Nyerere the teacher: calling to honour teaching profession

Thursday October 10 2019

A primary school teacher at work in one of the

A primary school teacher at work in one of the public schools in Tanzania. Father of the Nation Julius Kambarage Nyerere, himself a teacher by profession, had decried the fact that Tanzanian teachers tended to be accorded little social respect. photo | FILE 

By Khalifa Said @ThatBoyKhalifax ksaid@tz.nationmedia.com

Dar es Salaam. On February 13, 2009, the Jakaya Kikwete government was forced to sack the-then Bukoba District commissioner, Mr Albert Mnali.

This was because of the latter’s directive that teachers from the district’s three primary schools be given corporal punishment for their alleged irresponsibility that led to the schools’ poor examinations performance.

Mr Mnali wasn’t pleased with the Standard-VII examination results of the Katerero, Kanazi and Kasenene primary schools. In the event, he directed that all the 32 teachers of the schools be flogged so that they would be more responsible and work harder to improve performance of their schools in the national exams.

The DC’s directive caused a national uproar that led to the President Kikwete Administration to act swiftly. It revoked the appointment of Mr Mnali, describing his directive as “deeply disappointing” – and that the practice was “embarrassing…absolutely not acceptable.”

That incident happened in 2009: ten years after the death of Tanzania’s first President (1962-85), Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, who – as far back as in 1966: more than thirty years before his death on October 14, 1999 – decried the fact that Tanzanian teachers tended to be accorded little social recognition generally.

Himself a teacher by profession – hence the epithet ‘Mwalimu’ to his name: ki-Swahili for ‘teacher’ – Nyerere made that observation at the Morogoro Teachers College (MOTCO).


As Tanzanians mark the 20th anniversary of Mwalimu’s death on October 14 this year, they would no doubt be reflecting on his ideas and philosophies throughout the month. In that regard, it would be most interesting to see to what extent his remarks at MOTCO remain relevant to present-day Tanzania.

‘Teachers do not wield obvious power’

In the speech referred to above, Mwalimu Nyerere noted the reckless tendency to ignore teachers, saying that this was so because teachers – unlike other civil servants – do not wield obvious power. As a result, very few young people opt for the teaching profession – and those who do, do so only for lack of “better opportunities.

“Our nation – any nation – is as great, as good, as fine a place to live in; it is as progressive as its citizens make it,” President Nyerere pontificated.

“[The nation’s] leadership may be good, bad or indifferent. But, if the people are awake and aware of themselves, it will not be completely unrepresentative of the attitudes in society for long. And the truth is that: it is teachers more than any other single group of people who determine these attitudes, and who shape the ideas and aspirations of the nation,” Nyerere – whose philosophy on education is regarded as one of the most articulate in Africa and beyond –stated.

Mr Nyerere decried the tendency to view teachers as a powerless social group – calling it “one of the biggest fallacies of our society.”

This was because, he explained: “teachers can make or ruin our society. As a group, they have power second to none. It is not the power of a man with a gun; it is not a power that can be seen by a fool. It is the power to decide whether ‘Service or Self’ shall be the dominant motive in the Tanzania of the 1990s and thereafter!”

As if he were commenting on the fifth-phase government’s aspiration to build an industrial economy, Mr Nyerere made it clear that it was only competent teachers who have the real power to determine whether Tanzania will succeed in modernising the economy. This is without losing the attitudes that allow human beings to maintain their self-respect –and earn the respect of fellow humans while working in harmony with them.

“It is they, the teacher, who are shaping what Tanzania will become – much more than us who pass laws, make rules and make speeches,” he said.

Mwalimu more correct today than ever

Exclusive interviews with various teachers by The Citizen on how the society perceives, and how the government treats teachers, confirmed that there is a strong feeling among many of them – especially public school teachers – that Mwalimu’s assessment sounds more correct now than it was at the time when it was first made.

They said that there is an inextricable link between the way teachers are treated by their employer, and the perception that society accords them. If the very government itself – which is expected to take good care of teachers’ needs – ends up ignoring them, it cannot be expected that anyone would be interested in the profession. Nor would anyone else have reason to value them as teachers should rightly be valued.

There was an almost unanimous response from the polled public school teachers in that respect for both teachers and the teaching profession itself has been regressing. To that end, they cited various factors that may have contributed to the dire situation. Most of the teachers mentioned poor preparation of teachers while at teachers training colleges; low-income – and the use of teachers for partisan political purposes.

“You can’t expect a teacher who has to repeatedly borrow from the retail stores in the neighbourhood to earn respect from that community. You just sanely cannot,” said Ms Sara Temu, who has been working as a public school teacher for over a decade.

“Let’s be honest: teaching in Tanzania is seen as a career for people who have failed to make it in other disciplines. The treatment that teachers are subjected to in this country would convince no parent to advise their loved ones to consider teaching as an honourable vocation,” she laid it on thick.

Perhaps the most ignominious practice of all that bothers Ms Tesha is the use of teachers to further partisan political interests. She says it doesn’t make sense to use teachers “to ‘spice up’ the rallies of a particular political party” when we are all told that Tanzania is a “multi-party democracy.”

One primary school teacher, who preferred anonymity – as was the case with many teachers, who cited safety reasons – told The Citizen that he cannot expect the society to perceive him or the teaching profession positively when even their employer doesn’t do so as a matter of course!

“Anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear might have seen and heard on more than one occasion how teachers have been publicly rebuked by political leaders such as district commissioners – sometimes doing so in the presence of students,” the teacher lamented. “Under such circumstances: where would you expect the society’s respect for teachers to come from?”

The dangers that this practice pose to the future of the country’s education is, indeed, very serious, teachers who spoke to The Citizen warned.

One danger is deterioration of the quality of education offered – especially in public schools – as well as moral degradation in general.

Ms Tesha clarifies the point thus: “Teachers will start thinking of abandoning public schools for private schools, where conditions are relatively better – and one consequence is that public schools would be without qualified teachers. Motivation for teachers in public schools is so low that the teachers lose interest not only in students’ academic progress, but also in their moral consciousness,” she hammered the nail home!

Recognise the role of teachers

Mr Ally Harith had worked as a public school teacher before he later shifted to a private school. He says two factors motivated his decision: remuneration and the recognition – and appreciation – of his professional ability.

“I, thereafter, earned double the amount I used to get when I worked at the public school,” says the man, who eventually quit teaching to work as an education consultant. “Anyone who used to teach at a public school and shifted to a private school will tell you that the difference between the two institutions is enormous. At least, one feels their status uplifted.”

In that regard, Mr Harith urges the government to appreciate the role of teachers in nation-building processes – and also understand the implications that the dissatisfaction of teachers can have on the country’s future as a nation-state.

Now that Tanzania is mourning the passing on of one of its greatest sons, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, he – like most of the teachers to whom The Citizen spoke recently – wanted the government of the day to heavily fund education.

It is in this way that the government can – nay: would – make Mwalimu’s cry a thing of the past.