Letters from TZ

Don’t shoot the messenger for the message will not die

The grapevine that used to carry rumours of torture and detention has been fruitless for years. We had come to the point where we lived without fear that a shadowy arm would reach out and smack us down, extracting our teeth and digging out our toenails with one swift blow. That was until Dr Stephen Ulimboka was found unconscious in Bunju.

In the moment when the news of his abduction and subsequent assault was confirmed, the spirit of fear returned. It came with the realisation that we have been living under a false sense of security. But stealthily, under the cover of night, we have been lured out. Dr Ulimoboka – as this paper reported on 28 June – was “the public face of the doctor’s strike”, trying to negotiate better working conditions for his compatriots.

It’s been a long time since we’ve seen a man being pitted against the machine in such a public manner. Whoever those gunmen were and whatever their mission might have been, rather than dampen the mood for change, they may have fanned the flames. More than that, Ulimboka has embodied our memories, bringing to mind a past that was defined by sacrifice and reminding us to enjoy the freedoms we enjoy as a result.

As a woman, I cannot be oblivious to the fact that I stand on the shoulders of the great women who came before me. Women who defended what they believed in, not knowing if change would come in their generation or the next. Because they spoke up, I can stand up. I don’t have to be barefoot, pregnant and chained to the kitchen sink – not unless I choose to. Those women gave me the gift of choice, and that is the greatest gift of all.

When was the last time you stood up for something you believed in? The last time you took a position that benefited someone other than yourself? What legacy will you leave for the next generation? Will they still enjoy the gift of choice or find themselves locked in a prison surrounded by the walls of our complacency?

Are we in danger of forgetting our past? Because if so, we are destined to repeat it. There is a long history of freedom fighting in Africa. Our forefathers and mothers shook the shackles off their feet and the chains of their brains. Their blood bought us the right to self-determination. The right to choose our own fate. We are obligated to take full advantage of those rights and to ensure that we secure them for our children. If ever there was a time for the voices of the people to be heard, it is in this day and age when we all believe that there is nothing left worth fighting for.

The winds of change are blowing through the continent once again. The first time we fought to define our freedom; this time we must fight to refine it. Dr Ulimboka unwittingly awoke the wrath of an oppressor that was playing dead. And now the rest of us must come to life.

Our response to this incident cannot be confined to rumour and speculation. We cannot treat it as some kind of tabloid report, which we discuss ad infinitum one week, and then use to wrap fish and chips the next. Instead, we should be galvanised for change. You don’t have to take to the streets to be part of a revolution. The little things count as much as the big ones. Stop bribing government officials. Observe traffic rules. Put in a full days work at the office. Don’t cheat on your taxes. Understand the laws of the land. Elect responsible leaders. Vote them out if they don’t deliver. We need to shift out of ‘park’ mode into gear, first of all by changing the way we think. It can no longer be business as usual.

The norm in East Africa is for the people to look to government for everything. In a crisis, our instinct is always kuomba serikali. We have turned government into some kind of parental authority on whom we cast all our cares. But as soon as we’re done casting cares, we begin to cast aspersions, blaming the State for all that is wrong in our world, forgetting that if the system is rotten, then so are we. What is a country if not its people? It starts with us and ends with us. Every solitary decision we make as individuals will eventually impact society as a whole. Therefore, we cannot lay the blame on government and somehow expect things to change.

It has been a sobering week, perhaps more so for Dr Ulimboka than anyone else. But even as the spirit of fear throws a shadow over the nation, we must embrace power, love and stability. It is time to exorcise the negative and resurrect the positive as the region moves into an era of true liberation.