Gender and Politics in Africa: an Interview with Marjorie Mbilinyi

Struggles over gender inequity have often been lost or buried in accounts of the fight against political exploitation and oppression in Africa.  A parallel history of contestation over gender relations is here exposed through the life of one remarkable scholar and activist, Marjorie Mbilinyi. ROAPE’s Janet Bujra discusses the life and politics of a fighter for gender and class equality on the continent. The interview is a powerful and critical account of fifty years of campaigning against patriarchal oppression on many fronts in Tanzania, in which Mbilinyi has herself been at the forefront. She traces the legitimisation of feminism as a means to understand and a way to organise for and with women. This is not a feminism lifted from Europe or the US, but one generated in response to Tanzanian and African realities. As a teacher, analyst and organiser, Marjorie Mbilinyi has inspired a generation to question patriarchy and to set up groups to study and fight against it collectively, and to do so in tandem with struggles against class oppression, neoliberalism and imperialism. In this growing movement she identifies and describes resistance not only from men in power but also from those who position themselves on the radical Left. 


Marjorie and I were colleagues and became close friends from the early 1970s, when I taught on the pathbreaking East African Society and Environment course at the University of Dar es Salaam (a team-taught introduction to radical political economy). We later worked together on a research project into the impact of the AIDS crisis on gender relations and have maintained our friendship and political dialogue up to the present.

Your life in Tanzania has been one of gender and Left activism and you have made major contributions, working collectively with others. What motivated you initially towards such objectives? As someone born in the USA, did your politics precede your move to Tanzania, or were they generated by events and conditions in Tanzania?

I would say both:  my politics preceded my move to Tanzania in a general sense, but events – both personal and public – galvanized my activism. From adolescent years I was committed to challenging inequality and injustice, propelled in part by personal struggles at family level. Later, exposure to the women’s movement literature of the 1960s provided me with the tools to understand and name patriarchal structures of oppression in the family.

As a member of the ‘sixties generation’, I was actively engaged in the civil rights movement in the early 1960s in and out of Cornell University where I did my first degree [1961-1965]. Participation in the voter registration drive in Fayette County, Tennessee, in 1964 as part of a Cornell University students group was a landmark, providing me with first hand exposure to community led activism and the intricacies of ‘outsider’ participation.

Arriving in Tanzania at the end of 1966 to join my husband to be, Simon Mbilinyi, after completing my MA in Education Psychology at Stanford University, I was caught up in the excitement of the debates over Socialism and Self Reliance on and off campus. As a young wife/mother, and academic at University of Dar es Salaam [1968-2003] I was forced to confront the challenges and struggles of patriarchy in the family and on campus, as well as in the general community, while also actively engaged with others in efforts to implement socialist principles, transformative pedagogy and participatory action research. My position, as an American born European/white female married to a Tanzanian, complicated these struggles.                

In 1967 I made a conscious decision to become a Tanzanian citizen. Our family adopted Kiswahili as the family language, and sought in every way possible to provide our children with a ‘local’ Tanzanian upbringing, feeling at home and belonging in their father’s culture, community and extended family, and building strong bonds with their grandmother, aunts, uncles, cousins and non-kin family/friends. Fluency in Kiswahili was also a must for anyone seeking to participate in the social transformations taking place at that time.

Why do I dwell at length on language and culture issues? We had observed the harm caused by identity issues among a few Tanzanian friends of mixed racial heritage, who were born in the colonial period, usually of European/white fathers and African mothers. Some were separated from their mothers and maternal community, and sent to boarding schools for African children of middle-class aspiring parents. The mixed children had their own dormitory room, clothing, and food to eat, and were taught ‘proper’ European manners and table etiquette, and they wore shoes!

My husband Simon and I have been fortunate to have four remarkable children, three girls and one boy: NnaliTausi (1967), AninaMlelwa (1969), LyungaiFilela (1973) and Mhelema Michael (1979 -1980). We lost Mhelema at the tender age of one year and three months, following one of several bouts of severe high temperature and infection during his lifetime. At the same time, we have been blessed by the birth of four grandchildren, who are our hope and inspiration.

Within two months of Nnali’s birth, I was employed on a full-time basis in the University’s Department of Education and had to find an ayah/nanny to help take care of my child. On 1 January 1968, Mwamvua Saidi entered our household and family and remains part of us to this day, as mama mlezi. Mwamvua, or Mama Shija, played a major part in helping to socialise our children – and me — and ground us in Tanzanian culture. She also ‘freed’ me to be able to devote time to my work as a university lecturer and researcher, to my PhD studies at UDSM from 1968 through 1972, and increasingly, to my engagement in the women’s/feminist movement. Mwamvua was also balancing work and being a wife/mother/family. She had five children, four boys and one girl, spaced very closely to our own children. Soon she and her family were able to move into our compound, and our children grew up together, becoming part of our extended family.

The famous feminist slogan, ‘the personal is political’, had special resonance for me as a young wife/mother and academic/activist, trying to cope with the often conflicting demands of patriarchal society and at the same time ‘belong’ to my new community. Friendship with likeminded women and the sisterhood we developed as part of a feminist movement for change became a major source of inspiration, hope and support, as well as the overall progressive group of scholars and their families both on and off university campus. My family [nuclear and extended] became another, and the two ‘worlds’ often coalesced in joint activities – Sundays at the beach with children and friends; drop in visits, rotating dinner and dance parties in one another’s homes.

These were also formative years for the university at many different levels: a shift from largely expatriate and European staff to Tanzanian and African; struggles over ideology between the dominant imperial bourgeois position, a pan-Africanist Marxist vision, and transformative feminism which challenged both; struggles over structures and ways of decision making between the inherited top-down bureaucratic structure and alternative democratic systems; and conflicts over the relationship between the university, the state and the people. Women/gender struggles were situated within each of these struggles and also helped to shape them.

Can you describe the heady political atmosphere at the university in the early 1970s? What kind of debates took place and between whom? What part did you play in university politics?

The University was an exciting place to be in the late 1960s and early 1970s. There were debates on the role of the University in building socialism and self reliance, involving lecturers and students as well as participants from ‘town’. This included advocacy of curriculum reform and structural transformation of the University itself, enhancing the voice and power of lecturers and students vis a vis the administration. The Common courses (East African Society and Environment and Development Studies) were designed to expose all students, regardless of their subject specialisation and career choice, to an understanding of Tanzanian/socialist ideology, history and political economy. In the Department of Education, we created a joint foundation first year course [Psychology and Sociology of Education] to enable future teachers/researchers/school administrators to better understand and engage with the challenges of implementing the state’s Education for Self-Reliance policy at school/college and classroom level. My particular interest was in the promotion and practice of transformative pedagogy at University as well as in other education institutions, in order to promote creativity, critical thinking, problem posing and democracy in the classroom.

Efforts to democratise the University led to periodic confrontations with the University administration. I was involved with fellow lecturers in mobilising support for students’ autonomy and defending the student organisation leader at that time, Simon Akivaga, when he was seized by police forces and eventually expelled to Kenya, his home country. I also joined forces with other women lecturers and administrators in challenging sex discrimination at the university, and in society as a whole.

UDSM had a rich seminar culture; nearly every arts, humanities and social science department organised weekly seminars involving both lecturers and students (undergraduate and graduate) in often heated debates on academic and political issues combined. Through these fora, scholars launched preliminary research reports and/research proposals for discussion and feedback. Some succeeded to draw a substantial number of ‘town’ people as well, providing space for a cross-exchange of views with government and political leaders, intellectuals [on/off campus] and increasingly, civil society activists. Most of my writing was presented in one of these seminars, and several became controversial. The progressive left at the university was dominated by dogmatic Marxists who had no conception of, nor tolerance for, the notion of (class/gender/race) intersectionality. They demanded a ‘purist’ static class analysis that could not grapple with the grey areas of structural change and power relations/struggles in post-colonial Tanzania. My critical analyses of race and gender were labelled diversionary in studies of colonial education and agriculture policies. My painstaking study of different forms of peasant differentiation in contemporary Tanzania, using Lenin’s methodology in his study of Rural Capitalism in Russia to examine the results of numerous empirical studies, was also denounced as ‘petty bourgeois thought’.

The seminars were exciting, but the discourse was brutal, personalised and macho. Participants focused on finding weaknesses in a paper and were only satisfied when they could thrash it to pieces. I remember the day in the mid-1970s when Deborah Bryceson and I presented our seminal paper on women’s involvement in peasant production and reproduction in Tanzania! A notable historian denounced the analysis, saying ‘you are dividing the masses!’ In my experience, the greatest resistance to gender/feminist analysis came from the Marxists – or from the right, from bourgeois nationalists who talked about how good things were ‘back home in the village where my mother is very happy’. Until today, many land rights activists repeat the same Marxist line, blind to the way in which social relations in peasant economies are constructed by gender, age and class relations, and women bear the brunt of government anti-peasant policies and lead the popular resistance against local plunder by mining, agriculture and tourist corporations.

In contrast to the university macho culture, I adopted an alternative style of discourse in my postgraduate seminars, whereby participants were expected to identify positive aspects and strengths of research proposals and essays, first, and then provide constructive criticism of weaknesses and gaps. The focus was on the text or narrative in question, and not the person. The women’s studies groups and feminist organisations I have been associated with have adopted a similar position, creating an alternative ‘safe’ space and style of discourse, described below, in order to encourage women, youth and other marginalised people to share their work and to learn to welcome helpful constructive criticism.

To what extent was there gender awareness and politics on the campus at that time? What was the gender composition of the student body and staff? Compared to the lives of women beyond the campus, did women students enjoy a degree of gender equality? 

The University was organised according to male bias principles, with blatant sex discrimination in terms of service for staff, and in practices of their recruitment, employment and promotion, as shared in my article, “Gender Struggles at the University of Dar es Salaam: A Personal Herstory”. Women lecturers and administration staff, including myself, organised ourselves informally to fight against sex discrimination in the early 1970s, galvanized by a blatant case of discrimination; thus began my involvement in collective struggles for women’s rights.

The composition of university staff became increasingly Tanzanian and/or East African during the 1970s and 1980s. Many of us participated in campus activism which centred around the struggle for socialism and against capitalism and imperialism, in general, and colonialism and apartheid which remained in several neighbouring countries and in the south. We also joined together as members and leaders of the University of Dar es Salaam Academic Staff Assembly (UDASA) in the 1980s to struggle for more democracy at the hill [as the university is known], with more voice from academics in making basic decisions, as well as for more substantive change in curriculum. Immediately however, the issue of sex discrimination at the university emerged as a problem and eventually a source of division. The major struggle emerged over efforts by women staff to organise ourselves through UDASA to denounce sex discrimination in employment, promotions, recruitment, etc and to demand change.

Nearly all women academics joined the women’s caucus within UDASA, and collectively carried out a quick survey to establish the number of women and men at different levels of employment within the university; the gender breakdowns in terms of student enrolment at undergraduate, MA and PhD level; and in leadership posts as heads of departments, deans and directors, and the top administration. We also investigated staff views about the causes of the problems and what to do about it. People documented the extent of sexual harassment of women staff and students, for example, and the lack of any serious strategy to deal with it.

A joint report was prepared collectively and presented at a special meeting of UDASA in Nkrumah Hall and aroused a major and intense debate. What was alarming and bitter for me was that the most furious rejection of the paper and of our demands for gender equity and equality came from progressive leftists! They took the position that the women’s caucus was dividing academic staff unity in the struggle against university bureaucracy and for academic rights; and that sex discrimination was a secondary contradiction!

Nevertheless, this organising activity helped to catalyse the setting up of a Gender Sensitisation unit [now Gender Studies] under the Chief Administrative Officer. The unit develops and implements gender sensitisation sessions for students and top management on an annual basis.

Another major area of discrimination which women faced, and which led to male biased research and a deformed curriculum for all students, was gender stereotyping in curriculum and research. There were no formal courses on ‘women’s studies’ or ‘gender studies’ let alone ‘feminist studies’ in those days, with the welcome early exception of a second year option course in Development Studies on ‘women’s liberation’. [An informal group of staff and non-staff feminists, including myself, developed and taught the course syllabus, and compiled appropriate readings, largely from unpublished papers]. Gender mainstreaming was carried out by many women and men staff to insert gender/women’s issues into course syllabi. Moreover, in Fine Arts, lecturers and drama groups created positive and active imagery of women who acted on their own behalf and were not simply victims. Students were also encouraged to research on gender issues in undergraduate and postgraduate essays as well as independent research and MA and PHD dissertations.

One way to validate gender/feminist studies was to compile an annotated bibliography of all the research reports and analytical essays written about women and/or gender issues in Tanzania, especially those written by Tanzanians themselves. Ophelia Mascarenhas and I prepared a bibliography on Women and Development for the African Centre for Research on Women at United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), Addis Ababa, in the late 1970s. We shared the first cyclostyled version of this bibliography with participants in the Bureau of Resource Assessment and Land Use Planning (BRALUP) Workshop on Women and Development in 1979 as part of a process of celebration, validation and knowledge generation. Many of the authors cited in this work were participants; the Workshop represented a major contribution towards the recognition of women and gender studies as a valid area of analysis and research. Ophelia and I later expanded the number of items in the bibliography with more in-depth annotations, and wrote a substantive essay which focused specifically on the resistances and struggles of Tanzanian women against patriarchy and capitalism during the pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial period. Women in Tanzania ((Scandinavian Institute of African Studies, 1983) deliberately challenged the usual western feminist view of African women as being powerless victims, or the bourgeois nationalist view that the concept of gender equity was a foreign importation, or the Marxist view that it was possible to separate gender and class struggles in the world of marginalised women.

Eventually and largely through the struggles of women academics and students, specific ‘gender’ courses were established in many social science related curriculum during the 1980s and 1990s. A good example is the MA optional course on Gender Issues and Socio-economic Development which we created in the Institute of Development Studies, and which I coordinated and taught until my retirement in 2003. This led later to a full-fledged Masters degree programme on gender and development.

As with other feminist initiatives, these efforts faced immediate resistance and backlash from fellow lecturers. Postgraduate students were told that women/gender-related dissertation themes were ‘not academic’, fellow lecturers were told that their research reports were irrelevant to Tanzanian realities and were influenced by foreign ideology. Vocal women students and lecturers who challenged the status quo faced a backlash. Many women, including myself, decided to organise ourselves in groups so as to provide solidarity and moral support, and enhance our power and capacity to make changes at curriculum and institutional level. Most notable for me were the Institute of Development Studies-Women Study Group [IDSWSG], which later gave birth to the Women Research and Documentation Project [WRDP] and the Tanzania Gender Network Programme [TGNP].

Please tell me more about how you engaged with gender/class issues in research and analysis on and off the University of Dar es Salaam campus. In your research and activism you use the concept of ‘animation’ – can you describe what this meant in practice and what kind of issues it was used to address?

My focus of research and analysis has been on gender and agrarian issues, beginning with studies of education in rural areas in the 1960s and 1970s; through analyses of changing gender and class relations in the rural economy based on participatory research in West Bagamoyo District (1980) and Rungwe District (1985-1990); rural food security in the context of the policy shift from public support for small family producers during the 1970s and early 1980s to free market policies with a growing emphasis on large-scale production in 1980s to the present. At the same time, I have been actively involved in creating advocacy and activist organistions, again on and off campus.

My initial terrain of engagement was in the field of education, and specifically teacher training at the UDSM. My first research experience at UDSM was survey research on parental decision-making about enrolment of girls and boys to primary school, based on field work in Tanga and Mwanza Rural Districts. This study helped to challenge stereotyped notions about ‘coastal’ and Islamic bias against girls’ education, and highlighted the significance of household income differentials in determining girls’ chances of going to school compared to boys. This led to the publication of my first book entitled The Education of Girls in Tanzania (Institute of Education, University of Dar es Salaam, 1969) and my PhD on the Decision to Educate in Rural Tanzania. It was also the first and last time I relied entirely on research assistants for field research. I have been actively involved in participatory action research ever since usually as part of research teams.

While in the Education Department I coordinated and participated in the Secondary School Research Project during the 1970s, using participatory research methods and partnering student teachers and myself with role modelteachers to observe each other’s teaching methods and classroom interaction, with a focus on gender relations. A joint report on our findings was presented to teachers in participating secondary schools and widely endorsed, and included the teachers’ recommendation that they be allowed to organise themselves in an independent teachers’ union. Although the Ministry of Education closed down the project in retaliation, the Tanzanian Teachers Association was formed not long afterwards.

Linking academic work and activism, several researchers outside as well as within the university embraced and further strengthened the concept of participatory action research, or animation, in the late 1970s, and eventually formed the Tanzanian Participatory Research Network, a forerunner of the African Participatory Research Network. Animation is predicated on the understanding that women and men who are exploited and oppressed are active knowers of the situation and many of its causes. Animators or facilitators use a variety of participatory methods, including codification pictures, case studies and drama, to provoke the oppressed to assess their/our situation, analyse the major causes and act to make change happen.

Animation creates a creative and dynamic space in which the class/ethnic/gender differences between ‘researchers’ and/or middle-class activists and members of the marginalised exploited class of, in this case, women, are recognised and challenged. Illiterate working women become teachers, and together we create new knowledge and plan strategies of action. In the case of ‘real’ participatory action research, the activist researchers participate in and/or follow up the action of their grassroots partners. The results of the knowledge so produced are immediately shared with participants in the animation research and others in the community, including village government leaders, and later, district leaders, and so on [or it could be with teachers and school heads; factory management, etc], in order to receive critical feedback and plan together how to move forward. Creative use is made of alternative forms of communications and media, especially local forms of song, dance, poetry, drama, and art work, as well as interactive videos.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, I was actively involved in two off-campus participatory action research programmes which became milestones for animation in Tanzania, the Christian Council of Tanzania’s Vocational Education Project and the Jipemoyo Research programme discussed below. Jipemoyo was hosted by the Tanzanian Government’s Ministry of Culture with Finnish support, with two co-directors, the late Odhiambo Anacleti and Prof Marja Lisa Swantz during the late 1970s and 1980s. Based in West Bagamoyo District, Jipemoyo worked with pastoralists [Waparakuyu] and cultivators [Wakwere] in ‘ujamaa’ (socialist) villages near Lugoba trading centre; I participated in regular meetings to reflect on the varied research experiences, and carried out field research for a short time [one month] in a very poor village called Diozile, following on the heels of another researcher [Asseny Muro]. We both focused our respective studies on changing gender relations at household and community level in the cultivating community. I remember being struck by the high level of political awareness among village women and youth, who actively challenged corrupt village government leaders and demanded change. I also learned more about the changing but still empowering aspects of matrilineal society and the intricacies of polygamous life.

Regional and district authorities in West Bagamoyo were unsettled by the way in which community activists organised themselves, provided articulate and informed critique of dysfunctional policies and corrupt leadership, and won the attention of a broad audience beyond the local level. This led to a backlash, but the lessons learned by the Jipemoyo experience informed later participatory action research and organising activities.

Animation work has provided me with invaluable learning experiences, helped to ground me locally, and strengthened my understanding and knowledge about the interlinkage between patriarchy and neo-liberal globalisation. . In the world of a peasant woman, there is no question that gender, class and imperialism are integrally linked together: she confronts and resists these relationships on a daily basis. In the same vein, providing students in a secondary school – and their teachers – with the opportunity to reflect on their different realities and design alternative ways of learning not only produces new knowledge, it also contributes to immediate change in and out of the classroom.

Personal life histories became one avenue to explore changes and struggles through the subjective life experience of individual women (and men).In 1985 I devoted a sabbatical to analysing changes that took place in class, race and gender relations in Rungwe during the colonial and immediate post-colonial period. In the 1940s and 1950s, more than one fourth of young Nyakyusa men worked as migrant labourers in the Copperbelt of then Northern Rhodesia or the gold mines of South Africa – I wanted to find out what happened to the women. In depth interviews were carried out with several elderly women and men in Rungwe,  as well as archival research at the ‘Rungwe mission’ at Tukuyu, Rhodes House, Oxford University; the National Archives of the UK at Kew; and Tanzanian National Archives. It was exciting to discover all the fuss caused by rebellious ‘runaway wives’ in Rungwe, according to reports by male district commissioners, the Native Affairs Commissioner, managers of copper mines, and ‘native chiefs’ in the archives and then to go find out what older women and men had to say about it. Oral history confirmed the fact that large numbers of Rungwe women ran away from forced marriages and joined their ‘brothers’ in the migration to the Copperbelt. Alliances were formed between colonial officers, mining management and local ‘chiefs’ to bring the unruly women home! These and other stories confirmed the fact that ‘the personal is political’; and that ‘custom and tradition’ were inventions of the colonisers and their local male allies.

In colonial Rungwe, the Moravian Church provided an emancipatory space for many women who struggled to overcome the patriarchal oppression and discrimination they experienced at home. Women could become elders, and travel from one village to another for days on end with their male colleagues. Yet both the Moravian and the Lutheran church practiced racist and sexist policies in the colonial days and refused to ordain African ministers for many years. Discriminatory wage structures were found in mission schools, hospitals as well as the church, with different wages for African and Europeans, and within each racial category, women were paid the least – if they were paid at all.

An elderly woman named Rebeka Kalindile became my teacher, mentor, mother and partner in countless debates over patriarchy and colonialism at this time. Together we compiled her life story in an animation process, focusing on those events and happenings which Rebeka believed were most significant. Rebeka forced me to interrogate my own strategies of resistance; one of her favourite slogans was ‘you have to be clever’ [‘lazima uwe mjanja’], imbibing classical conceptions of resistance by slaves as well as women. [1]

I presented the results of my Rungwe studies in my Professorial Lecture of 1985, later published as Big Slavery, Agribusiness and the Crisis in Women’s Employment in Tanzania (Dar Es Salaam University Press, 1991). Big Slavery explores the interaction between patriarchy and capitalism through the histories of women’s resistances in the private and public domain during the colonial and post-colonial period.

In 1998, a group of four university researchers – Bertha Koda, Claude Mung’ongo, Timothy Nyoni and myself – began the Rural Food Security Policy and Development Group, otherwise known as KIHACHA, which was situated within IDS and guided by a national advisory committee consisting of leaders from four activist civil society organisations. During 1998 through 2002 we carried out intensive animation work in Ngorongoro, Shinyanga and later Njombe Rural Districts, inviting peasant women and men to assess the situation of food security in their local context, analyse the basic causes and decide on concrete actions to improve if not radically transform the situation. Feedback sessions were held at village, district and national level where village activists helped to explain the findings to government officials and NGO leaders, and argued on behalf of the recommendations and demands which they had generated in the animation process.

KIHACHA participants agreed on one core campaign slogan, ‘haki ya chakula, ardhi na demokrasia’ [the right to food, land and democracy] through intensive discussion in each of the nine participating villages. KIHACHA produced a powerful set of campaign messages using colourful popular leaflets, posters, t-shirts, song and a drama – the last two items produced by one of our most accomplished theatre groups, Parapanda in close consultation with the research team. E & D Limited, the only woman-owned publishing house in Tanzania, designed and copublished all of our leaflets, posters and publications, including Food is Politics (KIHACHA, IDS, University of Dar es Salaam, 2002). HakiElimu leaders helped design the cartoons used and supervised the work of the artists. In other words, KIHACHA pulled together and depended upon the creative talent, expertise and commitment of a wide array of individuals and organisations.

An informal loose coalition was also created almost spontaneously around 2000 called the KIHACHA Network, consisting of more than 30 grassroots groups and national NGOs. The network helped plan the KIHACHA campaign which was launched to the wide public in 2002, and voluntarily disseminated the campaign materials throughout the country, using their own partners at local level. Working closely with the media, videos capturing the images and voices of women and men grassroots activists were shown on national news, denouncing the devastating impact of both patriarchy and globalisation/neo-liberalism.

As a scholar activist, your contribution to the establishment and support of collective organising in civil society is well known. Which organisations have, in your experience, made a substantial impact, even if short lived, in the struggle to enhance equity and social justice? Who was involved and what was your role in them?

I have been actively involved in several exciting advocacy groups, including Kuleana (Mwanza), HakiElimu, Institute of Development Studies (IDS) Women Study Group, Women’s Research and Documentation Project (WRDP) and TGNP Mtandao [formerly known as Tanzania Gender Networking Programme]. With other organisations, TGNP Mtandao also created and hosted the Feminist Activist Coalition, FemAct. Let me focus on IDSWSG, WRDP and TGNP Mtandao.

As shown above, the university was a hostile place for any woman who was critical about sexism and wanted to change things. Some of us were desperate to learn more about what causes such intense patriarchal structures and attitudes and behaviour, so as to change them. Out of that desire for space to learn more together, came the seeds of what became the IDS Women Study Group. A small group of women [Tanzanian and non-Tanzanian] began to meet together informally in our homes as a study group in 1978. We read top feminist literature from Europe, North America and Asia; and began to concentrate on writings by African feminists. By 1980 our group had expanded and we decided to seek a base in IDS, becoming one of the first IDS Study Groups, along with two others on rural development and workers.

IDS-WSG grew rapidly to 30 members and met on a weekly basis, with no funding of any kind. The majority were not working at the university, a very important point in our later struggles, and many were not ‘academics’; two thirds were Tanzanian. From the start, we worked collectively, with an elected leadership structure; I was elected as the first Convenor. We decided to carry out our own research on ‘the women’s question’, and began to prepare proposals for fundraising, working collectively according to themes such as women peasants; women in the media; women and education. The separate research proposals were compiled into one organisational proposal, to which we added basic costs to facilitate the development of a documentation centre; as well as a four wheel drive vehicle to support the research work. We successfully negotiated for a grant from Ford Foundation. Just as we were about to receive the money and the car in 1982, the all-male IDS management team intervened and claimed that all such resources belonged to the institute! They directed that the research funds go to the Institute’s Research and Publications Committee which would decide how to allocate them!

A clear case of male domination, oppression and appropriation, this was exactly what happened to the women cooperatives which we had studied in ujamaa villages, and now it was happening to us! The group members refused to accept the hijacking of their proposal, and asked the funder to retain the funds until we could access them ourselves. The original IDS-WSG members moved out of the institute and formed an entirely new organisation which was registered independently as the Women’s Research and Documentation Project, WRDP, in 1983. WRDP members went on to conduct research, organise a series of workshops with government and civil society leaders to share the results of their analysis, and established the Women’s Research and Documentation Centre in the ground floor of the university library, one of the top collections on gender/feminist issues in the nation at that time. For many years WRDP was a leading critical voice on behalf of women’s issues, and helped to lead Tanzanian women NGOs to the Women’s World Forum in Nairobi in 1985.

During the 1980s and 1990s several other women focused organisations were set up at the university, focusing on science and technology; and on education. The scientists succeeded to get a change in university student recruitment; with affirmative action to provide pre-first year courses in sciences and mathematics for young women, initiatives later institutionalised within and by the university.

The Kikundi cha Akina Mama Mlimani (KAMM: Women at University Campus) was an entirely different kind of group which concentrated on improving the welfare of women, children and their families at the university in a practical way. Begun in 1989, one of their major achievements was the setting up of a community library at the UDASA club on the hill which had a strong children’s collection. KAMM also organised other children’s activities for the campus community, such as film shows, sports, and art lessons. Numbering some 20 women, the members of the group lived at the hill; they were not all staff. This provides a creative example of alternative ways of organising.[2]

In 1992 and 1993, a group of about ten women and men came together with me as coordinator  to facilitate a triple A process of reflection and planning for the leaders of top women/gender civil society organisations, in preparation for their participation in the Women’s Decade meeting in Beijing in 1995. With the support of the Royal Netherlands Embassy and the NGO SNV, more than 30 women activists shared their experiences and strategies of organising for the promotion of women’s rights and gender equity at the national and district levels in three workshops, and planned concrete strategies of action for the future. The combination of rigorous feminist theory and animation methodology led to a high level of analysis and participation, and fostered enthusiastic networking among ourselves and with East African organisations who participated in the 1993 regional preparatory meeting in Kampala.

The results of this analysis and planning were edited by TGNP and published as the first Gender Profile of Tanzania in 1993. More important, however, was the demand by participating NGOs that a new networking organisation be established by the facilitation committee. In 1993 the Tanzania Gender Networking Programme (TGNP) was established as a membership organisation by the original committee members. We moved into our own office in town, and I became the first Executive Director [then called Coordinator], on leave from the University for three years [1994-1996].

From the start, we were committed to a struggle against patriarchy and neo-liberal globalisation which focused on gender, class and imperial/race relationships and their transformation. Eventually we named this transformative feminism. We also were committed to retaining and strengthening a collective process and culture of decision making, drawing on the experience several of us had had in WRDP, which was based on group centred leadership rather than the usual leader centred group. The continued reliance on animation and collective decision-making enabled TGNP to sustain itself and grow in spite of many challenges. We adopted concrete activist strategies from the start, along with gender mainstreaming, which enabled TGNP and its partners in the Feminist Activist Coalition (FemAct) to reach out to the wider public on many issues and have our views noted, and in some cases, acted upon. This provided members and staff with a support group and a base for feminist activist work which helped to keep us grounded locally while acting at all levels.[3]

TGNP Mtandao adopted multiple strategies, including training and consciousness-raising using animation approaches; knowledge generation, dissemination and information through participatory action research, multi media platforms and policy analysis; advocacy work on strategic issues with strategic government sectors/departments, local government authorities, and members of Parliament; and media engagement at all levels. Of particular importance is the Intensive Movement Building Cycle, combining participatory action research, support for local knowledge centres and linkages with investigative journalists. Community activists have succeeded to raise gender/class issues with government and non-government leaders, including the commercial private sector, and through wide media coverage, their demands have been met in many cases. In the process, women and youth leaders in particular have strengthened their negotiation and advocacy skills, as well as their understanding of macro-economic policy, structures and systems.[4]

I remained an active member of TGNP Mtandao after returning to my employment at the University of Dar es Salaam. In 2003, I retired from academia and became the ‘Principal Policy Analyst’ at TGNP for ten years [2004-2014], devoting much of my time to mentoring younger scholar activists in policy and budget analysis and participatory action research. During its now 24 years of activism, TGNP Mtandao has become one of the most outspoken and visible advocates for gender equity, social justice and women’s empowerment in Tanzania and Africa, challenging both patriarchy and capitalist globalisation.


[1]Marjorie Mbilinyi”I’d have been a Man!  Politics and the Labour Process in producing Personal Narratives’ in Personal narratives Group (eds) Interpreting Women’s Lives (Indiana University Press, 1989) and Marjorie Mbilinyi and Rebeka Kalindile “Grassroot Struggles for Women’s Advancement: the story of RebekaKalindile” in Bertha Koda and Magdalena NgaizaedsThe Unsung Heroines (Dar es Salaam, DUP for WRDP Publications 1991).

[2]See my chapter, “Transformative Education and the Strengthening of Civil Society” in Haroub Othman (ed) Reflections on Leadership in Africa (Dar es Salaam, IDS/UDSM, 2000).

[3]See Marjorie Mbilinyi, Mary Rusimbi, Chachage S L Chachage & DemereKitunga (eds)Activist Voices: Feminist Struggles for an Alternative World (Dar es Salaam, TGNP & E&D Limited, 2003

[4]  See  Marjorie Mbilinyi “Transformative Feminism in Tanzania: Animation and Grassroots Women’s Struggles For Land and Livelihoods” in Oxford Handbook of Transnational Feminist Movements: Knowledge, Power and Social Change, ed Rawwida Baksh and Wendy Harcourt, New York: Oxford University Press (2015) and Marjorie Mbilinyi and Gloria Shechambo “Experiences in Transformative Feminist Movement Building at the Grassroots Level in Tanzania” in Akosua Adomako Ampofo, Cheryl R Rodriguez & Dzodzi Tsikata eds Transatlantic Feminisms: Women and Gender Studies in Africa and the African Diaspora (Lexington, 2015).


  1. A rare and invaluable account of the struggles feminists have faced in African universities. Particularly regretful is Marjorie’s documentation of the hostility feminists experiences from left men., as if they never read the writings of communist women, or even Lenin’s discussions with feminists like Zetkin. However our sense disappointment merely reflects the optimism of left feminists who expected more. These gender conservatives are now old beyond repair, so decades later, we look to their sons and grandsons to be better men, and guess what? Some of them are…just some. Yet socialism, and nationalism fall short without feminism,

  2. It is a long, inspiring, informative and shaming story especially to the University administration of the time. Marjorie i dare say is in deed a lioness in the jungle. I never known you but now i know you and i adore you


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