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Badilisha Lugha KISWAHILI

Education for service, not for selfishness

5th November 2012
Primary education is the foundation of the country’s education system. (File photo)

On 14th October, 2012, Tanzanians in the country and abroad commemorated Nyerere Day, which is a public holiday, set aside in order to find time to celebrate the life of the first President of Tanzania, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere. A number of symposiums, workshops, public displays and many more were organised worldwide.

In this column, I present an abridged version of an article titled “Mwalimu and the State of Education” written by Chambi Chachage, which appeared in the book named “Nyerere”. The original version appears in the website: This abridged version has obtained written permission from both the original writer and the publisher.

In the last two weeks I presented two articles based on Nyerere’s speeches on ‘The Power of Teachers’ delivered in 1966, and ‘A Great Urge for Education’ which was delivered in 1954. Today’s article will be the last and is based on Nyerere’s speech on ‘Education for Service and not for Selfishness’.

Mwalimu Nyerere’s 1999 call for ‘Education for Service and Not for Selfishness’ was an attempt to couch his 1967s policy of ‘Education for Self-Reliance’ and 1974’s motto of ‘Education for Liberation’ in “the parlance of today”. As The Open University of Tanzania (1999) reminds us, it was ‘His Last Words on Education’. Therefore we have to pay particular attention to it as it sums up his overall stance on this theme.

He starts by using the Maxim gun as an analogy of education, poetically reminding us that it will be used by those who have it against those who do not. “The instrument of domination of the future”, he aptly predicts, “is going to be education.” He then optimistically assures us that fortunately “in the acquisition of that instrument we can all compete and all win with honour” (Nyerere 1999:3). Unfortunately as the statistics cited above indicate, this is not what we are doing. In fact we have created a system that ensures that there is no ‘place for everyone at the rendezvous of victory’ to use a phrase that popularized by his contemporary, Aimé Césaire.

A seasoned educator had this to say about such a system: “Tanzania has a deeply unequal, dualistic education system, one for the rich, and one for the poor, with an education system of ‘best’ public schools for the middle classes. This stands in stark contrast to the principles of equity and justice promoted by Mwalimu. The marker of difference is no longer race as it was in the colonial days, but class. We may find, shortly, that class inequalities are far more divisive, bearing within them profound implications for social cohesion in the country (Marjorie Mbilinyi 2004:xvi)”.

It is in this class sense that Nyerere urges us to enter what he refers to as “this honourable competition for knowledge” if “we do not want to be the permanent source of the hewers of wood and drawers of water for the educated of this world” (Nyerere 1999:4). To do so, he reiterates his lifelong position, our primary school education should be universal. As gender conscious as he was when he penned his essay on ‘The Freedom of Women’ in 1944 at Makerere, Mwalimu Nyerere warns us that if this education is not universal “those who will miss out will be mostly girls.” In light of this caution it is worthy to commend the government for allowing pregnant girls to continue with their studies upon giving birth. In this honourable competition, as Mwalimu admonishes us, our education should be of good quality.

His insistence on this attribute is too powerful and still very relevant today therefore it deserves to be quoted in full: “Primary education in particular should be excellent; for this is the only formal education that most Tanzanians are likely to receive. At present the quality of our primary school education is appalling. We must do something about it, as a matter of National urgency. Apart from the fact that it is the education of the vast majority of the citizens of Tanzania, it is also the foundation of the whole of our Education System. Ndiyo Elimu ya Msingi. If it is poor the rest of our Education System is bound to suffer (Nyerere 1999: 4)”.

It is an indisputable fact that our secondary and tertiary education is suffering because of this appalling msingi (foundation). Other statistics, apart from the ones cited above, that prove this are those on the percentage of students passing the Form 4 Examinations. As HakiElimu & IDASA (2009) observed, BEST2009 indicates that even the “only slight improvement from 33.6% in 2006 to 35.7% in 2007” (URT 2007: 30) presented in PHDR2007 did not occur after all. Rather, it was further observed, the rate stagnated at 35.6% for both years and it deteriorated further to 26.7% in 2008. This indicator only includes students who get Division 1 - 3. Ironically, overall, most students get Division 4 which is still not considered as a failure by the Ministry responsible for Education. In fact it was also observed that since 2000 over 50% students have been getting this Division, the peak being 56.9% in 2008. The results for 2009 were not out by the time I, the author of this chapter as well as HakiElimu & IDASA (2009) report, was writing.

Mwalimu also notes that our education should be relevant to our needs. We cannot compete if the majority of our people and their posterity live in villages and yet “we refuse to give those children an education that could help them to improve their own lives in the villages” (Nyerere 1999: 6). It is in this regard that Mwalimu Nyerere advocated for a policy of Education for Self-Reliance which aimed at providing a complete education by the time students completed their primary education. It is also in this regard that Mwalimu Nyerere thus conceptualized Education for Liberation, as quoted here:

“I emphasize this point because of my profound belief in the power of education. For a poor people like us Education should be an instrument of liberation; it should never be so irrelevant or otherworldly as to become an instrument of alienation. Alienation from yourself, because it makes you despise yourself; an alienation from the community in which you live because it purports to make you different without making you useful to anybody, including yourself (Nyerere 1999: 6)”.

It is thus a saddening fact that a significant number of our students complete their primary, secondary or even tertiary education without the requisite skills for competing in the so-called global village. As HakiElimu’s (2008) What is Quality Education? A Research on Citizens’ Perspectives and Children’s Basic Skills reveals, the overall competency levels in Mathematics – a subject that is the basis of computation – was very low for both primary and secondary school students. It also revealed that their reading skills in English – the so-called ‘Kiswahili of the World’ – were poor developed, especially in primary schools even though they were – and are still – required to be taught in English when they enter secondary schools. Indeed this area of language policy is one of the areas that Mwalimu is said to have regretted for failing to change. It is about time that we rectify this confused language policy if we are to ensure that knowledge is really transferred from the teachers to the students. That can be done through a language that both teachers and students are familiar with. In the case of Tanzania such a language is Kiswahili.

In his conclusion (as quoted below) Mwalimu thus adds another important ingredient that we relatively lack today:

“Finally, our education, especially our higher education, should be socially responsible. Education for Self-Reliance is not Education for Selfishness. Yes, it is for Self-Reliance of the individual, but it is also for the Self-Reliance of our country. I believe that the community has a responsibility to educate its members. The need for individuals to contribute directly to their own education and the education of their children cannot absolve the community as a whole, represented by local and central government, from its duty to assist every Tanzanian to receive a good education. But a poor country like Tanzania cannot afford to educate the selfish. It invests in education in the belief that such investment is good for both the individual concerned and for the community as a whole. In the language of yesterday: Education for Self-Reliance, especially at this higher level, should also be Education for Service. Not all of us will have the same concept of community, but all of us have a need to belong. However socially insensitive we may be, we have a need to belong to a community of fellow human beings. No human can make it alone. Nobody is asking us to love others more than we love ourselves; but those of us who have been lucky enough to receive a good education have a duty also to help to improve the well-being of the community to which we belong: it is part of loving ourselves! (Nyerere 1999: 9-10)”



Mwalimu Nyerere’s legacy is tied to the history/herstory of the education sector in Tanzania. His regime produced positive as well as negative results in the education realm. In the case of the former Universal Primary Education (UPE) stands out. I am convinced that in the case of the latter the confused Language of Instruction (LOI) policy stands out. It is in this regard I agree with the assessment that ‘Nyerere’s own views were also contradictory, in that he endorsed both developmentalist and emancipatory ones” whereby the “former prioritized experts, rather than mobilization of the people to organize on their own behalf.” (Mbilinyi 2004: xiii).

However, I do not endorse the assessment that his policy on education was a total failure.

No one is better posed to respond to their historical amnesia than Mwalimu himself. I doubt he had a better response than this. He commented: “At the World Bank the first question they asked me was ‘how did you fail?’ I responded that we took over a country with 85 per cent of its adult population illiterate. The British ruled us for 43 years. When they left, there were 2 trained engineers and 12 doctors. This is the country we inherited. When I stepped down there was 91-per-cent literacy and nearly every child was in school. We trained thousands of engineers and doctors and teachers. In 1988 Tanzania's per-capita income was USD280. Now, in 1998, it is USD140. So I asked the World Bank people what went wrong. Because for the last ten years Tanzania has been signing on the dotted line and doing everything the IMF and the World Bank wanted. Enrolment in school has plummeted to 63 per cent and conditions in health and other social services have deteriorated. I asked them again: ‘what went wrong?’ These people just sat there looking at me. Then they asked what could they do? I told them have some humility. Humility - they are so arrogant! (Nyerere in Bunting 1999)”

Many parents can’t afford schooling. A lot of students are not learning. Let’s have some humility.



Masozi Nyirenda is a Specialist in Education Management, Planning, Economics of Education and Policy Studies; he can be reached through +255754304181 or [email protected]

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