Ujamaa: The Hidden Story of Tanzania’s Socialist Villages

Volume 12, Issue 1  | 
Published 28/06/2015

Author: Ralph Ibbott

Publisher: Crossroads Books

Reviewer: Andrew Coulson

It is unusual for a book written in 1970 to be published in 2014. This has happened here because of the initiative of Selma James, widow of CLR James the Trinidadian politician and journalist who from exile in London documented the struggles of the Caribbean diaspora in the UK until his death in 1989. In 2007 Selma discovered the Arusha Declaration, written in 1967 by Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere to define African socialism. She was particularly impressed by Nyerere’s understanding of the exploitation of women in rural Africa.

But by 2007 the Tanzanian state, under very strong pressure from the IMF and World Bank, had rejected Nyerere’s socialism and adopted a conventional IMF/World Bank/USAID perspective on development, advocating free markets, and welcoming international companies and giving them access to agricultural land. Inequality and corruption were increasing rapidly. The Arusha Declaration was not even studied in Tanzanian schools. So Selma republished it in the UK through Crossroads Books. Ralph Ibbott contacted her, showed her his unpublished manuscript, and she wrote a powerful introduction and edited it.

It tells the story of 17 pioneering ‘ujamaa’ (socialist or familyhood) villages in remote South-West Tanzania. The first of these was started in 1960 by Ntimbanjayo Millinga, who in 1961, just a few weeks before Tanganyika gained Independence from Britain, met Ralph Ibbott at Kivukoni College, set up by Nyerere to train political activists (its principal at the time was Colin Leys). Ralph was a charismatic community development worker who had learnt the basics of African agriculture during 10 years at Nyafaru in today’s Zimbabwe, set up by the anti-apartheid campaigner Guy Clutton-Brock. Millinga persuaded Ralph and his wife and young family to move to Litowa; they got modest support from War on Want and arrived in 1963.

Communal agriculture on virgin land was hard and unpredictable. In the first year the rains failed and the settlers had to return to their former places of residence. But most came back the next year, and after that the village produced some of the best crops in the area. They sent one of their members for training as a health orderly, and opened a school with syllabuses tuned to the needs of the villagers. Oxfam paid for a hydraulic ram to provide a piped water supply to the village. Noreen Ibbott imported some spinning wheels and looms and taught women to make cloth. Other socialist villages were starting at this time, and soon three others decided to work together with Litowa, and an association of villages was started. The number of villages rose quite rapidly to 17, dispersed over several hundred miles. A ‘social and revolutionary army’ of cadres was started to energise those who were starting, or thinking of starting, villages. The Association raised sufficient money to purchase a second-hand tractor, then the local sawmill, and a maize mill. The villages and their association were moving into a period where they were beginning to see rewards for their labour.

The most profound innovations were in learning how to work communally. This required careful record-keeping, discipline to deal with those who did not pull their weight, and serious discussion about how to distribute surpluses when this was possible. Nyerere visited several times, and in 1967 made this kind of socialist agriculture the basis of ‘ujamaa vijijini’ – socialism in villages. Villages on these lines were created in many parts of Tanzania. None found it easy, but the best learnt from their experiences and made real progress.

And then in 1969 the political party TANU (which later merged with its sister party in Zanzibar to form the present-day Chama cha Mapinduzi, Party of the Revolution) abruptly closed the Ruvuma Development Association. This decision was taken at the highest level in the Party, the National Executive Committee, by 21 votes to 3. The assets were confiscated. The Ibbotts asked to leave. ‘Ujamaa’ morphed into ‘villagization’, a requirement for everyone to live in a village. The resulting villages were much bigger than the small groups of friends who formed the villages of the RDA. They made it easier for the Government to provide water supplies, health centres and schools. But this was not about agricultural production, self-reliance, or socialism, because the state provided these services, not the people themselves.

It was a denial of everything Nyerere had said, or promised. It is very difficult to justify, or understand, how it happened. Ibbott documents a series of personality clashes. But the over-riding explanation is about power – by owning assets such as the local sawmill, refusing to grow fire-cured tobacco, the cash crop prescribed for the area, because it was not the best payer for the work involved, and by having villages dotted around the region energised by the Social and Revolutionary Army, the Association was on the way to creating a power base which could challenge the Party at regional level. Probably also, on reflection, Nyerere realised that that socialist villages were easier to start on virgin land, and depended on inspired leadership and scrupulous honesty – and were therefore not a model that that could be used everywhere in the country. But that provides little excuse for the way in which they were closed.

This publication provides an opportunity not only to revisit this material but to re-open discussion of Nyerere’s vision of rural-based socialism. His writing is very worthy of study. It is a model of clarity, and his analysis is very convincing, even if he underestimated the problems of implementation. Selma James demonstrates that this vision had much in common with that of Marx in his later years, and could have given rural producers the power to influence the urban elites who otherwise would exploit them. The problems of not implementing this kind of vision, i.e. following the diktats of the World Bank and IMF, are also now obvious – rising inequality, corruption in crop marketing, failures to maintain the quality of produce, and at times a general despair (not backed by good evidence) over the potential of small farmers. The book, and Nyerere’s writing, opens up much-needed discussion about the roles of women in Africa and about how rural producers can organise to confront oppressive states.


Last modified on Thursday, 09 July 2015 20:06

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