Julius Kambarage Nyerere, the first president of the East African country of Tanzania, was born on April 13, 1922, in a town called Butiama, located on the eastern shore of Victoria Falls. His father, Nyerere Burito, was the chief of the Zanaki tribe and had twenty-five other children. Being raised in such a large family allowed Julius to experience directly the benefits and costs of "communal liv-ing"—an idea later made central to his political philosophy. Life in such a family structure also affected the development of his educational philosophy, in which Nyerere sought to combine the epistemologies of Africa and Europe. From Europe, where he studied at Edinburgh University, Nyerere absorbed the socialism of the British Fabians. From Africa, where he combined his early communal life with a Catholic primary school education, Nyerere developed a philosophy not unlike that of the American William James in terms of an emphasis on pragmatics. These experiences constituted the foundation of his personal philosophy, perhaps best epitomized in the pamphlet "Development is for Man, by Man, and of Man" (1978): "Man does not develop himself in a vacuum, in isolation from his society and his environment. And he certainly cannot be developed by others. Man’s consciousness is developed in the process of thinking, and deciding, and acting. His capacity is developed in the process of doing things."
Nyerere thus challenged the idea that a scholar should not get involved in the practical affairs of politics. As a committed activist, he had a number of critics, both European and African. The former were upset because Nyerere was a leader of the African liberation movement that sought to remove the injustices inherent in the British colonial system. The latter were upset because they feared that Nyerere was an example of yet another African whose body was in Africa but whose mind was conditioned in Europe and whose ultimate loyalties were therefore suspect.
Nyerere’s political decisions were not, however, entirely predictable. He was not an ideologue, although he was an unabashed socialist and his plans for land redistribution did not endear him to Western powers. His support of the overthrow of Uganda’s President Idi Amin was condemned by many African political observers as a cave-in to the demands of the American/Israeli interests rather than African interests. Yet the decision was cheered by the European/Western press, which described it as a noble act of gratitude for foreign economic assistance to Tanzania. The same set of observers winced when Nyerere offered unconditional support for the armed struggle to free Southern Africa. Some observers have minimized this militaristic side of Nyerere’s presidential reign and have instead focused on his pragmatic embodiment of the nonviolent spirit of India’s Mahatma Gandhi.
The Gandhian influence was also reflected in Nyerere’s support of the unification of the offshore island of Zanzibar with the mainland, as well as in other personal efforts of reconciliation between the East Indian immigrants and the indigenous African communities.
Nyerere did not take his African constituency for granted. He championed the incorporation of the local language, Kiswahili, into every facet of Tanzanian life. One legacy of that decision is the appearance of the Kiswahili language in the widely celebrated holiday of Kwanza among African Americans in the United States today.
Like many other post-independence leaders, Nyerere’s exposure to Western education was both a blessing and a curse. Its blessings were evident in that it equipped him with the skills necessary to negotiate the treacherous waters of independence from Britain, and a curse because it sometimes tied him too closely with the oppressors of his people.
Nyerere’s handling of the ever-present duality was reflected in his early support of both the Commonwealth (of former British colonies) and the OAU (Organization of African Unity). The support of both required a considerable degree of deftness because the organizations’ goals were often incompatible. Such political deftness earned Nyerere the respect and admiration of many world leaders. His decision, in 1985, to relinquish the presidency and to retire to his farm for a life of reflection and international peace-making activities—a role later played by South Africa’s first president, Nelson Mandela—further enhanced his international reputation.
South African leader Nelson Mandela was one of several future leaders whom Nyerere nurtured as president of Tanzania. Robert Mugabe, whose own efforts at land redistribution resembled Nyerere’s, was another who was given refuge as a leader in the liberation struggle of Southern Africa.
Julius Nyerere died in London on October 14, 1999, after a short battle with leukemia. He left behind a wife and seven children and a well-deserved legacy befitting the title Mwalimu (teacher).