Uhuru na Umoja is Tanzania’s motto. In Swahili, it means freedom and unity. And free and united this nation has managed to be, even as many of its neighbors have faced years of struggle and continued hardship. Since arriving earlier this week, I have visited Dar es Salaam, the country’s largest city, and the legendary and stunning Zanzibar archipelago, both on the Indian Ocean coastline. It has been a sensory workout. The unmistakable tropical heat hangs over you. You smell everything from sweet jasmine to not-so-sweet fish markets. You taste unknown fruits that puzzle your taste buds.
But what you really notice are the people everywhere. They are sitting and walking by the sides of the chaotic roads; perched in front of stores and houses; riding two and three to a bicycle; crammed on top of each other in the dalla-dallas, which are old minibuses or trucks that serve as the public transportation here.
With these multitudes in view, the diversity of Tanzania is apparent. In Dar, Muslim women, fully covered in the sweltering heat, and men in white taqiyahs (skullcaps) walk alongside others in Western dress. In beautiful Zanzibar, which is predominantly Muslim, the ethnic diversity is on display, as you see black Tanzanians, along with people of Arab and Indian descent.
According to my guidebook, Tanzania is the only African country with indigenous inhabitants from all of the continent’s main ethnolinguistic families. That’s people of over 120 tribal affiliations living within the same border, not to mention the significant religious differences. Yet, the country has enjoyed a level of peace that most of its neighbors have not.
You might argue that some of this mentality goes back centuries, as this area was an important trading center, long exposing its people to different groups from around the world. More recently, however, it seems that many credit Tanzania’s integration and national identity to the unifying vision of its first president, Julius Nyerere.
After the country gained independence, Nyerere instituted a socialist policy that was rooted in the concept of ujamaa or familyhood. As part of this program, Swahili was to be taught in all Tanzanian schools. That way, even if you spoke your particular tribal language, English or another language, you could at least communicate with all of your countrymen and women in a uniquely regional tongue. Swahili – which comes from Arabic and means “by the coast” – is a language as diverse as the people in the area, with Arabic, Bantu, Persian and Asian influences.
This step by Nyerere helped unify Tanzanians and instilled a national identity. It recognized the absolutely critical nature of being able to clearly share thoughts and ideas with those you are meant to build a community and a nation with. In short, it bore witness to the intrinsic value of communication.
Is sharing a common language the only reason Tanzanians lack some of the challenges others have faced? Of course not. But its impact has been significant. After being here just a few days, I’m wishing these warm and friendly people many more years of Uhuru Na Umoja.