IT’S World Environment Day (WED) today, and one of Africa’s greatest sons, the late Mwalimu Julius Kambarage Nyerere, comes back to life from two stations in our lives -- the earthily and spiritual realms, where this founding president and Father of the Nation is the only constant, figuratively speaking.
This year’s World Environment Day (WED) celebrations are taking place at national level at Butiama, Mwalimu’s birthplace, so as to honour his sterling contribution in protecting and conserving the living environment. Vice-President Samia Suluhu Hassan will grace these celebrations.
Our initial random surveys show that the people out there were eagerly awaiting the VP’s arrival – and their own interaction with her – during which period the people also hope to showcase some of their ‘pet’ projects which they believe will ultimately define our common development effort.
However, there’s also something amiss for those arriving at Butiama; Our very own Ms Samia could be travelling nearly 2000 years back in time – to one biblical Mary Magdalene, who along with Mary the mother of James, and Salome, set out at dawn… bringing with them some spices so they could anoint (the dead body of) Jesus, only to see a young man in white, who told them: “You’re looking for Jesus the Nazerene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here.
” Significantly, Thursday, the first day of June, was marked out for the beatification and possibly canonisation, into sainthood, of Mwalimu. A devout Catholic in his days under the sun, Nyerere is now ranked ‘Servant of God’ in the hereafter. He died of leukemia in a London hospital in 1999.
And, just as significantly, too, members of the Nyerere family, led by his widow Mama Maria Nyerere, were all in Kampala, Uganda yesterday for the official pilgrimage – after Thursday’s beatification -- that was to be held at the Uganda Martyrs Church at Namulongo in suburban Kampala.
At yesterday’s event, the basilica was slated to accommodate at least 1,000 pilgrims – 300 from Tanzania alone, joining others from farther afield as Australia, the United States and Canada linking up with neighbours South Africa, Zambia, Malawi, Zimbabwe, South Sudan, Kenya and hosts Uganda.
According to The Guardian (IPP, Thursday edition), “scores of dignitaries were expected to attend the event in honour of Mwalimu Nyerere’s widely acknowledged contribution to the struggles for independence, peace in Africa and elsewhere.” So it’s a safe guess to assume that Tanzania’s premiere ‘First Family’ won’t be in Butiama for this year’s WED fetes.
While in Uganda, members of the Nyerere family and other Tanzanians will also participate in celebrating the martyrdom of 22 young Catholic faithfuls who were tortured to death 132 years ago for confessing their Christian faith.
At a very personal level, this writer can narrate at least two encounters with Mwalimu, one at close quarters, and the other through his housekeeper, Dorothy Musoga, whom I chanced upon at Mwalimu’s funeral in October, 1999. She was then aged 74 and living in retirement in Mwanza at a house built for her by Mwalimu.
Briefed to cover the event on behalf of The East African, I arrived at Butiama – for the first time – and was greeted by a sight quite out kilter with a place likely to have produced a son equal to Mwalimu’s stature, and penned thus: “Mud huts surround the Catholic Church where Nyerere used to pray, and both the church and the mud huts tell a story.
“From the mud huts came the children who knew exactly when Mwalimu would have his breakfast, and dutifully came to share it with him every morning, and in the church their parents shared a common faith and prayer.”
As a spoiled urbanite, my worry was that, with the great teacher gone, so too was the free bread for the kids, and my story was dutifully headlined thus: Free Bread for Butiama Children Goes Too, but the story didn’t end there, not for Mama Dorothy the housekeeper, certainly.
“At first, it was bread and butter for both Mwalimu and the kids. Soon I couldn’t cope with the increasing numbers of children joining him for breakfast, so I downgraded it to porridge and kande (a boiled mixture of maize off the cob and pulses),” Mwalimu’s former housekeeper, then recalled.
I had met Dorothy by sheer coincidence at a pub put up by the Tanzania Peoples Defence Force (TPDF) building brigade at Butiama.
Like all Mwalimu insiders, she was full of praise for the departed former president but, above all, worried about the future of his family and what she called Mwalimu’s ‘other children’ who loved to share his breakfast. “With Mwalimu dead, free breakfast for poor villagers will become a thing of the past,” Dorothy reflected, almost to herself, between sips of warm beer.
The poverty of their parents remains, as does the lack of infrastructure at Butiama, which Mwalimu didn’t want to transform into an edifice to be envied by Tanzania’s 8,000 registered villages.
The day after the burial, October 24, I arrived at the village just as villagers in their Sunday best were leaving church. They behaved as if nothing had happened, a stark contrast to the day before when some of them had broken down, unable to reconcile themselves to a future without Nyerere.
I was now seeing a different scenario; a people resigned to their common fate. When I later visited the compound of Mwitongo, where Mwalimu was buried not far from the graves of his parents, only a few insiders and the late Nyerere’s close family members had remained, among them his former press secretary (now since deceased), Sammy Mdee and former aide-de-camp Philemon Mgaya (ditto: RIP). At the grave itself, TPDF soldiers from the army’s building brigade were erecting a permanent structure.
Three short days ago today, as we reflect on Mwalimu’s beatification, few among us can give a better answer about the impact of Nyerere’s death. For the poor children of Butiama, however, the days of free breakfast with their beloved grandpa were gone, hard to imagine at the time, what would follow. Yes, you guessed right: Bigtime mining operations have since come to Mara Region, and with them big-time environmental challenges.
How I wish he were here!
Further down memory lane, I was to attest that Nyerere was an avid student of botany, and that a disproportionately large part of his life evolved around trees and other gifts of Mother Nature than other intellectual pursuits. One fine morning in the mid-1980s, I had this rare opportunity to accompany a senior colleague at UNEP, the late Prof Reuben Olembo, our ‘man of the trees’ at this environment watchdog within the UN system, to a rendezvous with Mwalimu at the official residence of Ambassador Job Lusinde, then Tanzania’s High Commissioner to Nairobi, Kenya.
I was then associate media liaison officer with UNEP myself and …eeerh… secretary to the CCM branch catering for all Tanzanians residing within Nairobi and its outlaying environs. But I digress. Back to Nyerere, and …Lo and behold, the man Nyerere had that capacity to engage in the finer details of taxonomy, the biological classification of the plant kingdom, better than the average forester.
As Chancellor of the Sokoine University of Agriculture (SUA) soon after his retirement, Mwalimu had this singular dream of establishing a botanical garden at SUA’s Morogoro campus along the lines, if not on the scale, of the London Botanical Gardens at Kiew.
I’ve twice been to this facility, and would do it again – any time. But it would be the greatest of saving graces if this ‘Nyerere- dream’ SUA facility were put to better public use than hitherto – because it remains largely unknown to the larger public to date. As for the kids of yester-Butiama, I’d vouch many could be faring pretty well as adults now.