Monday, December 29, 2008

The Historical Roots of Kwanzaa

Apologies for our December repose, but it was a much needed break to reflect on and enjoy the holiday season. In that spirit we thought it appropriate in this week of Kwanzaa to link an informative piece from the archives of the Wall Street Journal. Here is an excerpt:

Kwanzaa was started in the late 1960s by Maulana (né Ron) Karenga--a California civil-rights activist and now a professor--as a series of days for blacks to reflect on "The Seven Principles," which constitute a credo "by which Black people must live in order to begin to rescue and reconstruct our history and lives." The principles themselves are utility, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith, each of which goes by its name in Kiswahili, the major language of the East African country of Tanzania (e.g., umoja, ujima, ujamaa).

Many sources of inspiration have been identified in Mr. Karenga's thinking, most prominently the teachings of Julius Nyerere, the son of a minor chief in rural Tanzania who studied in Britain and returned to his country to lead it to independence in 1961. Nyerere served as Tanzania's charismatic president for the next 23 years.

In 1967, Nyerere announced that ujamaa, often translated as "familyhood," would henceforth be the guiding principle of Tanzanian social and economic policy. He felt that the "relentless pursuit of individual advancement" was not well-suited to African society.

Predictably, Nyerere's version of socialism drove the already low-flying Tanzanian economy into the ground. The forced relocation of 10 million to 12 million peasants into 8,000 "cooperative" government villages (and the razing of their ancestral homes) resulted in badly inefficient land use. The country went from being the largest exporter of food in Africa in 1961 to the greatest importer of food in 1980. Production of sisal, the primary raw-material export in 1960, shriveled to 20% of its peak by the early 1980s. With most of Tanzania's foreign exchange devoted by then to food imports, nothing was left for spare parts for the aging industrial sector or for fuel to get farmers' meager produce to market. It was altogether a disaster.

But you don't have to take my word for it; listen to Nyerere himself. When he stepped down as Tanzania's head of state in 1984, he summed up his tenure in perhaps the five most honest words ever uttered by a world leader: "I failed. Let's admit it."

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