‘The history of the world is but a biography of great men.’ These words were uttered by Thomas Carlyle, the nineteenth century Scottish historian. Going by these words, the history of East Africa in particular and Africa as a whole is, to a huge extent, a biography of great leaders like Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, Tanzania’s first president.
But let me hasten to add that the folly of greatness is that it often clouds the real values that the great ones treasured. It is for this reason that I have always sought to know the values that Mwalimu Nyerere treasured. The answer came in the most unlikely of places – in the waiting room of Arusha’s Kilimanjaro Airport.
We were waiting for our flight to Nairobi and I was sipping a cup of lukewarm coffee as I conversed with Hon Dudu, a former Member of Parliament of the East Africa Legislative Assembly and a current District Commissioner in Uganda’s Karamoja District. He was a clean shaven stocky man who had once flown fighter jets for the Ugandan Airforce.
‘Did you ever meet Mwalimu Nyerere?’ I asked him from the blues. I have this bad habit of changing topics in the middle of a conversation.
Hon Dudu paused as an intense look spread all over his face. He smiled and although he was gazing at me, it was as if he was gazing back into the distant past, when he had met the iconic Tanzanian leader not once but many, many times.
‘Mwalimu Nyerere was my teacher,’ the retired pilot told me calmly.
I fleetingly wondered whether this was back in the fifties before Mwalimu Nyerere became president. Surely, no president could find time to teach.
‘It was in 1981. Each week without fail, the president would come to our class to teach us about leadership in the African context, amongst other topics.’
‘What!’ I exclaimed. ‘You mean to tell me that every week President Nyerere stood in front of you and taught you all these things.’
‘Yes,’ Hon Dudu said as he sighed in recollection, ‘on the few occasions that he missed class, he would make sure that he compensated by teaching double lessons.’
Finally! I thought to myself. Finally I was going to hear a first person account of Mwalimu Nyerere. Maybe, just maybe, I was going to catch a glimpse of the values that had guided this humble, charismatic African leader.
For the entire time that it took to wait for our Precision Air flight, I sat transfixed to the witness account of a leader who united his country and inspired his continent as he challenged the world to relate with Africa as an equal partner.
Mwalimu Nyerere had a very private and personal practice that he engaged in every day – prayer. Every day at 5AM, or thereabout, he would retreat to his private prayer room and for a whole hour, he would seek the strength and guidance of his beloved Heavenly Father.
To him, this prayer was more than a ritual. It was an intimate conversation between a son and his father. Neither was it a religious practice. It was a pragmatic way of tapping into strength that would take him throughout the day. In doing this, he seemed to be subscribing to the words of Bwak the Bantu poet that, ‘humility is an embrace of both utter helplessness and total strength.’
However, strength, if not expended wisely and strategically, accumulates into destructive power. From the time he strode onto the national stage, he always sought to remind Africa that it had a past that could enrich its future. It was this belief that informed his much touted embrace of socialism. Unfortunately, the general misconception was that his socialism was a protest against capitalism.
Mwalimu Nyerere espoused the socialism that was rooted in traditional Africa where collective responsibility was a cornerstone of the society. Because it took a village to raise a child, the adult who resulted from this child was accountable to and responsible for the community. This was more than the communal sharing of resources that was a key feature of eastern socialism.
With nearly thrice as many tribes as Kenya, Tanzania has nonetheless been able to escape from the shackles of tribalism. This was not an accidental twist of fate. Whenever he met and interacted with Tanzanians from all corners of the vast country, he saw fellow Africans, not fellow tribesmen. Using the leadership pulpit, he steered national policy and dialogue towards a place where the nation reigned supreme because the value of traditional Africa had not been relegated to the dusty annals of history.
Complacency was a word unknown to him. With his characteristic fervor, he urged Africa to follow Tanzania’s example. ‘African nationalism is meaningless, dangerous, anachronistic, if it is not, at the same time, pan-Africanism,’ he reminded Africans. For him, Africa needed to unite, not just in boardrooms and treaties but in action, farms, cities and highways.
It took two to dance, hence Africa needed to partner together in a dance not just of survival but of prosperity.
Mortality denied Mwalimu Nyerere a chance of further orchestrating the dance of prosperity. His prayer was that a new generation of Africans would take the baton and lead Africa into a prosperity that would not sacrifice human relations on the altar of profits.
We are that generation.