November 25, 2015

Perceptions of Protest: An ISP Project

Alexandra Barrett

Over the past two weeks, I have been conducting my Independent Study Project. I am studying perceptions and concepts of protest in the village of Bangata on the slopes of Mt. Meru. Bangata is about an hour from Arusha Town by daladala, so getting up there was a breeze. I stayed with the family of the former village chairman, who was so kind and knowledgeable about the community. He made my job so much easier, and I was cooked delicious homecooked meals everyday.

In order to conduct my study, I had to interview 90 residents of Bangata (both men and women, young and old). I followed my individual interviews with 6 focal groups.

What I found was really interesting. Protest, as we conceptualize it in the United States, does not really exist in Tanzania. At least not to the same extent. There is not even a word for protest in Kiswahili. There is a word for demostration (maandamano), but I was looking at a broader sense of the word that would encompass personal forms of protest as well. I used the phrase kupinga jambo (to oppose a matter).

While about 80% of respondents said they would go against something with the community, only about half said they would go against something alone. This did not necessarily surprise me after spending three months here, but it has allowed me to reflect a lot on what is important to different people. Although most social movements in the United States require large masses of people, everyday, I see people protesting in their own personal way through dress, food, and simply living their life. In Tanzania, the focus is always on community. In my focal groups, when I asked about differences between community and individual protest, I was repeatedly told that one person can't do something on their own, whether that be because their individual opinion is “invalid” or the risk of isolation from society is too great. In a society that is much less individualistic than the United States, breaching ties with your community can be very dangerous.

I also found that demonstrations are a very uncommon form of protest in Tanzania. Most people prefer to utilize conversation and meetings in the community to resolve problems. Many of the people I talked to stated that they believe that demonstrations are not peaceful, and Tanzania is a peaceful country. As one of the few East African countries to have escaped major civil or political conflict since independence, Tanzanians pride themselves on the peace of their country.

Coming from a country where perhaps the most famous peaceful protest was the March on Washington, and what we consider peaceful demonstrations happen everyday, it was interesting to hear that the people I interviewed in Tanzania believe that aren't. It reflects a stark difference in culture between the United States and Tanzania.

The importance of peace to Tanzanians was shown in the election this year. Although CCM, the party that has been in power since independence in 1961 and the beginning of multi-party elections in 1995, won this election as well, this was the most contested election in Tanzanian history. I was off-the-grid for the elections, but mainland Tanzania remained peaceful, even though I met many CHADEMA (the opposition party) supporters who were not happy with the result and believed corruption had played a role in it. Zanzibar is another story, and its elections have been postponed until January due to the unrest there.

I chose to study perceptions of protest because protest has become a very important part of my life in the United States, and I was curious to see what it meant here. What I have found has been very interesting because it culminates two themes that have defined my experience in Tanzania: peace and unity. My Independent Study Project has unexpectedly drawn everything that I have internalized this semester about Tanzania into a topic that I hold close to my heart.