The Picture of Now
Tanzania is a large country of great diversity. Our population of over 34 million is made up of 123 ethnic groups, four races and is equally divided between the Muslim and Christian faiths. Our cultural diversity mirrors the geographical diversity of the fertile southern highlands and lake zone, dry central and northern areas and wet, humid coast.
For a country of such diversity, Tanzania is admired for its unity. But there are underlying tensions that occasionally reveal some old and new cracks in the fabric of Tanzanian society. The debate over the Union is yet to be resolved; religious identities are deepening and have sometimes led to violent conflict. Disgruntled murmurings from ‘neglected’ regions are becoming louder.
The economy, which is heavily dependent on agriculture and natural resources, is supporting a population that has grown from 12 million to over 34 million people in 40 years. We rely on the land for food and export crops, but we use such basic tools that our productivity remains low. Our economic welfare is determined by the weather and market prices that we do not control. The state has few resources with which to meet the demands placed on it by a growing population. Instead, we rely heavily on donors to pay for a large share of our basic social and economic services.
Few Tanzanians make their living in the official economy in which the hand of government weighs heavily through regulation and taxation. Most of us live through informal activities, using our resources, wits, and connections to grow, make and trade whatever we can.
We are a young country with almost half being under the age of fifteen. It seems that most young Tanzanians are worse off than their parents and are quite unprepared for the modern world. High literacy had been one of the country’s major achievements of the 1970s, but these gains have been eroded during the last 20 years. Enrollment in primary school has been declining until recent efforts to ensure that all eligible children register for school.
Recent surveys show that many Tanzanians, especially those who live in rural areas, are poor. One in five Tanzanians is barely able to eat properly, and one in three is unable to meet their basic needs. The painful economic reforms of the 1990s increased wealth for some, but the impact on poverty is almost invisible. Instead, more wealth seems to have been gathered into fewer hands.
Paradoxically, our poverty exists in a country with abundant land. Yet, there are also symptoms of scarcity manifested by conflict over land and resources. Herders and farmers have fought over access to land for pasture or cultivation; mineral-rich areas are heavily contested; local populations are overwhelmed by the inflow of refugees from neighbouring conflict zones. Our own actions are destroying the environment that sustains us. Underlying this is the struggle to balance our tradition of sharing access to land, water and other natural resources, with the modern practice of claiming an exclusive right over property.
These forces might explain why we are a rapidly urbanising country, but this migration might also be caused by the changing climate. Rains have become less predictable both in timing and quantity, making farming a very risky source of livelihood. As rural populations have also grown, farmers have been forced to continue using land rather than allowing it to fallow. Can we now learn to use the land more intensively without destroying it? Can this be done in the face of climatic change? Will our natural heritage survive the rising tide of our population?
For a variety of reasons, Tanzania has been one of the largest recipients of financial aid and technical assistance in the developing world, but has little to show for it. Many abandoned projects litter the countryside. Was the assistance we received appropriate for our needs? Did it address our real priorities?
Given all these pressures, Tanzanians live in, and for, the present. We ignore the painful moments of our past history of the slave trade. And we use the more recent colonial experience to explain many of our current problems. We look to the future with anxiety and fear. The ideals and hope that energised us in the early years of independence have been dashed by the bitter experience of the past few decades.
However, amidst these challenges, there are growing opportunities and skills to begin to address our plight. The increasingly free press and open spaces for political association are being used to debate critical issues. As people express a greater desire to participate in decision-making, local government reform is offering more of these opportunities. There is growing interest and emerging success in small businesses and micro-finance. The expanding openness of Tanzania to the world is also catalysing internal debate and reform as more of us are introduced to new ideas and technologies. We are being offered a growing menu of opportunities from which to fashion our individual and collective destinies.
Faced with these and other major social and economic challenges, we seem overwhelmed. The more we try and the more solutions we propose, the less impact they seem to have on our problems.
For the moment, we are a nation of survivors. We survive despite a deep and growing sense of uncertainty and frustration. We continue to struggle with a multitude of difficult problems, unable to move ahead with confidence and purpose. We are surviving, but we are stuck.