With acres of arable land, Tanzania has nowhere to go but up

As with most African borders, the one between Kenya and Tanzania is artificial. On occasion, these frontier demarcations were made for no other reason than that of satisfying an imperial whim. The story is told that once Kaiser Wilhelm II complained to his grandmother, Queen Victoria, that Britain had hogged all the snow-covered mountains in the area. Germany, he argued, wanted some. So she gave him a present, Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest peak on the continent. A slight adjustment of the border incorporated the peak within Germany's East African possession of Tanganyika, as mainland Tanzania is still called.

Nearly a century later, the Masai tribe, which herds its animals on both sides of the border, still regards boundaries as purely academic.

``These governments don't really concern us,'' remarked Simon, a mission-educated Masai student. ``We are a transhumant [seasonally wandering] people. Borders mean nothing.''

Despite such arbitrary division -- or lumping together -- of tribes (Tanzania has more than 120), the traveler is struck by the way the identities of Kenya and Tanzania have evolved. Kenya has mixed-economy policies. Tanzania is socialist. Crossing the border at Namanga, there is no question that one is entering another country.

On the Kenyan side, shops bulge with goods ranging from toothpaste to radios. The gas stations have ample fuel. Even safari buses from Nairobi stop off long enough for tourists to buy Masai curios before whisking them off to the parks. Prices are reasonable and you pay in Kenyan shillings, a fairly stable currency.

But as you drive south in Tanzania along the partially paved road to Dar es Salaam, you pass village shops with sparsely stocked or empty shelves. The gas stations are shut (because of yet another gasoline crisis) and farm machinery stands idle for lack of spare parts.

Compared to the late 1970s and early '80s, when you could not even buy a light bulb or a bar of soap, the last year has seen a dramatic improvement in the consumer situation in the towns. Prices, however, are pegged to the black market, so things cost about seven times their ``official'' value. For the average Tanzanian, who earns less than $8 a month, such items remain out of reach.

High prices coupled with shortsighted government policies and rundown facilities have also affected the country's tourist industry. Northern Tanzania's superb game parks today entice only a fraction of the foreign visitors they did in the late '60s and '70s.

This, I soon found, was a sad reflection of the state of affairs throughout Tanzania. Even sadder when one considers the nation's potential, notably in agriculture.

In 1967 Julius Nyerere, who recently stepped down as President, proclaimed a new course of ``socialism and self-reliance'' in a political-philosophical declaration issued from the town of Arusha. Since then, many observers contend, Tanzania has been looked upon as the darling of the international donor community.

Over the years, foreign assistance has brought Tanzania more aid per capita than any other nation in Africa. It has also helped Mr. Nyerere achieve some of his socialist ambitions. The greatest irony, however, is that, for all his good intentions and the billions of dollars of aid poured into the country, the country remains even further from its original goal of self-reliance. Many analysts say that a combination of misguided state directives, mismanagement, and ill-conceived donor projects have left Tanzania more dependent on outside aid than ever.

To the outsider, Tanzania is indeed the country, to paraphrase Ernest Hemingway, where one can behold miles and miles of Africa. Like Kenya, it boasts an extremely varied terrain ranging from broad, savanna plains to cool, fertile highlands, and a lush coastal belt. Tanzania -- its population is just over 20 million -- possesses something overpopulated Kenya does not: land.

Although two-thirds of Tanzania, which is somewhat larger than France and the two Germanies together, is infested by disease-borne tsetse flies, its agricultural potential has hardly been touched. The southern regions alone, some say, would be sufficient to feed the whole of Africa.

This abundance of arable land has caused many a would-be settler to look upon Tanzania with envy. But it has also encouraged a high degree of soil abuse, notably the slashing and burning of forests and scrublands, which, if unchecked, could transform large parts of this country into desert. Forty miles inside Tanzania, near the base of Mount Meru, overgrazing and burning has already turned once-fertile farmland into a dustbowl.

Farther on, however, one passes some of Tanzania's most intensely cultivated land. Coffee, banana, and maize farms crowd the lower slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro. Although a few European-run estates still function, these are tended mainly by the Chagga, one of the most independent and enterprising tribes in Tanzania.

The Chagga effectively resisted Nyerere's efforts to resettle peasants, often through force, into collective villages. Although many were allowed to keep their own land, they often found themselves several hours' walk from their original homes and fields. In many parts of the country, empty houses still sit in the bush.

The policy, which the government is quietly abandoning, has proved unpopular among a people who prefer to work for themselves. It has also left Tanzanian agriculture in a shambles.

The amount of food grown in Tanzania, much of it on private farms, is believed to be enough to feed the country. But the Chagga, like other farmers, prefer to sell their surplus food across the border in Kenya, Rwanda, and Zambia where they can get better prices than those offered by their own government. As a result, Tanzania requires expensive food imports to feed people in Dar es Salaam and other towns. Only gradually are the authorities beginning to concede the need for some form of incentives and a partial return to private enterprise.

Tanzania is a country of dashed expectations. It is also a country that, many say, has hit rock bottom with nowhere to go but up. Among many of the people there is a passionate determination to make things work. There is also the feeling that sooner or later Tanzania will take off.

``This country has unbelievable possibilities,'' said one Dar es Salaam man. ``I love my country. I really do. I wouldn't want to leave it. But it gives me [problems].''

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