Monday, 30 August 2010

Tanzania Business Times Correspondence-03

Keeping a Free-Press Free - Essential for a Democracy

Tanzania is lucky to have a free press. This means that, provided I adhere to the national laws, I may write what I like here without needing to fear for the security of any employee in this newspaper. These laws include bans on writing anything that infringes libel, copyright and defamation, or anything that incites violence or illegal hatred (such as racism).

The benefits of this free press are huge. It enables a society to hear the truth of a situation, allowing the public to form their own opinions about the important issues affecting them, such as who to vote for in an election. It is one of the basic fundamentals of a functioning democracy.

Here in the UK, the press is referred to as the ‘Fourth Estate’, after the traditional three estates in British parliament-namely the Lords Spiritual, Lords Temporal and the Commons. The earliest known use of this term was by a man called Burke in 1787, recorded in Thomas Carlyle’s book On Heroes and Hero Worship: “Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but in the Reporters’ Gallery, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.”

The press is the ‘eyes and ears of the people’ and also frequently their voice. The peoples’ voice is the most important voice in a democracy. ‘Democracy’ itself comes from the ancient Greek ‘demos’, meaning ‘people’ and ‘kratos’, power. Democracy is a power from the people.

The South African government, lead by President Jacob Zuma, clearly don’t agree about the importance of the peoples’ voice. They are proposing a bill that would dramatically restrict press freedom in their country.

The Protection of Information Bill, currently being debated in South African parliament, would give power for government officials to classify any public or commercial data as official and private, on the murkily defined grounds of ‘national interest’, without having to give an explanation as to why.

In the words of Xavier Vidal-Folch, president of the World Editors Forum: “Such powers could be used to outlaw coverage of such issues as public law enforcement and judicial matters, with political appointees having the final say over which information should be classified.”

There would be no ability for journalists in South Africa to report on any classified information that could be of public interest. If they were caught disclosing this information, they may face severe penalties.

This would represent a backward step for a nation that is self-consciously trying to push itself onto the podium of the developed world and would mark a blow against the millions of internationally minded, modern thinkers from the country.

To compound the issue, the African National Congress are also proposing substituting the current, self-regulating press complaints authority with a Media Appeals Tribunal, created by the government, that would be in a position to act without the neutrality and effectiveness of the current system.

South African writers, many of them used to having civil liberties shackled in the past, are not taking the proposal lying down. A journalist in a respected South African national daily has written that the proposals are advocating, “Just another form of censorship”. A group of the country’s top authors have issued a joint statement against the bill.

Part of this reads: “If the work and freedom of the writer are in jeopardy, the freedom of every reader in South Africa is in danger.” It continues that their protest is: “An action undertaken by South Africans for all South Africans, committing ourselves to our demand for a free country, freedom of thought expressed, freedom of dialogue, and freedom from fear of the truth about ourselves, all South Africans.”

Yes, Tanzania is lucky to have a free press, where these freedoms are tolerated. It should not be taken for granted and the right to expression should be nurtured and encouraged in further generations. The continent may look up to its most southerly neighbour in many regards-the economy and industry for instance-but this proposed bill is one that no nation, with a value on the people’s voice, should contemplate passing.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Tanzania Business Times Correspondence-02

A highway through the Serengeti- a ridiculous road to take.

It can be difficult, as an outsider, to give opinions on how Tanzania can help itself. Tanzanians are rightly proud of their nation and the independence they struggled for and it’s understandable when they chose to stick by a major decision in the face of outside disagreement. The country, like a child stepping into adulthood, wishes to assert its own ideas and stick by them in a bid to be able to stand without support. There is also the fear a white outsider, such as myself, feels for being compared to an arrogant colonial when imposing personal ideas. After all, surely a Tanzanian would know what is best for his own country?

But when I recently read about the government’s plans to build a road through the natural magic that is the Serengeti, I couldn’t help but feel horror and disgust on a scale that begged to be made known.

Not only would the road, I was shocked to learn, cut directly through the centre of the park but it would sever the route of the world famous wildebeest migration.

I’ve heard the arguments for the construction: it will open up the districts of Monduli, Ngorongoro, Serengeti and Musoma Rural and increase the trade, commerce and quality human of life in those areas. According to President Kikwete, the project is of high economic importance to the nation.

So, Mr President, is the ecosystem that you’re planning to dissect. Tourism accounts for around a quarter of the nation’s GDP and it is precisely the untamed wilderness that brings the tourists in. It’s safe to say that foreigners won’t visit if the ecosystem they’ve dreamed about for so long is brutally sliced by raging cars and trucks.

The Frankfurt Zoological Society reports that recent calculations have shown that, if the wildebeest were to be cut off from their only permanent water source, the Mara River, as would happen if the road were built, the population would decline from 1.3 million animals to around 200,000. This would be the end of the Great Serengeti Migration.

There are other options for where the road can be built. Prof. Anthony Sinclair from the Department of Zoology at the University of Columbia is considered a world authority on the ecology of the Serengeti. After researching, he’s concluded, along with many other foreigners and Tanzanians alike, that directing the road to the South of the park would not only protect the park but would be more economically rational, as more people would be served by the road, such as those in the town of Mwanza.

According to the Frankfurt Zoological Society, this alternative route has already been surveyed by the government and would connect five times as many people as the Northern route, while still achieving the planned end of connecting particular regional centres.

Perhaps in Tanzania the wildlife is taken for granted. For instance, elephants are frequently seen as a pest by farmers. This is understandable. But it cannot be emphasised enough how foreigners like me see the Serengeti. We’ve seen documentaries about it from a young age. It appears as a distant, unreal land from a dream planet untainted by humans. It is also what many first think of when they think of Africa, as if the entire continent was lucky enough to be like it.

The entire continent is not like it. In fact it is the only place in the world like it. It is incredibly special and doesn’t take the brains of an archbishop to realise there’s a duty to preserve it.

I’ve read a Tanzanian journalist who suggests that the building of the road is simply a political ploy from the CCM. It was first coined around election time in 2005 and now, with fresh elections on the horizon, the idea is resurfacing. Indeed, the government has been dismissive in the face of huge international criticism. In loyalty to her political party, Minister for Natural Resources and Tourism, Shamsa Mwangunga, defended the road on the grounds that the party must follow through on a campaign promise.

That’s a weak excuse when alternatives are viable.

She also claimed that: “Those criticising the road construction know nothing about what we’ve got planned…We’re all keen to preserve our natural resources”. Really? Prove it then! Words are easy but you’ll be judged on actions alone. If the many critics know “nothing” about it, why don’t you inform them!

In a country where money and power are such obviously desired attributes, I myself am very sceptical of the government’s motives. Until they prove otherwise, I’ll remain that way.

(For more information on the planned highway, visit the Frankfurt Zoology Institute’s website at

Tanzania Business Times Correspondence-01

The British Lifestyle Partly Responsible for Levels of Breast Cancer?

A newspaper clipping caught my eye as I rode the underground system in London a couple of days ago. It was stark and somewhat surprising, given the level of healthcare and education over here. ‘UK breast cancer rate much higher than East Africa,’ ran the splash at the foot of the front page.

The article went on to give the statistics: 19.3 women were listed as having the disease out of every 100,000 in the East African countries of Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda, whereas a whopping 87.9 ladies out of the same number in the UK have been diagnosed.

The journalist himself seemed shocked by the findings and, as I looked around the carriage, it was quite clear that the story had absorbed the attentions of a few of my fellow travellers, eyes glued as they were to the story.

It was a surprise finding.

Accuse us foreigners of snobbery and conceit if you wish – after all, our surprise is a reflection of a deep-seated opinion that Africa is a continent plagued by disease, whereas us lot, with our sanitary regulations and plethora of world-class hospitals, have a certain amount of extra control over our health.

Indeed, the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) has advised not to take the findings at face value, as British doctors, the reader was informed, have access to better diagnostic techniques and ladies in the UK were more likely to visit the doctor for regular check-ups.

But there was a deeper, more revealing observation behind the findings. The truth, the article went on to suggest, is that so many British women and men have such horrendously unhealthy lifestyles that we bring the cancers upon ourselves.

The British lifestyle, especially in larger towns and cities, revolves around working hard and then letting off steam after a difficult day or week at the job. Letting off steam is notoriously a civil affair in continental countries such as Italy and France: people may go to a coffee shop or have a large and healthy meal with family and friends. In Britain, however, it’s more usual to head to the pub, get a few drinks down your neck and then eat a fattening takeaway from a fast-food outlet. Lack of exercise is also a factor in the unhealthy culture over here.

Tanzania is blessed with some of the best food in the world. I see the nation as a giant shamba that produces huge amounts of juicy, sweet, crunchy and colourful fruit and veg, all grown without the ‘aid’ of chemicals. People in the developed world pay up to twice the amount for ‘organic’ food like this - food that is natural, offered by Mother Earth with as little human meddling as possible – as this kind of food is recognised to be far better for your health than the pesticide-ridden, watery rubbish that we are used to.

A Tanzanian friend, born and brought up in Katesh, recently visited the USA with her American husband. It was the first time she’d left the country. Indeed, when she arrived in Dar es Salaam from the village only ten months ago, it was her first time in the city.

She told me she enjoyed herself but one of the major impressions she had in the nation was the awful quality of the food. Tomatoes had no flavour, mangoes were too small and some of the meat even made her feel ill. She was also surprised and disgusted by the number of obese people – nearly one in three, she said, were ridiculously, unattractively fat.

It comes back to the lifestyle. They say, “You are what you eat”. And the chemical food in the developed world is making people sick. My advice: stick to the basics. No food is more exotic than the huge variety offered by the earth. This is the food that will keep you healthy, happy and ultimately live a longer life. Karibu!