Think of these homeless wretches …Mwalimu would be spinning in his grave

08Jan 2016
The Guardian
Commentary
Think of these homeless wretches …Mwalimu would be spinning in his grave

WHAT sort of city do we live in? I look around every day as I come and go from work. Every morning, it seems, new buildings reach upwards, threatening to pierce the clouds. Every night there is another twinkle in the sky.

The Founding Father of the Nation, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere

These buildings are generally office blocks housing hundreds of workers. They are well appointed with lifts and air-conditioning. At lunchtime, their inhabitants disgorge themselves and crawl onto the sticky city streets like a thousand columns of ants emerging from out their nests.

Dar es Salaam is most certainly a different city from the one that I first set foot in fifty years ago.

In those days newcomers were welcomed. There was adequate food and lodging and I didn’t have to struggle at all to find somewhere to lay my head.

But now, what with the influx of strangers, we have a crisis on our hands. Not many of these people have a place to live, nor any hope of finding one. In my day, the government would loom after you. You could rely on someone in a government office to help you, either officially which took time, or through a friend of a friend of a friend who could pull strings.

The system wasn’t perfect but it worked.

Today nothing works. The people who are drawn to Dar es Salaam likes moths to a flame come because they entertain dreams of what might be. They are village people who are naive enough to believe the streets and avenues of the city are paved with gold only to find, on arrival, that these same thoroughfares are not even paved with stone.

So where do these people live? They have to find somewhere or else they will die of exposure or illness. They go to the government housing department but there are far too many of them to help.

So they take the law into their one hands and build their own places out of cast-off planks of wood and scraps of tin and plastic. These places are, they admit, makeshift. They don’t intend to stay in them for the rest of their days. But of course they do.

Until, of course, the government bulldozers come and tear down their meagre shelters.

Now the government is enforcing the law. Nothing wrong with that. The government is following the rules.

But they do so with a heavy heart. No-one, not even the sternest minister who lives in some posh villa overlooking the ocean, is stupid enough to believe that what the government is doing is right.

Correct, yes, because it is following precedent and procedure and upholding the law and where would we be without that?

But right? No. Morally this whole sorry episode in the Msimbazi valley stinks. Nor does it make sense.

Because once you have been dispossessed, what do you do? The choices left to you are stark and painful. You obviously find another place to live and therefore start to build another squat on someone’s land. Or you drag your belongings down to the bus stand and go home.

Most of the wretched people who have lost their homes have opted for the first choice: they have started to build a place somewhere else. They are still breaking the law.

So what does this say about the system?

System? Did I say system? There is no system. There is no place in our society (and this is the Twenty First century no less) for the poor. In short there is no safety net. The poor are invisible and it is better that they stay that way.

What would Mwalimu have thought of this? He is without doubt turning in his grave.

And what about the man who now wears his mantle? What will John Pombe Magufuli be thinking? More to the point is there any direct action that he can take?

You may be saying that this has nothing to do with him and everything to do with the people who through their own stupidity and lack of respect for the law have put themselves in such a precarious position. Why should these people be bailed out by the state?

I think there is an answer to that. These poor wretches are made, like you and me, of flesh and blood. They breath like us, eat us like us, and they make mistakes like us. Unlike us who enjoy a small amount of prosperity and with it security, these unfortunates have no choice.

So there’s your answer. We have to provide them with a choice. We have to have a government policy that will provide housing for the poor. If we cannot build in Dar es Salaam, then accommodation must be found elsewhere.

But the provision of shelter is not a stand-alone policy. Housing the homeless goes hand in hand with creating employment. It is no use giving people a lovely house with hot and cold water, electricity or gas, a TV set, and a clean kitchen if they have not any job to go to.

And what if the government sits on its haunches and does nothing? Well, the alternative is too dangerous, too horrible to consider. Just close your eyes and think of rampaging mobs running through the city, setting cars on fire and looting supermarkets.

So how are we going to afford all this social engineering?

Don’t say that we are a poor country. That excuse went out of the window the day they found gas and oil in Tanzania and offshore.

We are sitting on trillions of dollars worth of mineral wealth and this is now being exploited.

This money must not be wasted. it must be used prudently to build an infrastructure that will serve us well for another generation. It must be spent on job creation, capital construction works and education and health.

Too many countries have frittered away their riches and, when the oil and gas wells have dried up, have slumped into depression fans political and social upheaval.

This is why any revenues earned from raw materials should be administered by a sovereign wealth fund armed with a mandate to look after the interests of the people and not the politicians.

Do this, Mr President, and you will have earned our respect and the undying gratitude of the poor. Do this, Mr president, and you will allow Mwalimu to rest in peace.