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Sofia Kawawa: The Legendary Mouthpiece for Tanzanian Women

She had a voracious appetite for success to get things done and never backed down or shied away from confronting problems facing women head-on.

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February 11th of 2023 marked the 29th death anniversary of Sofia Kawawa, a woman who, throughout her life, until she bid adieu to the world at the age of 57 in 1994, worked tirelessly and deployed different strategies to build political consciousness among girls and women in Tanzania.

Fondly known as Mama Sofia Kawawa, she was famous for her take-no-prisoners attitude. She is one of the most fearless women this country has ever seen. She was a warrior who spearheaded many reforms and made unparalleled contributions to the emancipation of girls and women in this male-dominated society.

In recognition of the remarkable contributions made by this woman extraordinaire in girls’ education, women’s emancipation and gender equality, I’ve crafted this particular article in her honour.

Sofia was born to her proud parents, Selemani Mkwela and Zalia Gungutala, on Wednesday, August 12, 1936, in Masonya village, Tunduru district in Ruvuma region.

Sofia’s mother, Zalia, gave birth to ten children, of whom only four survived, including Sofia, the baby in the family. Sofia’s parents were peasants who lived off the land, growing cashew nuts, beans, vegetables, and maize.

Sofia belonged to a handful of lucky girls of her generation who were sent to school by their parents, as this was when the woman’s role had been confined to the kitchen.

Sofia was enrolled at Masonya Primary School. When her father died, her elder brother, Mwalimu Yasin, a teacher, assumed the responsibility and paid her school fees. 

Consequently,  Sofia didn’t drop out of school but completed her education at Tabora Girls “Warsaw”  in Tabora region in 1950. While at Tabora Girls, she met fellow students and teachers who would become essential personalities after independence, such as Hindu Lilla, Mariam Gwaya, Khadija Saidi, and Mary Mackeja.

On Saturday, August 25, 1951, at the tender age of 15, Sofia bid farewell to her ringless life. She married Rashid Mfaume Kawawa at Mahiwa street, Dar es Salaam at the residence of her eldest sibling, Habiba and her husband, Selemani Makelele. 

After their wedding, they rented a room in Bibi Titi Mohammed’s house at Shaurimoyo street in Dar es Salaam. After that, they relocated to Ilala Quarters.

As Kawawa was a seasoned actor in the country in the 1950s, Mama Sofia Kawawa acted in some of his films, and she used the proceeds to buy her first singer sewing machine.

As careers for women at that time were scanty, she was initially a housewife and later secured a job as a Volunteer Assistant at the Red Cross.

The struggle for independence

Mama Sofia Kawawa joined TANU in 1955. Thus, she was among the first women to join TANU, founded on July 7, 1954.

Mama Sofia Kawawa joined TANU before her husband, who, being a civil servant, was prevented from joining TANU under Executive Order No. 6 issued in December 1954. 

After that, during the struggle for independence after Kawawa had joined TANU, Mama Sofia Kawawa worked hand in glove with him but clandestinely.

It is well documented that women all over Africa have been disadvantaged from time immemorial. However, after independence, there were many initiatives in Tanganyika to address this problem. 

One such initiative was announced at the TANU Annual Conference in 1962. In that Conference, it was directed that all women should have one unifying organisation hence the “Umoja wa Wanawake Tanganyika” (UWT), which was formed in 1962 with Bibi Titi as its Chairperson and President Julius Nyerere as its patron. 

Mama Sofia Kawawa was one of the organisation’s founding members whose main task was to unite all women of Tanganyika and to fight for and maintain respect and justice for the women of Tanganyika. UWT was TANU’s women’s wing.

During the last week of January 1964, the armies of Tanganyika,  Kenya and Uganda staged mutinies as if in synchronised succession. The mutiny in Tanganyika occurred on the night of January 20, 1964. 

President Julius Nyerere and Rashid Kawawa, who was the Vice President, were evacuated from the State House to a secret location in Kigamboni. The million-dollar question is: Where was Mama Sofia Kawawa on that horrible night? 

Mama Maria Nyerere divulged: “First, I went to see Sofia Kawawa. She didn’t know where her husband was. She looked very dejected sitting at the stairs of their house. The soldiers came and asked her rudely, ‘Where is Kawawa?’ She answered them equally harshly, ‘I am the one who should ask you where my husband is. You picked him up in the middle of the night, and now you come and ask me, ‘Where is your husband?’ The soldiers left having remarked only that she had typical Ngoni insolence!”

That was Mama Sofia Kawawa at her best. She was no ordinary woman who, in 1964, was elected UWT Chairperson for Pwani Region, which comprised Pwani and Dar es Salaam. 

She used this opportunity to speak for women in these regions and fight for their rights while continually reminding them to attend adult education classes.

Bibi Titi Mohammed resigned as a TANU member in 1967 and relinquished her role as UWT Chairperson. Consequently, elections were held in 1968, and Mama Sofia Kawawa was elected UWT’s National Chairperson. 

From the word go, she was on a mission to change the plight of women in the country. She started campaigning vigorously for the rights of women. Marathon countrywide tours were the order of the day. 

In 1968 and 1969, as most women were, during this time, shackled under economic and cultural constraints, Mama Sofia Kawawa, Theckla Mchauru, the then UWT Secretary General, and other UWT leaders, visited all parts of the country, including remote villages to enlighten marginalised women. 

During their fieldwork, they met with many village women and discussed their problems with them. Living and interacting with them gave them first-hand knowledge about their predicament.

Under Mama Sofia Kawawa’s leadership, UWT initiated or supported various women’s activities, for instance, the establishment of daycare centres, clinics, pombe brewing, shops, sewing, poultry projects and other self-help projects.

The mini skirts debate

Mimi skirts were considered by young women as a fashion trend in the mid-1960s. However, other people regarded them as un-African, and those who wore them were considered to have had their minds occupied by western cultural imperialism when African countries sought to throw off the colonial yoke. 

African leaders took a personal interest in what women wore and berated them for unsuitable clothes. Many African presidents like Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya and Kamuzu Banda of Malawi heavily criticised these women.

There were incidents of women being jeered at, physically assaulted and stripped off of what was deemed indecent and provocative clothes in public by males. UWT, under Mama Sofia Kawawa, played a significant role in educating these young women, as Mama Mchauru once narrated.

“We worked so hard to educate these women, most of whom were educated women,” Mcharu once narrated. “Initially, we encountered stiff opposition, but finally, we were on the same page.”

One confident Haya girl, who used to work at Kersleys Travels, sued the government because she believed she had the right to wear what she wanted. 

A jovial judge of the High Court ruled, “Although you do not have much to show as far as your legs are concerned, you do have the right to wear what you want.” It was a landmark case, a Msichana taking the government to court!

In 1970, Mama Sofia Kawawa attended a leadership course at the Kivukoni ideological college, Dar es Salaam. This was essential training for Mama Sofia Kawawa’s leadership development. Unfortunately, she couldn’t finish it as President Idd Amin of Uganda had invaded Tanzania.

Enactment of the Law of Marriage Act

UWT, under Mama Sofia Kawawa, was, from time to time, pressuring the male-dominated government and party structure to make several changes. 

Among the first and most notable contributions of UWT was the lobby for and enactment of the Law of Marriage Act of 1971, which was quite a revolutionary piece of legislation. 

It was widely applauded and considered one of the best laws of Marriage Legislation in Africa at the time. UWT campaigned relentlessly for the passage of this Act, which introduced a unified family law system and abolished separate marriage laws for Christians, Hindus, Moslems and Natives. 

UWT had played a leading role in ensuring that the provisions designed to give specific advantages to women were included. For the first time, the Act provided grounds for divorce in very clear terms and with the sole reason of protecting the family. 

It protected women, especially Muslim women, as their husbands could no longer divorce them arbitrarily on a whim or the Islamic talaq pronouncement. They had to have solid grounds for divorce. 

Furthermore, under Section 160, an unmarried woman who had been at least two years in an extramarital relationship with a married or unmarried man was now protected. 

This is a milestone provision protecting women from being bundled out unceremoniously after having cohabited with men for several years.

Concerns against runaway Asian girls

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, girls of Asian origin, who had received a university education at the University of Dar es Salaam (UDSM), were leaving the country en masse to seek green pastures elsewhere and were also not participating in social activities. 

One day in a special meeting, Mama Sofia Kawawa, who never minced words but called a spade a spade, heaped scorn on them:

“We are discouraged by your acts which indicate that tomorrow you will be leaving the country and thus there is no need to cooperate with native Tanzanian women,” she said. 

“You could help teach African women how to run small-scale businesses. You also have to tell your husbands to stop holding essential commodities to raise prices and profits,” Mama Sofia added.

In 1972, Mama Sofia Kawawa was among 300 women from 41 member states of the then Organization of African Union (OAU) attending a week-long conference to discuss the role of women in the liberation struggle held at the Diamond Jubilee hall, Dar es Salaam from July 24 to July 31, 1972. She chaired this conference and impressed many.

In 1972, Mama Sofia Kawawa attended the Weruweru Girls Secondary School form four graduation ceremony as a guest of honour. She mesmerised her audience by stating, “Education and jobs are your husbands.”

Visits to UDSM

Mama Sofia Kawawa noted with great concern that many girls were apolitical at the UDSM and other higher learning institutions. As a result, she started visiting the UDSM and all higher learning institutions to encourage them to join TANU. 

Due to this commendable initiative, many girls joined the party, and no wonder President Nyerere praised her.

Mama Anna Abdallah (82), former Cabinet Minister, pays witness to this initiative: “When I entered politics, the only supportive network was the UWT. The then Chairperson of UWT, the late Sofia Kawawa, used to headhunt young educated women to join the party and enter politics.”

UWT elections were held in 1974, and it was reported: “Sofia Kawawa was elected yesterday for the third time in succession national chairman of the UWT, and Salome Kisusi was elected deputy chairman for a 5-year term. These two leaders were unopposed in the elections.”

For many years, paid maternity leave was granted to married women only. However, UWT’s tireless efforts led to the amendment of the Employment Ordinance Act of 1975, which, as a result, granted the right to paid maternity leave (84 days) for all working women regardless of their marital status. 

Mama Sofia Kawawa successfully introduced the idea that women should take their babies to meetings and be allowed suitable breaks. She also arranged for babysitters paid for by UWT.

Girls’ delayed entry to UDSM

Mama Sofia Kawawa also fought against girls’ delayed entry to UDSM. The delayed entry to higher learning institutions policy introduced in 1974 was unfair to girls and, therefore, was not spared by Mama Sofia Kawawa. 

TANU’s National Executive Committee (NEC) met in Musoma in 1974. After completing their secondary education, it resolved that females and males should spend a year in national service and work for two years before they could begin tertiary education. 

A hot debate ensued during the Annual Conference of UWT in Lindi in 1976 regarding the matter. 

Mama Sofia Kawawa vehemently protested at the conference, arguing that the three-year period was too long. Eventually, it was resolved that their concerns be forwarded to the powers that be. 

Hence, their recommendation was forwarded to TANU and its government. The government duly approved the recommendation that women proceed to university immediately after completing their National Service. 

In 1977, President Julius Nyerere defended the decision: “It was intended as a temporary compensation for the social and educational disadvantages suffered by Tanzanian women in the past.”

Thus, in July 1977, a sizeable number of girls, including Dr Asha Rose Migiro, joined the University of Dar es Salaam immediately after completing their national service. Dr Migiro went on to obtain her LLB degree in 1980 and remains to date, the only woman to get a First Class Honours degree at UDSM.

Mama Sofia Kawawa’s main preoccupation was continuously improving women’s lives. 

Thus, upon recognising that it was difficult for young women to get accommodation after getting employment, UWT, with the help of wives of foreign diplomats, especially those from Scandinavian countries, built a fully furnished hostel for these young women where the Airtel headquarters is located at Morocco, Dar es Salaam.

UWT, particularly Mama Sofia Kawawa, fought to ensure more women got leadership positions.

In sync with that, Hon. Angela Kairuki, in her paper titled ‘The Role of Women in Politics in Tanzania,’,  states: “Sofia Kawawa confronted Mwalimu Nyerere with specific facts about his male appointees, some of whom had no superior qualifications except the fact that they were males.”

How many Tanzanians dared to confront the Father of the Nation? This shows, in no uncertain terms, that Mama Sofia Kawawa was, indeed, one of a kind. No wonder she was often described as a direct and no-nonsense woman leader with a fiercely independent streak.

Criticisms of  Islamic marriage rules

On May 7, 1988, a party seminar on “Women and Development” took place in Dodoma. During the seminar, Mama Sofia Kawawa came under fire after publicly criticised Islamic rules that she felt were oppressive to women. 

On that day, she was spitting fire when she said polygamy should be prohibited and women should have the same inheritance rights as men. Many Muslim men were infuriated, asking, for example, Who does this woman think she is to correct the Quran?

The then President, H.E Ali Hassan Mwinyi, hurriedly clarified that Mama Sofia Kawawa had expressed her views, which neither reflected the position of the party nor the government. 

On May 13, 1988, tensions in Zanzibar reached a crisis point when demonstrators attacked Mama Sofia Kawawa’s disparaging remarks. A large demonstration approached the State House; consequently, presidential guards opened fire. 

Two people were killed, and several others were seriously injured. Damage was also done to the CCM Kisiwandui building and party vehicles. On May 19, 1988, twenty-nine demonstrators appeared in court; on June 14, 1989, fifteen were convicted and sentenced accordingly.

Mama Sofia Kawawa was an iron lady. Throughout her life, she was never intimidated by anyone and wasn’t ready to give way to intimidation. The fire was not finished yet as in 1990 when she sprinkled salt in the wounds when she related polygamy to the spread of AIDS!

On February 18, 1989, the SUWATA Legal Aid Center was launched by Mama Sofia Kawawa, one of the promoters of establishing it. 

The decision to formulate the scheme was reached after it was realised that many women in Tanzania faced legal problems without recourse.

The Center was initially based in Dar es Salaam and began its activities under the organisation of the women’s economic wing, Shirika la Uchumi la Wanawake Tanzania (SUWATA). But it is now scattered in many regions where there are paralegals.

Sofia Kawawa: The Wife

Mama Sofia Kawawa, was always overprotective of her husband. She always vehemently defended him as she knew he was an honest man. 

One example is the issue of a government ship, MV Jitegemee, which was dubiously sold to a Tanzanian of Indian origin, namely Akberali Rajpar alias Lord Rajpar, at a giveaway price of Sh39 million in 1981, who christened the vessel MV Lord Rajpar.

Worse still, Lord Rajpar paid only Sh14 million. On January 10, 1981, Lord Rajpar was detained under the Preventive Detention Act of 1962. Some government leaders had alleged that Rashid Kawawa had a hand in it as he was his close friend. 

Mama Sofia Kawawa defended him tooth and nail in CCM’s NEC until it was established that Kawawa was not involved. The said ship was returned to the government, and all those who were, in one way or another, involved in that scandal were either transferred or demoted.

Mama Sofia Kawawa defended her husband, especially when he was single-handedly criticised for implementing some party or government directives. Still, despite her tight schedules, Mama Sofia Kawawa never abandoned her duties as wife and mother. 

She ensured her husband was well taken care of and her children were well mannered, doing all home chores and helping them with homework. No wonder all Kawawa’s children are well-mannered.

Sofia Kawawa bids adieu

It is unfortunate that the law of nature had to take its course. On February 11, 1994, Mama Sofia Kawawa took her last breath at KCMC hospital in Kilimanjaro at just fifty-seven. 

She was laid to rest at Madale, Ubungo district, in Dar es Salaam. She was survived by her husband, Rashid Kawawa and her children, viz Rehema, Dr Hawa, and Mfaume, who unfortunately died in 2020, Khadija, Fatuma, Farida, Rashid and Sofia, Emma, Asha, Zulfa, Amina, who is also dead, as well as several grandchildren. 

Rashid was my classmate at the prestigious Oysterbay Primary School back in the day.

Mama Sofia Kawawa’s husband, Rashid Mfaume Kawawa, married Asia Abdallah, a well-respected teacher, on August 15, 1961, in Songea, whom he had met in 1960 when she was teaching at Loleza Girls Secondary School in Mbeya region. 

Mama Sofia Kawawa was also survived by the following step-children viz Zalia, Vita, Abdallah, Mariam, Zamaradi, Habiba, who unfortunately passed on in 2010, and Zaynab, as well as several grandchildren.

Concluding remarks

Mama Sofia Kawawa was one of the prominent leaders of her generation whose actions have left an indelible mark on the history of Tanzania. 

In her life, she surmounted many battles to ensure that human beings are treated fairly, and that disadvantageous discrimination based on sex is eliminated in this male-dominated society. 

As a pioneer women’s rights activist, she was very popular, and no wonder she used to run unopposed and used to score landslide victories in UWT elections. For example, in the 1989 UWT election, she garnered 99.9 per cent of the votes.

Mama Sofia Kawawa falls in that category of formidable movers and shakers who used their voice to champion girls and women’s rights, access to education and economic opportunities. 

She had a voracious appetite for success to get things done and never backed down or shied away from confronting problems facing women head-on.

She has, consequently, been awarded several medals. In 1984, she was awarded a medal by President Julius Nyerere. In 2019, she was awarded by the TGNP. 

On December 9, 2011, she was awarded by President Jakaya Kikwete the Uhuru torch medal for her distinguished contribution towards the attainment of independence as the nation celebrated fifty years of independence. 

In 2012, she was awarded for her role in the founding of the UWT. On April 29, 2018, she was among remarkable women awarded special medals by then Vice President Samia Suluhu Hassan on behalf of UWT in recognition of their sterling roles in the liberation and valiant national building missions.

Lastly, Lindi Street in Dar es Salaam was posthumously renamed Sofia Kawawa street in her honour!

Mzee wa Atikali is a writer based in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. He’s available at +255 754 744 557. These are the writer’s own opinions and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoints of The Chanzo Initiative. Do you want to publish in this space? Contact our editors at editor@thechanzo.com for further clarification.

2 Responses

  1. Thank you for snacking history of our beloved mother of our struggle for independence and women empowerment.

  2. I do really appreciate and respect you ” Mzee wa atikali” all of your researched stories which on my oppion are true and has facts I do thank you.
    VITA RASHID KAWAWA

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