Tanzania’s History and Togetherness


Class of 2018

25 July 2018

A few nights ago, while our group was staying in Njoro village, we were told that we would have an opportunity to interview some of the villagers who were especially interested in us. Wanting to learn more about Tanzanian culture, I (and most of our group) jumped at the chance. To my pleasant surprise, however, it was less of an interview and more of a group discussion – six or seven of us sat in a circle, joined by about a dozen villagers at the home of a local retired doctor. We asked questions back and forth, Americans to Tanzanians, and vice-versa. It was a very interesting and informative talk, but among all of our topics of conversation, ujamaa stood out.

Modern Tanzanian society cannot be understood without understanding its postcolonial history, which was defined by its experiment in socialism. It was an ideology called ujamaa, which is the Swahili word for “collective economics.” It was a Maoist ideology, emphasizing the centrality of the countryside and rural life, and specifically, the village. It sought to bring a disparate people into villages which would collectively own and farm land. Economically speaking, it has been all but abandoned, but the legacy of its villagization campaigns remains.

Economically speaking, ujamaa has been all but abandoned, but the legacy of its villagization campaigns remains..


In the interview with the village members, ujamaa was a polarizing topic. Our older hosts, the doctor and his wife, spoke in almost nostalgic terms about it. Two younger men seemed to be very well informed about it but expressed no opinion. And most notably, a middle-aged man said “Ujamaa is in the past. There’s no use talking about it.” Clearly, despite being abandoned as government policy in the 70’s, it still holds some sway in the hearts and minds of Tanzanians.

The Tanzania of today is very much a market economy. The government absolutely plays a pivotal role in economic regulation, but the free market is the dominant organizing principle. I am not insisting, by any stretch of the imagination, that the specter of ujamaa is haunting East Africa. Rather, it is the social aspects of socialism that can still be found here.

The doctor spent a fair amount of time talking about the different tribes of Tanzania. He mentioned that there are over 100, but that since the end of colonization, they have ceased to be a meaningful division. People certainly value their age-old cultures and customs and languages, but Tanzanians are firstly Tanzanians. It’s the same way that an American might be Irish or Polish or Korean, but will ultimately be an American and owe their allegiances to the United States above all else.

It was stated by the doctor and his wife that this was due to the legacy of ujamaa. And from what I know of ujamaa, I’ve got to agree with them. Ujamaa was a program of nation building, in the sense that it took a former colony and turned it into a single nation. In that way it was similar to the inclusive nationalism of 19th century Europe – the kind that united Italy and liberated Greece, not the kind that sparked the First World War. Ujamaa brought people scattered throughout sparsely populated rural areas and brought them together into villages. Perhaps its egalitarian vision of rural communes didn’t pan out, but it absolutely did bring Tanzania together, both physically and spiritually.

People certainly value their age-old cultures and customs and languages, but Tanzanians are firstly Tanzanians.

What ujamaa did can still be seen in the Tanzania of today. It is a friendly country, where villagers know one another and welcome outsiders. It is a collective country, and whatever one’s feelings about individualism are, Tanzania does not have the same problems as the United States when it comes to widespread feelings of isolation and loneliness. A great example of this would be the community meeting itself – many people from throughout the village came to the home of their neighbor just for a visit and a chat with some foreigners.

I’m not an economist. I can’t speak about the wisdom of ujamaa when it comes to production and trade. What I can say, however, is that it put the “social” back in “socialism.”

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