Sunday, December 10, 2006


Yesterday it was Uhuru Day. Tanzania turned fortyfive year old and there was an impressive show at the national grounds in Dar-es-Salaam with heads of state from all over East Africa, looking like large cartoon caricatures of themselves, on a big raised platform. I was hungover and mesmerized by the lines of colourful uniforms goosestepping (yes!) to the tune of a parping brass band. I sat in the coffee shop near my house for over an hour watching it all unfold on TV (the coffee shop is patronised by the ruling political party and never have their power cut).

The president got up and made appropriate jokes about his older fellow heads of state. Jakaya Kikwete is like a Tanzanian JFK - young and charismatic. I ordered a fanta orange, wrapped my omlete in a chapati and listened as he made a prosaic speech about how the Colonials left nothing behind when they buggered off (true). He said, before independence, Tanzanians were not allowed to drink beer! If you were caught drinking beer, you could be fined or thrown in jail. You were told to drink pombe ya kinyeji (local brew) instead. But now it is a measure of how far Tanzania has come that everyone can drink as much beer as they want.

I munched on the egg chapati wrap and sipped sugary chai, and thought it was an interesting point for the independence day celebrations. Beer, local brew, oppression. Everyone likes beer.

Kikwete went on. People My Age, he said, remember the days of collecting water from the bomba. People my age only studied to the fourth year of primary school. And look how far we have come. We now have thousands of primary schools and millions of students; we have 22 universities; we have a national grid; we have plumbing.

After the military displays, the four thousand blue tracksuited school students, the aeronautical flyby, the national anthem, the speech about the Colonials and Beer and what it was like ‘back in the day’, Kikwete stood silent at the podium. The national stadium is massive and the commentator remarked that thousands of people stood outside, refused entry. All waited in silence. It started to spit but the thousands of blue tracksuited students sat still on the field. We were all mesmerized.

An old man sitting close to the TV screen shouted to the woman in the kitchen without taking his eyes from the screen, Oi! Where are my gizzards! I am very hungry!

Then Kikwete broke the silence by leading the crowd in singing the ‘popular birthday wish song’ Happy Birthday To You into the microphone. His voice cracked at the high note, his sweet accented english was perfect. He paused then went straight on to the second verse, How Old Are You Now?. In the coffee shop, the old man sitting close to the screen laughed abruptly.

What? I looked around the coffee shop. There was the old man in front of the TV, the woman with the dodgy leg sat behind the counter looking unsurprised and some kids played with empty coke bottles by the door.

Did noone find this amusing or vaguely absurd? Kikwete’s entire speech was made in Kiswahili and most of the Heads of State had nodded along, seeming to understand the linguafranca of East Africa. The colonials had left us nothing: no piped water, no electrical grid, no university, few medical facilities. The things they built were for their own benefit. Surely, he would sing in Kiswahili, not the language of the Colonials. Surely there was another way to celebrate independence from the oppressors than to sing an English birthday ditty? The kids spun the empty bottle and the woman behind the counter shouted to the girl in the kitchen about the gizzards.

It was over and I was glad that Kikwete did not go on to sing the final verse, You Look Like a Monkey. The blue tracksuits marched out of the stadium waving little Tanzanian flags on sticks. The old man’s gizzards had still not arrived. The Heads of State walked down the red-carpeted stairway one by one looking grand and stately. Then, one by one, they clambered into a posh curtained minibus, reminding us that they were only people after all.

I thought about how much money was spent on the UHURU Day celebrations. All those blue tracksuits, all those Heads of State, the aeroplanes, the little flags on sticks, the military, the brass band. And I wondered why all the pomp and circumstance is so important when there are far more pressing issues to deal with. There has been no regular electricity in Tanzania since July. There is not enough water to power the hydroelectric dams. Poverty, HIV, TB, Malaria, drought, gender-based violence, child labour, corruption.

And at the same time I found myself mesmerized by the rows of men and women in colourful uniforms, moving in unison, not a leg out of place, oddly comforted by the guns they clutched and their disciplined and precise movements, respectful of the ridiculous goosestepping. As I finished my tea, I found myself smiling at the formation of blue tracksuited students, spelling out 45 Years of Independence (Miaka 45 ya Uhuru), across the stadium field. I laughed with the old man when Kikwete’s voice cracked on the high note.

Because after all Tanzania is massive and poor and corrupt but it is peaceful. And how can I possibly imagine how important it is to mark your independence when I have never been dependent, when the small island where I was born has not been occupied since the Normans invaded in 1066.

I still think that they could have found another song – would Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, the first leader of an independent United Republic of Tanzania and one of the few African leaders of his time to have stepped down in favour of a semi-democratic process, have sung Happy Birthday To You?

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