Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Election Lexicon

I wrote this a while back for the Serengeti Advisers Monthly Media Review. It seems a shame to let it go to waste, so here goes:

Yellow Couch: A Political Lexicon for 2010, Part I.

This is an election year, which means that for the next ten months there will be nothing but election talk. You will find it in the bars while decompressing after a long day. You will find it in the produce aisle when fondling mangoes and making passing remarks to that person you only ever bump into at the supermarket. It will be in the airwaves as you drive to work, and in schools as you listen to your child recite her latest lesson in civics and the ‘glorious’ history of the ruling party. Your barber will share with you the latest philosophies on multi-party politics (and you better listen- most barbers know what they are talking about).

In acknowledgement of this, Yellow Couch is jumping into this election business from the get go. The earlier we all get used to nothing but election talk, the sooner we can all stop being driven crazy by all the nit-picky, hair-splitty, he-said-she-said-yack-yack-yacky stuff that the media will be throwing at us for the rest of the year. There is a rumor going around that a World Cup might be happening somewhere on the continent, but please don’t let that distract you from your patriotic focus on the all-important election.

The top of the year is a good time to talk about basics, such as the Tanzanian political lexicon. Here are some thoughts and interpretations on the true meaning behind several common terms and phrases that will become even more terribly familiar in the coming months:

Mwananchi wa Kawaida,’ or ‘The Average Tanzanian’- analoguous to the American Joe Sixpack. This creature exists, like Inter-Chick roasters, to absorb flavors from other sources. Generally believed to have no native intelligence, Mwananchi wa Kawaida is assumed to have no capacity to speak on her own behalf nor understand the hard realities of her political or economic situation. Mwananchi wa Kawaida is beloved by donors, the NGO sector and people losing a political debate who have to fake credibility by speaking on behalf of an undefined and undifferentiated mass.

Mimi ni mtoto wa Mkulima’ or ‘I am the product of a peasant household.’ Famously coined by Prime Minister Mizengo Pinda, this is a carefully calibrated and wonderfully nuanced statement of credibility. Implicit in the statement is The Tanzanian Dream: if you are ‘lucky’ enough to have come from a tough rural economic background, join the ruling and work for two thirds of your life in an underpaid and unappreciated position, and you too can become a member of cabinet… unlike these uppity foreign-educated capitalist smart-alecks who haven’t earned their stripes. Many leftist parties around the world manipulate the fiction that the underserved masses can trust the revolutionaries in power, and in order to do so it is useful to throw up an ‘I am one of you, I understand your struggle’ type of statement every so often. This is best done while wearing an ill-fitting suit.

Lugha Yetu’ or ‘Our language’ which is shorthand for Kiswahili. If one makes the convenient mental leap of forgetting that Kiswahili is the bastard love-child of the encounter between slavers from Portugal and Arabia and the peoples that they enslaved or bought gold and elephant tusks from, and lightly skims over the fact that it was the Germans who first instituted it as a language of administration, then of course Kiswahili is the only language that has cultural validity. Often used by fluent bilingual politicians who do not want to explain why their own children are being sent to English-medium schools.

Mimi ni Mzawa/Mzalendo!’ or ‘I am a Patriot!’ This phrase is used to affirm a speaker’s sense of legitimacy and nationalism (desirable) while distancing said speaker from the pollution of ‘foreign’ blood such as an Asian heritage, or close relatives who happen to be Rwandese/ Kenyan/ Mozambican/ European due to an accident of migration or the European colonial project (undesirable). Because it privileges race over legal definitions of citizenship, ‘mzawa/mzalendo’ statements must be backed up by proof that at least three generations of your family are Bantu and have toiled in sacred poverty within the current borders. If you are not a Mgogo from deepest darkest Tanganyika, use the phrase with some care.

Fisadi!’ or ‘Big stinking corrupt person who hasn’t shared their ill-gotten wealth with me.’ In order to be labeled a true fisadi, one must violate the current social contract by refusing to spread your stolen public goods around to everyone’s satisfaction. Alternatively, one may be sacrificed for political expedience and cool one’s heels until the powers that be decide to re-instate you by sending the Prime Minister to visit your constituency and endorse your ‘good works’ because they need your election contributions. The more public money you steal, the higher your immunity to punitive action.


  1. Your explanation of fisadi is the best definition of corruption I have ever read; it really made me laugh.

  2. Well...I suspect that fewer of us would kick up a fuss if the redistributive aspect of fisadi-ing was more effective. Hey?

  3. This is the source of the problem.

  4. which suggests that current Development Industry definitions/ perspective of 'corruption' are of limited utility in this context? poses fundamental questions about our concepts of public goods and institutions, authority, ethics and electoral politics...


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