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By Don Moore

This article was originally published in The Journal of the North American Shortwave Association.


Most of Africa's many nations get little outside attention, and Tanzania is no exception. The only time it really made news was during World War I when it was the German colony of Tanganyika. With the outbreak of war, the Germans were cut off from their homeland by the British navy. Rather than surrender, a small number of German officers and several thousand African soldiers lived off the land and fought a brillant guerilla campaign against a much larger force of British and Belgian troops. Their tactics drew worldwide attention and countless news stories told of the Tanganyikan campaign. The Tanganyikan Germans were never really defeated and didn't surrender until two weeks after Germany. Tanganyika became a British territory and slipped into oblivion, overshadowed by Kenya to the north, despite Kenya's having only the population.


Compared to other large British territories in Africa, such as Kenya, Zambia, and Nigeria, broadcasting was late coming to Tanganyika. In these other countries, broadcasting was started to serve European settlers and businessmen, but Tanganyika's European population was too small to justify a radio station. Then in 1951 a BBC official proposed establishing an experimental station "to provide experience in the production of local programmes for a native audience" (Kivikuri). The colonial government put up $30,000 and the "Dar Es Salaam Broadcasting Station" was founded. At first it only produced a single one-hour program in Swahili each week, which was replayed two more times later in the week and because the equipment was simple, it could barely be heard outside of Dar Es Salaam. But gradually hours were increased, English broadcasts added, new studio equipment and a higher shortwave transmitter purchased, and the name changed to the Tanganyika Broadcasting Service. When American journalist John Gunther visited the station in 1954, he found a professional operation totally staffed by native Africans, although the station had started "with little more equipment than a microphone and a blanket hung over a wall" (Gunther). It became such a success that it served as a model for colonial services in many other British colonies.


Throughout the 1950s, African countries began looking for independence, and Tanganyika was no exception. While some countries resorted to violence and riots, Tanganyika gently but firmly made its case for independence through non-violence under the leadership of Julius Nyerere and his TANU party. Slowly the British were persuaded, and in December, 1961, Tanganyika became independent President Nyerere.

A fascinating man, Nyerere was an intellectual known for, among other things, translating Shakespeare into Swahili. As a leader, he emphasized cooperation and moral values, and by his own example he appealed to his countrymen to work for the betterment of their nation above all else. While some African countries developed restrictive policies towards whites and Asians in their borders, Nyerere believed in nonracialism for all, regardless of how his people may have been treated in the past.

But what a country Nyerere had inherited! It was one of the poorest on the world's poorest continent. Life expectancy was 35, there were few schools, and most people barely survived on the food they raised themselves. The task of developing the country was made harder because 94% of Tanganyika's population lived in villages and farms. The government saw radio as their best means of linking the villages and government and motivating people to take pride in their country and to try to make it better. As Nyerere once remarked, "Others try to reach the moon, we try to reach our villages."

The island of Zanzibar, about 35 miles off the Tanganyikan coast, had been Britain's smallest African possession. But in 1963 it was granted independence. A year later the island's African majority revolted and overthrew their hereditary Arab sheik ruler. A few weeks later Zanzibar petitioned to join Tanganyika, and the new nation of Tanzania was formed. However, Zanzibar retained considerable local autonomy under the merger agreement. For example, in the early 1970s just after the Nyerere government decided not to allow television in mainland Tanzania, Zanzibar's local government contracted with a British company to set up a station on the island. The station was built without interference from the national government.


To reach its goals of development, Nyerere and the TANU party created a homegrown African style of non-Marxist Socialism with a heavy emphasis in cooperation and self-reliance on the local and national level. The party also set out a strict code spelling out the standards of the simple lifestyle to be expected for all government officials. With this code in place, Tanzania became one of the few African countries where government service was not a road to riches through corruption.

Radio was a key in presenting the ideas and ideals of the government to the people, but there was a problem. The TBC had been set up as in independent public service, just like the BBC, which meant the government had no control over the TBC and often had trouble getting the network to support government development projects. While debate over issues was seen as healthy as policies were being formulated, editorial criticism after policies were adopted was confusing to uneducated villagers. In 1965, Nyerere nationalized the TBC, renaming it Radio Tanzania Dar Es Salaam (RTD), and placed it under the Ministry of Information. As one official justified the takeover, "(In) America and Europe where people have ways of getting good food and shelter then this radio can be used for entertainment, but in our country where we ... are fighting a war to raise our people's standard of living we ought very much to be using radio for the benefit of all the people."

About this same time than Nyerere declared Tanzania to be a one party state. In some ways this was needless, as even with complete political freedom there had never been any major political opposition in Tanzania. But the intent was not to restrict political activity, but rather to bring people together. From our perspective, one-party democracy sounds like an oxymoron. Yet, Nyerere made it work. Every five years, TANU holds primaries and chooses at least two candidates to run for each position in the general election. The candidates frequently have opposing views, and during the election process there is always lively and free debate about the issues confronting the country. But once the election is over everyone pulls together in a way not often found in fractional multi-party politics. The voters take politics very seriously and the Tanzanian parliament has had a much higher turnover rate than, for example, the U.S. congress. While Nyerere was never opposed for reelection, he used campaigns as an excuse to travel through the countryside talking with the people about their problems.


Nyerere knew that a nation needs more than health, education, and an economy. It also needs a culture. Colonialism in Africa had supressed native culture and tried to make the people into sort of third-rate Europeans. As one British colonial official admitted in 1955, "We ignore their tribal dances and try to give them cricket. It's awful" (Gunther). In Nyerere's words, "A country which lacks its own culture is no more than a collection of people without the spirit which makes them a nation. Of all the crimes of colonialism there is none worse than the attempt to make us believe we had no indigenous culture of our own; or that what we did have was worthless... A nation which refuses to learn from foreign cultures is nothing but a nation of idiots and lunatics... But to learn from other cultures does not mean we should abandon our own."

Like most African countries, one of the greatest problems confronting Tanzania was tribal and linguistic diversity. Over 120 languages were spoken in Tanzania, none by more than 15% of the people. Most African countries solved this problem by adopting the former colonial language, usually English or French, as their official language even though few outside of the educated elite speak these. In fact, most Africans can't even understand their country's national anthems which are usually in English or French!

To Nyerere, this was just another example of abandoning African culture for European. But obviously the government couldn't just pick one of those 120 native languages as the national language without alienating speakers of the other 119. Nor could it function with 120 official languages. The answer was to turn to Swahili. A mixture of native languages with some Arabic thrown in, Swahili was a trade language that had naturally developed over several centuries through the commerce between tribal fiefdoms and Arab merchants along East Africa's coast. Almost no one spoke Swahili as a native language, but it was widely understood along the coast and somewhat in the interior. One of the first acts of Nyerere's government was to declare Swahili the national language.

When radio was started in Dar Es Salaam, it had made sense to use Swahili because the language was understood by the merchant class up and down the coast, and they were the people wealthy enough to have receivers. As the government began broadcasting more to the interior, there were pressures to add broadcasts in some more widely spoken local dialects, but Nyerere resisted. Instead, RTD joined schools and government offices as a means of spreading Swahili throughout the nation. When English language broadcasts were dropped in 1970, Tanzania became the only African country to use only one language in its domestic radio. (English is still used in the external service.)


Like most African radio stations, RTD faced two related problems in gaining listeners. First, its signal had to reach the people, and secondly the people had to have radios in listen. Around independence, there probably weren't more than 100,000 receivers in the entire country, mostly in the Dar Es Salaam area. On the other hand, the station couldn't be received reliably beyond the eastern coast. Even by the late 1960s, less than 30% of the population listened to RTD on a daily basis. To increase listenership in the rural interior, the government set up community listening sites around central receivers in villages. To make receivers more accessible to families, a radio factory was built in Dar Es Salaam with foreign help.

RTD may not have been very advanced technically in the late 1960s, but then neither were its programs. Over-zealous in its support of the government, the station gave over a lot of broadcasting time to long accounts of reptitive speeches by various officials. When the audience got bored and tuned out, RTD learned it had to be more entertaining. Official censorship became rare, news and talk programs began focusing more on ordinary people, and a wide variety of musical programs was added. Good programing added spice to the monotony of village life and gained RTD more listeners.

But good entertainment programing should also contribute to preserving a country's culture, and the best way to do that is through music. In the mid 1960s parliament debated a law to prohibit foreign music on Tanzanian radio. But, such dictatorial force was not in TANU's character. Instead the law provided for a gradually elimination of foreign music until today it can only be played by the direct request of a listener, and then not to exceed more than 30% of all music played. To fill its quota of Tanzanian music, RTD sent recording safaris to villages to record regional musicians. As RTD exposed Tanzania's musicians to musical styles from all areas of the country, they began to fuse the various traditions and create new styles of music. Tanzanians took pride in their native music and through this a local commercial recording industry was born. Traditional music, as a central part of Tanzanian culture, has been preserved thanks to RTD.

Entertainment helped bring the country together, but education was needed for it to progress. The government launched a major program to build schools in the villages and RTD participated with several hours of educational programs each day. But in an underdeveloped country, education can't be just for children, so in 1969 an extensive adult education program was launched. Thousands of group leaders were trained in Dar Es Salaam and a few other large towns and then sent to the villages to lead adult study groups. RTD programming provided much of the material to make the project work. Not only did the villagers learn to read and write, but they learned that they could take control of their lives. Thousands of villages organzed campaigns to eliminate mosquito breeding grounds, build latrines, and clean up the villages to make them healthier places for all. Nyerere's goal of self-reliance was bearing fruit.

Probably one of the more unusual forms of Nyerere's homegrown socialism was its use of commercial radio advertising. After all, advertising is part of business, and business and socialism don't mix. But besides helping to support RTD financially, advertising of locally-made products was seen as a way to introduce people to Tanzanian products, create a demand, and help make the country more self-reliant. In fact, some of RTD's most popular entertainment program were (and are) intentionally scheduled when they will attract audiences in nearby countries who will also hear the ads for Tanzanian-made products.

In fact, RTD also operates an external service in English aimed at nearby countries in Eastern and Southern Africa. Listenership is especially high in Uganda and Kenya. However, since the 1960s, much of RTD's external service broadcasting has been used to relay broadcasts from various African revolutionary groups. At times, as many as eight or nine different groups have had broadcasts over RTD - sometimes two or more groups for the same country! There were groups opposed to white supremicist rule in South Africa, Southwest Africa, and Rhodesia, and against Portuguese and French colonial rule in Mozambique, Angola, and the Comoros. One of the liviliest was the Voice of Fighting Angola in the early 1970s, which used its broadcast time to give city dwellers in Angola instructions on commiting sabotage and arson.

By the mid 1980s, higher-powered shortwave transmitters had given RTD a good signal across Tanzania and receivers were easily available. A special 18 month training program for announcers combined with workships by visiting BBC officials had made RTD highly professional. People now saw radio as the only part of the government reaching the entire country. But the problem now was power - rural Tanzania has no electrical service and batteries are expensive. Still, surveys of remote villages have found that 80% or more of the people now listened to RTD daily, although many limited their listening to under an hour a day on weekdays, and under two hours a day on weekends. The expanded listening on weekends includes some sports and music programs, but on weekdays, listening to the news is given priority. Although rural villagers are only marginally literate from adult ed classes, curiosity about the world and keeping up on international events has become an expectation and the symbol of an educated individual. Rural Tanzanians might just be better informed than the average American!


By the mid 1980s, many of Nyerere's goals had been met. Almost every child was attending school and adult literacy had passed 90%. Life expectancy had almost doubled. Tanzanians were working together to improve their communities and sharing farm equipment to increase food production. And Tanzania's move to make Swahili the national language was being compared to Israel's decision to revive Hebrew. Although tribal languages continued to be the language of the home in most areas, nearly everyone understood Swahili and it was seen as a symbol of national unity.

But while the human side of Nyerere's policies had suceeded, his socialist economics had failed. Because Tanzania's economy was not producing the money needed to pay for needed economic and social development, it had developed a large trade deficit and had become the highest per-capita recipient of foreign aid and loans in tropical Africa. Some leaders would have clung to power to the last possible moment, but Nyerere stunned his nation by resigning in 1986 while still highly popular. His work, he pointed out, was done, and the country needed new leadership and new ideas to solve its economic problems. Asked what he wanted to be remembered for, Nyerere responded simply, "Trying."

TANU's one-party democracy slipped into gear and after lengthy debate and new elections the government began moving towards a free market economy. While the economy is being revitalized, broadcasting continues to be important. In 1990 a chain of mediumwave stations was opened in several interior towns, the first stations outside of Dar Es Salaam and Zanzibar island. To keep younger listeners from straying too much to foreign stations, RTD is giving more attention to sports and modern music - but Tanzanian sports and Tanzanian modern music. And the foreign service has been cut back, with less time given to revolutionary movements.

Perhaps the biggest change is yet to come in Tanzania. Mainland Tanzania has been the biggest country in the world without television, but television broadcasting will begin from Dar Es Salaam in 1995. The emphasis on the villages will continue as special mobile studios will travel the countryside producing programs in every corner of the country. Still, there are concerns that this will cause urban/rural divisions - only about 20% of the population will be within reach of the main station and its six repeaters and even once another dozen repeaters are added in a few years, less than half the population will have coverage. Clearly, radio will continue to be the media of choice in Tanzania for years to come.


Kivikuru, Ullamaija. "Communication in Transistion," GAZETTE, Vol 43, #2.
Gunther, John. INSIDE AFRICA, 1955.


This article is copyright 1996 by Don Moore. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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