Thursday, September 11, 2014

Back When We Were Kings and Queens: Coffins Housing Tanzania’s National Treasure

Somewhere in the coffins of the Tanzanian government archives are files about some of the world’s most well known revolutionaries of our time.  When we think of coffins, most think of big containers for dead bodies.  That is not what I have in mind.  I am talking about the countless rooms that house our national treasure, our heritage.  There are rooms containing files with documents detailing the experiences of the likes of Mandela, Malcolm X, Che Guevara, Amilcar Cabral, Samora Machel, and many others who came to Tanzania seeking assistance.  The coffins are there for one reason: it is the final resting place for lifeless bodies, in this case, national treasure that is collecting dust, deteriorating, and awaiting the ignominy of eternal void.  But this does not have to be the end of this story.  There is hope.

From Nelson Mandela, who described overwhelming feeling of happiness the moment he entered a free and independent Tanganyika for the first time in 1962, to Ernesto “Che” Guevara who made up his mind in 1965 to use Tanzania as a rear base for his operations in the Congo; both Mandela and Che had come to the conclusion that there was a struggle, a cause, that they were willing to pay the ultimate price to uphold.  Mandela dedicated his life to the struggle to uphold the principles of freedom and dignity of African people; that struggle touched all Africans, not just South Africans; it touched all humanity.  Che decided to put his life on the line to fight in the Congo against imperialism.  This was a struggle against a system that humiliated the African luminary Patrice Lumumba in 1960 and led to his assassination on January 17, 1961. It was a fight against imperial system that humiliated all of Africa and continued to exploit and dominate Africa in 1965; it is a system that continues to give the West dominance of the world’s resources and impoverish Africa today.  But then what of Tanzania?  The coffins, national treasure? Why should we care?

There is a whole new generation of Tanzanians that is in the dark; it is a generation that does not know much about the sacrifices that this young nation made for them, for Africa and for people of African descent wherever they exist.  It is a story of sacrifices that has allowed the young generation of Tanzanians to stand tall, albeit they may not know it. It is a story that is easy to overlook; a story about a nation, a people who are proud to call themselves Tanzanians; a people who are proud of their ethnicity, yet are able to transcend the confines of such identity and embrace their nationhood.  It is also a story about how and why Tanzania holds a special place in the hearts of many leaders from the older generations in southern Africa and in the African diaspora.  Sadly, it is a story that is being forgotten not just by the young generation of Tanzanians, but also by young generations of Mozambicans, Zimbabweans, Namibians, Angolans, and South Africans, people who are free today partly because Tanzania sacrificed the little it had to free them.  That story is not just disappearing quickly, it is being replaced by a narrative filled with criticism and dismissal; a new story line that says our sacrifices were to no avail.

Going back to the revolutionaries and Tanzania; both Mandela and Che, like many other revolutionaries of their times, can be linked to Tanzania in more than one ways.  Exactly how to reconstruct this story is a frustrating endeavor in and of itself.  The files containing their stories are collecting dusts and deteriorating fast; these files contain a common theme: it is a theme about commitment, dedication, and sacrifice of a young nation to uphold the principles of freedom and human dignity. It is a story about how a young nation under the leadership of a few people who could see far, people who had the wisdom, vision, and dedication to stand up for what is right, committed the resources of a nation to help their neighboring brothers and sisters.  It was this dedication that helped people in Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Angola, and South Africa stand firm for the dignity of Africa and assert their right to self-determination.  No African was free until all of Africa was liberated, so they said. Like the deteriorating documents that tell this precious story, the Tanzanians who were involved in this struggle are dying away slowly, one hero at a time.  With them is lost forever their voices, their sweat, blood, tears; their sacrifices for the nation.  The stories of Tanzanian soldiers who fought in Mozambique as far back as 1964, those who fought in Zimbabwe, Namibia, Angola, and even South Africa.  The stories of Tanzanian heroes who infiltrated South Africa in the final days of apartheid, carried out secret operations inside South Africa heroically so that we can all stand today and say we are free, is slowly disappearing into the void. 

We are free today because the first stage of the struggle for liberation has been won.  The struggle is not over yet; until the day people of all religious background, gender, atheist, are free of poverty, ignorance, until that day, the struggle will continue.  Yet, while it is undeniable that we won the important battle against colonialism and racial oppression, that story has not been fully told. This story, or the lack of information about this story, is a tragedy. It is a travesty of justice to deny Tanzanians access to their own history.  The story of revolutionaries in Tanzania and the sacrifices Tanzania made for others, belongs to all Tanzanians. It is a story that needs to be pulled out of the coffins of death and given a new life.  It is a story that must be told.

A nation that does not learn from its mistakes is bound to repeat its mistakes.  A nation that does not learn from its failures, successes, sacrifices, can never advance. Let us open the coffins of death and give a new life to the contributions the nation made to humanity. Let us honor our national icons, one hero at a time.

Azaria Mbughuni is Assistant Professor of History at Spelman College, Atlanta, USA. (  Follow me on twitter @AzariaTZ  
© Azaria Mbughuni

No comments: