Thursday, February 24, 2011


A Peaceful Giraffe Called Tanzania
It is indeed a marvellous creature. Seemingly slow in motion. Elegantly tall yet lowly. Peaceful.

That is how one may describe a giraffe. In a way the description is associated with Tanzania. For sure it’s a spectacular country. Apparently sluggish in action. Big yet impoverished. Tranquil.

No wonder the giraffe has been the de facto national symbol even before Tanganyika united with Zanzibar to form Tanzania in 1964. It is equally not surprising that peace and tranquillity have been the mantra since the times of the founding father of the nation, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere.

Air Tanzania, the ailing national carrier, has a giraffe as its emblem. The women’s national team is even called Twiga Stars as in ‘Giraffe Stars.’ Ironically, the flag of colonial Tanganyika had a giraffe on it. Out of the ‘Big Five’ that inhabits this part of the world one wonders why British colonialists picked the gentle giraffe. Why not the roaring lion? Or the storming rhinoceros?

In the realm of national iconography the Americans have their predatory eagle. The Chinese have their fiery dragon. Even the ancients Babylonians and Greeks had their ravaging lion and raging leopard respectively. All attempted to reflect the boldness of their societies and states.

Could it be that Tanzania opted for a pacifying icon? Maybe the national building project was all about forging a cohesive community devoid of resistance? If not, why opt for the calm giraffe!

Interestingly, this history of the African giraffe iconography dates back to medieval times. Abdul Sheriff’s (2010) book on Dhow Cultures of the Indian Ocean: Cosmopolitanism, Commerce and Islam cite an interesting anecdote on the subject. Tanzanians could get a lesson or two from it.

When the Chinese expedition in the 15th century saw a giraffe from the African coast in Bengal, Sheriff notes, it arose their curiosity. After persuading its owner to send the animal to China as a tribute, “it created a tremendous stir” there not least because the Chinese identified it with “the fabled k’i-lin or unicorn, an animal associated with an age of exceptional peace and prosperity.”

To them the giraffe “was a sign of Heaven’s favour and proof of the virtue of the Emperor.” Why? Because it “ate only herbs and did no harm to a living being.” They even eulogized it in poems. In fact in 1414 Emperor Yung-Lo who was behind Zheng He’s expeditions thus stated: “If the world is at peace, even without k’i-lins there is nothing that hinders good government.”

The irony is that the romanticized gentle giraffe never actually brought peace in the land of the dragon. Sheriff thus sums up what transpired in Yung-Lo’s Empire: “By the end of his reign, despite a procession of giraffes with just about every tribute mission, China was not at peace.”

If the dubious evolution theory is anything to go by then the peaceful giraffe called Tanzania is mutating into a restless creature. What has recently happened in Arusha is a tip of the iceberg. So are the numerous student protests across the country let alone the people’s rage at the power rationing and the inexplicable bomb explosions in Gongo la Mboto. These are signs of the times.

What is becoming a proverbial gentle giraffe is ironically resorting to what it does best when it is pushed to the limit –‘kicking with its large heavy hooves’. One wonders what will be kicked out.

© Chambi Chachage


Sulle February 25, 2011 at 3:25 AM  

Thanks Chambi,

Your words here speak generously well. Very power message if your audience understand them well. I hope some will.

Karibu kwenye ulingo wa kutafakari kuhusu tunapotoka,tulipo,tuendako na namna ambavyo tutafika huko tuendako/Welcome to a platform for reflecting on where we are coming from, where we are, where we are going and how we will get there

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