In 1961 Tanzania won independence and set about establishing ujamaa villages, described by President Julius Nyerere as ‘a voluntary association of people who decide of their own free will to live together and work together for their common good. . . They, and no one else, will make all the decisions about their working and living arrangements.’
Seventeen villages were built from scratch in the bush. Their astonishing story, supplemented by photos, is told by Englishman Ralph Ibbott, who lived in the lead village Litowa as an adviser from 1963 to 1969. Selma James’ introduction puts ujamaa (‘unity’ or ‘oneness’) in the context of anti-colonial struggles, Nyerere’s history and present-day resistance movements globally. There are nine riveting contemporaneous documents. From one we learn, for instance, that ‘the traditional method of gaining a consensus by discussion is used, rather than vote‑counting’.
The villages survived, fed their children and grew over most of a decade. From minimal resources they developed not only secure food supplies but their own dispensary, piped water, a nursery and a school. Children’s death rates plummeted. Women began to take a full part in decision‑making.
The ujamaa villages deliberately stayed small to ensure the involvement of all. People saw each other every day. Decisions were made in twice-weekly whole-village meetings that followed communal meals. With large state settlements failing on similar land, grassroots self-government was clearly the key to their success.
Notably, democracy did not mean avoidance or suspicion of leadership. Founding member Ntimbanjayo Millinga, despite achieving a national role, was inseparable from the people. He would propose, explain, and then sit back, ‘almost appearing to be asleep in the chair’ as others discussed and decided. Following Millinga’s patient, accountable and incorruptible example, the villages developed not only capable managers but the ‘Social and Economic Revolutionary Army’ of villagers committed to African socialism.
Then, the tragedy, as a new party central committee overturned President Nyerere’s policy of supporting the villages. All ujamaa property was seized and the party took control. Ibbott says, ’Ujamaa in the villages . . . did not fail. It was highly successful and it was about to spread. That is why it was killed.’ Just one village escaped – and still exists today.
Occupy and other movements have offered brief, tantalising experiences of democratic living that have left many wondering how it could be sustainable. This long-hidden history shows us some possibilities, and offers unmissable lessons for anyone serious about changing the world from the bottom up.
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