Rurality in Tanzania: old and new meanings, values and practices at the local-global interface

In today’s blog, Antonio Allegretti introduces his new book Policy and Practice in Rural Tanzania: Grazing, Fishing and Farming at the Local–Global Interface (The White Horse Press 2022).

Pastoralists and other rural peoples in Africa and the Global South have historically been the target of development narratives and counternarratives, which have contributed to shape development categories and policies. My new book approaches the question of ‘development’ from the perspective of people’s rights and strategies for self-determination by seeking to address questions such as: Who are the rural people of Africa? What does it mean to be part of a ‘rural’ community in contemporary Tanzania? And why is it important to debate questions of African rurality beyond the mere GDP contribution of rural land-based production? 

Through development efforts and policies over time rural people(s) have often been conceived of in terms of how to efficiently integrate them into international markets and global value chains; this book analyses the question of integration of rural people in Tanzania by delving into how they deal with local-global connections and engage with policy objectives on their own terms, between local forms of associational life and global markets. In doing so, it explores local socio-economic dynamics that find little space in the national and global policy vision of a rural sector geared towards growth – a vision that is peculiar to African states, including Tanzania. 

This book is the culmination of more than ten years of life, work and research in Tanzania. I arrived in Tanzania in 2008 in my early twenties for a gap year, and ended up settling, living and working in the country, only leaving around fourteen years later. I did so with a Ph.D. in anthropology, having worked on several development projects, done ethnographic fieldwork in several regions, taught in university and travelled widely, marvelling at the cultural diversity between the coast and the countryside, urban and rural lifestyles and habits, the pastoralist way of life and the farming communities, to name but a few of the contrasts the country manifests. The years spent in Tanzania doing the research on which this book is based not only contributed to shaping my intellectual and academic mindset or research and professional approach, but also gave me a bank of sensory experience. I will always recollect fondly the images, scents, sounds (and silences) that I have experienced in the countryside. One memory, or collection of memories, I hold dear above all others is the long nights spent in people’s homes in the countryside, being welcomed into people’s families, sharing anecdotes and stories, answering questions about life in Ulaya (Europe) or comparing it with life in Africa, over one (or two) cups of strong tasting local banana-, maize- or wheat-based brews, depending on the region where I found myself doing fieldwork, sitting on and sharing a handmade cosy couch in somebody’s living room, or on nothing but a little tuft of straw in somebody’s barn, turned into a local tavern, by candlelight or the light of a kerosene lamp with its unique and strong odour – outside, a grandly starry sky and a delightful silence surrounding the views of the fields, plains or waters. All the years spent in rural Tanzania, welcomed into people’s homes, fields, boma, feeling part of their families, even if just for a few days or weeks, were filled with countless moments of joy and laughter, even during the harshest times of scarcity because of drought or simply a bad year for the harvests. 

All these personal and intimate relationships and experiences throughout these years have taught me what development, self-improvement, even happiness are or could be to all the rural communities I worked with. Importantly, I have learned that in Tanzania, perhaps in the whole continent of Africa, more than other regions of the world, development as the search for self-determination hinges on material experiences and possessions as these mediate social relations and mark the different paths that people undertake or attempt to undertake in their life courses to achieve life goals. However, these attempts cannot be made sense of without accounting for (apparent) ambivalences and contradictions that exist around ‘development’, within communities and between communities and global development discourses (and policies). Living among the Maasai in the northern regions of Tanzania, I have learned that ‘progress’ and ‘tradition’ are not mutually exclusive, as development discourses nationally and internationally often evoke. Instead, the Maasai continue to yearn for large herds while investing in ‘modern’ houses, to retain the connection with their roots while embracing parallel sets of values; this, however, entails generational and gender-based frictions as the Maasai engage with different social and economic spheres. 

Turning the eye to ‘community’ as a crucial development category in fisheries management, in Lake Victoria I was confronted with a very different reality as to what drives ‘community’ around the Lake – the search for money and self-improvement is what governs social relations rather than a supposed common purpose in maintaining social-ecological stability grounded in ‘fisherman’ identity. Finally, walking the fields in Bukoba and Iringa regions with local farmers I encountered a whole set of strategies and practices that ‘cherry-pick’ elements of the science- and technology-based national vision for agricultural development to achieve development goals between the family and market realms. 

These short snapshots of rural life confirm that rurality can be grasped through novel analytical tools that account for parallel registers of value in development, and a multiplicity of paths for rural people to achieve progress and self-determination. This realisation necessitates, as this book attempts to do, eschewing ‘orthodox’ approaches that see (rural) people as passive recipients of policies, and policies as instruments of oppression. Instead, this book departs from the rural land/place-based practices of grazing, fishing and farming to look at rurality in Tanzania as a blend of old and new meanings, values and practices at the local-global interface, continually reshuffled as rural people encounter different social and economic spheres. 

As the world rediscovers the urgency of questions connected to neo-colonialism and de-colonisation, this book brings to the forefront the position, worldview and ambitions of African rural peoples intersecting with international policy models, visions and objectives. It reaffirms that development in Africa continues to be people-centred, with social relationships mediated by the materiality of practices, experiences and possessions. The concept of wealth-in-people, quite familiar to anthropologists and Africanists (but fallen into disuse), continues to hold true in Africa, even in the era of digital and technological development. Development, intended as the search for self-determination, in Africa still rests on ties, affiliations, membership and belonging (i.e. wealth-in-people), and the capacity to manoeuvre these (in a positive sense). The hustle and dynamism of social life on which ‘development’ rests in Tanzania can be baffling, at times unsettling, but also life-affirming – peeling off the different layers of people’s dynamism and zeal for life through ethnographic enquiry also made my life and research in the country fulfilling (and fun), and I hope this book will offer its readers a glimpse into the fascinating social and material landscape of rural Tanzania.   

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