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Straight Talking From the South

Anna Abdallah Msekwa was one of the first three women District Commissioners in Tanzania.

The last person to reach the finishing post in the World Women's Half Marathon at Arusha in Tanzania this March, in aid of War on Hunger, was Anna Abdallah Msekwa. She is 50 and a Cabinet Minister. 'Women were coming from all over the world, but there was nobody yet from Tanzania. So I thought I had better join in.' Her sons phoned from Dar es Salaam to say that her safe arrival had made the television news.

She was then Minister of State in charge of moving Tanzania's capital from Dar es Salaam to Dodoma. Ten days later the entire Cabinet was asked to resign, as the first step in a drive to cure corruption. In the new Cabinet, Anna Msekwa was made Minister of Local Government, Community Development, Cooperatives and Marketing - the largest ministry in the country.

Anna Msekwa was one of the first three women District Commissioners in Tanzania and the first - and so far only - woman Regional Commissioner. Her story is not yet typical of the contribution women are making to modern Africa, but is typical of what they can do given the opportunity.

She was born in the southern province of Tanzania which borders on both Mozambique and Malawi, the child of teachers who came from the two tribes which straddle these frontiers. Her mother's family held a traditional authority in her community and people used to come to the home for counselling and guidance. This kindled her interest in sociology.

In 1960, the year before Tanzania became independent from Britain, she won a USAID scholarship to Columbia University, Missouri, where she studied rural sociology, concentrating on housing. She wrote her thesis on the effects of the American government's slum clearance programme. 'Not all the things governments propose are appreciated by people, no matter how good the idea,' she says. 'It's like here. If you look superficially you think you should remove a thatched house and replace it with a concrete one, but there are some values attached to the thatched house. Slum clearance has to be done with a human touch or you just displace people.'

On her return she took up community development, working on women's projects in the coastal region of Tanga. The country had a settled society, but one which had been only superficially touched by the material advances enjoyed by its colonial masters. 'At independence President Nyerere declared that we had three enemies, poverty, ignorance and disease. Our department tackled the ignorance.' Their reading books also taught women child care and nutrition. 'We went to each area for a month. We didn't just go with the equipment and say, "This is the way", we lived with the women in the villages and studied how they did things. With some things we could say, "This is good, please go on doing it." Others just had to be improved. And we had to get back to the traditional method of drying food in the sun, instead of thinking that refrigeration must be better.'

In 1964 she married Mohammed Abdallah, a Cooperative Officer, and in 1966 spent a year in London, studying nutrition. 'If I wanted to hear what people were thinking, I went to Speakers' Corner in Hyde Park. At home we were brought up not to go around saying nasty things about the government. I would think, "These people have no respect," but then I learnt that was part of democracy.' The family settled in Musoma on Lake Victoria, where Anna Abdallah helped to set up a home economics training centre and became its first principal. Then Abdallah's work took them to to Dar es Salaam, and Anna moved to the headquarters of the Ministry of Community Development. When their sons were one and three, Abdallah was killed in an accident. Anna went back to Musoma as principal, and her sister and mother looked after the children.

In 1973, as part of Nyerere's policy of bringing women into responsible jobs, she was appointed District Commissioner of Magu, with its 150,000 people scattered over a large and undeveloped region. It meant moving again, building a new house and sending the children to school ten miles away. 'We built a town hall, a community centre, a primary school and a health centre which is now the district hospital. I insisted on surveyors to survey plots for people to build new houses, and they are still grateful that I made the streets so wide, though I don't know why I did it!'

It took a little while to get going, though. People would come to her office, look in, and go to the Regional Commissioner to complain that the District Commissioner was not there. He would say, 'The Commissioner is there,' and they would reply, 'But there's only a woman!'

Two years later she went to a national women's executive meeting at Mtwara, on the southern coast, and after a day's fieldwork called by with some of her colleagues at the District Commissioner's office. He told them that the President had just appointed the first woman Regional Commissioner - Anna Abdallah. 'I'm Anna Abdallah, and I saw the President two days ago and he didn't tell me!' Convinced there had been a mistake, she got on the bus back to Mtwara, instead of going immediately to Dar es Salaam as instructed. 'But when we reached Mtwara I found four or five thousand women waiting. They sang and danced and held me high - whatever happened to a woman was a victory for all women.'

Her new headquarters was Morogoro, capital of Tanzania's fifth biggest region, two days' drive in both directions. 'Over a quarter of the region I went on foot because there were no roads, and when the rains made large areas impassable, we went by canoe.' On these trips, she says, she was a 'visual aid' to a community where girls were not sent to school. 'I used to take the children with me sometimes just to prove I was a real woman! And because women could now go straight to the Regional Commissioner, they developed a habit of not fearing the government.'

This was in fact a marking period for the women of Tanzania, who until then had fulfilled the traditional subservient, hard-working role of the African woman. Ujamaa - 'familyhood' (misleadingly translated into Western terms as 'socialism') -was the basis of government policy, but both attitudes and laws had still to change. 'We established consumer cooperatives for women, which was new as women had not traditionally owned property. I started telling the women, "The law doesn't prevent you from having land, just apply." And I insisted that when the village land was allocated to farmers, each wife should have her own plot registered for building a house. Land is plentiful in Tanzania, it's just the expectations that need to be transformed. I also started recruiting women for the district administration.'

February 1987 was the 20th anniversary of the Arusha Declaration, which had set the country's development goals, and the tenth anniversary of the formation of the governing political party, Chama Cha Mapinduzi, 'the party of the revolution'. Anna Abdallah was chief executive for the celebrations, at which most African countries were represented. 'As usual with prayer and trusting others, and creating teamwork, it was a success. But while we were still putting things in order I had a call to say, "The President wants you in Dar es Salaam".'

Thinking the summons concerned work she had not yet had time to prepare, she said she could not come until next day. It took two more phone calls to convince her that she had to leave at once. 'I rushed off thinking, "What can he want? But I feel comfortable in my heart because I have achieved a place I had never thought of being. If he wants to relieve me of this I will just thank him for giving me the chance."

'I stopped in my house at Morogoro for lunch, and my nephew said, "Mama, there was an announcement on the radio that you are the Minister for Capital Development, the Dodoma thing." ' When she arrived in Dar es Salaam, the President's assistant confirmed the news. 'Luckily I had left a national dress in Dar es Salaam, so I went to look for it, and next day I put it on and was sworn in.'

She took off for Dodoma at once, only to find when she got there that a cabinet meeting had been called in Dar es Salaam for the next afternoon. On the way back she had a car accident which put her out of action for six months. 'But it gave me time to do all the reading on the capital development.'

The move to the new capital, Dodoma, is due to be completed by 1993. It has been a controversial issue, with international bodies at first refusing funds on the grounds that the project was impractical and only Australia offering planning advice. But the Tanzanian government saw it as practically and politically essential to establish its working headquarters in a more central location, and has budgeted each year for water, roads, houses and offices. The United Nations and Japan have now given help with low-cost housing and afforestation projects.

'In Dodoma we are accommodating the rich, the middle class and the poor. We have concentrated especially on low-cost housing. We have a special project to encourage people to start with one-room houses and then enlarge them, and we inspect them to make sure they are improving. People do most of the building, and we are surprised at how good the houses are.

'We adopted the suggestion of the UN's Habitat agency that employers could lend money to the cooperative building societies, and people could then get loans from the societies to build. When they pay back the loan, they get the lease. So people rent out rooms to help with paying back; and it also helps them to stay in their jobs.'

Two years ago Anna Abdallah married Pius Msekwa, who had been a fellow Regional Commissioner before becoming principal secretary to the Prime Minister. Msekwa became Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Capital Development Authority. 'When I was really tough, people would say to him, "Can't you do anything?" He would say, "Well, she is my wife, but she is also the Minister, so I can't interfere!" And sometimes after Cabinet sessions where I have been particularly outspoken, my colleagues get on the phone to my husband and say, "What on earth is your wife doing now?" He says, "It's all right, she's in the kitchen!"

'I have always been an outspoken person, but sometimes I would deliberately keep quiet when I knew I should speak out. I would think, "Why should I quarrel with So and-so?" Then I went to a Moral Re-Armament conference, and I realized there that I had a duty to use my talent. I thought, "If there are things to be said, they must be said. I must not say only the good things or what pleases the President. Why should I do something to keep my post if that thing will lead my country down the wrong path?" So now I really feel free. It is the same with the family - I say things once, then I don't go back to them.'

There are four women in the Tanzanian Cabinet. 'As a Regional Commissioner it was difficult to be a woman, but in Cabinet people just pay attention to what you say; and the men know that when a woman says something it is real, not just to please somebody. If you can't have confidence in politicians, you can't have democracy.' Before she went into politics herself, she admits, she used to despise politicians. 'I thought that women who were members of party executives were just loose women. It's true you can have that problem. When a married woman gets into high politics, you have to be very strong, and you also have to have a husband who whatever people tell him will say, "I trust you."

'At independence power came to us from nowhere, so it was like getting money for the first time - you show off, in terms of cars or of having so many women or men around you. But a person of integrity will not be corrupted by power, he will be liberated by power.'

Anna Msekwa has attended various international women's conferences and come away feeling dissatisfied but unsure why. Julius Nyerere gave her the clue: 'I heard him say, "Disarmament, yes, but we must go deeper than that." It is all very well for the superpowers to disarm, but what will replace the balance of terror in the world? We must create the positive element called "peace", which is not just the absence of weapons. And that means beginning with ourselves. Women are the missing link. We see things differently from men. Even if you are on the winning side, you have lost your children, your husband, so there is no cause for a woman to rejoice.'

She has now launched 'Creators of Peace - a women's initiative', an international conference to take place in Switzerland in July 1991. She has asked that it be held at the Moral Re-Armament conference centre at Caux, 'because that place has the atmosphere where people can come and be themselves'. 'We expect men to participate fully,' she says, 'but we felt that it was up to us to take this initiative.'

Speaking at an East African preparatory conference in Kampala in March, she said, 'In Africa we need equality, development, education, but without peace you can't get them. While our leaders talk about disarmament, we should ask ourselves, "When there is no fighting whatsoever between nations, will there be peace in the world?" As a politician I would say "Yes", but I am not quite sure that there will be peace between me and my husband or my children or my relatives, or with members of another tribe.'

The reshuffle in government personnel is still taking place, sifting its way down through the bureaucracy, and when people are asked to resign the reasons are published. In October Tanzanians go to the polls. Anna Msekwa is up for election, along with all the Cabinet. She is untroubled about whether she herself wins or loses, and if she is released she will happily go back to her beloved women in the villages.

Article language

English

Article type
Feature type
Article year
1990