of speaking in an appropriate way you have begun to give up, at a bewilderingly rapid rate, the very potential for communication...” (Bloch, 1975: 15). Bloch sees formalised speech as a means of restricting what can be said. In the context of poetry recognised forms of prosody, terminology and the form of the medium in which something is published might in fact act in a similar way. In the case of prosodic poetry published in the party newspaper Uhuru, to what extent might it be possible to ask: how else the poets could have written? The discourse initiated by Mkapa’s declaration of mourning (which took its inspiration from a discourse surrounding Nyerere in life) informed the reporting of Nyerere’s death and also established the thematic and linguistic parameters to which the poems of mourning can all be said to conform.

38The apparent presence of a dialogue does not necessarily amount to justice and equality because it does not amount to the same thing as freedom of dialogue. The fact that poetry in the Swahili context can be a discursive medium does not mean that it cannot simultaneously be a medium for disseminating a dominant ideology. A form in which the potential for debate is assumed to be present can actually be a restrictive form, in Bloch’s sense, which sustains and legitimises a dominant idea. In the context of these poems and, when considering the part they have to play in a wider discourse about Nyerere, it is very likely that the apparent equality and openness of the discourse was, in fact, a major political tool in maintaining a dominant party-line. In many ways too the poetry of mourning represents a continuation of this discourse controlled by a party line even after Nyerere had died.

39Weden describes “daily state-controlled newspapers in Syria” as “functional tablecloths, rather than respected records of current events” (Weden, 1999). We might think of Uhuru in this way, too. One reason for nevertheless choosing poems from Uhuru is that it simply published more poetry and had indeed done so since publication commenced sometimes containing as much as 25 % poetry in a section called ‘Your Poems’ (Mashairi Yenu). Initially poems “paid tribute to Nyerere, praised the nation and attacked colonialism” (Sturmer, 1998: 109). Secondly, even as a ‘tablecloth’, Uhuru remains an important instrument for the dissemination of discourse and in this context it merits analysis. Looking at this poetry allows an investigation of the discourse creating that party line and Nyerere’s place in it even in death. Moreover, as I have described during the mourning period, Uhuru was not particularly unique in its celebration of Nyerere’s life and in the way that the poems it chose to publicly eulogise him. The poetry in the period after Nyerere’s death, however, did not engage in a debate. Mourning was not a topic that was ‘up for discussion’.

40My subject matter is political and value-loaded. Nyerere may have been the nation’s father. He may be publicly praised and revered and in this poetry he is most often portrayed as inhumanly perfect. I nevertheless retain a desire to believe in Nyerere and this desire is perhaps a consequence of my partial acceptance of the discourse which I describe in this article. My attempt to be a ‘participant in the discourse’ has led me to believe that our view of discourse, as is well illustrated by Scott and by Weden, must not neglect the ability people have to penetrate, transcend or ignore it (Scott, 1985, 1998; Weden, 1999). Often perhaps discourse is accepted not because it is conceived of as categorically true, but because people either want to believe it or because for some reason it is beneficial to appear to believe it. Now that Nyerere has died it makes sense to allow him to continue to be revered in popular discourse, partly because he is no longer there to use or abuse that ‘heroicism’. Power for the future, however, rests in the ability of an individual or party to appropriate that discourse for their own.

41The eulogisation of Nyerere seems to suggest that criticism of him is unacceptable. Cannadine looks at ways in which ruling elites:

try to make alternative and subversive modes of thought seem off limits and even unthinkable, and seek to present what is in fact only one particular way of ordering, and organising society as authoritative and God-given (Cannadine, 1992: 2).

42Consider, for example, if the eulogising of Nyerere had in fact contrasted him with Mkapa how different the options for our understanding of the relationship between them and their place in CCM might seem. As Weden has claimed of the cult surrounding the Syrian leader Assad it is not that everybody thinks he is always wonderful that makes the image of him ‘effective and powerful’ but rather that those who agree and those who do not ‘alike, come increasingly to share the common experience of (the) vocabulary’ that reveres him (Weden, 1999: 30). The vocabulary respecting and revering Nyerere was shared by all the newspaper reports on his death, by all the television reports (on the mainland and Zanzibar) and by the many people who turned out to pay their last respects to the ‘father of the (ir) nation’. It was unthinkable perhaps not to pay one’s respects to him, no matter what one actually thought of him.


43Like me, Chalamanda writing about readership poetry in Malawian and South African newspapers makes the link between these oral forms and readership poetry which debates topical issues and she observes their use too in times of transition when ‘a nation and its key figures are being re-imagined’ (Chalamanda, 2002: 120). She observed of the call for poems following Malawi’s independence in 1963 that ‘the express aim of reader-contributions seems to be to demonstrate that readers truly absorb and celebrate the authority of the ruling power’ (Ibid: 160). As we have seen the readership poetry in Uhuru newspaper played a part in the creation of Nyerere’s power in the newly independent Tanzania during the 1960s and 1970s and the maintenance of his power thereafter. In death it revered him and supported the passing on of political power from Nyerere to those who followed him. The death of Nyerere was a significant national event in Tanzania politically, culturally and socially and one which necessitated a kind of transition of sorts from a nation with a living ‘Father’ to one which remembered him as its ‘Founding Father’.

44In particular, in the context of a party newspaper like Uhuru the poets are creating texts which legitimate rule and emphasise a dominant national version of history. These texts are commissioned by the paper not the court – but in many ways a party publication is part of the modern ‘court’ in the Tanzanian context. In this context I would suggest that the elite surrounding Nyerere, including amongst others the sympathetic editors of party publications were engaged in producing media which would continually seek to reinforce his legitimacy and in doing so, perpetuate their influence and power as well.

45The constant repetition in the mourning poems of Nyerere’s role as the bringer of light and independence reinforces the notion that it was he alone who was instrumental in bringing independence to Tanzania. The discourses which legitimise nations often rely upon a dominant history, which excludes the multiple histories and realities of the people within them. Geiger’s analysis of women’s involvement in TANU suggested that women’s instrumental role in the independence struggle has not been recognised after independence (Geiger, 1997). Women then, were one of the casualties of a ‘nationalist discourse’ created by historians, authors, journalists and politicians, which has undoubtedly been successful in the construction of the idea of what, at least until he died in October 1999, can be seen as predominantly ‘Nyerere’s Tanzania’. Equally official histories minimised the role of Muslim political activists in the heritage of independence, thereby ‘Christianising’ the independence movement (Said, 1998: 330). The nationalist discourse is that Tanzania was neither ‘benevolent’ nor ‘oppressive’ (Anthias and Yuval-Davies, 1993: 29), but rather constructed upon a synthesis of these positions. Often, what was framed as benevolence was in fact a means to exert control and power. A nation of children protected by Father Nyerere? The insufficiency of this protection evidenced by the catastrophes of economic reality, villagisation and a country, which has since seemed to be playing catch up with the capitalist economy which grew around it during Nyerere’s rule seems to have had minimal effect in destroying the idealisation of Nyerere. His resignation in 1985 certainly must have helped to perpetuate his iconisation. It is one of the facts frequently cited by commentators from Tanzania and abroad as proof of Nyerere’s honesty and integrity (Pratt, 1999).

46Nyerere was mourned nationally and internationally because the discourse that revered him was, to some extent, translatable. Not only Tanzanians and the media in Tanzania but the international media as well accepted for the most part the claim of the discourse; Nyerere, despite his faults was, at heart, a good man.



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1 Called kituo bahari which means the sea coming back again; it returns again and again.

2 In many speeches and articles, Nyerere espoused the idea of a return to ‘traditional African’ ways of life as a means for Africa, and particularly Tanzania, to recover from the damage inflicted by colonialism (Nyerere, 1967, 1968).

3 Nyerere said that he preferred the title Mwalimu to anything more ostentatious since he had himself briefly been a teacher.

4 I refer to the proverb ‘Yaliyopita si ndwele, tugange yaijayo’. In the poem, only the first half (‘Yaliopita si ndwele’) is used.

5 The poem does not appear to refer to a specific group of people who might be a threat to political stability.

6 The Daily News is Uhuru’s English language sister-publication.

7 Saadani Kandoro was, at one time a member of the governing council of CCM; he was “a leading activist in the nationalist movement and a very prolific poet” (Biersteker, 1996: 98). His government positions since independence have included being TANU secretary and Area Commissioner of Mafia and then Bagamoyo (Ibid: 30).


Originally became interested in representations of Nyerere in media and literature as an undergraduate student studying Swahili and Social Anthropology at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) around the time of his death. Her interest in Tanzania continued as a post-graduate student Goldsmiths College London. She is now an independent writer, anthropologist and facilitator working on women’s rights, equality and literature in East and Southern Africa.

© Africae, 2015

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