Last week I came across an announcement shared on social media by my government. We have a multiperson committee whose task is to come up with a National Dress.
I responded that the people who like to have such control over a society that they require a national dress are totalitarians. I want to double down on this argument here, and say why it is a terrible idea for any African country with more than three tribes or peoples to have a national dress.
Listen. These borders we live in... there is nothing natural about them, and there has never been. Although this is not a uniquely African problem, on the continent, it is worth bringing up again and again because of how very recent the countries we live in are.
They are still a lot more theory than practice; they exist on paper and in our hearts, with increasing definition with every passing generation. But the notion of nationalism is fraught, contradictory, complex, and fragile. Take, for example, the bizarreness of a Tanzanian columnist writing in a pro-EAC publication in protest at her own country’s efforts to create yet another cultural item of national identity for the purposes of nation-building and moral policing. There is a lot going on there already, isn’t there?
To rush you through the arc of thinking from the individual through to the family, national, and community level: What does it even mean to be Tanzanian?? Is my citizenship only conferred to me by my parentage and, if so, why do we all now have to wear the same clothes when, across families in the neighbourhood alone, we cannot agree on what is The Right Way when it comes to a number of things?
Also, where, in the name of our woefully inadequate Constitution, is my ulcer-inducing national identification card?! I have been chasing that irritating piece of plastic for several years and, at this point, I think the government owes me a refund on my transport costs because that thing is no longer “free,” considering what it has cost me in time and kilometres.
All of this is within the context of the looming threat of the Political Federation of the East African Community, which calls into question very fundamental principles of nation-statehood! So, you see, there really is a lot going on here. I have protested every action my government has taken to corral its citizens and shove us along the path of the Great Tanzanian Dream.
As much as I “stan” Nyerere, we would have had horrendous disagreements on his policies and I would have been a dedicated critic. Evidently, I kind of wish I had lived then to watch him set the precedent of criticism being acceptable, even desirable, for Tanzanian presidents to help them keep it real. Those who have been burdened with the job since Mwalimu have handled this challenging proposition to the best of their vastly divergent abilities. And therein lies one key to my protest: vastly divergent abilities.
Tanzania is a hope and a dream glued together by formulae and policies and practices and laws and Google Maps, but it is made up of people spread across a glorious array of cultures. Only a handful of criteria formally make up a Tanzanian: accident of birth, decision to naturalise and take up citizenship and citizenship via marriage. The rest is loose and easy and needs to remain that way.
I honestly believe that a large part of why Tanzania can even work as a concept is because it lacks an excess of definition, allowing for the aforementioned glorious array of cultures to co-exist peacefully. Thus, any attempt to define and confine our identities must be considered an act of aggression, a dangerous pursuit, a misuse of power and a totalitarian impulse.
I love my country in a romantic amor patriae kind of way. But I owe the government that runs it no such indulgence. The machine of state must be handled carefully through scrutiny and the pursuit of truths, and just enough compliance to remain a useful part of the collective.
Every time my government tries to define my Tanzanian-ness by imposing its own notions, I get heat up. Lack of vigilance, permissiveness, docility? These are all traits that make it easy for a power-hungry state to become a totalitarian state. And states by definition are power hungry.
Also, and very importantly, this national dress initiative is an egregious misuse of public funds in a country whose people’s basic needs are not being met in an adequate manner. Do we have enough food, clean water, safety, infant and maternal death prevention, healthcare, infrastructure, markets, services, clean air, environmental health?
The list of priorities is so long I don’t even know how adult uniforms got on there. Whose idea was this? We, the annoyed and struggling citizens, would like a word, or several. Power must be used with wisdom, friends, or else you make us doubt why we need you in the first place.
So here we go again. The political is personal. National dress is not for Tanzania. And Tanzanian national dress is definitely not for this left-leaning, mildly anarchic and contrarian (but free and protected by the constitution!) citizen. I am not obligated to approve of it, let alone wear it.
Elsie Eyakuze is a consultant and blogger for The Mikocheni Report: E-mail: [email protected]