Nyerere’s trusted aide died seeking justice for 19 years

Li Jinlan responds to questions by The Citizen journalist in 2018 during an interview in Dar es Salaam. PHOTO | FILE

What you need to know:

  • Since 2003 she found herself in deep frustration when she witnessed execution of the court award in her favour blocked by the same court over 20 times

Dar es Salaam. Once an interpreter to the Founding Father of the Nation, Mwalimu Julius Kambarage Nyerere, Li Jinglan, 75, has died at a Dar es Salaam hospital after enduring 19 years of agony and frustrations.

Her legal battle to enforce a Sh1 billion court award after winning a case against the National Housing Corporation (NHC) and a court broker following an illegal eviction from a flat she lived in is a classic reflection of the well-known legal maxim that ‘justice delayed is justice denied.’

Li Jinglan, who was famously known as Mama Li, died on August 5, 2022 at Rabininsia Memorial Hospital where she was admitted for weeks after she succumbed to stroke.

She fought formidably to have NHC and a court broker, Manyoni Auctioneers, pay her in vein despite triumphing against them three times.

Since 2003, the old woman who naturalised from her Chinese citizenship to that of Tanzania, found herself in deep frustration when she witnessed execution of the court award in her favour blocked by the same court more than 20 times.

Her death has saddened many who knew her, particularly when they recall the sufferings she went through in the corridors of justice and government offices as she fought to enforce a lawful court order.

Who was Mama Li?

Mama Li, who made many friends in Tanzania, was among 100 Chinese nationals who were brought to Tanzania in 1975 to offer their expertise during the implementation of the Tanzania-Zambia Railway (Tazara) project.

Her being chosen among the Chinese who were to come to Tanzania was sudden and unexpected. She was forced to separate with her few-months baby boy to join fellow Chinese who were coming to Tanzania.

When she was being picked, already Mama Li was an expert in Kiswahili language, working as a producer of Kiswahili programs in Radio Beijing, China.

“Upon arriving in Tanzania, I was taken to Mbeya as an interpreter of Chinese nationals who were teaching Tanzanians how to drive trains. She also helped in training locals on effective management of train stations.

She stayed in Mbeya for over one year before she was shifted to Dar es Salaam to start working in other Chinese project that was being run by the Chinese government in Tanzania after the completion of the Tazara project.

She went back to Mbeya a few year later, this time participating in the iron ore research project in Chunya District that was being managed by the State Mining Corporation (Stamico) in collaboration with the Chinese government.

“Truly speaking, when I came to Tanzania I was in deep feelings of separating with my child who had not even reached one year, but I had to leave Beijing because I was picked to come to work for Chinese project aimed at supporting development programmes in poor countries,” she said during an interview with The Ctizen in 2018.

Li Jinlan (third left) interpreting for Mwalimu Julius Nyerere briefings being made by Chinese experts when the Head of State visited an iron ore research project in Chunya District, Mbeya Region in 1977. PHOTO | FILE

19 years of tears

After she had lived in Tanzania for over 46 years, the old woman who also happened to work for former President Ali Hassan Mwinyi as interpreter saw her life ending in agony and great pain.

Tribulations in Mama Li’s life in Tanzania started in September 23, 2003 after the NHC served her with a notice to vacate its flat located at Haile Selasie Road, Oysterbay, Dar es Salaam.

NHC accused her of denying other tenants access to a commercial wing of the flat and damaging sceptic tank and preventing NHC from accessing the compound.

After weeks of trying to settle the dispute amicably proved futile, the woman resorted to court to challenge the notice to remove her from the house and rent it to a Swedish national.

Unaware that the day was the start of a frustrating and painful life for the rest of her life had come, Mama Li left her home on May 9, 2006 for Aga Khan Hospital for a forearm X-ray after falling down and hurting her arm.

A she was in hospital, NHC official, using a court broker, Manyoni Auctioneers, came unannounced, broke open her doors and took out all her belongings.

Since that day, her life turned miserable. She spent most her time in the corridors of the High Court, the Court of Appeal and other government offices in desperate search for a helping hand.

Her formidable fight for her right finally paid on April 27, 2012 when Judge Atuganile Ngwala of the High Court (Land Division) granted her prayers and declared her still the lawful tenant of the house she was evicted from.

The judge also ordered NHC and the court broker to pay her $177,000 (about Sh407 million) plus Sh70 million in general damages and several other reliefs.

Unenforceable court award

For more than ten years after she won the case, Mama Li had never lived to see execution of the court decision for reasons that she once described as ‘dubious’.

Until her last breath, the dispute between Mama Li and NHC was still pending in the Court of Appeal, having passed in the hands of 51 judges, among them ten from the High Court and 41 others of the Court of Appeal

During her lifetime, she once said to The Citizen: “I know my case has broken the record of being a case that has been heard by many judges in the world.”

Despite triumphing against NHC and the court broker, the public corporation has successufully managed to convince the High Court to stay execution of the court order twenty times since 2012.

The fight with NHC left her broke year after year as the started depending support from friends and her son in UK.

Mama Li made her name in Tanzania as a woman of courage, who was not ready to be oppressed or seeing other people being oppressed, at the same time remained humble.

She used to travel on the popular public transport, daladala. “She didn’t hesitate to scold a daladala conductor whenever she saw them preventing school children from boarding the buses,” said one of the mourners.

Tears as her body cremated

The body of Mama Li who died of heart attack was cremated at Hindu Crematorium at Makumbusho as her son, friends and lawyers who represented her in court witnessed.

Though it was not a huge turnout, it became clear that the few who turned out to pay their last respects were deeply touched by her humbleness and the agony she went through for years.

Her son said: “Mama Li came to this country over 40 years ago. She loved this country. She had good time but she also suffered a lot in the last three years. Thank you so much for giving her a helping hand during her suffering.”

Lesson on timely justice

A long serving lawyer and advocate of the High Court, Rugemeleza Nshalla said at the farewell ceremony that Mama Li’s suffering was a wake-up call for the judiciary to rethink about timely justice.

“What we are being told by Article 13 (1) A that we are all equal before the law sometime could be hoodwinking. “The government seems to be above the law. We cannot continue this way in this country where court decisions become unenforceable when they are not in favour of the government.

“Mama Li almost exhausted all the court system and she triumphed many times against the NHC. She fought formidably, she was a woman of courage, a woman of strength, a woman who knew to pursue her rights without fear of anyone,” said the lawyer.