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Review of ‘Cheche: Reminiscences of a Radical Magazine’

‘Cheche: Reminiscences of a Radical Magazine’ should ‘be read by the younger generation of pan-Africanists from Cape to Cairo, so that they may dream, and also so that they may learn,’ writes Yash Tandon.

The Cheche Reminiscences are wonderful recollections of a group of bright young dedicated youngsters (most of them in their mid-twenties) at the Dar es Salaam University (DSU) in the late 1960s and early 1970s, who founded and were inspired by a journal called ‘Cheche’. That name was derived from ‘Iskra’ (spark), the Leninist revolutionary journal that helped spark the Russian revolution in 1917. During the course of my teaching at the DSU I had come to know Karim Hirji as well as the other co-authors (Henry Mapolu, Zakia Hamdani Meghji, George G. Hajivayanis, and Christopher C. Liundi). So I can say with hindsight that this radical student magazine was indeed a brave, I would say audacious, attempt to try and activate students at the DSU and beyond towards their chosen revolutionary goal of socialism.

One young man who went to the DSU during that period was Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, of whom Hirji says, ‘Museveni is a charismatic and inspirational speaker’. In the first chapter of the book, Museveni writes: ‘It is Dar es Salaam’s atmosphere of freedom fighters, socialists, nationalizations, anti-imperialism that attracted me ... while in Uganda, I looked at President Nyerere’s leadership as a source of inspiration to the struggling people of Africa.’ However, he was soon disillusioned. ‘I was, almost immediately, disappointed. I found the students lacking in militancy.’ Of all the chapters this is perhaps, politically, the most significant, not only because Museveni is currently the president of Uganda, but also this chapter really gets into the heart of what inspired the group of young radical students at the DSU during those years, and, more significantly the strengths and weaknesses of their dreams and foibles.

In November 1967, Museveni and other radical students formed the University Students African Revolutionary Front (USARF). Their journal ‘Cheche’ appeared in November 1969 as an organ that was to transform the University into a ‘hotbed of revolutionary cadres’. In the first issue of ‘Cheche’ Museveni wrote on: ‘Why We Should Take up Rifles’. Looking back it is tempting to ask the question: How much of what Museveni says and does today was influenced by the USARF and ‘Cheche’ in his student days? Alternatively, how has Museveni changed from those early heady days, and if so, why?

One thing that held the group together was their revolutionary zeal. I will let Hirji explain: ‘We were impelled by love for humanity... Humanity for us was a single family.’ It is beautiful to read this; for the young not to have visions or dreams for a better world for humanity would be really sad. For this alone the book is worth reading. Once this is understood, it is then easy to appreciate both the dream and the disillusionment that one reads in the book.

There is a short paper (5 pages) by Zakia Hamdani Meghji on ‘Sisterly Activism’. She narrates a lovely, touching, story of her visit to a village in Dodoma. Having come from Zanzibar`s ‘Stone Town’, rural Dodoma was an awakening for her. The radical students organised shamba work and visits to Ujamma villages on a regular basis. ‘We wanted to change the system, to make poverty history.’ But she was soon to be disillusioned. Her sisters were not that encouraging. ‘In the wide variety of radical activities on the campus I participated in,’ she writes, ‘one thing often bothered me –too few female members were present ... Often I was alone.’ This must be heartbreaking, and not a very flattering picture of USARF’s activism on the campus. Later, she joined the Tanzania Parliament, and held several Ministerial portfolios including on health, natural resources and tourism, and finance. There is another essay by Henry Mapolu titled, ‘On Producing a Student Magazine’, which gives an interesting account of how the magazine was physically produced (on stencils and cyclostyled), and self-financed. After leaving DSU, Mapolu worked as a Worker Education Officer at the Friendship Textile Mill. Now he runs a private management consulting company called REDMA.

The best essay in the book, in my view, is by George G. Hajivayanis on ‘Night- Shift Comrades’. ‘Our motivation to produce Cheche,’ he says, ‘was to serve the working people of the world, disseminate ideas that promoted class-based understanding of society, and social change, speak truth to powers that be, and educate our fellow students.’ How does he assess this endeavour? ‘The process helped us clarify our own ideas, debate the different interpretations of history, society and development, and engage the broader group of apathetic students ...’ he says. George is chastened by his experience, but he is not bitter. ‘Life is a poem’, he says, ‘a long winding poem filled with mystery and wonder... We are all poets. Sometimes we write our own verses.’ George is also a realist. ‘Often,’ he says, ‘external forces and the conditions in which we get caught up modify or dictate what we put down.’ How true! So what happened? ‘Over time, the zeal waned’, he says. ‘Instead of committing class suicide, as we had dreamt about during student days, my friends and I became petty-bourgeoisified. ... and away from the lives and conditions of the masses.’

Overall, it is wonderful to read these essays by people, now no longer young and presumably mellowed down by age and experience, who went through an experiment that was, in my view, simply magnificent. Later Hirji says that he and his comrades had ‘grave deficiencies’ and that ‘(w)e progressively became less organised and disciplined, and more immersed into a petty bourgeois mode of life. In our personal lives, many among us strove to attain the best of both worlds.’ These words make a sad reading. Here, I think, the older Hirji is a bit too hard on the youthful Hirji and his equally young comrades. In my view, even if they had sacrificed their lives for ‘the masses’, socialism, or whatever they had in mind, might still have eluded them. Socialism is a monumental long term, almost an epochal, challenge; it is not a one day’s wonder.

Dreams do not make revolutions, but the young must dream nonetheless. We are living through times of possibly revolutionary changes. ‘Cheche: Reminiscences’ should be read by the younger generation of pan-Africanists from Cape to Cairo, so that they may dream, and also so that they may learn. As Hajivayanis says: ‘... it has not been in vain. Human progress does not follow a straight line. We are not angels. ...The youth of today have to pick up, not drop, that baton. But not in a mechanical way. They need to examine our efforts, weigh the good and the bad, and work out their own analysis, directions and strategies.’


* Yash Tandon is the author of ‘Ending Aid Dependence’ and ‘Development and Globalisation: Daring to Think Differently’.
* ‘Cheche: Reminiscences of a Radical Magazine’, edited by Karim F. Hirji, is published by Dar es Salaam Mkuki na Nyota Publishers, 2010.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.