The sudden death of Tanzania’s former President Benjamin William Mkapa was a great shock. May he rest in peace.
Tanzania has been a lucky young country. So far we have had several administrations, which in turn meant several ex-presidents knocking around. They seem to clump in the Kinondoni District when they are not dabbling with farming, and can be traced by the occasional wailing of their sirens as they move around the city ‘quietly’.
As I write this, friends and family are paying him their last respects in Mtwara where he will be interred in the lands that gave him birth. There is a beauty in that: no matter who you are, the best hope is to go home when this journey is done.
Early in the year, I was given his autobiography to read. I picked it up, made the mistake of asking people for their opinions on it, and put it down again. I knew that he was in his twilight years but thought there would be plenty of time nonetheless to observe him, gather my thoughts and filter through the undigested information mixed in with personal stances that his name brings up. As a friend put it: he was a polarising figure. This has only come to the surface more intensely during his funeral.
This is only our second state funeral of scale. It has come over 20 years after the death of Mwalimu Julius Nyerere who was frankly by that time a sainted individual who belonged in mythology, not daily life. Remember: there is a petition out there to make him a saint. This is not the case with Mkapa at all, and his passing has caught me completely unprepared to eulogise him. That is the truth.
His deeds and his misdeeds have been documented by others in great detail - from admirers to detractors there is no dearth of blah out there.
I cannot compute this with the coming to mind that his presidency represented for me. That combination of very early adulthood, the puzzling discovery of terms like ‘multi-party politics’ and ‘fiscal responsibility’ and ‘structural adjustment’ my least favourite. The emergence of broadcasting in Tanzania — ITV anyone? Perhaps best of all was his introduction of monthly addresses to the nation.
No matter how cheerfully they started — and they rarely started cheerfully - at some point our president would devolve into a lecture about fiscal responsibility and work ethics et cetera. So a friend dubbed them ‘the monthly admonitions’ (she used different words, ahem) and would call me so that we could watch him grapple with what from his perspective seemed to be a recalcitrant bunch of yahoos. Namely, us, Tanzanians.
His was a cantankerous and paternalistic sort of amour patrie. Yet, it was an oddly quiet presidency. Quiet, and often thoughtful.
In that vein, let me say my farewell here too. I offer this moment of silence to a complex man, and hope to contemplate him and his legacy this year going forward.