Volume 10, Issues 2 & 3
Fall 2008

Performance and Politics in Tanzania: The Nation on Stage. Laura Edmondson. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2007. 175 pp.

This fascinating book adds to an ever-growing literature on contemporary identity in Tanzania, tracing the contestation of national identities and national politics through the lens of popular Dar es Salaam theatre. What is essentially a history of three performing groups – Tanzania One Theatre (TOT), Muungano Cultural Troupe and Mandela Cultural Troupe – is laced with observations about the way in which the country’s transition since the collapse of ujamaa socialism has impacted upon popular understandings of politics, development and the nation.

Two themes recur through the book. The first is that, in the author’s own words, ‘nationalism works’. Although many of the social and political dynamics through which Tanzanian nationalism was constructed during the 1960s and 1970s have been dismantled or pulled apart, Edmondson finds that the nation is alive and well, and all the better for its contestation. In this sense her work echoes that of Kelly Askew, who has argued that “through their shared performances, the citizens of a state congeal and bring the nation - however variegated – into being”. That the nation means different things for different people is hardly extraordinary, but nevertheless carries significance in Tanzania simply because of the civil strife its citizens have observed in the countries around it.

The ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party in Tanzania have certainly played on the idea of stability amidst such regional turmoil, and have consistently invoked the language of nation-building and continuity, even as their policies have changed fundamentally from the ujamaa era. A shift towards a more pro-market, multi-party politic has not been reflected in a shift of support away from CCM.

What Edmondson seeks to show is that, under the surface of this steady support for the status quo there exists a deeply politicised undercurrent, wherein political ideas are fiercely contested, and ‘Tanzanian’ values unpacked. This is where the book is strongest, as the author shows how fundamental binaries are explored within the arena of popular theatre. Vichekesho (comic skits) play out arguments over the value of tradition versus modernity, village versus city, local versus national, and, inevitably, poverty versus wealth. At times these arguments read like a soap opera, weaving in and out amongst engaging storylines about families, friends, love-lives, sex and death.

The author wastes no time in setting out a distinction between the three groups – TOT as representing the power and privilege of CCM; Muungano and Mandela as the struggling opposition. The way in which vichekesho are resolved on stage reflects this relationship, often resulting in TOT lauding the trappings of the modern, sophisticated Tanzanian over characters representing ‘traditional’ or ‘village’ behaviour. Conversely, Muungano and Mandela’s plays emphasise the struggle of the ordinary Tanzanian amidst the moral minefield of money, sex and urbanity.

Within this context, notions of ‘fidelity’ and ‘truth’ are hinged to electoral loyalty to CCM, and the message of songs such as mambo sasa (matters now) evoke the language of unity and togetherness. The promulgation of ‘Tanzanian-ness’ as unity in the face of regional disharmony has long been an effective campaigning tool of the ruling party, so in this sense Edmondson tells us little new. The value of her account is rather in the detail of how political values are disseminated as everyday scenarios within popular sketches and songs.

Herein lie the real strengths and weaknesses of the text. Its achievement is in bringing political contestation in Tanzania to life for the reader through a very enjoyable series of vignettes and commentaries. It is clear that the author developed a deep and nuanced understanding of the groups she analyses, and I for one felt almost as upset as she obviously did at the demise of Muungano and Mandela as vigorous and active players on the Dar es Salaam scene in the early 2000s.

The theoretical reflections drawn by Edmondson on her experiences are less well-formed, however. Her principal observations – that politics permeates public performance, and that nationalism is subjective – are relatively uncontroversial, and have been addressed before with some distinction in Tanzanianist literature.

Where the author does propose a theoretical framework it is given a level of depth through her fieldwork, but not enough analytical rigour. In page 7 of her introduction for example, the author declares that “I employ a variety of terms throughout this book such as collaborative nationalism, alternative nationalism, strategic nationalism, and cosmopolitan nationalism” (original italics) – all of which remain relatively underdeveloped during the next six chapters in terms of their relationship to established perspectives on the origins and reproduction of national identity. Does her work chime with a constructivist perspective, wherein nationalism is socially engineered from both above and below? Does it correspond to more post-modern ideas of fragmentation and hybridity? Or might Edmondson have developed Lonsdale’s application of ‘moral economies’ to expressions of Tanzanian-ness? I would suggest that Charles Taylor’s work on ‘modern social imaginaries’ might be a good fit with her observations, but these avenues are left largely unexplored.

What this leaves the reader is a part-historical, part-discursive account of a tumultuous time in Tanzania’s post-colonial history, observed at the coal-face of change in urban Dar es Salaam. The empirical content of the book adds depth to established accounts of political liberalisation in the country, and shows that the remoulding of Tanzania post-ujamaa is conducted as much through popular culture and everyday life as it is through economic and developmental discourses. To this end Edmondson concludes her account by venturing that, under the ‘boring’ surface of party politics in the country, democracy and nationalism are still vehemently contested in a ‘messy’ and ‘vibrant’ fashion. Whether or not this really does defy theoretical frameworks as the author suggests, readers of this book will certainly have fun judging for themselves.

Henry Kippin
University of Sheffield