On the train from Mbeya to Dar es Salaam this week it was fun to bump in to some of the backpackers for whom the TAZARA train seems to be an essential part of their African adventures. I was interested to hear their perspectives of Tanzania, as well as Zambia, Malawi and South Africa that they had travelled through.

However, it seemed that the travelers all came trying sub-consciously to answer the question: What is wrong with Africa? Whether it was in complaining about the train being a couple of hours late (not really a big deal when it travels thousands of miles, and there is no strict schedule anyway), or frustration at not understanding how the process works to buy tickets (yes there is an orderly queue even if you don’t see it, and no you can’t just push everyone until you get to the front), or thinking that workers digging a road are lazy because the majority are standing around (if you do manual work from dawn until dusk every day near the equator, you’d better pace yourself in the middle of the day or you’re not going to survive…), there seemed to always be the unspoken assumption that Tanzania is broken. The worst thing is that I can see all their same attitudes in myself when I first visited Kenya twelve years ago.

The train from Mbeya to Dar es SalaamWhy do we start with the assumption that there must be something wrong with Africa (by which we normally mean the countries of sub-Saharan Africa, with the exception of South Africa)? I think a lot has to do with the fact that we are constantly comparing every aspect of life here with that in Europe and North America, and perceiving major disparities in terms of economics, development and standard of living. Not only does this judge African countries by western standards of success (as I have previously complained about), I think these comparisons are also hugely unfair.

Sustained economic development is something that is incredibly difficult to achieve, as it relies on hundreds of factors (peace, security, transport infrastructure, communications infrastructure, healthcare, education, access to natural resources, a sufficient workforce, cooperative trading partners… to name just a few), the absence of any of which will make development extremely difficult. Not only this, but as these factors are all interdependent, their growth will often be exponential – the more you have of them, the more easily you can develop more (and the less you have, the more difficult it is to develop more). I would say that there are very few countries in the world who have been able to develop all these factors simultaneously and quickly.

The problem is that a naive tourist looks at what he sees in sub-Saharan Africa, compares it to his privileged life in England / America / Germany / wherever, and concludes that there must be something wrong with Africa. But he doesn’t take into consideration the fact that the economic standards he enjoys not only took hundreds of years to gradually develop, but that to a large extent they were a product of his ancestors forcibly occupying the lands of other people and enslaving large numbers of their workers, in order to provide the natural resources and manual labour that were lacking in their home country. To compare 50 years of slow but steady economic growth in Tanzania with 400 years of European and North American economic development achieved with the help of millions of slave labourers alongside the systematic pillaging of their lands, seems a little unfair.

Tanzania is far from perfect and has its share of problems (like anywhere it has its good people, bad people, hardworking people, lazy people… of whom I am often one…), but I don’t think there is essentially anything wrong with Tanzania. It isn’t Europe or North America, and it doesn’t really want to be. The Tanzanians I know have no desire to invade other countries or enslave people on the other side of the world in order to become one of the richest and most powerful nations in the world. They are happy to live in a peaceful country that is taking slow but significant steps forward to enhance the standard of living for its people.

They also appreciate being treated as equals, with dignity and respect. Of course, as a tourist you can still feel free to come and “explore Africa” with a condescending attitude, but don’t be surprised when people humour you just long enough for you to spend your money and move on to the next country on your tour…

  1. Simon Cozens says:

    Not to detract from your main point, which is excellent, but I’m unconvinced that sustained economic development requires either hundreds of years or imperialism; both Japan and Korea were in severe poverty around the end of the Second World War, and managed to develop your development factors simultaneously with limited natural resources and, in the case of Japan, just after the imperial project had ended in failure.

    I’m not saying that’s a path African countries should follow – quality of living and particularly family life has suffered in the relentless drive for financial success, and these are areas Tanzania could teach us much about – but I think the post-imperialist lens has distracted you from other global examples of development.

  2. Margaret Beckett says:

    I did think Mark’s article was excellent reading.
    Do we know how much funding was put into countries such as S Korea and Japan in the post war years? N Korea is somewhat different I think…

    Or how much support Tanzania received to help with their successful military activity in Uganda resulting in the end of the Amin era and significant foreign aid going into Uganda? Just think these might be contributory factors to the pace and success or otherwise of development, though I do appreciate there are other factors too.

  3. Yalonde says:

    Nimependa sana Mark ulivyoandika sio kwa sababu tu mimi ni mtanzania, kwa sababu watu wengi hawapendi kujua ukweli wa mambo. Inatakiwa wajiulize kwanini watanzania tupo kama hivi tulivyo?.sisi hivi tulivyo (Umaskini),nchi nyingi sana zilizoendelea zimechangia. Mara nyingi tumekuwa tukipewa mikopo yenye riba kubwa sana. Mara nyingi nchi hizo zilizoendelea zinakuwa na malengo ya kutunyonya na sio kutusaidia wanapotoa hiyo mikopo Na pia wamekuwa wakitumia udhaifu wa viongozi wetu ambao wanatamaa ya madaraka na mali kuteketeza na kudidimiza mataifa yanayoendelea kama Tanzania. Kama nilivyosema kuhusu nchi zilizoendelea, nipo hapa Ujerumani ninaona baadhi ya vijana ambavyo ni wavivu, ila wamebahatika kwamba babu zao walifanya kazi kubwa mpaka nchi zao kufika hapo zilipofika.

  4. silla yalonde says:

    Saafi sanaa Mark umeaddress vitu vya ukweli,nikipata muda ntakuja kuongezea vya kwangu hapa!!!!Mwakatasongo!!!!

  5. James Wumbura says:

    Katika sehemu Mark umenigusa basi hii mistari, najua inawauma sana wanapougundua huu ukweli usiopingika. “To compare 50 years of slow but steady economic growth in Tanzania with 400 years of European and North American economic development achieved with the help of millions of slave labourers alongside the systematic pillaging of their lands, seems a little unfair, They are happy to live in a peaceful country that is taking slow but significant steps forward to enhance the standard of living for its people.”

    Go on Mark, thank u for exploring Tanzania, i know u are for many years in TZ now and u really know TZ in detail.

  6. Anna says:

    I am Tanzanian and I think Tanzanian should stop excusing itself from things that it is constantly doing wrong. There is a difference between growing slowly but with consistency and having no desire to do better. I think Tanzania as a country has no desire to do better. Mind, I use the term ‘Tanzania’ to imply that a country as it is, has poor management strategies; corrupted and unmotivated leaders; and people who have long lost hope. And by the way, we can all spare the ‘a peaceful country’ cliché. People gunning each other down for as low as 300,000 TZS, throwing acids to people and all kind of nasty stuff. So, if Tanzania wants respect from visitors e.t.c it has to earn it, period. I know the foreigners who keep comparing their privileged lives abroad with how things are in the majority of Sub Saharan countries are being unreasonable but hey, Tanzania as a country is doing the bare minimum, if you don’t disagree then you probably don’t know much about the country anyway.

    • Yalonde says:

      Anna, hata mimi ni mtanzania. Anachozungumza Mark hapa hatetei Tanzania, bali anashangaa namna ambavyo wageni kutoka nchi nyingine wanavyoisema Tanzania pasipo kufikiria historia yake. Hata nchi za Ulaya na Marekani, zina mapungufu mengi saana, vijana wengi ni wavivu, wanatumia madawa ya kulevya, baadhi ya viongozi wao sio wazuri. Hebu jiulize tumepata lini uhuru? Na kama unakumbuka vizuri, nchi yetu ilipokuwa inapata uhuru wasomi walikuwa ni wachache saana, ukifananisha na nchi za India, Thailand, Pakistani na nchi nyingine nyingi ambazo zimepata uhuru miaka ya 1940 nakuendelea. Pia mfumo wetu wa siasa na uchumi ulikuwa ni mfumo wa ujamaa (Ambao naamini ulichangia sana watu wengi kuwa tegemezi wa serikali pasipo kufungua miradi yao au kuwa wajasiria mali). Pia nakubaliana na wewe kwa asilima mia moja kwamba viongozi wetu wengi ni mafisadi na serikali haina mipango madhubuti ya kuboresha uchumi wetu. Lakini hapa tulipo ni hatua nzuri katika kuelekea kwenye maendelea ya kiuchumi na kifikra. Siku hizi unaona namna ambavyo serikali imekuwa ikipewa changamoto mbali mbali na watu binafsi na vyama upinzani, ni swala la muda tu, hali yetu itakuwa nzuri. Hebu angalia watu walivyo wajasiria mali siku hivi. Ukifuatilia histori za nchi zilifanikiwa kiviwanda, kipindi cha mapinduzi ya viwanda hali ilikuwa mbaya sana kwa wanachi, na ndipo hapo vyama vya wafanyakazi na vyama mbali mbali vilivyohakikisha mambo yanakuwa mazuri kwa watu wote. Baadhi ya watu walikufa kwa ajili ya kutetea haki za wafanyakazi na wanyonge. Ni sawa na hapa Tanzania kuna watu wanauawa kwa sababu wanatetea haki za watu wengine. Swala ni kwamba hawa wageni wanaosema ‘Whát’s wrong with Tanzania”wasitudharau pasipo kujiuliza kwa undani kwa nini tupo kama hivi tulivyo na kwa nini Tanzania ipo kama ilivyo. Pia wanatakiwa waangalia mapungufu ya nchi zao pia, hakuna nchi ambayo ipo safi kwa kila kitu. Unajua kuna watu hapa Tanzania hawalali kwa sababu ya kutatua matatizo yaliyopo, lakini hawawezi kuyatatua kwa miaka mitano. Leo hii tuna uhuru wa kuikosoa serikali kwa namna moja ama nyingine, wewe ni shahidi siku za nyuma isingewezekana. Richard

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