Note: To protect the privacy of our members, e-mail addresses have been removed from the archived messages. As a result, some links may be broken.
For those of you who missed my previous posts on my job here in
Africa, I'm based in East Africa in Tanzania.
Tanzania itself is a relatively young country, about 32 years or so
old. Prior to that time it was a protectorate of England, after it
was given (and fought over with Germany afterwards)
as part of the treaty ending World War I. Because it was a
protectorate, it wasn't as fully colonized as Kenya, and hence it's
infrastructure is not highly developed. It was originally listed as
the fourth poorest country in the world, but now has dropped to third
poorest. The country itself paid for and waged the war that ousted
Idi Amini in Uganda and has never economically recovered from not
receiving aid from other countries. Today, it is donor dependent for
its livlihood. Until recently, the country operated under a strict
socialism that made it illegal to own even a television. There has
only been freedom of the press for two years.
Because it is poorer than most other countries in Africa,
there is not the high quality of arts as in Kenya or
West Africa. Almost all consumer goods are imported. Major imports
are not just Indian, Chinese, Pakistani, and Malaysian, but as of
this last year, also South Africa and Kenya under an African trade
agreement allowing goods to more freely cross several borders.
The problem with this is that income tends to reside in the hands of
people who are not black Tanzanians, but who are either Indian
Tanzanians exporting their wealth home to India, or Kenyans, or
South Africans. With a current inflation rate of 20%,
this has had dire consequences on local people whose wages have not
substantially increased, remaining on the average between 15-30,000
shillings a month or roughly $25-$50. University professors make
$60/month. To compare it, I can spend more than that a week on
vegetables, rice, non-meat groceries, and eating out once a
week let alone the other expenses one incurs here. On a recent
comparative list, Dar es Salaam where I am based was rated more
expensive than any other African city on the continent and more
expensive than New York City. Local people eat ugali and beans and
rice, don't have electricity, and walk, ride a bicycle or take the
Whereas the country intended to provide free schooling and free
medical care for its citizens when it gained independence, it has
been unable over the last 6-10 years to fulfill its intentions. The
national project to build schools has created cement hulls but not
furnished or equipped the interiors. Many schools do not have floors
or desks. Windows are open holes with wires (not mesh) across them.
And whereas it is true that many Africans go barefoot, children must
pay school fees, purchase a school uniform, purchase their school
books, and wear shoes to school. As a result, poor children do not go
to school because they cannot afford it. Books themselves are taxed
at 145% of value because they are all imported and these are the
duties levied against them, making it very difficult for local people
to purchase books, let alone paper, pencils, uniform, shoes, and fees.
Less than 70% of children in Tanzania go to school at all, let alone
finish. School fees which used to not exist, today pay for the teacher's
salaries because the government does not have the money to pay
them. The government recently paid 1/2 of its electric bill so that the
power wouldn't have to be cut 18 hours a day, five days a week because
there was no money to buy diesel to run the generators.
A local arts center can only afford to use blue dye once
or twice a month because it is too expensive to buy. The country tends
to overuse what resources it has and hence the quality tends to be
compromised. Ebony trees, which were the primary source of use in wood
carvings, are nearly denuded and hence under government protection. They
are very slow growing trees and cannot replace themselves at the rate in which
they've been cut. As a result, most "pseudo'-ebony" tends to be mahogony, painted
with black shoe polish to sell as ebony. Carvings themselves vary
from tribe to tribe in content, style and form.
Tanzania itself is a beautiful country rich in natural resources but it lacks
the planning and the infrastructure to make industry and use of them.
Years of mismanagement and corruption have compounded the problem by
undermining the success of development projects.
As a result, artists have a very difficult time. Young Tanzanians who
have benefitted from the recent consumerism, are interested in
developing careers as artists but have no outlet for the work they
create unless they sit in a stand outside waiting for tourists to
stop. There are no galleries or museums. There is only now the
beginning of disposable income to allow people to purchase art
locally. The very strict divisions between male and female make it
difficult for women to engage in artmaking as a process. And yet, as
I can see from my involvement with UNESCO and the UNDP in art
projects they have sponsored, the talent here is enormous. It is just
that economic depravity keeps people from pursuing art as a
livelihood. The imagery that is found locally tends to be not
"art for art's sake" but art for tourists because they are the ones
with money to spend. Local people tend to be minimalists in terms of
purchasing objects for their homes. Objects are purchased for
utilitarian purposes, not to hang on a wall or sit on a shelf. In
most cases, the majority of people live in mud huts. They will not be
buying art for any reason. Painting tends to relegate itself to
images on the sides of buildings as signs, advertising services or
Other countries in Africa are vastly different. Ethiopia, for
instance, is amazingly medieval in its imagery, customs, way of life,
and artifacts. South Africa is most closely first world in its
infrastructure, culture, and artifacts.
In contrast to the visual arts - carvings, batiks, tye-dye;
tinga-tinga paintings, traditional African dancing and drumming is
more popular, although these artists also have difficulty making a
living. Traditional costumes and instruments as a part of the dance
are also sold as artifacts to "mzungus" (foreigners) and tourists.
African dancing includes call and response singing and very complicated
patterns that seem simple on the surface but are rich in types of movements,
acrobatics, and humor. Tanzanians are present in their bodies and
themselves in a way that Europeans and Americans are not. It's a
fascinating blend to bring both cultures together and work as
artists, learning from each other. Here at IST, our faculty really
reach out to local artists and bring them into the school, take their
students to arts facilties (there are two in the country), and create
interactive experiences with traditional African arts, benefitting everyone.
It's a shame, really, that such support cannot be replicated within the
larger community. As such, it doesn't exist yet.
Thanks for your inquiry and your tolerance reading through this long post.
Thanks for your comments. I'd like to hear more about your experiences
in East Africa. Can you suggest a source for the video you mentioned,
"The Color of Fear"?
North Texas Institute for Educators on the Visual Arts
PO Box 305100 University of North Texas
Denton, TX 76203