11 December 2012

Tanzania: Just Suggestions to Redress Gaps Left By Chiefs

THERE are those who say that reducing the powers of chiefs in the traditional ruling system has caused some negative repercussions in today's society.

Amongst these people is a Curator of History and Ethnography at the National Museum and House of Culture, Wilbard Lema. He expressed such an opinion when in conversation with the 'Daily News' last Thursday.

However, it should also be stated here that he also acknowledged the positive role this action played in establishing the national identity that every Tanzanian is very proud of today.

Yet he maintains that for this unity to be more beneficial to the nation more attention should be given to this shortfall than it is currently being given. "To an extent the pillars that held the society together culturally and morally have been destroyed. For example the elders, who were respected by the local communities, lost some of their powers, therefore no longer had the authority to counsel offenders within the community.

This is a form of cultural destruction, which has led people to choosing western values, as a way to fill the void," Lema maintains. So as to explain this point further he gave the example of a person, who wanted to marry in the time when the chiefs stood strong, going to seek their parents consent first.

This he contrasted with the prevailing situation today when on a lot of occasions parents had nothing to do with the choice of partner their children chose. All of this is happening at a time when the rate of people moving from the rural to urban centres has increased greatly. The fact that the central Government has appointed cultural officers to every district in the country has not helped redress this undesirable situation either, he added.

The main reason for this, according to the Curator of History and Ethnography, is that in most cases these appointed cultural officers do not even know, much less understand, ethnic traditions in the areas they are stationed. These officers he maintained are solely chosen on the strength of their academic qualifications and not because of their experience of the culture of the people in the community.

This has caused consultations between this cultural officer and people from there, on most occasions be very difficult, if not impossible. Lema's colleague Irene Mville, a Curator of Ethnography at the same institution, introduced another dimension, to the discussion when she said that in daily lives people still use the chiefs, which cannot be avoided because it's part of the culture.

There are certain issues, such as disputes between pastoralists, which cannot be solved by use of the system of the police or a court of law. "You need the chiefs to sit down and come to an agreement themselves. That's where you can get a consensus between the people concerned in this dispute. We still need them today despite the recognition that their authority has been drastically reduced," Mville maintains.

It is because of these realities that she believes the time is right for the central Government to sit down and see how they can use the chiefdom system without dividing the people into ethnic groups, which would lead to conflicts. On the other hand, as she has already explained, to just neglecting them, which would not help because they are an integral part of the culture.

The Head of the Fine and Performing Arts Department at the University of Dar es Salaam, Dr Imani Sanga, acknowledges that reducing the traditional chiefs' power has led to positive changes in the national identity and refutes this has watered-down cultural values.

He prefers to say there have been changes, which would have happened anyway. He believes the country has benefited from outside influences, which have increased solely because of globalisation and changes in the media. "The foreign cultures seem to have a hegemonic influence on local cultures but to say that we have to bar foreign cultures completely I think would be a mistake.

By taking away the chiefdom system means we have changed and not lost, as some would say," Dr Sanga added. For the Director of Art Promotion at the National Arts Council (BASATA), Nsao Shalua, it's not necessary or possible to return to the original system of chiefdom but in respect to the customs, traditions and issues of the arts taking it away as it was, has left some negative effects.

There were certain rites, songs and even events that depended on the chiefs' presence for their existence, so the absence has disturbed these. The Director of Research, Training and Information at the same institute, Godfrey Mngereza, said that certain things must be disturbed by the process of building one nation.

This should be looked into but by no way is it a requirement to try and return to the past. "A good example of this is the fact that we're looking for a national dress now. We have not one today because we've let go from where we came from. If we had kept certain elements of our traditions and customs today, together with joining-up with those we have, today we would not be looking for a national dress," Shalua injected into the conversation.

She went on to explain that under the original set-up of the chiefdom system there were certain regulations, which were maintained by them. Today these have all been mixed-up because there is not someone, who has taken over from him. But all is not lost, she maintains, because it is the responsibility of those like herself, who know certain aspects of the chiefs' importance to pass on this knowledge to the coming young generations.

The suggestions she recommended for the actual implication of this are more practical than one would have thought. Having sessions at the various institutions of art in the country, companies and groups to make sure this knowledge is passed on. The first place where this must start is in the homes.

Parents should make it their responsibility to teach their children the things they know. In the villages, the elders of the society should be allowed to have sessions in the primary schools. In reference to the District Cultural Officers being more effective, both Shalua and Mngereza agree that there is no going back.

Instead, what is needed is for the persons concerned to make it their business to find out what is required in the area from those there, such as the elderly persons and the local teachers, from who they will learn. They maintain that the national identity, which has been built, provides the foundation for this approach.

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