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From the perspective of a fellow artist, Vicensia Shule, Mwalimu Nyerere’s role in the promotion of art and the welfare of artists is reviewed in this article. “Mwalimu”, Vicensia observes, “produced various pieces of theatre works” and “in his mission to decolonized theatre” he translated Shakespeare plays into Kiswahili. She further notes that he was able to link his Ujamaa philosophy with fine arts, as the case of renaming the famous ‘Dimoongo’ Makonde sculpture ‘Ujamaa’ illustrates. However, Vicensia asserts, Mwalimu “was not lucky enough to nurture his fellow politicians especially in his party to appreciate art out of political propaganda.” She thus calls for the re-implementation of Mwalimu’s ideas on art.

There are many issues in Africa and beyond that Mwalimu Julius Nyerere can be acknowledged for his contribution and participation. They range from social and political issues to international affairs. The aim of this article is not only to show Nyerere’s intellectualism and his artistic skills, but also to demonstrate how he used arts to express his philosophy and ideas. Using his artistic creativity, he managed to produce and identify the potentials of the arts in building an independent nation soon after independence. This article thus discusses Nyerere as an artist and his initiatives to protect art. It also analyses how the shift of ideology from socialism to neoliberalism has affected the arts.

Historically, both German and the British colonial governments were keen to destroy theatre and other cultural activities because for them they were ‘demonic’ and ‘barbaric’. Germans, for example, neither established a theatre institution nor impressed their aesthetics upon the local population. “Because of ignorance and because for the most part it suited them, they denigrated local performances as ‘uncivilized’ activities” (Lihamba, 2004, p. 236). Mollel (1985) and Lihamba (1985a) explain how the British occupation resulted in the introduction of colonial theatre in Tanganyika in the 1920s. Lihamba (2004) regards the British colonialism as the beginning of “a period of aggressive introduction of Western theatre” which was “facilitated through two major channels; schools and expatriate drama clubs” (pp. 236-237). Western theatre performed in racially segregated schools, used proscenium arch stages, and expensive costumes (Mollel, 1985, p. 23).

The period between 1945 and 1952 was marked by the aggressive return of colonial theatre after a lull in the years from 1922 to 1940s, when Britain was economically ‘strangled’ as Chachage (1986) elaborates. There was the re-introduction of western theatre performance such as those of William Shakespeare, Bernard Shaw, Gilbert and Sullivan (Lihamba, 2004, p. 237). Although such western performances could not trace any roots in Africa, they were considered to be a ‘universal’ model of theatre, as Mollel (1985) argues. The Little Theatre was established by the British in Dar es Salaam and Arusha in 1947 and 1953 respectively. They were used as a model to show ‘elite’ Africans or ‘black Europeans’ (as Nyerere referred to them) the quality and value of western theatre (Mlama, 1991, p. 100).

Missionaries and the church had a similar perception on African performing arts. Apart from their moral plays, traditional African theatre was seen as demonic and repugnant. There have been two schools of thought on why colonialists and missionaries were keen to suppress traditional African theatre in favour of western theatre. There were those scholars such as Plastow who believed that missionaries did not fully understand African performing arts and theatre. Theatre, along with other performing arts, was associated with witchcraft and was thus classified as demonic. She argued:

Traditional performance was often related to indigenous religion, to sexuality and to alcohol-all things which the Church strove to deny the African people. Moreover, traditional African culture must have been extremely frightening to many imperialists. They generally understood neither its language nor its form, and had been so indoctrinated in the ‘savage’ nature of ‘primitive’ Africa that a firelight ngoma may well have been transmuted in their eyes into a pagan ritual of frightening barbarity (1996, p. 45).

Scholars like Bakari & Materego (2008), Kerr (1995), Mlama (1985) and Nsekela (1984) offered an alternative view. They argued that the banning was not ‘an accident’. Colonialists knew that theatre was a simulacrum of culture and for the Christians, they suppressed African performing arts when “they realised culture held the symbolic key to the religious and moral bases of indigenous societies” (Kerr 1995, p. 18). Nsekela explained in detail how colonial education provided by the missionaries was used to encourage people to accept “human inequality and domination of the weak by the strong” as one of the fundamental elements of being civilized (1984, p. 58). Even the process of putting forward religion before colonial administration had a specific mission. Mlama (1985) argued that “in capitalist systems, the mind of the exploited was turned to accept exploitation” and religious “songs for example, especially those of Christianity, have been extensively used by capitalists to make people accept worldly material poverty in the hope of receiving heavenly spiritual salvation” (p. 9).

Before the end of the World War II, cultural activities including traditional dances – ngoma were seen as obscene, barbaric and one of the activities which propagated tribalism (Plastow, 1996). Later in 1948, the British colonial government changed its cultural policy to allow and encourage cultural activities including ngoma (Rubin & Diakante, 2001, p. 302). The British provided a list of 20 ngoma which were acceptable (Lange, 1995, p. 46). This could be seen as a difference between the Germans and the British, but in actual fact the point in time when the British government decided to allow certain ngoma was a time when nationalism and liberation movements had begun and the colonial administration was in no position to say otherwise (Askew, 2002, p. 168). This freedom was to satirically “distract them from the mounting opposition to colonial domination in the empire” (Mlama, 1991, p. 58).

Despite this incursion, it was clear that the colonialists could not manage to wipe out African traditional performing arts (Lihamba, 2004, p. 236). As the colonial government banned various traditional performances due to their ‘barbaric’ nature, certain theatre groups resisted this ‘cultural invasion’ and fought for their cultural freedom whereby beni ngoma was one of them. This developed primarily by taking various elements from the social, political and colonial organizations. The dancers put on the imitation of colonial military costumes. The music performed (brass band) and even the dancing itself (parade), imitated military drill practices. Beni practiced in the form of associations, well-known ones included Marini against Arinoti and Kingi against Scotchi (Askew, 2002, p. 45; Chachage, 2002; Lange, 2002; Edmondson, 2007).

Surprisingly, colonialists were attracted because they could see that Africans had understood the kind of performances they were supposed to perform. “The imitation of European dress and drills, especially by the African civil servants, teachers and soldiers, was seen as a civilizing process for the local people” (Lihamba, 2004, p. 238). Thus, the notion that ngoma and other traditional performances were ‘barbaric’ was well comprehended within beni. However, Beni, as any other theatrical form, was a result of the oppressive administrative structure between the rulers and the ruled struggling to fit within the created administrative systems. As Ngugi clearly shows, the consequences of any submissive domination is the birth of a culture of resistance (1997, p. 127).

Later, the colonial government decided to regulate beni because they thought it could bring political consciousness as it contained abusive elements and those which question the legitimacy of colonial administration (Chachage, 1986). For the colonialists, beni became a communist society (Lihamba, 2004, p. 238). Hence the colonial government started to charge tax for each performance so as to discourage people from dancing. As was expected, some members of beni associations were part of the nationalist movement which gave birth to the Tanganyika African National Union –TANU, the party which fought for independence (Lihamba, 1985a, pp. 29-30).

To mark the attained ‘pseudo’ independence on the eve of 9th December 1961, Mwenge wa Uhuru (Freedom/Uhuru Torch) was placed on the top of Mount Kilimanjaro by Alexander Nyirenda as a symbol of freedom. Here, I wish to argue that, the ritual of placing the torch and the annual Uhuru Torch race (Mbio za Mwenge wa Uhuru) represent Nyerere’s admiration of the performing arts and its role in shaping people’s consciousness towards a common goal.

The establishment of the Ministry of Culture and Youth could be traced to 1962 President’s Inaugural Address. In this speech, Nyerere outlined the roles of the ministry, including facilitating the process of enabling Tanzanians to regain their cultural pride (Nyerere, 1966, p. 187). In the same speech to the parliament, Nyerere indicated his concern on how colonialism dehumanised African arts. His speech became the blueprint of Tanzania’s ‘cultural policy’ and led to various art reformations. This included the ‘institutionalization’ of National Art Groups (NAGs). The aim of institutionalizing NAGs was to fulfil Nyerere’s quest for the renaissance of Africanness in the arts and culture (Bakari and Materego, 2008).

The institutionalized groups included the National Ngoma Troupe (1963), National Acrobatic Group (1969) and National Drama Group (1972). These groups were designed to act as a model of performing arts in Tanzania. For example, the National Ngoma Troupe had 30 artists recruited from the various regions in Tanzania, comprising of both musicians and dancers (Lange, 2002, p. 55). It should be noted that the process of building a national culture through theatre groups dates back to the birth of TANU in 1954 when Hiari ya Moyo under Suleiman Mwinamila participated effectively in creating a national theatre (Semzaba, 1983). From the beginning of TANU formation, decolonization movement started and Hiari ya Moyo was forced to put forward nationalism and liberation concepts that is, to fight against colonialism and (cultural) imperialism. Amka Msilale (Wake up, don’t sleep) was their first recorded performance in 1954.

Amka Msilale (Wake up don’t sleep)
Msiwe wajinga mu Tanganyika (Don’t be stupid, you are in Tanganyika [territory])
Tanganyika ni mali yetu (Tanganyika is our property)
Tukidai tutapewa (If we demand it, we’ll be given)
(Semzaba, 1983, p. 22)

The multiplication of NAGs trickled down to the village levels. The process did not only end with the establishment, but also facilitation of their existence which were meant to be the foundation of the national artistic pride. These groups performed in political rallies, state banquets and meetings at all levels. Members of the NAGs were state employees. Since the state subsidized most of the costs and paid for their monthly salaries, the groups were not allowed to charge or receive extra payment for their performances. The focus was on the promotion of national unity and on echoing state’s Ujamaa policies. One of the positive outcomes of such initiatives was to make theatre an active activity at various levels of the society (Mlama, 1985, p.103).

The union ‘ritual’ between Tanganyika and Zanzibar of 26th April 1964 pictured above, can be referred to as another artistic performance. Nyerere mixed the soil of the two countries in addition to the common approach of signing the treaty that is, the exchange of the Articles of Union. The costumes and the process of mixing the soil symbolised how Nyerere valued and treasured arts and his belief on the content of traditional theatre.

Mwalimu, as Nyerere commonly known, also produced various pieces of theatre works. It should be noted that, in his mission to decolonize theatre, Mwalimu at various times, translated the so-called famous Shakespeare plays in Kiswahili. According to Rubin and Diakante (2001, p. 301) the translated plays were Julius Caesar as ‘Julius Kaizari’ (1968), Macbeth as ‘Makbeth’ (1968) and The Merchant of Venice as ‘Mabepari wa Venisi’ (1969).

One of the explanations of why Nyerere translated those works could be that by unfolding what was within the ‘famous’ English based theatre – The Shakespeare’s – he could add value to people’s theatre and ‘regain their pride’. He believed that Kiswahili readers could better understand the content and context of the Shakespeare’s plays and have an opportunity to compare African/Tanzanian and foreign/western theatre in the process of regaining their pride. Secondly, for Mwalimu, it was important to promote Kiswahili as the language of theatre (Rubin and Diakante, 2001, p. 302). Thirdly, perhaps it was a way of proving to the world that what the majority were glorifying as holy literature, a simple person – a proletarian (as he preferred to call himself) could read, understand and even translate. In fact in his 1962 speech to the parliament, Nyerere lamented how the European education dwelled more on teaching people how to dance fox trot, waltz and rock ‘n’ roll. He asserted that this made educated people unable to dance traditional dances such as gombe sugu, the mangala, kiduo or lele mama whereby some have not even heard about them (Nyerere 1966, p. 187).

Looking at how Mwalimu translated the works, one has to read between the lines so as to get a sense of his inner motive. For example the The Merchant of Venice could literally be translated as Mfanyabiashara (or Wafanyabiashara in plural) wa Venice. The word mabepari (bepari in singular) means capitalist(s). Perhaps after reading the book, he realized that the merchant behaviours could not be differentiated from those of the capitalists. In addition, it might be that he wanted to concisely deliver the point home since, being a self-proclaimed African socialist (Mjamaa), he was anti-capitalist. As noted, he purposely used the plural form of the title as opposed to its singular ‘merchant’. It can also been observed that the years when he translated the works that is, between 1967 and 1969 reflects the promotion of the then dominant ideology – Ujamaa. Perhaps he wanted to emphasise it to people. All these translations and initiatives indicated, arguably, his stance against imperialism and its various manifestations. He saw imperialism as the cause of misconceived African history and arts.

Mwalimu was also able to link his Ujamaa philosophy with fine arts. The famous Makonde sculpture known as Dimoongo by Robert Yakobo Sangwani was renamed as Ujamaa in the 1960s after The Arusha Declaration of 1967. The sculpture Dimoongo demonstrated a Makonde strength or power. Looking at the way the sculptor had been able to construct one person at the bottom supporting others and how those who have been supported support themselves as group, translated itself to Mwalimu’s idea of Ujamaa (Erick, 2009). It is said that it was Mwalimu who renamed it to Ujamaa after seeing its structure.

The Tanzanian Coat of Arms as one of the national symbols represents the artistic creativity contained in other symbols such as the flag, national anthem and the Uhuru Torch. It is moulded to embrace the warrior’s shield in the midst of elephant tusks mounted on top of Mount Kilimanjaro. One can also see the man on the left and the woman on the right, standing in balanced postures on the sides of the warrior’s shield with cloves and cotton on their feet respectively. The warrior’s shield has the Uhuru Torch, Tanzanian flag, crossed axe and hoe, spear and water sign. All these symbolises the beneath motto of Uhuru na Umoja (Freedom and Unity) – this is a title of Nyerere’s (1966) book. It is important to notice the demonstrated warrior’s shield which depicts various historical battles for freedom. The man and woman reflect the respect for human equality regardless of gender, colour or any other social aspect.

As pointed out earlier, the establishment of the Ministry of Culture was the earliest post-independence initiative to fight against cultural imperialism. According to Ngugi:

Cultural imperialism in the era of neo colonialism can be a dangerous cancer because it can take new, subtle forms. It can hide under cloaks of militant nationalism, calls for dead authenticity, performances of cultural symbolism, and even under native racist self-assertive banners that are often substitute for national self criticism and collective pride in the culture and history of resistance (1997, p. 18).

As Ngugi explained, it is evidently that Nyerere knew the consequences and magnitude of cultural imperialism and he took measures to overcome it. He believed that a people’s language was an important factor in this struggle. He devised subtle modalities to absorb imperialist influences in theatre. The immediate approach was to provide artists with the theme of their performances i.e. Ujamaa. Since artists looked at Nyerere as a national and international role model, they could easily transform his actions and decisions into theatrical works. The philosophical speeches and arguments which Nyerere preferred to deliver probably were among the ones which influenced the artists.

The other theatrical landmark was the birth of Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM) in 1977. This was the merger of TANU and Afro Shiraz Party (ASP). After the birth of CCM, Hiari ya Moyo made a composition titled Leo Sio Sherehe Tunaanza Chama (Today is not a ceremony, we are inaugurating a party).

Kufa kwa TANU na Afro (The death of TANU and Afro [ASP])
Sio kufikiwa kwa Ujamaa kamili (Is not the attainment of Ujamaa)
Wametimiza yao waliyoyaweza (They have fulfilled what they could)
CCM lake ni kuendeleza (CCM has the responsibility to take over)
Kwenye Ujamaa kutufikisha (So as to reach Ujamaa)
(Semzaba, 1983, p. 26)

This was the time when we were told chama kimeshika hatamu – party supremacy. Therefore even artistic works especially songs and performances by the NAGs were geared towards party supremacy and the promotion of Ujamaa. Mlama adds, “the ideological intention behind the promotion of these groups [NAGs] resulted to the development of a theatre for propaganda which … is an attempt to domesticate the theatre to serve interest of the ruling ideology” (1991, p. 103).

Despite all these efforts by Nyerere, there was no defined socialist cultural policy (Mlama , 1985). The 1962 and subsequent speeches were taken as part of the art/cultural policy. The so-called policy was based on the state officials’ statements. It thus was taken for granted that the growth of culture would go hand in hand with the success of Ujamaa:

This argument ignores the fact that the economic base and the cultural superstructure determine and influence each other and cannot therefore be separated. It also ignores the fact that while the country is waiting for socialist culture to come it is under constant exposure to the influences of capitalist and imperialist culture which is part and parcel of the imperialist struggle against socialism. There is a tendency to think that the war against imperialism is only an economic one, and a failure to realise that imperialism is fighting the war against socialism both economically and culturally (Mlama, 1985, p. 5).

Unfortunately, the ministry or department which was designed for arts and culture shunted in several places since 1962. By 1995, the ministry or its culture component has been shifted in about 11 ministries and offices (Askew, 2002, p. 186). This movement has been taken to mean lack of seriousness about matters which have to do with culture especially arts (Askew, 2002; Lange, 2002; Lihamba, 1985b; Mlama, 1985). Instead of working on a clear cultural policy which could comply with Ujamaa, the responsible ministry for culture was busy sending groups to perform in party-state meetings and functions. This is partly due to the influence of Ujamaa ideology and party supremacy. Giving several examples Mlama confirmed that this puppet attitude has resulted into the art of parroting (Mlama, 1985, p. 14).

To protect the party supremacy, Radio Tanzania – Dar es Salaam (RTD) and the National Music Council (BAMUTA) ended up in direct censorship which was done by cultural officers at all levels (Mlama, 1985, pp. 14-15). Mlama noted that “such control betrays a misguided view of the role of art in ideology. Art can be critical and yet contribute positively to ideological development. Parrot art does not contribute to the socialist construction because it does not analyse problems and point out solution” (1985, p. 15).

Although Mwalimu was an artist, fond of art and a good teacher, he was not lucky enough to nurture his fellow politicians especially in his party to appreciate art out of political propaganda. Nyerere speeches were misinterpreted to mean sending a group of ngoma to the airport or to the national stadium, dancing on the harsh sun, negotiating to show themselves to the guests of ‘honour’ while security officers are busy strangling their movements and tempering with their emotions even before they start to perform. It was on the same time of implementing Nyerere’s ideas when political slogans like kazi si lele mama (‘work is not a dance of lele mama’) which directly abuse arts came up (Mlama, 1985 p.17).

Mwalimu’s love for the art was not spared by imperialism either. The proposition to re-structure the economy through the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank’s Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) necessitated the downsizing of state expenditures. Apart from other artistic and political challenges of the NAGs, the government could no longer subsidise them by the end of the 1970s. The focus was to repay debts through the withdrawal of budget allocation to social services such as theatre and ‘ploughing’ towards development, modernity and universalism i.e. complying with neoliberal policies.

Thus it is important to emphasise that the project to build national culture through theatre was dismantled when the state had to downsize its expenditures according to IMF and World Bank neoliberal conditions. “Throughout the country, government-owned institutions were either scrapped, had to curtail their activities or were later privatised. Cultural troupes owned by such organisations ceased to function” (Lihamba, 2004, p. 243). At the end, “liberalisation policies pursued from the early 1980s made theatre a commodity for sale like any other” (Rubin and Diakante, 2001, p. 304).

The state dissolved NAGs and instead, formed a National Art institute in 1980. This institute was situated in Ilala Sharif-Shamba in Dar es Salaam, in the current National Art Council (BASATA) premises. In 1981, the institute was transformed and shifted to Bagamoyo and became Bagamoyo College of Arts (BCA) and currently it is known as the Institute of Arts and Culture, Bagamoyo or TaSUBa (Makoye, 1998, p. 95).

To ensure sustainability of art, Nyerere created opportunities for artists to produce and survive on their own. Despite the fact that there was no clear policy, in his speeches which were mostly translated as policy directives one could sense his idea, creativity and passion for art. He established Nyumba ya Sanaa in 1974, positioning it in the middle of Dar es Salaam. He believed that if it could be efficiently utilized, it would reduce the artists’ begging syndrome to donors and the state, which enslaves them. It is surprising to note that even Nyumba ya Sanaa has been one of the places the state want to privatise while at the same time struggling to secure funds to build other places of the same nature in Bagamoyo (Naluyaga, 2009).

The ‘Zanzibar Declaration’ of 1991, which replaced the Arusha Declaration (1967), could be regarded as the ‘marketisation of arts’ like any other product (Rubin and Diakante, 2001). Artists, who are supposed to compete in this market, were not well equipped to cope with the changes in terms of competition and producing quality works. Art education could be one of the state’s supports to assist them.


* Vicensia Shule is a performing artist and an assistant lecturer at the Department of Fine and Performing Arts, University of Dar es Salaam.
* This article will be a contributing chapter to a forthcoming Pambazuka Press book entitled [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.

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