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A little-known Tanzanian academic who played a big role at the University of Dar es Salaam in the 1970s died on 29 January 2011.

On 29 January 2012, a humble man left this planet, forever. Complications of malaria, maybe. Sixty-seven years old, with a jovial, simple, diligent personality, he had run a small management consulting company in Dar es Salaam for nearly 20 years.

His family, neighbours, co-workers, clients and friends grieved deeply. But few others took note of his sudden passing. Ordinarily, the demise of a person of any prominence occasions a media tsunami in Tanzania. This one, however, did not generate even a tiny wave.

Should it have been otherwise? Let us pause to reflect: his name was Henry Mapolu. He had lectured in the Sociology Department of the University of Dar es Salaam from 1972 to 1978.

In that short period, he conducted pioneering, meticulous research into topics as diverse as industrial management and work relations, and rural development and social stratification in Tanzania. His MA thesis dealt with tobacco farming and social change in rural Tabora.

He edited one book, co-edited a second, and wrote erudite chapters therein. On the first book, ‘Workers and Management in Tanzania’ (Tanzania Publishing House, 1974), Professor Andrew Coulson of the University of Birmingham notes: ‘[I">t will always be a classic. In many ways, it pioneered urban sociology in Tanzania.’

Henry Mapolu demonstrated his mettle from his student days. He was an active member of a socialist, Pan Africanist student organization, and sat on the editorial board of its journal, ‘Cheche’, until both were banned in 1970 for being too outspoken. Not deterred, he went on to found and be the senior editor of another progressive student journal, ‘MajiMaji’. These journals addressed burning social and economic issues in an engaged and scholarly manner. They carried perceptive papers from distinguished academics, local and international. The readership extended beyond the borders of Tanzania to Kenya, Uganda, Europe, USA, China and elsewhere.

As a student and an academic, Mapolu not only took part in the scholarly exchanges of the era, but also wrote letters, commentaries, articles and book reviews for popular consumption in the national press. His delivery in both venues was logical and evidence-based. Yet, unlike most ivory tower residents, he had a particular knack for converting an intricate idea into a clear form. His eminently understandable writing style was widely appreciated by students, colleagues and readers.

And Henry was not just a man of words. With fellow progressives, he worked in Ujamaa villages, self-help projects and adult literacy campaigns. He went door to door to raise funds for African liberation movements. His popular writings and voluntary work yielded no personal gain. They just imposed an additional burden on top of the heavy demands of the academia. And, often, they drew the ire of the powers that be. Nevertheless, he persevered, and excelled on both fronts.

By 1978, Henry Mapolu was an eminent-sociologist-in-the-making, and was viewed as such, here and abroad. His works featured in university courses, and were cited and quoted widely.
Yet, one fine day, on his own volition, and without any inducements, he stepped off the ivory tower to take up the post of the workers education officer at the Urafiki Textile Mill, the largest industrial enterprise in the nation. Strange as it may seem today, the rationale underlying this unorthodox step was simple: he was a public intellectual, a socialist dedicated to the welfare of the common man and Africa.

At the Mill, he worked as hard and as creatively as ever to organise a broad based worker education program. It included literacy classes, basic economics, labour law, technical aspects of textile production, social issues, national affairs and global politics. He recruited qualified experts to write simple but not simplistic pamphlets of relevance, and teach the workers. It was a remarkable, well attended and genuinely popular program the like of which has not been seen elsewhere in Africa. A segment of the material for these courses was later produced in a book form.

Henry was also a man of principles. One fine morning, he heard on the radio that he was to be a district commissioner. It was a presidential appointment. Most would either have jumped at the opportunity, or be too intimidated to decline. But Henry did not covet the position. Importantly, he had not been consulted beforehand. So, he simply but firmly said, “No, I do not accept.” And that was that - the first and only time such a bold stand has been taken in the history of independent Tanzania.

In the last two decades of his life, Henry receded from public view to immerse himself in consultancy work and family affairs. Unlike others of his era, he did not join the corrupt state bureaucracy, or attempt to rapidly rise through dubious means. On a rare occasion, he wrote a book review or so. His last scholarly contribution was a fabulous chapter dealing with the challenges of publishing a student magazine for the book ‘Cheche: Reminscences of a Radical Magazine’ (Mkuki na Nyota, 2010).

The illuminating writings of Henry Mapolu have stood the test of time to constitute an enduring part of the finest scholarship on Africa. His analyses of rural development and stratification presage and stand shoulder to shoulder with the writings of the ablest modern social scientists on globalisation. They are as relevant now as they were then. In the struggle for the genuine liberation of Africa, they are a must read.

Upon learning of his death, eminent scholars from all over have written to his friends to declare to that effect. Those who knew him personally speak of his fine intellect, his integrity, humility and friendliness, and indeed, of how much they have learned from him. Veteran journalist Jenerali Ulimwengu depicts him as ‘an outstanding thinker, a man of high moral stature, and a truly compassionate and gentle being.’

On the other hand, most Tanzanians and East Africans, including university students and staff in the social sciences, do not know him, this distinguished, dedicated son of Africa. It is a sign of the times. We pay lip service to the plight of the common man but covet donor dollars and worship Western capitalist ideas and ideology. We have outsourced our thought processes. And thereby we forget what they desire us to forget.

I had the privilege of learning, working, and laughing with Henry Mapolu for almost four and a half decades. With his family and close associates, I am extremely dejected at his unexpected and untimely departure.

More than ever, Africa needs to remember, respect and heed the words of its authentic, committed intellectuals. The true rebirth of Africa cannot be other than an internally driven process, in thoughts and deeds.

Farwell then, comrade Henry Mapolu. We owe you much. You so well played your part in this ongoing rebirth. One day, your dream will be realised. May you then generate a spark in the sky in celebration.


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* Karim F. Hirji is a Professor of Biostatistics at Muhimbili University of Health and Allied Sciences, Tanzania.
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