‘Hizbullah’ and ‘Jesus Inside’ on the Road

In Arusha, Tanzania, the Dala-Dala (mini-buses), just like in many African towns, are important members of the urban scene. They weave through the town’s centre and sides, packing passengers to the limit, transporting them from place to place all day. They keep the socioeconomic pulse pumping, the streets noisy and colourful and the urban network tightly connected. Also, as in many African towns, each Dala-Dala likes to distinguish itself by colourful decorations and inventive/witty comments and nicknames, written in large letters on the back of the vehicle. For Sudanese readers, this image will be quite familiar.

A few days ago, walking the road in Arusha, I saw two Dala-Dala, following each other. The first one nicknamed ‘Hizbullah’; the other ‘Jesus Inside’. Going in the same direction, they stopped and picked up passengers form the same stop. The passengers were all enthusiastically invited to ride whichever Dala-Dala quickly, according to the space available. In the town centre, the square in front of the big Mosque is one of the main Dala-Dala stations in town. Several churches around town are also pick-and-drop stations. In the Dala-Dala themselves, the drivers are free to play whichever recording or radio station they please; some play music, some play Gospel teachings and some play lectures by  Muslim imams or sheikhs. The passengers do not decide which Dala-Dala they ride according to what’s being played, but eventually they will listen, whether they agree with what’s being said or not. Eventually, also, they will try other Dala-Dala, with different nicknames and recordings. No problem; just as is the case in the market. People greet each other similarly, negotiate with similar language, and eat generally the same local food. I also personally witnessed, during my stay here, an impressive level – in quality and quantity – of sincere friendship and team work between Tanzanians of different religions (even reflected in their names), without any indication of religious or ethnic fuss. 

Tanzania has seen four presidents since its independence; two Christian and two Muslim. All four are from the same political party (the same party of independence, Chama Cha Mapinduzi or CCM). Tanzania has been one of the most politically stable African countries since independence, since they have a functional democratic system of secular state institutions, with a current multi-party system, which includes parties that are genuinely aspiring to take power from the ruling party through the ballots. Nonetheless, Tanzania is still facing many, and chronic, challenges to economic development and fighting corruption. It is also worthy of mentioning that Tanzania came into existence after two former African colonies, Tanganyika and Zanzibar, gained their independence and formed a union with each other, reflected in the new name. The union is a form of federation/confederation, with a unique arrangement of autonomous political authority and constitutional unity.

Under the philosophical and political leadership of Julius K. Nyerere (his people call him ‘Mwalimu’ – ‘the Teacher’), Tanzania has a unique success story of forging a coexisting nation out of the imposed political borders drawn by the colonial powers. In 2009, the United Nations General Assembly named Nyerere a ‘world hero of social justice’. Despite the religious and ethnic diversity typical of post-colonial African states, we find that Tanzania’s history, to date, carries no record of a major, violent, religiously or ethnically driven (or instigated) conflict among its people. While this may suggest that religion is not an important factor in the daily affairs of the people in Tanzania, the contrary is true. Tanzanian society and cultures, by all measures, are visibly influenced by the people’s religious convictions and traditions.  

This is not to say that it is an ethnic-religious heaven, or a state without problems, or that such coexistence was handed to Tanzania on a silver platter, but that it is actually a genuine model of good governance of multicultural diversity in a modern African state. It is a model that is functioning, able of self-correction, and possible to learn from; especially for other African countries that are torn by ethnically and religiously instigated conflicts.

I am usually very careful about saying positive things about an existing government system, not only in Africa, but anywhere in the world. This is why I would reassert that the case of Tanzania, regarding nationhood and the overcoming of negative ethnic-religious interrelations, is indeed still a work in progress, compared to the aspired ideals. Yet, it’s a wonderful example to observe in comparison to what’s around it in post-colonial Africa. 

While the history of pre-colonial Africa is perhaps the best of all continents in terms of religious coexistence and quantity/quality of inter-religious and sectarian violence, the post-colonial history of Africa is a different story. The modern, independent states that came about as the result of European colonization and the African struggle for decolonization found themselves faced with a variety of difficult challenges. One of these is finding and executing the right recipe for building a nation out of the scattered, scarred, and demobilized communities whose members now share the same citizenry. This building of a national identity is necessary to take the masses forward, to live together peacefully, so that the state can serve them better. The state coordinates labour and resources to build national infrastructure (which includes roads, railroads, utilities, sanitation management) and other critical public services (such as education, healthcare, safety and quality assurance of circulated material goods). To envision autonomous communities who would actually do that and build modern developed material conditions without a central coordinating body –  i.e. a state institution –  is unrealistic. This is why the different communities need the state to function properly, while the state also needs the communities to cooperate and coexist peacefully.

Many African countries, including Sudan, can learn a good deal from the Tanzanian model of managing religious and ethnic diversity. We usually tend to try to learn more from European and North American models in that regard, while we can see that, regardless of what level of success these models have achieved, they are clearly operating within contexts very different from ours. The Tanzanian context is more similar to ours and therefore a better starting point. 

We have looked North and West too much and for too long, and have often forgotten to turn South and nearby and observe keenly, with genuine interest in learning. Besides the Dala-Dala ‘culture’ of our urban scenes, we also share similar conditions and aspirations with our siblings around the African continent. It makes sense, therefore, to learn from each other’s experiences. 

(Published in The Citizen Newspaper of Sudan, May 5, 2013)

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