I have been working at Irqwa Da’aw for nearly 30 years. I began as a PhD student, and went for the first time soon after the New Year in 1990, I caught a lift up to Irqwa Da’aw. The district commissioner’s driver delivered me and my belongings to a local primary school where it had been arranged I would live for the upcoming two years. I had been in Tanzania already for a few months, first in Dar waiting for papers and going to the National Archives, then in Arusha, then Karatu, staying with a family there for two weeks and then finally to Mbulu and now, at last, the place I would actually start to get some fieldwork done.
The journey to Irqwa Da’aw was challenging as the dirt roads were in poor shape and public transportation limited. My intention in choosing Irqwa Da’aw was to see how the agricultural system, so praised by colonial officers in the archives, had changed over time. Held up as an excellent example of sustainable land management, with terracing, storm drains, crop rotation, intercropping and many other practices known for managing soils on steep slopes and returning soil fertility to the land, I was curious to see if Iraqw farmers still managed their landscape with such attention. While I discovered that many of these practices were still employed, it was clear that land-use change was occurring at a rapid rate.
My original fieldwork now seems like a as a critical period in social and economic change for the Iraqw in the homeland. Tanzania at that time was opening up its economy and its political system to multi-party democracy. So called ‘traditional’ rituals and practices were slowly fading away in many areas and the influence of “outsiders” was growing in the minds of elders.
I have been back to Irqwa Da’aw many times over the years, for both year-long periods and for shorter trips and have watched various changes unfold. I have had the good fortune to work on this research alongside Emmanuel Sulle who, when I arrived in Irqwa Da’aw in the early 1990s, was in primary school. Now a researcher himself at the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS), Emmanuel has agreed to work with me on understanding and interpreting the many changes that have taken place in his home since he was a child.
This region is, economically, remarkably different from the land I first visited. On the practical side, it is far easier to get to Irqwa Da’aw now than it was in 1990. In the mid-90s, the Japanese contributed funds to tarmac the bone-jarring, dust-filled strip of road from the turn-off to Arusha to the Ngorongoro gate. This road was so awful that sometimes even going 30 kilometers per hour was a challenge. From Karatu, the road to Mbulu was frequently impassable in the rainy season, with lorries and vehicles of all kinds often stranded for days. There was only one bus service when I began and a dodgy one at that, known for its frequent breakdowns.
Now, transport has exploded; there are Toyota Landcruisers, smaller buses and still the old faithful Sabena service plying the route to Karatu and to Arusha. There was no public transportation to reach Irqwa Da’aw during the 90s. I walked or bummed lifts with the parish priests or friends who had motorcycles or vehicles to travel the 15 kms to my home in the mountains. Now, the Toyota Landcruisers have seized on the Irqwa Da’aw route as a money-maker and they line up daily in Mbulu at designated hours and fill rapidly.
he dirt roads to Mama Issara, which I walked on for two years, used to be filled with people and donkeys carrying goods to and from Mbulu. Now, you don’t see many people on foot and hardly any donkeys. And of course, the boda boda motorcycle taxis that took off in Uganda, moved to Kenya, and then down to Tanzania have now made it to Mbulu. One result is that all the bicycles I used to see on the roads seem to have disappeared and gone the way of the donkeys. While the roads are still dirt, they are more regularly maintained and graded.
In 2000, electricity came to Mbulu town and the residents of Irqwa Da’aw had high hopes that it would soon be extended to them. It took more than a decade to reach them however through the recent Rural Electrification program funded by the World Bank. Its reach is still limited but more and more people are connecting and others have invested in solar panels to run a few lights and maybe a TV. Greater access to electricity and television will no doubt continue to spur many social and economic changes. Cell phone coverage has also improved, though is still quite spotty in Irqwa Da’aw.
Another change from the 1990s is that most farmers claim they use “modern” seeds now rather than their “traditional” varieties. In the early 90s, many older farmers rejected these modern seeds for fear that they would not be resistant to local pests and soil and weather conditions. They also did not want to rely on the market to meet their subsistence needs. These fears seem to be absent from the current generation of farmers that has followed and adopting “modern” farming practices appears to be a point of pride for many. Interestingly, some suggest that terracing, contour planting, and drainage ditches, practices praised by colonial agricultural officers are “modern”.
In 1995, I spent the better part of the year studying the history of tree planting and use in Mama Issara. At that time, landholders were planting lots of trees, spurred in part by national policy that allowed for replacement value of trees at harvest height if trees were cut down for government purposes (building of roads or schools) or by neighbors encroaching onto your land. Trees were seen as a good investment to fund the future education of children or pay for health expenses as well as being insurance against land encroachment. At that time however, in discussion with farmers, there was no long-term plan about continual tree planting that kept continuous cover after harvests. So, I was curious about what I would find given that most of those trees planted in the 90s were more than likely harvested by now. I was very surprised to see that, rather than fewer trees, the landscape seems to have become forest in so many areas. In focus groups and interviews, people often said “trees are now our cows”. The price of timber is obviously one driver of this change but so I think is the decline in soil fertility on the steep slopes, the areas which are given over to tree planting. While there may be more trees now than livestock, due to the shrinking of grazing land as it comes under cultivation, the cultural values of livestock are not likely to be exchanged for trees.
Sheet metal has replaced thatch for most of the houses in Irqwa Da’aw. This change reflects both preference but also the almost total absence of this grass in the valley bottoms now as these areas have been turned into farmland. Definitions of wealth remain similar, with size of land and number of livestock remaining as important indicators. Now, however, the number of trees a farmer has on their land has been added to the list of indicators along with the level of education of household heads and their children.
Youth unemployment was an issue during my earlier fieldwork but it continues to be a topic of considerable discussion today. Time spent in school by youth is longer, as access to secondary school has improved dramatically (there are now 3 secondary schools in Mama Issara when there were none during the early 90s), but jobs have not materialized and school leavers return to farm with little enthusiasm. Yet, in small sections of Irqwa Da’aw, the youth are jumping on the opportunities provided by some cash crops such as tobacco. In addition, I was told that male youth work in groups as day laborers, moving from one farm to another. They get paid about 3000 Tshs a day which they use to go to the kilabu (bar) at night, get up the next day and start again. The extent of this pattern is difficult to assess but suggests some interesting changes in attitudes towards day labor (kibarua). When I lived in Irqwa Da’aw, most Iraqw told me they would not work as vibarua as this work was seen to be more suited to neighboring Bantu-speaking groups like the Ihanzu. Today, the availability of material goods like cell phones and the like, together with the lack of employment opportunities, may be driving this change in attitude. In the early 90s, people said about the Nyerere era “back then, there was nothing in the shops” and about the era that followed “Now there are many things in the shops but we have no money to buy them”. Today, it appears that more money, if limited, is available and the desire for consumer goods has gone well beyond shoes, sheet metal for housing, clothes and simple household goods. We are surveying the original households from the 90s so will see what specific changes in assets have occurred.
But, if the changes above might be characterised as ‘economic’, how is Iraqw society responding to the all of this? I am fascinated by the way in which the rise of things that economists, planners and some observers might count as beneficial (better houses, more trees, more consumer goods) are also accompanied by a variety of frictions and tensions.
For instance, while more economic opportunities in cash crops and trade appear to exist now than in the early 90s, there also appear to be more conflicts over land. With population growth, more people are looking for viable land and now land previously reserved for grazing has been put under cultivation. So have the steep slopes on mountainsides and there is a concern about the drying up of water sources and the decline in water levels in rivers. Irqwa Da’aw has always been fortunate with ample water supply and also with rainfall that allows for more of less continual cropping.
Similarly, there may be more trees in the landscape, but it is unlikely that trees will be used as bridewealth, or as ritual objects to sacrifice for community harmony, or as the glue of social networks. Additionally, commercial trees, as I discovered in the mid-90s, are not accessed by those who did not plant them in the way that indigenous species can be. Because they are seen as economic assets, it is less likely that the person who planted the tree might help you out with firewood or poles for building as they often did in the past with local species. This individualization of resources goes well beyond trees today.
During my early fieldwork, elders complained about the growing trend of ‘ubinafsi’ or selfishness, which they saw as challenges to “Iraqw values”. While I have no doubt that this complaint by elders is one that has been passed down for generations, the content of the complaint may vary somewhat. Today, land conflicts are many and growing. For much of the 20th century, Iraqw managed competition for land and resources by out-migration, which led to their occupying much of Karatu, Babati and Hanang Districts. Today, this out-migration is much harder as those areas are “filled” and there is little land available. Elders stated that many now are moving as far away as Handeni and Mbeya for land.
In July, I used much of my time to check in on old friends. Happily, most of them were doing well. Some had retired from their local government posts and were running small businesses, others had been promoted within the school systems, and others were piecing together farm work with small businesses. Economically, their lives had largely improved. They mix income from business or salaried jobs with agricultural activities, investing in both food and cash crops (tobacco and pyrethrum) and in trees. There were some sadder stories though, marriages that have dissolved, leaving the women scrambling to earn money to support themselves and their children. Indeed, there was considerable talk of failed marriages and neglected children.
I spent a great deal of time with ‘elders’ back in the early 90s, and then, as now, they complained that youth have no respect for them, marriages are not stable, people have become greedy and selfish, and no one is following the important ‘customs’ of the past which emphasized conflict resolution and social harmony. While these complaints are not new, and have no doubt been there throughout the generations, there are behaviours taking place now which I did not witness in the early 90s.
For example, today many more young people are living together and having children without any formal marriage arrangement, either ‘traditional’ or through the church or government channels. These unions are often not stable as the respective families appear to have little investment in them or the children born. I heard one story after another of girls, usually in their teens, running off, refusing to go to school, and taking up with young men who would take them to the cities. While girls may have run off to Mbulu in the 90s, now they are making their way with their young men to places as far away as Dar and even Zanzibar. These unions usually result in children but rarely seem to last and the women are left to return their children to their parents to help raise them if possible. Then, they often find new young men to start over with, often with the same result. The harsh sanctions on this behavior, unfair as they were for targeting the women, served in the past to deter many women from taking these risks and risking the social sanctions and shame. However, the cultural beliefs and rituals around both regulating sexuality and restoring community harmony, many of which I witnessed in the early 90s, seem to have been largely abandoned now.
My first reflections therefore are that in many respects this case seems to fit the general trends observed repeatedly in other case studies that this project has enrolled. But also it highlights how restricted the assets lens can be in understanding the forces and social dynamics at work. The good life to which people aspired when I first visited, and which is also apparent in normative local accounts, has been realized in some senses – except, perhaps, that it is not all as good as it might first have seemed.