New Internationalist

I was a city boy, a soft Asian

Issue 396

Novelist MG Vassanji describes growing up with graft in Tanzania.

MIKE MORAN
MIKE MORAN

In the 1960s the Tanzanian government instituted compulsory National Service for the nation’s high-school leavers. This was in order to make us more tough and patriotic. After my final exams, when the National Service placements appeared in the newspaper, I found out that I had been assigned to a camp outside Bukoba, on the shores of Lake Victoria. I had never been so far into the interior of the country; I had no friends or relations in the region. No one I knew had gone there before, or had been assigned to go there with me this time. I was a city boy and a soft Asian, used to certain amenities and food habits. To be fair to myself, I had also succumbed a few weeks before to a certain condition that a visiting Sri Lankan specialist had declared as a tuberculosis of the knee. To this day I don’t know any more about the condition, except that it had mysteriously swollen up my knee, but the good doctor did give me a letter stating that I could possibly need further treatment.

There was a report on the bush telegraph that a certain rich Asian girl’s father had had her assignment transferred from a distant to a closer camp, a few miles from the capital, Dar es Salaam, so she could visit home on weekends; or she could be visited by family bearing sufuriyas (saucepans) of biriyani or pilau, or whatever. It was even said that a certain major in the National Service was a family friend and had received a fridge as a gift. Surely I had a stronger case for transfer to a closer camp, with my knee and all, having been assigned to the furthest corner of the country?

My mother was a widow scraping a living and we did not know anyone with influence in government, let alone have the ability to confer gifts on army bigwigs. Fortunately she had a friend who had grown up with her in Mombasa and had married well. Her husband managed a new shirt factory and had important connections. I went to see him, but this was merely a formality; he sent me off immediately to one of our city’s richest Asians, Mr Badru. This in itself was a coup for a mere nobody like me. Mr Badru was reserved, but he heard my story out and made a phone call – to a commissioner of the police. Off I trekked to Police Headquarters (I wonder now at my bravery and level of desperation), and saw the man himself. He too heard my story out, in which my knee figured prominently. He made a phone call to a high honcho in the National Service, spoke in their common language, not Swahili. Then he sent me to National Service headquarters to meet the man who could help me.

The officer I saw did not even fully hear me out, instead he gave me a sound tongue-lashing and told me to report to my camp as required.

If corruption is the bending or flouting of procedure in exchange for favours, then my little adventure was a simple, though somewhat comical, example of how it works, or fails at the lower end. In my case it failed.

Graft in 1960s Tanzania made possible the circumventing of the nation’s new socialist rules. If you were a student the government would decide which high school you would attend, which university (if any) after that, what you would study there. Where you would do your national service. Or if you could or could not go overseas to complete your education. The decisions were supposed to be based on principles of fairness and the needs of the country – you filled forms, with your choices on them; but the decisions were made arbitrarily. A math genius (we had those too, contrary to what the media might impress upon you about Africa) might be sent to study agriculture; someone with exceptional marks in biology and chemistry might be sent to architecture school. And because the decisions were arbitrary, they could be amended – at a price. Nyerere was a principled man and his African socialism made sense to many of the younger generation. We sympathized with the poor, but we had our ambitions too, to attain what we had worked hard all our lives for. As far as I know, our president was incorruptible. But those under him, especially the bureaucrats, were not so scrupulous.

If the bureaucrats can be bought, there has to exist a corrupt public willing to buy. It’s a chicken and egg situation. The middle class in my youth consisted to a large degree of Asian shopkeepers and businessmen, a nervous lot brought up on the social and economic freedoms that colonialism had allowed them, and prone to attacks by any petty demagogue accusing them of being unpatriotic. The bureaucrats, on the other hand, were mostly Africans, anxious to reap the benefits of independence and climb up the social ladder. The restrictions of Nyerere’s socialism, inspired partly by Maoism, provided the perfect opportunity for the government’s low salaries to be supplemented, to bring upward mobility to those who had never even had a whiff of wealth. The bureaucrats turned on the screws; the middle-class Asians believed they had no choice but to pay.

An all-pervasive corruption becomes a way of life, a discomfort to be endured like the hot sun at noon for those who don’t have the luxury of owning a car

But corruption is not a simple bending of rules to supplement low salaries, or to assist a friend or relation in need. If allowed to persist it grows like a cancer, entrenching a venal bureaucracy that believes reward comes not from work and effort but from putting up an implacable wall of obstruction to public services, whose doors they will open only with payment. In due time, every government service, what is routine in the Western world and can even be accomplished by mail, has to be paid for in bribes. If in your idealism you decide to go the proper route – fill in application forms and wait – you are only fooling yourself and will be laughed at.

At the other end, entrenched corruption creates a belief in the moneyed class that they own the bureaucracy, perhaps even the government. Anything can be bought, rules and laws are there to keep the others down. Recently I met an in-law who told me proudly how she had got the nationalization of somebody’s property revoked, through the influence of a friend high up in government. In her gratitude, this relation offered the highly respected individual, whose name I still hold in awe, a handsome payment in dollars, which he refused but then, graciously, accepted. The story could well be a boast, nevertheless it reflects an attitude. I was embarrassed for her.

An all-pervasive corruption becomes a way of life, a discomfort to be endured like the hot sun at noon for those who don’t have the luxury of owning a car. Civic sense, a public responsibility, belief and pride in the neighbourhood, the city, the nation, the people, are not allowed to develop in a society pervaded by such attitudes. For those without the means or influence, government is the enemy, in a life that is an uphill battle – until their time comes, and they have the means to pay, or the position from which to extort.

In Tanzania, over the years, an overall cynicism seemed to have developed; taxes were not paid, not collected – yet people complained about the state of the roads, shortages of electricity and water, garbage not collected, the state of education. The rich always had their own schools, paying fees in thousands of dollars, something beyond the imagination of an ordinary worker. One such school, I discovered, was attended by the daughter of a former vice-president of our socialist nation. It became, still is, every person for themself.

If socialism facilitated bureaucratic corruption in Tanzania, a counter-example was neighbouring Kenya, which was capitalist and a darling of the West as long as the Soviet bloc lasted. In Kenya, although the small-scale corruption was also present, more money was in circulation and massive corruption was possible in the upper reaches of government and big business. Partnerships in businesses, acquisition of land, smuggling ivory and other banned animal products, payoffs from multinationals. If that were not enough, there were instances of what could only be called banditry: a minister’s wife decides that she likes your business and will have it; for a small price; or else.

How high could you go up in corruption? Well, where does the money reside? It comes through foreign aid, masses and masses of it, by local standards, and from foreign companies. And so, a British car manufacturer is reported to have paid a minister a sum of money to purchase its vehicles for the government. A pittance in marketing costs for a multinational, a giant step for the minister. He might acquire a stake in one of the new exclusive shopping malls or high-rises coming up, he can send his kids to exclusive schools, then on to Harvard or Yale. Meanwhile the ranks of the unemployed keep swelling along Moi Avenue, valleys fill with shanty towns, violent crime rises, security companies proliferate.

In desperation, one might be tempted to conclude that corruption is only natural. It’s always existed. There is an old Swahili proverb, ukiwa na udhia, penyeza rupia; to be rid of an annoyance, pay some money. Grease the wheel. Where a bureaucrat or school teacher or policeman can barely afford the luxury of a newspaper, when the sons and daughters of the well placed return from Europe or America flaunting wealth and style, can one really blame him for asking for chai (‘tea’) money, which he will use to buy a decent dinner that night or even pay school fees? No, we cannot blame him. But to accept the status quo is to accept a society without a sense of fair play or rules, in which the rich are always the winners, and the vast majority remain poor and desperate as the population escalates. •

MG Vassanji’ s novels include award-winning The In-between World of Vikram Lall and The Book of Secrets. He currently lives in Canada.

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