Book review: "On the way to the president"

40 years ago, Africa was the continent of hope. Everywhere in the new states, a way out of colonial history was sought. Then the author and documentary filmmaker Stig Holmqvist also begins to travel and repeatedly live in Africa. He has now written a book about his experiences. Inge Gerremo has read Stig Holmqvist's book "On the way to the president", which is a piece of political history based on knowledge and presence.

Stig Holmqvist is one of our most experienced observers of life in East Africa. In the book "On the way to the president", he shares in a captivating way his long experience. His focus is the local level, a perspective that has become increasingly rare in the development debate.

Many of us who came into contact with Africa in the 60s and the struggle for independence there were impressed by Julius Nyerere who became Tanganyika's president in 1961. After the merger with Zanzibar in 1964, the country came to be called Tanzania.

"On the way to the president" is about Stig's various attempts to meet Nyerere for an interview. We get an exciting story, which alternates between past and present, during the over 40 years Stig has been on the road. We get insights into events that we did not always know in detail, that we may have seen little notices about or forgotten after all these years. Here are several events where the development could have taken a completely different direction if other people managed to gain more influence.

The challenge of quickly leading the new African countries was, of course, gigantic for the young inexperienced leaders. This also applied to the relatively young Julius Nyerere, who at 39 years old first becomes Prime Minister and then President. His idea of ​​trying to get the rural population to settle in villages, in order to more easily build the necessary institutions and infrastructure for, among other things, schools and health care, engaged many. Stig takes us to farmers in Vidundabergen to find out how the president's policy was perceived at grassroots level. The picture we get is about the one that the researcher Göran Hydén testifies to in his book Beyond Ujamaa in Tanzania - Underdevelopment and an Uncaptured Peasantry, from 1980. Theory and practice often related poorly to each other and many farmers did not want to abandon the settlements they had for generations .

We get to follow the for most of us unknown John Okello, originally from Uganda, when he leads a grassroots revolution on Zanzibar against the Arab regime there. He does not succeed in fulfilling his ambitions. The concrete result will instead be the in many ways lame union Tanzania with Nyerere as president and Sheikh Karume as vice president.

Since the beginning of the 70s, Stig Holmqvist, together with his wife, the social anthropologist Aud Talle, has followed the fate of the Barabaig, a minority people in Tanzania. The book provides a picture of the problems that arise when a project for large-scale wheat production is introduced in the area and changes the living conditions of the semi-nomadic barabaigers.

We get to follow the strange meeting with Idi Amin, when Stig accidentally meets Amin in West Africa and is invited to Uganda to make a film. This was the time when the Western world had taken a liking to the young soldier Amin who gave hope for stability to the country, the pearl of Africa, but who eventually proved to be a full-blooded dictator.

One of the most exciting chapters is about Julius Nyereres' close friend Oscar Kambona. Stig Holmqvist digs among old papers and also meets Cambona's wife and daughter. Oscar Kambona himself died in the late 90's. The picture emerges of how the two friends who gradually got different views on how Tanzania's path should be charted and how developments in Tanzania would probably have taken a more capitalist direction if Kambona had been allowed to decide.

It is also interesting to get an insight into the role Nyereere's British secretary, Joan Wicken, came to play during all the years in power. There has been a lot of speculation over the years about whether that relationship contained anything more than the purely work-related one.

In one of the chapters, Stig Holmqvist lets us follow him to Zimbabwe, where we get a picture of a, in the government's art, inexperienced and relatively quiet Robert Mugabe during the first years of independence. It is clear that his then wife Sally was the socially competent of the two. There are many indications that the development in Zimbabwe could have looked different if she had been allowed to live. Perhaps it would then also have been possible to establish a fruitful co-operation with the white farmers and by peaceful means to lock African farmers into the commercial agriculture.

We get to accompany Stig Holmqvist on a journey on the Friendship Railway, that is, the railway the Chinese in the early 70s offered to build from the Tanzanian coast to Zambia. This was a collaboration that did not have the Western world's 'missionary behavior' as a basis with all its cues and demands. On the other hand, it laid the foundation for the close cooperation that has gained momentum in recent years and with clear commercial signs.

During his travels in Tanzania, Stig Holmqvist notes the unexploited agricultural land that, after all, exists. Very little has happened in African agriculture, says Stig, and partly confirms the thesis political scientist Göran Hydén presented in the above-mentioned book from 1980, Beyond Ujamaa in Tanzania, that the rural population received very little back from its leaders, who mainly benefited urban development.

I can reveal that Stig Holmqvist never arrives at the planned meeting and interview with the president. In return, we get to take part in a lot of experiences on the way there. This means that even if the meeting had taken place, the picture would probably not have changed significantly. The great value, of course, would have been to hear Julius Nyerere, in his own words, talk about how he envisioned the realization of the "dream of a better life" for his people, what could have been done better and what was needed now. The fact that he was one of the few African leaders of the time with a relatively unselfish attitude gives him a special place in the history of the African independence struggle. That his work was too often reinterpreted and misinterpreted by co-workers and others around him is a different story.

A really interesting book for those who, like me, followed the development from a partly different perspective, and want to remind themselves of the events, but also for those who, for the first time, want to get insights into a piece of development history.


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