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Monday, November 12, 2007

What makes you more Tanzanian?

As soon as Miss Tanzania 2007 was announced on Saturday night two phone messages woke me up: “Gosh the new Miss Tanzania is Indian!”; “Wow I can’t believe it, a new Tanzania is possible!” They reminded me of the nagging question of what it means to be Tanzanian.

The question is subtly insinuated in many occasions as if its answer is a given and questioning it is a taboo. This is at work when someone, seeing people with stereotypical Asian features celebrate fervently the triumph of our national soccer team, exclaims “and these too!” It also operates when some employers with these features asserts that employees judge them as being overbearing simply on the basis of their color.

These examples suggest that a question mark over our national identity is a norm rather than an exception. If racial identification is on the rise, as some members of minority groups assert, then it is important to unpack this Pandora’s box of fragmented identities in constructive ways. But, you may ask, where do we start?

When Tanzania was formed in 1964 it was a mosaic of cultures, communities and colours. National building, as it was patriotically called then, was a priority. In Tanganyika race was the primary criterion for determining social, political and economic status since the turn of the 20th century. Before independence, as the author of ‘Who are Indigenous Tanzanians? Competing Conception of Tanzanian Citizenship in the Business Community’ notes, Tanganyika was segregated into three distinct groups.

The first group, which was primarily European, enjoyed full privileges of British citizenship. Most Asians comprised the second group and were treated as second-class citizens i.e. British-protected persons. The last group, the natives or Africans, were more subjects than citizens. Needless to say, this preferential treatment fermented resentment.

In 1961 the division was so deep to the extent that the Citizenship Bill was considerably opposed in the legislature. The Prime Minister spoke emotionally against opponents who sought to base citizenship on colour rather than loyalty to our country. He warned that “because of the situation we have inherited in this country, where economic classes are also identical with race, that we live on dynamite, that it might explode any day, unless we do something about it.” We indeed did something. But was/is it enough?

The dynamite tend to explode periodically, albeit partially. In 1993 it was loud enough to make one student write a first class dissertation. He dubbed it ‘The Resurgence of Racial Tensions in Tanganyika 1991-1994: The Gabacholi Phenomenon.” It took one racially charged speech, he observed, to spark the stoning of some cars. And one act of removing street vendors from Kariakoo ignited a rampage in which some shops were plundered. In both cases mobs targeted properties of people with stereotypical Asian features.

Bitter quarrels over the victory of Miss Tanzania might be yet another warning tip of our racial iceberg. If that is the case, and I believe it is, then it can help us detect remaining racialist landmines. When we wish these racist explosives away we overlook that any Tanzanian has multiple identities. Hence we run the risk of detonation. If we do not honestly deactivate them then one day they may fully explode.

I am not a beauty pageant fan as far as cultural imperialism is concerned. Perhaps that is why I was asleep during the contest. But I believe in matriotism/patriotism with respect to our national welfare. Hence I find these statements from someone who plans to support people in hardship and orphans highly patriotic/matriotic: “I am a Tanzanian”; “My colour is not a problem”; “I call on all Tanzanians to join hands in my social activities”; “I am taking the crown with a strong determination to promote my country.” What more are we asking from her?

I once alluded to an advert that appeared in a highly race conscious country. It flashes a question, ‘what makes you African?’ Then it shows an African albino and asks, ‘is it the colour of your skin?’ It goes on to show Africans with blond hairs, blue eyes and other stereotypical European features. I argued that this highlights how we can take certain definitions for granted and makes us rethink such complex identities.

Let us rethink multifaceted meanings of being Tanzanian. We can do so by asking why certain citizens with stereotypical European or Asian features are viewed as being more Tanzanians than some of us who claim to be indigenous. Isn’t it because they are more matriotic/patriotic than those who plunder Tanzania at the expense of fellow citizens?

Author: Chambi Chachage
Source: The Citizen 07/09/07

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