Three years ago I was engaged as a social anthropologist in field research into the Lungu ethnic group, a people who by an accident of history are divided between southwest Tanzania’s Rukwa Region and the Northern Province of Zambia. I had last visited Sumbawanga, the regional capital, in 1977 while working on the history and culture of another local people, the Fipa. Sumbawanga was then not much more than a large village with a population of about 3,000. Great was my astonishment to find in 1990 a thriving urban centre of some 60,000 inhabitants.
How to account for this extraordinary twentyfold increase in the size of this remote settlement in one of the poorest parts of Tanzania? One notable clue, it seemed to me, lay in the vast open market which had mushroomed in the area and which in the 60’s and 70’s had been fallow land dotted with the characteristic compost-mound plots of the Fipa. Most of this new market was taken up with stalls selling clothing of all kinds. I learned from local officials that most of these goods originated as shipments from charitable organisations in the United states and Germany and were intended for free distribution among the poor. These goods were said to have mysteriously found their way into the private sector. Whatever the truth of the matter, it was evident that business was flourishing.
During my eight months of field research among Lungu on both sides of the border I was to acquire further insights into the dynamics of the so called ‘second’ or ‘ informal’ economy (now said to represent 30% of economic activity in Tanzania) and the transformation of the once sleepy settlement of Sumbawanga into the populous ‘boom town’ of southwest Tanzania. Near the border with Zambia I observed Tanzanian Lungu women heading across the frontier with Zambia with loads of beans and groundnuts. These were destined for sale to trading partners, usually relatives living in Zambia. That transaction concluded, these women then walked another 15 miles to Mbala, the local administrative and commercial centre. Here they bought sugar, which they carried back into Tanzania and sold.
But these were just the minor operators in the thriving cross-border trade I which is driven by price differentials between the two neighbouring countries. A few years ago, before the nationally imposed campaign for the growing of hybrid maize, this part of Tanzania produced a substantial surplus of finger millet (Eleusine corocana), much of which was traded across the Zambian border. In 1990, near the major Lake Tanganyika port of Mpulungu in Zambia, I was able to observe the daily departure from Ngwena (Crocodile) Beach, known locally as ‘Smugglers’ Beach’, of boatloads of small traders carrying such items as sugar, petrol and kerosine to Tanzania. Much of this material certainly ended up in Sumbawanga market.
While in Zambia I was able to interview one of the bigger operators. This enterprising young woman told me that she ran a weekly ‘service’ of contraband sugar (export of this scarce commodity is banned under Zambian law). Her practice was to buy it in bulk in Kasama and deliver it by boat to a kinswoman near the Tanzanian lakeside port of Kasanga, whence it was taken by lorry to Sumbawanga. other sources told of lorryloads of illicit goods driven across the border along bush tracks which avoided the customs and immigration posts at Zombe and Katete.
I encountered the informal economy again while travelling to Dar es Salaam on the Tazara railway. One of our fellow travellers was a personable young Tanzanian who told us he was shepherding a cargo of chicks acquired in Zambia. His intention was to sell them in Dar, where they were much in demand. From the proceeds he would buy a load of shirts, which he would take to sell in Lusaka. He told me he had been operating this profitable ‘shuttle service’, incidentally travelling first-class all the while, for many months.
Maliyamkono T Land Bagachwa M S D. The Informal Economy in Tanzania. James Currey 1990.
Pottier J. Migrants No More: Settlement and Survival in Mambwe Villages, Zambia. Indiana University Press 1988.