In East Africa-within the context of the EAC-there is no other leader whose passing is remembered as much as Mwalimu Nyerere. He achieved remarkable things during his time in office, and despite his failings as a political leader, he never wavered about his own vision for this country.
He towered over our politics for decades and no other politician or political leader has ever come anywhere close to his influence over this country’s affairs.
Those who lived during his time in office are in the minority, many of them old and frail. Those who lived during the time he had left office still fair better. Those who came after his passing are in the majority today. To all these, what does Mwalimu mean to them today? Is it possible that he means different things to them?
It is not easy to put to print the emotions of a country twenty two years ago when Mwalimu was ailing in a London hospital. Newspaper headlines and radio broadcasts and each update about his health were followed closely.
When it was announced that he had passed away, the headlines here and those who were interviewed back then, it was clear who had lived at what time of Mwalimu’s life. Those who saw him deliver this country from the yokes of colonialism said we were headed for the edge of a cliff and eventually we will fall off it.
Mwalimu back then as it is today, was seen as glue that binds this country together. Those who had vivid recollections of his time in office were many back then. They did their best to remind each other and inform those who were born at the tail end of Mwalimu’s presidency or those who came after he had bowed out of Magogoni of his times in office.
His times were complex. At the time of his passing the country had had two other presidents since he retired. What did Mwalimu mean to them then, and what does he mean to them now? They have seen more successors to him in office since then. They lived during the one-party state. They saw the economic hardships. They were there when literacy levels shot through the sky. They were there when we hosted liberation fighters and actively participated in them. They were there when the country he led gave a fair chance to all the people at life.
What do they make of him now in comparison to his successors and their times? Are they nostalgic of the era long gone?
Those who came after Mwalimu had retired understood one thing: He was like insurance to the stability of the country. Like those who came before them, they believed that no president would make a terrible mess of the country while Mwalimu was around.
His passing made it feel like it was open season. These were unsure of the times ahead without him. Does Mwalimu still evoke the same emotions even after twenty two years since his ancestors called?
To those who came after Mwalimu passed on, he has increasingly become almost like a mystical figure. They see him on pictures. They see him on video clips online.
They cannot quite comprehend him and his times. It is as if Mwalimu’s watchful gaze is everywhere they go. His name is mentioned every time. Leaders are quick to quote a thing or two or remind the rest of us of what he believed in this or that other issue. Does Mwalimu mean the same thing to them as he does to the other two groups? Who is he exactly, apart from being a man they read or heard that he brought political independence? Do they relate to him in any way? Do they find inspiration from him and his time? Do they anchor their present and their future from his times? Their own times have made them restless; can his time provide them with any assurances for their future?
Perhaps all these groups might converge on one thing, regardless of what they make of Mwalimu twenty two years since his passing. In Bertolt Brecht’s Life of Galileo, an exchange between characters, where one says; “no, unhappy is the land that needs a hero”, as a response to another character who had said, “Unhappy is the land that breeds no hero.”
This is a country whose people are frequently polled as unhappy. It is still a country that has more faith in the dead than the living. We still look back to find answers for the future.
We are still in search of a hero.