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Getting a local perspective on the Commission for Africa

The Commission for Africa began in the UK under the leadership of Tony Blair – addressed to the G8 and wider international community. Yet in Tanzania, the British premier's report seems to be lost in translation.

Whenever I open a British newspaper, regardless of its ideological leaning, there is something in there about Africa. All of a sudden, Iraq seems to have disappeared and Africa has taken centre-stage.

Television and radio stations are also flooded with special programmes. I don't remember the last time there was such massive coverage. The intensity of coverage in the past five days alone has far exceeded the coverage of Africa in Tanzania's media in an entire month.

Despite the fact that Tanzania is one of the 14 countries whose debt was cancelled by the G8 ministerial meeting last month, Tanzanians aren't enthused. When it comes to Blair's Commission for Africa, much publicized in the UK, the only thing most Tanzanians know or care about is the fact that Tanzania's President, Benjamin Mkapa, is one of the commissioners.

Recently, three of my childhood friends, Nickson Msechu, Teo Urio, and Mariki Samsoni talked to people around Moshi, Tanzania, to find out what they know or think about the Commission.

Nickson Msechu asked some primary school students on their way home if they know Tony Blair, the chair of the Commission of Africa. They looked puzzled. He gave them a hint. "Tony Blair, he's from the UK." "Does he play for Manchester United?" one of them ventured.

He then asked the same question to a young man who was watching a local soccer game in a maize field which serves as a football pitch after the harvest is collected. He vaguely knew the name Blair, but could pronounce it only with difficulty. The young man wanted to know why Msechu was asking him about this person.

"He is the chair of the Commission for Africa," Msechu told him. He then explained in very simple terms what the commission is all about.

"Sasa bwana Toni ndio mwenyekiti?" he said, in Swahili "So Mr. Tony is the chair?"

"Yes."

"Which village was he born in?" the young man asked.

It did not occur to him that the chair of the Commission for Africa is not from Africa but is a white British male.

When Teo Urio asked some high school students in Marangu, on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro their response was brief. "We don't know what that commission is and we are not interested."

Like many young people in Tanzania, these students constantly dream of leaving the country for better lives in Europe or America, so issues of Africa's development don't seem to be important to them. They believe it won't be long before they board a plane for the US or UK to settle there permanently.

Mariki Samsoni asked some of his fellow card players about the report released by the Commission for Africa in March. None of them has read it or knows how and where to get a copy. "We don't even read our national constitution, how do you expect us to read this report you are talking about?" asked one player.

Mringi, a local preacher, echoed Mariki's views: "Christians in this country don't even read the Bible, do you expect them to read the commission's report?" He added: "Most people in my church would need an English-Kiswahili dictionary to try to understand the content of the report. Maybe preachers should read important political documents and discuss them with church members."

Tanzanians know in detail the level of corruption and embezzlement of public funds in the country. Most people don't believe that aid money in Tanzania was used for what it was meant for, so they don't have any reasons to believe that debt cancellation will change their living conditions either. Foreign assistance did not give them clean water, mosquito nets, or better school facilities.

What is important to them is not the cancellation of debt alone, or the content of the Commission for Africa report, but getting concrete guarantees that they will benefit from the money saved in debt repayment.

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07/02/2005

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