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In Memoriam: Julius Nyerere
We are poorer for his death, richer for his life

Nyerere squared off with the U.S. and the old colonial powers
to try and create a just society. And he never gave up.

by Jerry Atkin
Portland, Oregon

Julius Nyerere, the former President of Tanzania and a personal hero of mine, died yesterday, of leukemia, in a hospital in London. He died far from the Africa he had loved and given his life to. Nyerere was a great man, a man whose name you could mention in the same sentence with Mandela’s and not be embarrassed. I met him when he was in his early 40s just a few years after independence for Tanganyika and right after the merger with Zanzibar that yielded the nation of Tanzania. I was finishing a graduate teaching course at Makerere College in Kampala and Nyerere, as Chancellor of the University of East Africa, was there to confer an honorary degree on Jomo Kenyatta. Those of us who would be teaching in Tanzania met informally with him. I was stunned by his energy and vitality, his sparkling eyes and teasing style of talking to us, especially when he was speaking Swahili. Two years later I would see him at a town meeting in Tabora. He had aged a decade in the two years that had passed. His hair was gray at the temples and the wrinkles around his eyes were no longer from laughter, they were the badge of exhaustion. Independence always creates expectations far beyond the existing resources to meet them. But, he never gave up. I would have followed him anywhere.

Trying to create a communitarian socialist state based on tribal values in a sea of neo-colonialism, with neighboring countries locked in tribal warfare fanned by ancient hatreds, colonial legacies and the complicated by the competition for scarce economic resources. In those days the US did not view the third world as a giant sweatshop and engine for super-profits, it was viewed as a giant storehouse of raw materials and an engine for super-profits. A few diamonds, a small coffee-growing region, and fields of sisal did not add up to much for Tanzania, a country with six graduate teachers, and no all weather roads connecting the southern and northern sections of the country. Working with one of the poorest countries in the world, Nyerere squared off with the US and the old colonial powers to try and create a just society. And he never gave up. Later he would acknowledge that his attempts to collectivize farming were a mistake. Not because it was wrong but because it wouldn’t work without resources. There was no escape from the world economic forces that dictated then, just as they dictate now, what could be allowed to exist and what had to be destroyed as a threat to profit, to progress. And still he tried.

When he felt the members of Parliament, all elected from the single party, TANU (Tanganyikan African National Union), were out of touch with the people, he made them walk the two hundred miles through the countryside to the annual party meeting in Mwanza. Hot and dusty, they stayed with the people in the villages, re-experiencing the real conditions in the country, not those of the city and the educated civil service class. A class called in West Africa, the Wa-Benzi (people of the Mercedes Benz). How they must have hated it!

Later that year, while I was still teaching at a day secondary school (just down the road from the boarding school that had been built for the sons of chiefs by the British), students at the university in Dar-es-Salaam, influenced by colonial ideas of privilege, went on strike when they were asked to share rooms. Nyerere thought that perhaps they had forgotten that they were there to help build a nation and not assure their own privilege. He suggested that it would be a good idea if they all went back to their villages to remember why they were there. He sent them down and shut the university for the rest of the year. In my school, students complained bitterly about the mistreatment of the students. They, after all, like ghetto youth hoping for an NBA contract, saw access to this privileged class as their ticket out of the village. In a totally futile and pointless gesture, I threw them out of my classes for a day.

Nyerere turned down foreign aid when there were heavy political strings attached. He refused the German offer to build a sugar factory in the Kilambero Valley in exchange for a naval base on Zanzibar. A principled stand, but one that hampered development. How much of your soul can you sell before you lose it in a hostile takeover? I have no answer to this question, but I do know that it is a question. This is not a trivial distinction. Julius Nyerere knew that to, and the compromises of governing must have eaten away at him like bilharzia ate away at the guts of the children in the countryside. Would he have accepted the deal if they were offering health care?

Nyerere was also one of the great Pan-African leaders. The national anthem of Tanzania does not say, ”God bless Tanzania, or our noble leader Mwalimu (Teacher) Nyerere,” it says, ”Mungu ibariki Afrika (God bless Africa), and another version of the song was sung by the ANC in South Africa. The ties with the South African struggle were close. When I arrived in Africa, Nelson Mandela had only been in jail for a year or two (I grew old as he grew wise) and Tanzania, under Nyerere’s leadership, had become a haven for refugees from the underground war against apartheid. Kurasini, a school for the children of these refugees, was set up in Dar-es-Salaam. One of the few regrets of my life is that I didn’t teach there when I had the opportunity.

After Nyerere stepped down as the leader of Tanzania, one of three African leaders (including Mandela) to step down peacefully and voluntarily when the time came, he continued to involve himself in the work of the Organization of African Unity, which he had helped to found, and worked tirelessly for peace and justice on the continent. In the year before his death he was instrumental in negotiating an end to the civil war in Burundi. Until the end he worked for Africa, for what he believed.

My years in Africa were like a dream bounded on either side by nightmares. The year before I went to Africa, John Kennedy was assassinated; the year after I returned, Martin Luther King Jr. would draw his last breath alone on a motel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee after marching with garbage workers demanding jobs with justice. In the same year Robert Kennedy would also die, not alone, seen by millions of people tuned in for news of the California Primary. In the years between 1963 and 1968, while I was in Africa, Malcolm X would also be assassinated. His death passed unnoticed on the high savannah 500 miles west of Dar-es-Salaam.

While our country was being torn apart by our own struggle against apartheid, and a burgeoning war that would leave us dazed and confused, Nyerere was trying to bring something new to birth. Inheriting a legacy of poverty and colonialism, the deck was stacked against him. Against long odds, he struggled to get out from under the lion's paw of neo-colonialism, knowing that if the people of Tanzania were to have a better life it would have to be built out of something other than self interest and unbridled competition.

I want to know if Nyerere, one of the planet’s best and brightest, really died of a broken heart. Had he seen too much murder in the name of tribalism? Too much murder wearing the guise of civil war? Was the genocide in Rwanda the stake driven through his heart? Or did he know that he had done the best he could? That the struggle will last for generations before Africa can throw off the yoke of economic imperialism and the ruling ideas? Did he see the good in the common citizen, however confused, that convinced him that he was on the right side of history, the side of the people? Did he know how much he was loved? How many lives he had touched, including mine? Was it enough? I have selfish reasons for wanting to know this.

If Bill Clinton died, I don’t think I would feel anything. My grief is almost always for the nameless, those whose stories rarely find their way into the papers or onto the television screens, the real heroes of this world who simply take the hand life deals them and do the best they can. In spite of my general immunity to the tragedies of the rich and famous that are served with our morning coffee, when I saw the headline announcing Nyerere’s death, I cried. The tears, I think, were for this man who I had loved and believed in, for the suffering continent of Africa trampled beneath the flashing hooves of three of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (War, Famine, Pestilence), and for my own lost innocence.

I dig through my desk drawer, find the picture taken in late spring, 1965. I am the young, skinny, white guy, wearing tight pants that must have been an embarrassment even then. Without my glasses, I am squinting toward the camera. I am standing on the verandah of an abandoned army barracks thirty miles outside Kampala. The paint is flaking and the adobe is falling off around the doors and windows. To my left are a handful of refugees from the civil war in the Sudan, a civil war that continues thirty years later. They pose for the camera with knowing smiles, guarded looks. Trying to read my own pose, I see someone who is very unsure of himself, trying to look cool, and failing. There is just enough distance between me and the refugees to make it clear who is the teacher and who are the students, who can return to America and who can’t. The body language speaks volumes. I mean well, but I am ignorant as a stone about the realities of war, of hunger, what is means to piss blood because of intestinal parasites, what it feels like to have an endless future going nowhere.

I taught English once a week in this crumbling building in a clearing at the end of an unpaved washboard road that rattled my teeth when I drove it. Many of these ”school boys” were guerrilla fighters in exile. They lived on one meal a day and when they were sick -- they were sick. No doctor came this far into the bush. Once, when I came to teach, they were playing soccer on a short field, using a dead rat for a ball. This was part of the reality that Julius Nyerere spent his life trying to change. So that young people would have better lives than this. So they would have a chance to go to school, to eat more than once a day, to be treated for their diseases, and never know war. It is something worth living for.

Julius Nyerere is dead of leukemia, or possibly a broken heart, at 77. We are poorer for his death, richer for his life.

Published in In Motion Magazine December 19, 1999.