(This is the next installment in my series that began here about our return trip to Tanzania after 15 years away.)
Election year antics are underway in the U.S. and we are so grateful to have some separation from the play by play coverage. A friend recently wrote to ask, “Is the rest of the world laughing at us?” referring to the astounding comments made by one candidate in particular. Yes, they are. More than one South African has also expressed appreciation to know they’re not alone in having leaders capable of such ignorance. This is the country of Pres. Jacob Zuma after all, who has said some pretty ridiculous things. Take these examples, “Those who vote for the ANC [the ruling party] will be blessed on heaven and earth.” And speaking about HIV, “Taking a shower can reduce the risk of contracting the disease.” Sadly, political leadership across this continent is too often characterized by this kind of ignorance together with corruption.
It’s one of the reasons that signs like this one in the Nairobi airport are par for the course. A history of abuse of power and corruption pervades daily life in so many places across Africa.
It was from that depressing context of our own and global leadership, that we found ourselves completely captivated by the situation in Tanzania last December – only 4 weeks after their presidential election. The winner was John Magufuli who won 58% of the vote. Across northern Tanzania, many people had backed the losing candidate, who incidentally was from “our home town” of Monduli. How amazing it was to hear people there praise the new president. You read that right. The “losers” were expressing their support, openness, and appreciation toward the candidate they did not vote for!
One after another, we heard Tanzanians laud the actions taken by the new president. One of his first was firing the director and governing board of the state hospital, when he found patients sleeping on the floor during a surprise visit. A week later he announced cancellation of Independence Day festivities, instead redirecting those funds toward hospitals serving cholera patients. He called on citizens to spend the holiday cleaning up their communities. We encountered people doing just that in a rural area, and we can attest that things did look neater overall in the weeks after. We asked several people later if they had participated. Each answered enthusiastically, “Of course we did! Do you think we would sit around, meanwhile our own president is out on the streets cleaning up litter?”
People loved retelling these stories about their new leader! It happened so frequently in fact, that we came to anticipate, “Here comes the shipping containers story,” or the, “meetings under a tree story.” The first one was the discovery of 2,700 shipping containers that passed through the Dar Es Salaam port, worth over a billion dollars. People also delighted in telling how the new president had banned civil servants from expensive travel for conferences and meetings in a move to rein in government spending. The quote that was repeated again and again to us was that he said, “We don’t need fancy hotels, we can hold meetings under a tree if we need to.” I can find no record of this statement. But true or not, his message of austerity and sacrifice resonated strongly with the Tanzanians we met.
I’m thrilled we had a chance to visit Tanzania during that time. The sense of hope and possibility was contagious. With so many crippling health and economic problems facing that country, surely if their citizens can keep a good attitude, what’s my excuse?
Our own national election is center stage for many good reasons. But let’s not forget to notice that change is afoot in other places too. Consider this, at least 16 of Africa’s 54 countries plan to hold presidential elections this year. This week, Ugandans head to the polls in an election that may change leadership after 30 years under President Museveni. The next month will also see voting in Benin and Niger. It’s a reasonable argument that these elections are not as important to the world as America’s. On the other hand, maybe we can learn something from what is happening in other nations, no matter how small. In the case of Tanzania at least, we can be inspired, motivated, or awed. As America’s rigidity and cynicism increase over the next year, I hope to hold on to the attitudes we saw in Tanzania – humbleness, cooperation, and optimism.