In December 1961 Tanzania became an independent country. In April 1962 President Julius Nyerere published his vision for the country`s development in a pamphlet entitled `Ujamaa – The Basis of African Socialism`. Ujamaa is a traditional concept of extended family in which there is respect for everyone and everyone is expected to work and be responsible for the welfare of the whole community. Tanzanian socialism was to be an extension of this concept of family. The individual pursuit of wealth at the expense of others was deemed incompatible with Ujamaa.
Inspired and encouraged by Nyerere, groups of farmers organised themselves into small co-operatively organised communities. By 1963 about a 1000 of these had been set up with very little government support. Many failed but in Ruvuma in the Southern Highlands of Tanzania 17 such settlements prospered and became an enormous success. They formed the Ruvuma Development Association (RDA) the organisation through which they could co-ordinate their labour, educate their children, sell their produce and develop their small scale industries.
According to Ralph Ibbott, a technical adviser, who was invited to work with the RDA, this was
“the most striking and most successful example of self reliance and Ujamaa in Tanzania and possibly Africa.” (Ibbott, R. quoted in Edwards, D.M., Matetereka, Tanzania`s Last Ujamaa Village Edinburgh University 1998).
I first heard about the RDA at an inspiring talk given by author and activist Selma James of Women`s Global Strike at the King`s Cross Women`s Centre. She presented it as an example of how it is possible for people to not only survive and dream of a better world when faced with the most challenging of circumstances but also manage to successfully create a thriving self-reliant community organisation, one that is even more relevant today as a model of development when we examine what our options are for the future in the face of unemployment, cuts in welfare and the looming threat of climate change.
The RDA grew slowly by supporting existing villages and new settlements. Before a village was accepted it was made clear that the villagers should not expect to get rich overnight and membership would be deferred or refused if it there was uncertainty about a community`s commitment to co-operation.
Villages belonging to the RDA became self-sufficient in food, improved the health of their residents, built a school, provided water supplies and set up village industries. They also created an outreach service called the Social and Economic Army (SERA), made up of experts in various fields who could provide support for member villages.
The RDA bought a maize mill with a grant from Nyerere himself who regarded their organisation as a poster child for his ideas. They also bought a saw mill which became the main supplier of sawn timber in the country. A primary school was established and developed in an experimental manner by creating a syllabus that was flexible and responsive to the needs of the villages. A three year post primary technical training for the children was planned as the next stage of education.
By 1969, the RDA consisted of 17 villages making up about 500 households. It was, to quote Ralph Ibbott again,
“ an organisation completely built up by the people who were in it, who always made all decisions and controlled development” (in Edwards, D.M.).
So what happened? What went wrong? Well, it is important to stress that this remarkable experiment did not fail despite the many practical difficulties and challenges that the people involved faced. It was killed off.
Despite publicly declared support from Nyerere, the RDA had attracted considerable opposition from many others in the government. In September 1969, it was announced that TANU – the ruling party – would run all Ujamaa villages and the RDA was declared a prohibited organisation. Their equipment was confiscated, the expatriate staff working with them left and the school was closed. Only one village managed to continue its communal activities and survives to this day.
To look in detail at why this happened is beyond the scope of this blog. But in an obituary written for Ntimbanjayo Millinga, a local politician and later Head of Ujamaa Villages for TANU and who was the driving force behind the success of the RDA Ralph Ibbott writes that
“…Regional Commissioners and most government officials … could not accept a situation where the villagers were deciding the details of their own development. They could not sit down with and discuss with these village people as equals. Nyerere took many steps in an attempt to spread the practice of the RDA ideology. One of these was a week-long seminar for the members of the Central Committee of his party, which was held at Handeni. Three RDA members attended. Shortly after this the whole of the Central Committee met, and at this meeting 21 out of the 24 members voted for the banning of the RDA. Millinga had very successfully built a team of people able to understand what was needed for the development of their dreams. Nyerere was not able, despite great efforts, to build such a team at government level. The party took over. People power was not accepted.”
If you try to find out about Ujamaa villages often what you discover is that what many people understand by this term is the process of enforced villagisation that followed the closing down of the RDA. This happened in the 1970s when rural Tanzanians were forced into villages nationwide resulting in hardship and resentment. It was not a success but it has overshadowed the real historic success that was the Ruvuma Development Association.
Note: Walter Rodney (see post) spent some time teaching in Tanzania and admired Nyerere`s African Socialism