Julius K. Nyerere. Courtest: Google Images.

Julius K. Nyerere. Courtesy: Google Images.

In Japanese, the term Sensei loosely means “teacher”, however its literal meaning, “person born before another”, is even more appropriate in encapsulating the wisdom a teacher holds to its students. In Chinese, Shifu (Mandarin) or Sifu (Cantonese) loosely means “teacher” too, however its literal meaning also includes “master” or “father”.  In Italian or Spanish, the term for “teacher” is Maestro, and also literally means “master”.  In Kiswahili, Mwalimu is translated to mean “teacher”, however among its many derivative etymological meanings include the “steersman of a ship”, a Captain. All of these meanings, encompass what Tanzania’s first President, Julius K. Nyerere was, is, and will continue to be for many Tanzanians.

As Tanzania remembers, for the 15th year now, the passing of its Mwalimu, I will not attempt to reproduce what many have already said ( has a lovely synopsis of those sorrowful days 15 years ago this week; while Daily News has a short piece on this year’s remembrance; among many many others). Many have specifically commented about his legacy on several dimensions including his stewardship of our people toward total self-rule and independence, leadership ethics, ideas on the form and nature of government, among others, however I focus on two main things, in relation to how we, as Tanzanians of present and future, are honoring his legacy on:-

  1. Valuing the many Walimu (Teachers) in this country by committing ourselves to the front line of improving learning outcomes for Tanzania’s children today, for and with our country’s teachers.
  2. Being mindful not to use Mwalimu for our own political gains.

On the first point, let us begin by taking a little stock of the state of our education system. This is by no means a comprehensive look at the system, but merely a snapshot of a few aspects, and I begin from the tertiary down to the primary level.

In tertiary education, there seems to be a bottleneck given that there are a lot of students graduating with their degrees, but little opportunities for work. And because government is our largest single employer, and is not-so-good at being transparent in its hiring policies, earlier this year, 10,800 applicants vied for 70 positions in the Immigration department, whose process had to be re-started because of allegations of unfairness in the final list of successful applicants. Beyond our labor market’s ability to absorb university graduates, most jobs in Tanzania are not productive, according to a World Bank report. So even if our young graduates get a job, most will end up working in jobs that are not only unfulfilling but probably not going to be productive in any economic sense. So here we are failing to honor Mwalimu’s legacy.

In secondary school education, in 2012 alone, only 6 percent of Form Four examination candidates passed the exam. According to a mobile phone survey, Sauti za Wananchi, run by Twaweza, about 69 percent of Secondary School students report their teacher attending part of classes or none at all in a particular day. In the same report, parents cite low teacher motivation as part of the problem. So here too it seems we are not honoring Mwalimu’s legacy.

Mwalimu during younger days. Courtesy: Google Images.

Mwalimu during younger days. Courtesy: Google Images.

In primary school education, low levels of teacher motivation are evident by their continued absence in classrooms. Only 34 percent of Primary School students report that their teacher was present in class the whole day according to the same mobile phone survey. Further still, parents expect very little in levels of learning of their children. And our children are, in fact, not learning basic literacy and numeracy skills in our schools. Uwezo, another of Twaweza‘s initiatives, reports that despite Tanzanians lauding their abilities to use Kiswahili better than Kenyans, the reality is that Kenyan students aged 10 and above, outperform their Tanzanian counterparts in Kiswahili, and completely outdo them in English more than 2 to 1. So here too we are failing to honor Mwalimu’s legacy.

On the second point about using Mwalimu for our own political gains, I would like to caution people from misquoting him and even more dangerously from assuming what his views would be on any one topic, had he been alive today. I would like to differ with the Polish poet, Czesław Miłosz, when he wrote about those deceased, that  “[t]he living owe it to those who no longer can speak to tell their story for them.” Let us not speak for the dead. Let us not speak for Mwalimu. January Makamba, I think implies the same, in his tweet, reminding us to consider Mwalimu’s humanity and look at not just his accomplishments but also his mistakes. Many have speculated about Mwalimu’s positions, posthumously, on the issue of 3 versus 2 governments, for instance. Mwalimu’s positions during his life, like any other person’s, have not remained static. On multiparty democracy, for instance, Mwalimu pivoted toward supporting it, when he had earlier argued against it.

People forget that he was barely 40 when he assumed leadership of then Tanganyika (Team January would be best placed to cite this), and yet he was allegedly among those that cautioned against Jakaya Kikwete‘s initial presidential nomination in 1995, citing his youth. At the time, JK was 5 years older than Mwalimu was when he assumed power in 1961. So his views on youth and leadership in 1961 clearly did not mirror those of 1995. So why would we assume that his position on the structure of the Union’s government or the maturity leaders need or any other issue, for that matter, would have also remained frozen in time? Such was the complexity of the leader, the man, that was Mwalimu. Had leukemia spared him that fateful day in October 15 years ago, his views were bound to evolve some more, surely.

What is even more important, of course, is that we should never use Mwalimu, in his many writings, speeches, and musings, for our own political gains. We should also remember his ability to foster compromise during his early days of the pre-independence struggles like the one he helped forge in Tabora that encouraged “native” Tanganyikans to contest legislative seats despite the unfairness of the disproportionate representation in the House or the compromise he continued to help secure among combatants in the civil wars in Burundi and Rwanda. When faithfuls of Tanzania’s major parties openly fight each other today, we are doing so in violation of Mwalimu’s ideals on compromise. So here too we are failing to honor Mwalimu’s legacy.

But the glass is half full. In education, Twaweza, in partnership with Tanzania’s Commission for Science and Technology and the government, among others, is experimenting to see whether incentivizing teachers in early grades in Tanzanian primary schools for each test their students pass in basic literacy in Kiswahili and English, as well as basic numeracy skills in Mathematics will motivate teachers to work harder to improve learning outcomes of their students. Paying teachers according to the performance of their students has been proven to work in India, and the experiment hopes to prove that it can work, simply, here in Tanzania.

The experiment has also successfully demonstrated that sending Capitation Grants directly to schools, with proper oversight and authority retained with District Councils, ensures that the funds actually arrive in full and on time. The government has announced, through the Minister for Education and Vocational Training, Hon. Dr. Shukuru Kawambwa, that sending Capitation Grants directly to schools will soon be implemented nationwide. This is a welcome development in the spirit of honoring Mwalimu. And although the issues surrounding the constitution remain sensitive, all sides of the debate seem slightly more tempered in their arguments. Moreover, Tanzanians are more resilient to inciteful political rhetoric than most will give them credit for and I am confident that all will end well.

There are certain things that I do not agree with Mwalimu, but there are plenty more that I agree, admire, and love about Mwalimu. That’s the point of being a larger-than-life figure. Not everything about you is going to chime well with everyone. Zitto Kabwe wrote a moving piece thanking Mwalimu for his ujamaa, mshikamano na upendo or socialism, unity and love, loosely translated. I too would like to thank Mwalimu, but only for 2 out of the 3 that Zitto cites. Which 2 I will leave it to the reader to guess.


Constantine was born in Dar es Salaam and raised between Dar es Salaam, Nairobi and Lusaka. He enjoys history, comedy, and African live music.


  1. Mkutu 4 years ago

    Yes Constantine,

    Very good piece that you wrote about Mwalimu. You have said well. I would like to comment on few things;-
    1. Teachers
    Honestly speaking, our country should come up with better plan on how to improve their lives. The government should improve their Salaries. living allowances and other important human needs according to the areas that they are assigned to work. If they are happy they will improve our county education level. Am strongly sure they are not happy right now.

    2. Nyerere day
    I don’d see any good arrangements on this Day. I am not sure about how government planned for it but It does not look well remembered like other memorable country days..

    3.Socialism, Unity and Love
    Well, let time be the judge on our past, present and future. Am sure you agree on those two (unity and love) that I also agree with.

    • Constantine 4 years ago

      @Mkutu: I agree with you on teacher welfare. I would also like to comment that the government has made progress on that front. Teachers are less likely to report salary arrears today than about 10 years ago. So it is getting better.

      On Nyerere day arrangements, I have been in rural areas on the day and did not have reliable access to news sources. I am confident that something was done to commemorate the day, though. I would be surprised if nothing auspicious was done.
      And finally, on your last comment, I have no comment 🙂

  2. Nilesh 3 years ago

    yeah, but when schools coaplls like lego and other buildings stands means something.I know it is hard to compare apple and oranges, but when you look at the death toll in 89 earthquake in San Francisco, Katrina, September 11 and the damage this time in Sichuan, one must say that China has a fairly long way to go to become a developed country.Point: Stop act strong but rather be strong. Recognize and fix the internal problems. There are more to China than Shanghai and Beijing or the general coastal area.

    • Constantine 3 years ago

      @Nilesh: I agree that there needs to be nuance on how we view China and that is surely more than just Shanghai, however we also have to be mindful not to denounce the remarkable poverty alleviation that has occurred there. It is unprecedented how quickly it has managed to lift so many people out of severe poverty. Much more is needed to be done with greater expansions of civil liberties surely, but the economic progress is commendable. Let us hope that our beloved Tanzania can do the same AND have better politics than our Chinese friends do at the moment.

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