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UJAMAATanzania's village socialism

Review by Susan Jappie

Five decades ago, in the wake of the 1961 independence from British colonial rule, 17 Tanzanian villages set out to bypass capitalism, adopting principles popularised by President Julius Nyerere as UJAMAA, or ‘African socialism’.

In his newly published account, Ralph Ibbott – more recently a transformative community development worker in Greenock, Glasgow – tells of the period from 1961 to 1969, when he and his wife Noreen participated in the venture which spread successfully across the region of Ruvuma under the title of the Ruvuma Development Association.

UJAMAA’s successes, and its ultimate demise, hold many lessons for the collectives, co-operatives, community and transitional initiatives of all kinds which are blossoming throughout the world as an opposite to the individualist capitalist paradigm.

In seeking to lift themselves up from the colonial legacy of poverty and underdevelopment the villagers returned to and adapted the communal style of life they knew: consensus decision-making, self-determination, sharing of produce, aiming at self-sufficiency – local production for local consumption.

Nyerere was keen to develop a particular kind of African Socialism that was not hierarchical in any way, but drew on the indigenous ways of community that were part of their culture before colonialism. He was particularly keen to avoid the tendency of newly independent former colonies to replace the powerful elite with black instead of white players.

“Merely replacing Europeans with Africans could not change the nature of the State that imperialism had carefully left behind, whose structure aimed not to liberate but to merely discipline and repress.”

In order to develop, he said, Africa should depend upon its rural communities being self-sufficient rather than dependent on foreign aid.

In his revolutionary Arusha Declaration, Nyerere, known as Miluma, the teacher, pointed out two crucial changes that needed to be made in order for the country to progress:

As the Ibbott’s had already been working along these lines in a left-wing anti-apartheid community in Rhodesia before being expelled by Ian Smith, Nyerere had offered them a place in the first Ujamaa village of Litowa, where they could work alongside the rural Tanzanian pioneers.

The initiative succeeded brilliantly in Litowa, organising production, distribution, housing, health and education. Child mortality plummeted. Pupils at the self-governing Litowa school came from all the villages, boarding at Litowa during the terms.

They were trained to develop their exciting, caring rural society. Domestic violence almost disappeared and women’s status was rising. Others came to join and were encouraged to form new villages. The Ruvuma Development Association was formed, with its Social and Economic Revolutionary Army, to help new villages to establish themselves. By 1969, the association had 17 villages.

The book describes these processes with the aid of some photographs and tells how key players helped to start and spread the ideas throughout the region.

But the Ibbotts suffered from power hungry members of TANU (the Tanganyika African National Union) who saw the Scottish white couple as ‘outsiders’, urbanites who had no understanding of the slower pace needed to improve agriculture for self-sufficiency.

In reality, TANU’s leaders wanted large-scale tobacco plantations instead of maize for local consumption and to be calling all the shots.

Much of Ibbott’s account deals with the feelings of betrayal by the officials from TANU whose short visits not only failed to recognise all the successful work done, and, although they took care to stay away from decision-making, undermined the villagers by complaining about the few whites, and misinterpreting new buildings as a sign of class division.

This all led to the dissolution of the RDA at the end of the 60’s and the return to Scotland by the Ibbott family.

But thanks to the work of their younger co-workers: rights activists Selma James, Solveig Francis and Nina Lopez, who recognised the inspirational side of the attempt at an UJAMAA revolution at this time of global dissatisfaction with rising inequality, he was persuaded to publish it now.

2 February 2015

UJAMAA: The Hidden Story of Tanzania’s Socialist Villages by Ralph Ibbott. Crossroads Books £15.99

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