Tanzania: 'Mzee Rukhsa' and Rediscovery of the Soul of the Nation

In justifying Tanzania's decision to adopt the ujamaa ideology, Mwalimu Nyerere argued that ujamaa - literally familyhood - was natural to African communities, and that when these communities were faced with issues, they met and discussed those issues out in what Mwalimu called an example of "African democracy".

The subject of what constitutes being African and, particularly, being Tanzanian, came to mind after the launch of the autobiography by Retired President Ali Hassan Mwinyi entitled Mzee Rukhsa: Safari ya Maisha Yangu on May 8, 2021, the day the Simba-Yanga no-match debacle occurred.

While that unfortunate Simba-Yanga business threatened to overshadow the book event - and I maintain that Yanga were incredibly lucky to escape total annihilation that day - many a people on social media expressed the sentiment that Mzee Mwinyi is a muungwana. Even though that was not part of the general discussion, it appeared that many people felt compelled to communicate that fact.

The word muungwana or uungwana is one of those good Swahili words which have not lost their currency over time. Experts say that it is Arabic in origin with strong Islamic undertones. A muungwana is a person that is civilised, which, in Arabic context, implies civilisation through faith.

For native English speakers, calling someone a muungwana is akin to calling one an "Oxford gentleman" - that highly cultured individual, who dedicates himself to learning, cultivating good manners, and displaying consideration to whom that is due. The opposite is to say that one is a bastard - mean, rude, inconsiderate and uncivilised, The Swahili call him mshenzi. The image of one George Wickham in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice comes to mind.

Whichever way you take it, uungwana communicates high praise indeed, and ushenzi communicates the worst qualities that can be found in a person.

Now, while many Tanzanians' view of Mwinyi's presidency is generally positive, where his rukhsa - just do it - approach is credited for improving people's lives following the inevitable collapse of the Nyererean ujamaa experiment, statistics reveal, however, that Mwinyi presided over a calamitous 60 percent decline of Tanzania's GDP between 1986 and 1995, a fact which raises many questions about his performance in office. But people's characterisation of Mwinyi as muungwana transcends his politics - that is a quality they ascribe to him as a person.

Why does this strike a chord with many people? I propose, like Nyerere, that it is because uungwana is an innately Tanzanian quality - people recognise it because it used to permeate our communities where many elders still tell stories of acts of random kindness from complete strangers.

In 2001, a man from Butiama, where my grandfather used to work as a teacher during Nyerere's times, came to visit him when he was at my father's place. The man said that he had dropped out when he was in primary school and, if my grandfather hadn't walked across two villages to go to his home to get him back, that's where he would have ended. He came to greet him, and to say thank you. My grandfather didn't live long afterwards, but such are the stories that characterised those times.

That said, that doesn't mean that Tanzania didn't have people who were not waungwana - of course, there were. There were even leaders who didn't embody that great quality, and one may argue that one Dr Wilbert Kleruu, the regional commissioner who was shot dead by Saidi Mwamwindi in Iringa, is a good example of that. Nonetheless, the forces of good, especially as embodied by our elders and leaders such as Mzee Mwinyi and Mwalimu Nyerere, counteracted the dark forces.

But that has changed dramatically in the past five years.

One can argue that the advent of materialism has elevated material gains over human qualities, but I submit that the past five years have been characterised by a trend that is so ominous, so un-Tanzanian, that it needs to be arrested immediately - that of leaders assuming that it is okay to behave in an ungentlemanly manner because they are apparently safeguarding public interests! In other words, the dark forces have taken a free reign under the guise of protecting the downtrodden - wanyonge.

What has been witnessed is truly shocking. Birds burned alive. An ex-minister publicly threatened with a gun. An RC ordering MPs to vacate "his" region, or else. Opposition leader being shot and gravely wounded. A mayor ordering others to expose themselves to a deadly disease by removing their masks. Public officials being punished by doing squats and push-ups. And, lately, a DC who ordered the arrest of an advocate because, well, he was representing his client! The tale is long - and saddening.

How did we descend into a nation of - well - bastards? How did we come to believe that politics or power is a licence to be as arrogant, as inconsiderate, and as disrespectful as possible? It is important to reflect on what some of our leaders have done since Mwinyi and company left office.

Leaders don't just occupy office - they influence behaviour and shape the nation. When men of morally manoeuvrable character are at the helm, they inspire the worst qualities in others, and the consequences can be dire. Therefore, having role models like Mzee Mwinyi is important since they provide a contrast which might lead to the rediscovery of the soul of this nation which, for years, has been shamelessly trampled upon.

Long live, Mzee Rukhsa!

Charles Makakala is a Technology and Management Consultant based in Dar es Salaam

More From: Citizen

Don't Miss

AllAfrica publishes around 900 reports a day from more than 130 news organizations and over 500 other institutions and individuals, representing a diversity of positions on every topic. We publish news and views ranging from vigorous opponents of governments to government publications and spokespersons. Publishers named above each report are responsible for their own content, which AllAfrica does not have the legal right to edit or correct.

Articles and commentaries that identify allAfrica.com as the publisher are produced or commissioned by AllAfrica. To address comments or complaints, please Contact us.