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Are Tanzanians Becoming More Intolerant?

Traditionally found in politics, now intolerance is spreading like some foul-smelling flood to cover all areas that might have remained untouched.

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Intolerance is growing intolerance in our society. It was already there from a political party point of view since neither side seemed to be able to tolerate the actions of the other side, whatever the pious proclamations to the contrary. Permanent self-praise and criticism of the other. 

However, now it is spreading like some foul-smelling flood to cover all areas that might have remained untouched.

Three examples presented themselves last week. Firstly, there is this small drama group which presents a satirical look at current issues. I actually knew nothing about them till I saw their mockery concerning the new statue of what is supposed to be Julius Nyerere, Tanzania’s founding leader. 

Most people I know found this quite funny. However, people’s reactions to Nyerere’s son, Madaraka Nyerere, supporting the statue were not funny. Of course, you can disagree with him –I do, for one– but he said he received another foul-smelling flood of insults for expressing his view. Lack of tolerance.

However, this group then presented a satirical skit on the current demonstrations by the opposition party, CHADEMA. Many who laughed yesterday suddenly became highly critical today, and many even demanded that such a group be disbanded. 

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Now, once again, you can disagree with their satire, which I did. But freedom of speech means freedom to express your views, whether they are uchawa, ukunguni, utwiga or usimba and freedom to express your disagreement with those views.

However, that does not mean demanding that they be silenced forever. I was amused by the group’s rejoinder the next day, mimicking the famous song by legendary Tanzania musician Les Wanyika, Sina Makosa. As the philosopher Voltaire said in an earlier age of autocracy: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

That should not apply to speech that incites people to hatred, but small satirical skits do not fall into that category.

Sugar debate

These actors were quickly banished to obscurity over a far more virulent debate based on the words that Minister of Agriculture Hussein Bashe supposedly said: The vanishing commodity known as sugar should be made available by Ramadhan. 

Immediately, there was a storm of criticism, with some questioning how dare he mention the religious activity of one large religious group –to which he belongs– without mentioning a similar religious activity of another large religious group.

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I have to admit this storm of criticism took me aback. Since I came to Tanzania from the UK fifty years ago, every year, there has been a sense of anticipation of the holy month of Ramadhan, given its central importance in the faith of the Muslims. 

Traders are warned not to take advantage of the holy month by raising prices, and people are assured that vital commodities will be available during the month, given that certain foods are now almost universal practice during that time. 

At the same time, at all religious festivals of another faith, especially Christmas, bus owners are warned not to take advantage of our particular form of pilgrimage to raise the price of transport, and assurances are broadcast of increased security so that people can enjoy the holiday in peace. 

In other words, what Mr Bashe said was nothing new, so I could not understand why there was such a storm. Indeed, I expected that the storm should concern not only why there was such a shortage of sugar for so long – where was the government? 

Why did they take no action until the situation was dire? Why were they arresting individual traders when they had been sold the commodity for a higher price by the wholesalers?

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Above all, why did the government take no action to prepare for the impact of El Nino when they had been warned months in advance, and it was well known what kind of impacts those would be?

This, of course, does not only refer to the issue of sugar. Signs of El Nino preparedness were so few and far between as to be almost invisible. Unnecessary floods –not just a case of water going home, whatever anyone says–blocked drains, even loss of life and now a massive sugar shortage? 

Why did it get to this point? What happened to disaster preparedness? To me, that was the big issue, but people preferred to turn it into a religious issue which was, to me, pure povu chovu. Of course, every povu has its own justification, even if it is only more povu. And it was clear that most of the attacks were related to religion.

Socrates’  three sieves

At this point, I remembered the three sieves supposedly mentioned by Socrates to someone who wanted to give him some gossip.

Sieve One: Is the story true? Are you sure it is true, or have you just heard it from someone? If the story goes through this sieve, it faces the second one:

Sieve Two: Is the story good? Does it bring any benefit? Will it make me or them a better person? Will it have good outcomes? If it manages to go through this sieve, which definitely has a smaller mesh, it is placed in the third sieve.

Sieve Three: Is it necessary or useful? By knowing this message, will that person’s or my life improve? Can that person take any practical action regarding this information or message? In what way does not knowing this information hurt or affect the other person?

READ MORE: How Do We Face Natural Disasters?

Socrates was concerned with gossip, but the same can apply to many of our debates, especially on social media. To take the sugar issue, of course, it is true that the minister made that comment. 

But were the attacks on him good, considering that he was only making statements similar to those made over so many years? And were they necessary or useful? This, on its own, seemed to be intolerant. 

Out of place

In addition, the equation of Lent to Ramadhan also seemed out of place. In reality, there is a significant difference between the institution of fasting –the institution, not the individual–of these two religions. This is why the sugar question is particularly important in Ramadhan. 

I do not doubt, and I have the utmost respect for those Christians who carry out similar fasts –all day without food or drink– for one day or over some time for religious reasons. Still, these are individual efforts, not a requirement of their denomination. 

I was born and brought up a Catholic and even went to a school run by Catholic monks, but I have never fasted in that way, nor have any other group of Catholics I know. Hence, I checked with Ms Google and was informed that:

On Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, Catholics aged 18 to 59 also limit the amount of food they eat. Only one full meal and two smaller meals that together do not equal a full meal are eaten.

That is exactly as I have known it for all these years. In addition, most Protestant churches view fasting as an individual decision for members who wish to strengthen their relationship with God, an individual decision, not a pillar of their faith.

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Therefore, in my innocence, I asked a question: how do the Catholics fast? My issue was not to create a competition or a conflict but to point out that, institutionally, there is a big difference between Christian fasting and Muslim fasting. One is not better or worse than the other, but we should recognise and celebrate the difference.

I really regret asking that question. I intended to point to the fact that we are all human, ubuntu, you know, I am because you are, and we have different ways of approaching God. Christians put more emphasis on other aspects during Lent, not just fasting. For me, each side uses this time to get closer to God in their particular way. Diversity, not competition. 

However, I realised that by asking that question, I opened a Pandora’s box of prejudice and insults on both sides. I was shocked, and I’m now applying the three Socrates sieves to myself. Is it true that they are different? Definitely true. But has it been useful or good? I’m not sure.

Richard Mabala is an educator, poet, and author. He is available at or on X (Twitter) as @MabalaMakengeza. These are the writer’s own opinions, and they do not necessarily represent the viewpoint of The Chanzo. Do you want to publish in this space? Contact our editors at for further inquiries.

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