The University of Iowa

Learning more about Africa

February 16th, 2011

Editorial by James Giblin from the Press-Citizen

James Giblin is a professor of history and co-director of the African Studies Program at the University of Iowa.

The East African nation of Tanzania is well known for its extraordinary wildlife reserves, pristine Indian Ocean beaches and political stability. Often it is described as an oasis of peace in a very troubled neighborhood.

Unlike four of its next-door neighbors, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi, Tanzania has avoided massive civil violence. Last month, however, its reputation for stability was shaken.

On Jan. 4, peaceful demonstrators in the city of Arusha were attacked by police firing live ammunition. Four demonstrators were killed, and many were injured.

The demonstration was called by Chadema, the leading opposition political party. Chadema leaders, including members of parliament as well as its presidential candidate in last November’s general election, Wilibrod Slaa, were beaten and jailed. Newspapers featured photographs of blood streaming down the face of Slaa’s wife, Josephine Mushambusi.

Tanzanians are facing economic hardship caused particularly by the world-wide rise in food prices. But this demonstration was entirely political. Demonstrators protested rigged elections, corruption by government leaders and a national constitution that tilts the political playing field against the opposition.

The lesson from Tanzania — as from Tunisia and Egypt — is that even the seemingly most tranquil nations of Africa are witnessing fierce, principled struggles for civil liberties and democracy.

At 5 p.m. Friday in the Old Capitol Museum, I’ll be discussing these issues as part of an Africa-themed episode of WorldCanvass, a television and radio program sponsored by the University of Iowa International Programs. And this spring, International Programs will be working with UI’s African Studies Program to offer our community a rare opportunity to meet participants in these struggles.

Our visitors will include Slaa and Mushambusi. Slaa will address the Iowa City Foreign Relations Council on March 31. The keynote event will be the symposium, “The Future of Multi-Party Democracy in East Africa,” on April 1-2. In addition to Slaa and Mushambusi, symposium participants will include two prominent journalists from Tanzania, Bernard Mapalala and Jenerali Ulimwengu, as well as Tanzanian, Ugandan and American scholars.

The African Studies Program also will sponsor several other events. Together with the Middle Eastern and Muslim World Studies Program, it will offer talks by three experts on Islam in eastern Africa; Valerie Hoffman (March 22), Mohamed Said (March 31) and Scott Reese (April 26).

On March 23, Aldin Mutembei of the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, will discuss images of HIV-AIDS in Kiswahili poetry. Perhaps the most moving of these works are poems from the early 1980s that describe the terror of an epidemic which as yet had no name.

Another Tanzanian scholar, Pamela Kaduri, will discuss efforts to reduce tobacco use in Tanzania on April 14. In addition, during February and March, the African Studies Program will welcome numerous faculty from Tanzania’s Mkwawa University College of Education, where the UI’s Office for Study Abroad will base a program of semester-long study.

The Iowa City community is welcome to all of these events. They are supported by major grants to the African Studies Program from the U.S. departments of Education and State. In addition to the symposium and other public events, these grants have made possible a new study abroad program in Tanzania (UI faculty will teach courses there in summer 2011 and spring 2012) and expanded UI course offerings in African studies and advanced Kiswahili.

These activities will strengthen the UI’s reputation as a leading center for East African studies while also offering our community an unusual opportunity to learn about ongoing struggles for democratic rights in Africa.