Book review; “Ujamaa The hidden story of Tanzania’s socialist villages” Ralph Ibbott

From 15-20 October 1945 a meeting of the Pan African Congress took place in the Town Hall, Chorlton-on-Medlock in Manchester. Activists from across the Caribbean and Africa got together with trade unionists and anti-imperialist groups to raise the issue of the enslavement of millions of people in colonies owned by European countries including Britain, France and Holland. The Congress called for liberation of its people and lands at a time when the very same colonial powers were patting themselves on the back for having defeated the Nazis and its world domination policy.
Taking part in the Manchester meeting were a group of men who went on to become the leaders of anti-colonial struggles including Jomo Kenyatta from Kenya and Kwame Nkrumah from Ghana.
pan plaque 2

The Congress and its delegates reflected the anti-imperialist movement and the important role that organisations including the trade union movement and Communist Party played. Local CP activist and former boxer Len Johnson was there as was fellow activist Wilf Charles. The emphasis of the movement was socialist and anti-imperialist; it included people from all backgrounds including African and Caribbean, black, white and mixed race, women and men.

Few people at the time recognised the importance of this meeting but only two years later India was an independent country, followed by Ghana in 1957. As Selma James reminds us; “Black Africa, maligned, demeaned and brutalized in every way, was lifting itself up, able finally to show its own worth and determine its own future as much as any single country can – and maybe even to unite as a continent.”

In this fascinating book Ujamaa; The hidden story of Tanzania’s socialist villages we learn about the charismatic leader, Julius Nyerere, and his radical alternative strategy to make Tanzania a truly independent country. In 1961 it won its independence but Nyerere realised that unless the country had independence from Western economic, political and military power it would never be truly be free.
In the introduction to the book Selma James reminds us of an important era in the history of Africa when Nyerere tried to roll out a radical socialist strategy in the development of Tanzania. He recognised the pitfalls for the new state in the policy of Africanisation – where local people stepped into the posts that were previously filled by the colonisers. He believed that this would lead to the continuance of repression and not truly free the country.

His strategy was to promote Ujamaa or African socialism. It would build on traditional village life – but without the usual exploitation of women’s labour – and evolve communities that would work together to build a caring society not one dependent on foreign capitalism. He said; “Modern African socialism can draw from its traditional heritage the recognition of ‘society’ as an extension of the basic family unit.”

It was on 7 November 1960 a group of people led by Ntimbajayo Millinga, 21 years old, a secretary of the Tanganyika African National Union (TANU), set off to build the first ujamaa village.

The main part of this book is the unpublished manuscript that Ralph Ibbott wrote over forty years ago about the grassroots organisation that made socialism happen in Tanzania. He recounts that the history of the Ruvuma Development Association, which was the organisation of the Ujamaa villages, sharing skills, practices and resources. Ibbott and his wife Noreen, were development workers, expelled from Rhodesia, who played a supportive in this socialist experiment to bring in communal equity and mutual accountability. They lived in the lead village Litowa with their four children from 1963-1969.

Crucial to the Ibbott’s involvement in the RDA was their relationship with the villagers. They had the skills and experience of collective development but they only facilitated the work, and stepped back from being involved in the decision making process. They shared their skills but did not dominate or take over key roles within the association.

The RDA consisted of 17 self-governing villages which worked the land communally. It built a caring society where together the villagers organised the production of food, distribution, housing, childcare, education and healthcare without the input from foreign capital.

But even in socialist Tanzania of the hopeful 1960s the Ujamaa project faced opposition from the people in power. It threatened the central power of the state by its success and its autonomy. As Ibbott recounts; “For them, villagers – adults, children, young and elderly –working hard and planning and building their future collectively, were the enemy.” And sadly in the end Nyerere’s dream of African socialism was defeated. In 1969 the RDA was closed down by the government.

This is a really important book. It shows how Nyerere and the people of Tanzania with the support of the Ibbotts did try and realise a grassroots revolution. Its lessons can be used by activists today and, as we watch the Welfare State being dismantled, it can start a new conversation about what constitutes an equal society and how can we in the West achieve it. As Selma says; Here we glimpse what those of us with least resources, least rights, and least respect are able to accomplish. It is the single most important truth about our world, which we need in order not only to understand but to change it.”

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About lipstick socialist

I am an activist and writer. My interests include women, class, culture and history. From an Irish in Britain background I am a republican and socialist. All my life I have been involved in community and trade union politics and I believe it is only through grass roots politics that we will get a better society. This is reflected in my writing, in my book Northern ReSisters Conversations with Radical Women and my involvement in the Mary Quaile Club. .If you want to contact me please use my gmail which is lipsticksocialist636
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