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Book Bans And Moral Panic in Tanzania: Is It Why They Want to Ban the Internet Too?

The best way to ensure our children get a wide variety of exciting and enjoyable books is not to ban them but to encourage and support Tanzanian writers to produce exciting and delightful books.

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Given the furore over books in our schools and our society, I would like to provide some historical background. This is by no means the first time this has happened, and as in the past, we need to ensure that the debate provides more light and less heat.

I was privileged enough to join the English Language Panel at the Institute of Education in the 1970s. The 1970s was a time of great educational innovation after Tanzania ditched the Cambridge system to develop its own. 

And, at least in my subjects, English and Literature in English, the results were spectacular. At the lower secondary school level, students had to read many literature texts even in their language courses, and all the texts on the syllabus were African. 

Instead of William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens, we had Chinua Achebe, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Okot p’Bitek, Mongo Beti and a whole host of African writers. At high school, there was a mixture of the best world literature, including African literature with writers such as Ngũgĩ, Achebe (again) Wole Soyinka, Alex La Guma, Henrik Ibsen, Bertolt Brecht, Arthur Miller, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Chinese short stories as well as non-fiction including Julius Nyerere, Malcolm X, Frantz Fanon, Nelson Mandela among others. 

These syllabi, at least according to my students, profoundly impacted their thinking and lives.


However, these syllabi were not without their detractors. Thus, in the panel, we were confronted by a campaign to remove Mongo Beti, Okot p’Bitek and others from the syllabus because they were “unsuitable” for our children. 

READ MORE: Things Are Not As Simplistic As Our Politicians Would Have Us Believe

If I remember rightly, a certain influential priest started the campaign in the press, and in the panel, a ‘representative’ of the parents appeared with a long statement. I seriously doubt whether he wrote it himself—as he was later unable to explain what the real problems were with the books he wanted removed—and I have no idea which parents he was representing, but we had to sit and listen politely.

In the hot debate that ensued, Song of Lawino was rescued from oblivion by a Tabora Boys teacher who said that Mwalimu Julius Nyerere had visited the school and asked who had read the epic poem. Those who had were praised as the Tanzania’s founding leader strongly recommended the book. 

English language panels should not base their choice on the preferences of their leaders. However, those of us who strongly believed that Song of Lawino was a key text in combatting cultural imperialism were still happy that the poem was embedded even further in the syllabus. 

However, Mongo Beti and others were banned. In particular, The Poor Christ of Bomba, a compelling criticism of missionary authoritarianism and hypocrisy as told through the eyes of an innocent young boy. The book also had quite a lot of talk about sex, which is related to hypocrisy.

Sex as excuse

Of course, the campaign centred on sex but ignored the powerful critique of cultural imperialism in the guise of religion. That is when it became clear that this was a religious campaign against books that criticised it and that the priest above was behind it. 

The excuse of sex was used to remove such critiques. Indeed, when the ‘representative’ of the parents was asked which books he recommended instead, he came up with The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan, a firm believer in imperialism, and Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton, which, while a critique of racial segregation in South Africa presented a very unrealistic approach to changing it. 

READ MORE: Artists in Tanzania Demand Creative Freedom: ‘We’re Being Censored’

When this was pointed out to him, he rapidly backtracked and said he did not want to interfere with the experts. So why did he come in the first place?

Two years later, a set of books was banned, particularly David Maillu’s After 4.30 and My Dear Bottle. Personally, I found his books very shallow, but they were very popular, and The Common Man had even been suggested for the syllabus before the decree banning them. 

Alongside his books, even a nonfiction work on jando na unyago was also banned. For reasons I do not know, but I guess it was because you cannot talk about jando na unyago without mentioning sex.

Back to my own experience, when we had developed the first draft of Summons, I made the mistake of showing it to a priest who also taught literature. Unbeknownst to me, he took it to the Ministry of Education and asked if they supported such writing being given to schoolchildren. 

The Ministry sat on it for some time until Tanzania Publishing House told them they would publish the book whatever the ministry thought and gave them a deadline. After that, the manuscript was returned, and six poems were removed, again showing the deciding class’s biases. 

READ MORE: Political Heat on X (Twitter) Forces Ruling Party Supporters to Call for App Ban in Tanzania, Citing Pornography 

Six poems were removed, three of which were critical of religion. Priest syndrome once again. One of the other poems was a very revolutionary one about the liberation struggles in Southern Africa. I cannot imagine why such a poem was banned except that it mentioned the pussies of the oppressors shrivelling before the guns of the freedom fighters. 

Seriously, was the mention of that sufficient to withdraw such a poem when other poems also talked of the liberation struggle? I doubt whether the mention of the offending word would turn our children into sex maniacs.

My last example comes from Kenya, where a drama group in Mombasa put on a play based on a traditional story from Okot p’Bitek’s book Hare and Hornbill, a collection of traditional tales from Acholi land. 

It was a traditional story, but the play was banned as being against African tradition! I guess it offended the sensibilities of some Christians and Muslims, but it could in no way be said to be against African tradition when it was an African-traditional story.

Let’s be rational

What is my point here? Of course, it is the task of the Ministry of Education to ensure that inappropriate books do not enter our syllabi or schools, but:

Firstly, inappropriateness is not confined to issues of sex, nor was sex such a taboo subject in many African traditions, hence jando na unyago for adolescents reaching the age of puberty. Researches into girls getting pregnant at an early age often point to the fact that ignorance is a crucial factor.

Secondly, we should be rational and not allow our prejudices to rule. Of course, proponents of particular religions may not like their religions being criticised, but criticism is a part of life and should be used to encourage debate and critical thinking. Critical thinking is a key element of our new syllabi, but how do you create it without including sensitive issues that encourage debate?

Thirdly, we need to do our research. While preparing for this article, I had to do research into whether Diary of a Wimpy Kid does actually talk about homosexuality. I’m Not Gay, Greg is a fake quote attributed to the character Rowley, as seen in a parody of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid book series. In the book, Greg pursues a romantic relationship with his friend Rowley, who rejects him. 

READ MORE: I Read 13 Books From the Diary of a Wimpy Kid Series. I Encountered No LGBTQ+ Messaging

I’m not particularly a fan of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and I could criticise it for being insensitive to other issues, but it encourages kids to read. Now, it seems the series has been banned because of a parody that has nothing to do with the series.

Fourthly, and most importantly, the best way to ensure our children get a wide variety of exciting and enjoyable books is not to spend time banning them but rather to encourage and support Tanzanian writers to produce exciting and enjoyable books to encourage people, especially children, to read.

Finally, other countries know that the best way to get people to read certain books is to ban them, as everyone wants to know why they were banned. While hard copies can be blocked, the same is not true of the internet, which may be why they want to ban that as well. 

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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One Response

  1. Mabala you have nailed it. The challenges are; reviewers have no time to read the books in detail and come up with constructive criticisms like the parent you pinpointed who came to the panel to challenge the book, but failed to identify the mistakes.
    Just a reminder, reading culture is also fading in Tanzania. People read to pass exams, Tido Mhando has also put it well, people read uncritical issues, innuendos at the expense of books with wealthy knowledge. Thanks for this think piece, but who else is going to read!!

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