by Martin Walsh
PROSPERITY IN RURAL AFRICA? INSIGHTS INTO WEALTH, ASSETS, AND POVERTY FROM LONGITUDINAL STUDIES IN TANZANIA. Dan Brockington and Christine Noe (editors). Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2021. xxiv + 436 pp. (hardback). ISBN 9780198865872. £90.00 (pdf free to download from


This book challenges views of rural development that are conventional in Tanzania, as well as in many institutions in Africa and elsewhere, that poverty in the rural areas is increasing while productivity is static or declining. It does so by taking a view of income and expenditure which, unlike the country’s Household Budget Surveys, takes into consideration improvements in the assets controlled by small farmers, and challenges the ways in which their incomes and contributions to growth are included in GDP and growth statistics. One way of doing this is through ‘panel studies’ which track the experiences of a group of people from birth onwards; but it is only recently that such panels have been created in Tanzania. Instead, Dan Brockington and Christine Noe found 16 researchers who had worked in Tanzanian villages 20 to 25 years ago, and who had kept the data from their interviews. The researchers reinterviewed those they had interviewed years before, or their direct successors, in 37 villages and let them explain how their households, and their villages, had changed. They tested and refined the resulting conclusions through focus groups and elite interviews. These ‘longitudinal studies’ approximate to panel studies – one researcher, Monique Borgerhoff Mulder, has been back to the same village every other year since 1995, so that her work can almost be seen as a panel study.

The enthusiasm of the researchers shines through what they have written, especially in an epilogue where they explain how their original research took place. For most, the experiences were life-changing. Several were shocked when, as part of this research, they went back to villages which 20 years ago had been sleepy, inaccessible and very poor, and were now connected with the wider world by better roads, minibuses, mobile phones, and TV, and able to sell crops that were not previously grown for good prices in a range of markets.

At one level, the results are not a surprise. Improvements in the standards of rural housing, rural roads, transport along those roads by minibuses and away from them by bodabodas (motorbike taxis), a wide range of local businesses and shops, new schools, and activities related to the coming of mobile phones are apparent even from casual visits. Some of the changes were forced by shortages, such as the increased use of iron sheets for roofing and burnt brick walls in villages in the Uporoto Highlands – caused by decline in production of the bamboo poles traditionally used.

An agricultural revolution had been reported much earlier in parts of the Southern Highlands by Torben Rasmussen (1986). The researchers in this collection report similar innovations in many different places – new crops, more tractors and ox-ploughs, small-scale irrigation using plastic pipes, use of chemical fertilisers, leading to higher yields. Not everywhere: one village, 16 km east of Moshi, has not moved forward; but this too provides interesting insights related to declines in agriculture on and near Mount Kilimanjaro, with less rain and lower fertility.

These changes have not been reflected in official reports and plans because two main sources of data ignore or underplay the importance of assets. Thus, if a family reduces its living standards in order to build a better house, or pay school fees, or even to purchase cattle, then in the Household Budget Surveys this family is recorded as getting poorer. It is only if the assets lead to higher production in subsequent years that they are reflected in GDP figures – but these are often little more than informed guesses, and do not take account of the higher values of crops stored till shortly before the next harvest, or sold unofficially (or, conversely, of crops that are successfully grown but not sold at all because markets are over-supplied), or short-term fluctuations such as the very high prices achieved for sesame in one village, until the crop was destroyed by diseases. The use of administrative data, such as the costs of civil service salaries, as proxies for the contributions of health facilities or schools to growth, has always been a limitation of GDP (and hence growth) statistics.

The book’s contributors are anthropologists or geographers with an interest in rural development – none are agricultural economists (readers of this book are spared regression equations!) and few are political scientists. But their work needs to be taken seriously, as the starting point for an informed debate about change in rural Tanzania.

The book is not without problems. The coverage of Tanzania is uneven – none of the villages are in the coastal cashew-growing areas, or the cotton-growing lands near Lake Victoria, and none appear to have lost banana plantations, and the associated culture, to diseases, as in many parts of western Tanzania and further north in Uganda. Pastoralism is only considered in passing, and only one of the villages has been subject to a land grab (to extend a national park), and there are no indications of disputes with central government or other villages, for example about access to water for small-scale irrigation. It was not possible to standardise the approaches to the different villages, so the studies cannot be directly compared.

It remains to be seen if the innovations are sustainable. Rainfall in Tanzania has been remarkably kind in the last 20 years or so, with only minor famines, and no signs of the cycles, first identified in the colonial period, where maize production increased for about 10 years till there was a famine, after which the importance of more drought-resistant crops was recognised. Who would have guessed that the areas around Kongwa, notorious as the main site of the failed Groundnut Scheme of 1946-47, should become one of Tanzania’s main producing areas for maize and sunflower? But it is also possible that it could all be lost very quickly through severe soil erosion, as happened in the Ismani area east of Iringa in the 1970s. And from a methodological perspective, it is just conceivable that the villages in these studies prospered more than other villages precisely because of the insights and ideas of the researchers who lived there more than 20 years ago.

But as a whole, this is a path-breaking book – an effective counter to the conventional wisdom that small-scale agriculture has no long-term future, and that inequality is only reducing slowly if at all, and a challenge to all future researchers in Tanzania.

[This is an edited and abridged version of a review article, ‘Improvement and change in rural Tanzania’, that was originally published in 2022 in the Review of African Political Economy Vol. 49, No. 172, pp. 361-364.]
Andrew Coulson

Andrew Coulson worked in the Planning Unit of the Ministry of Agriculture in Dar es Salaam 1967-1971 and taught agricultural economics at the University of Dar es Salaam 1972-76. His edited book African Socialism in Practice: The Tanzanian Experience was published in 1979. Tanzania: A Political Economy followed in 1982, with a second edition in 2013. His most recent book, with Antony Ellman and Emmanuel Mbiha, is Increasing Production from the Land: A Sourcebook on Agriculture for Teachers and Students in Africa (Muki na Nyota, 2018). He was Chair of the Britain Tanzania Society 2015-18.

DIWANI YA TUZO YA USHAIRI YA EBRAHIM HUSSEIN – 2014-2020 – ANTHOLOGY OF THE EBRAHIM HUSSEIN POETRY PRIZE. JUZUU LA TATU / VOLUME 3. M.M. Mulokozi (editor). Tanzania Growth Trust (TGT), Dar es Salaam, 2022. 262 pp. (paperback). ISBN 978-9912-40-180-8.
(Price and availability to be confirmed.)

This is the third volume of the poetry prize in honour of the acclaimed Tanzanian writer Ebrahim Hussein, a dramatist and academic whose research focused on the development of theatre in East Africa. The award was established by the family of the late Gerald Belkin (1940-2020), a pioneering video filmmaker of culture and community. Hussein worked with Belkin to record life in various Tanzanian villages, and they became good friends as Belkin learnt Swahili and fell in love with its poetry.

Hussein, who was one of Belkin’s Swahili teachers, told him about the long tradition of Swahili poetry. Belkin recognised that Tanzania had many creative poets whose artistic skills needed to be shared with a wider audience, and so he created a fund for that purpose. Gerald Belkin wanted to honour Ebrahim Hussein as an intellectual, a playwright and a poet, and proposed that the fund should be named after him.

This volume is divided into the years of the competition (2014-15, 2016, 2017, etc.) rather than specific themes as with many similar anthologies. It is also bilingual, which gives it a much wider readership, and can be an asset to those interested in learning Swahili and those interested in Swahili literature.

Competitors are allowed to submit poems in a variety of forms, such as traditional metre (16 syllables in a line), free verse (mtiririko or blank verse), or in kemo (bongofleva, hip hop) verses. The best poems from the competition have been selected for the anthology. The competition is open to Tanzanian nationals residing in Tanzania. A cash prize and certificates are awarded.

Each poem is preceded by the name of the poet and the translator and a brief background of the poet. The poems have a wide range of content around the issues love, marriage and family, politics, economics, culture, gender oppression, poverty, superstition, the persecution of albinos, pandemics such as HIV-AIDS and Covid-19, and even ICT (information and communications technology) and social media.

Here are the first three verses of a poem by Richard Menard, from the 2016 competition, entitled: Vilio vya Maua / Flowers’ Plea (what category would you place this poem in terms of its content?):

Maisha huwa matamu, mazuri tukifanyiwa Life becomes sweet when good things are done to us
Palizi kwetu muhimu, na mbolea kutiliwa Weeding and manuring is important for us
Hatutishiwi na hamu, maji tukimwagiliwa, Watering wets our appetite for more
Tukiwa bustanini, maua tuthaminini. Please do value us when we are in this garden

Tuna maadui sugu, wengi sana kuhesabu, We do have stubborn enemies, too many to count
Maarufu ni magugu, twaishi hapa karibu, Most famous are the weeds, we live near them
Hayaishiwi na gubu, kutujazia taabu, They never tire of vexing us to compound our misery
Tukiwa bustanini, maua tuthaminini. Please do value us when we are in this garden

Waganga wa kienyeji, sisi nao haziivi, The traditional healers are our avowed enemies
Hujifanya ni majaji, hasa wawapo na mvi, They pretend to be our judges, especially when they are grey haired
Huchochea mauaji, kwa kuizidisha chumvi, They incite our slaughter by their exaggerated tales about us
Tukiwa bustanini, maua tuthaminini. Please do value us when we are in this garden

The Chair of Judges, Professor Mugyabuso M. Mulokozi, informs us that the 2020 competition had only 15 participants, and that there were no winners because all the poems were only of average quality. This information shows that entries to the competition must reach an acceptable standard in terms of style and content.
Donovan McGrath
Donovan McGrath studied Swahili poetry, the Swahili novel, and Advanced Swahili Usage at the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, as part of his African Language and Culture degree at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in the University of London. He is co-author of Colloquial Swahili published by Routledge in 2003 and 2015 (second edition). He currently teaches Swahili at the SOAS Language Centre.

Also noticed: AFRICAN ISLANDS: A COMPARATIVE ARCHAEOLOGY. Peter Mitchell. Routledge, 2022. 338 pp., 195 colour illustrations (different formats). ISBN 9781032156910. £96.00 (hardback), £27.99 (paperback and e-book).

According to its publisher, “African Islands provides the first geographically and chronologically comprehensive overview of the archaeology of African islands.” As such Peter Mitchell’s book may be of particular interest to readers interested in the history of Tanzania’s islands – the Zanzibar and Mafia archipelagos included – and their role in the wider Indian Ocean region.

The publisher’s description continues: “This book draws archaeologically informed histories of African islands into a single synthesis, focused on multiple issues of common interest, among them human impacts on previously uninhabited ecologies, the role of islands in the growth of long-distance maritime trade networks, and the functioning of plantation economies based on the exploitation of unfree labour. Addressing and repairing the longstanding neglect of Africa in general studies of island colonization, settlement, and connectivity, it makes a distinctively African contribution to studies of island archaeology. The availability of this much-needed synthesis also opens up a better understanding of the significance of African islands in the continent’s past as a whole. After contextualizing chapters on island archaeology as a field and an introduction to the variety of Africa’s islands and the archaeological research undertaken on them, the book focuses on four themes: arriving, altering, being, and colonising and resisting. An interdisciplinary approach is taken to these themes, drawing on a broad range of evidence that goes beyond material remains to include genetics, comparative studies of the languages, textual evidence and oral histories, island ecologies, and more.” MW

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