24 November 2012

Tanzania: Are Our People Dying Too Young?


THIS week, the nation buried one of its longest serving politician and civil servant, the late Jackson Makwetta.

Those who were at the Institute of Development Management (IDM) Mzumbe in 1974/75, now the University of Mzumbe, including House Speaker, Anne Makinda and the Controller and Auditor General, Ludovick Utoh, will remember Mr Makwetta as the Political Science lecturer whom students used to complain that he was rather difficult to follow, because of his ability to pack too many new concepts in a single class period.

But Mr Makwetta's lectures were pure delight and new insight and knowledge for what was otherwise everyday experience dissected academically. From IDM, Mr Makwetta went into politics and there was a sense of campus "bereavement" when he left because his electrifying lectures were no more heard. Now that he is dead, Mr Makwetta will no doubt be remembered as one of the most transformative ministers of education this country has ever produced.

It is said it was for a very progressive paper he wrote on education that made Mwalimu Julius Nyerere to spot his talent and appoint him Minister for Education. He was for universal quality education and the development of the country as a whole, a spirit pitifully lacking in many leaders today even among those openly pursuing a national agenda.

Personally, we remained very good friends, insofar as the teacher and pupil relationship extends, always affording a few minutes of stopping to exchange very warm greetings whenever we met. Otherwise, Mr Makwetta was always someone in a hurry! But at 69, he has died rather young. It makes me wonder whether civil servants in Tanzania die too young or just a few years after retirement.

I think there is a problem here worth addressing. M w a l i m u Nyerere is often misquoted that he had promised to live to be 80 years old but died before attaining the age. In fact Mwalimu never said so. What he said, and I was there listening to him, was that under five deaths were far too many and the situation was intolerable.

He started by saying he had never been very keen to mark his birthdays but upon turning 75, the pressure from family and friends to observe the day was too much for him and he agreed. Turning to then President Benjamin Mkapa, who was at the High Table with him at the Diamond Jubilee, Mwalimu said he was not especially overjoyed by his age when he remembered that too many children in Tanzania died before reaching five years old.

Turning to Mr Mkapa, with a grim expression in his face Mwalimu said: "Mr President, this is unacceptable. The high infant mortality rate has simply to be stopped." It was then that he gave man's life expectancy as stated in the Holy Bible. According to the Bible, he said, man's life is threescore years and ten. Ten more years were added to those who were strong, he said.

Simply put, it means man's life is 70 years or 80 for the strong ones. Since he was already 75, Mwalimu joked, he was a pensioner even according to the years that God has given man on earth! Based on the probability of his robust health, he was hopeful, he said that he would reach 80 years old and witness President Mkapa being reelected and sworn in for his second and final term.

Tanzanians will agree that Mwalimu was never known to ever be bed-ridden or suffer as simple an ailment as a common flu. So his assessment of his own health and expectation was right basing on his physical fitness and the hope that we all live daily. But God has different ways and they are never tested or questioned by man. Two years later, Mwalimu contracted leukemia and died at the St Thomas Hospital in London where he was taken for treatment. It was a sudden illness and rapid deterioration of his health.

Tanzanians will also agree that if death be untimely, then Mwalimu's was probably one of the most untimely given that even his primary school teacher died only recently aged more than 100. At 69, Mr Makwetta was still fairly young and a year short of the Biblical life expectancy. He succumbed to stroke, a condition associated with stress and depression due to changes in lifestyle and pattern.

Civil servants are well known for inability to adjust to civilian life after retirement. The nation could be losing people still badly needed in society. At the same birthday party in 1997, Mwalimu also said man begins to get intellectually solid at 50. In other words, by compulsory retirement at 60, society ejects people who are only ten years solid!

I don't know what the current national life expectancy is but there is no reason for retirement not to be at 70 years old. It could be true that at that age, man is usually drained of physical strength. But, on the other hand, it is the age when he is at the peak of intellectual maturity.

I know our approach to public service is fairly antiquated but upping the retirement age is an issue worth looking into. Otherwise, development is impossible without the institutional memory and culture embodied in years and perfected with age.

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