What does it mean to be counted? I watched a YouTube video of a young woman who had been born to parents of two differing faiths in a country where that union is not allowed.
Her parents loved each other and the book of faith that they shared came from the same tradition but try as they might nobody would let them marry, so their children were left hanging. It was a TED Talk, by the way. About being a person with no state.
I sat this past week waiting to be counted. Not to brag or anything, but I can count on all my fingers and toes and I passed a statistics course once. I like censuses. I like people in every which way you can imagine, I like anything that measures peopleness and I especially like Tanzania.
So when my government announced it was doing a census this year, I might have been one of three Tanzanians who was excited about it. I love the idea of a census in a way that it might not be required for normal living.
Thing is, this census was announced in the worst possible way at the worst possible time.
Kenyans announced elections a long time ago because they can read calendars. Tanzanians can read calendars too, I assure you. No really, we can. We just don’t really put much emphasis on following its strictures. Life is something we respect too much to cinch in the girdle of a rigid system. It is infuriating. It is affirming. And I digress.
This year’s census was probably planned in advance, even if it hasn’t come across that way. We are a muscular country of an estimated 60 to 70 million people, all of whom seem to be commuting in Dar es Salaam on a bad traffic night during the rainy season.
We try to get a head count every 10 or so years, as the UN advises countries to do. We like the UN; we are often mildly interested in their recommendations. We try.
Like I said, I was excited about this particular headcount. I can’t remember the last time we did something together that wasn’t pandemic or election related and it nice to do, like, countrywide fun things isn’t it?
Non-threatening, constructive things, right? And a census is a way to give us all a joy time of togetherness in the glory of this beautiful land… as long as it is planned, right?
We were given notice of the coming census not a year before, not even six months before. At best, I will say it was three months before the event was supposed to take place because I am being polite.
And as soon as we knew, the Great Census Resistance of 2022 began. It is a grassroots movement that is widespread and intense, with prophets and detractors. It is a full-blown phenomenon. And the key phrase is “sitaki kuhesabiwa”.
I thought about that. What a luxury. The girl whose TED talk I watched, whose parents could not marry, who was stateless: she could not get basic state services where she lived.
No school. No health. Her best friend forged documents so she could get life-saving services when she needed them. She was stateless and thus not a person at all. She was a nobody and she would never count.
I think about citizenship from time to time. I have a concept of it, immaterial of whether the state I have chosen accepts me or not.
Tanzania is mine, and I was looking forward to be counted. I could not understand why people would not want that. But I listened, and I heard fear and distrust of the government. Some of it was irrational, and a lot of it was not.
But perhaps the biggest takeaway I got was that we can do this. We have a state, we have a government and we can do this. We can reject even those things that are in our own favour — as I see it.
I want to tell you that the census is going badly in a predictable way but it is not.
After all, this is Tanzania. We already know it is a failed and expensive project so we are having fun with it. We are bored, we are making jokes and we are mildly sabotaging the effort in that gentle Tanzanian way that is non-confrontational and totally understandable. Also: we know we matter, count or not. The census is an exercise, but Tanzanians are the reality.
There are a lot of stateless people out there, and it sucks. I want them to have a place to belong, something too large to be anything more than a concept and a collective effort full of disparate ideas.
A state. I want them to enjoy this right that Tanzanians have right now: not giving a flying damn about a census because come what may, we still matter.
I hope, for the stateless ones, that someday they can also enjoy this certainty in these most uncertain times.
Elsie Eyakuze is a consultant and blogger for The Mikocheni Report: E-mail: [email protected]