The Debate

My own memories of the debate club at school are pretty scant – partly because they didn’t happen that often and partly because I took little interest. I was an awkward child, and detested attracting attention, and I didn’t have the courage to stand up in front of an audience of peers and superiors. Put on the spot, I would stumble and become incoherent (and why I’m using the past tense I don’t quite know, because it still happens).

It’s been 3 days in the planning and a debate is underway at Kijana Kwanza. Everyone seems to be involved. The audience of some 40 young people all appear to have a role in proposing and opposing the motion. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be a static audience at all. I’m not sure if it says something about every Tanzanian wanting a share of the pie, but honestly, it doesn’t quite matter. Everyone seems quite happy to massacre the pie into slithers and share the crumbs. As I’ve quickly realised, in Tanzania it’s not how much you get that matters; it’s that you get something. And our young people are content with a couple of minutes in the limelight.  

The motion is “Self-Employment is Better than Employment”. A topical issue in Tanzania, where employment opportunities are few, and access to capital but a distant dream. Every year, nearly a million Tanzanians reach working age, but the economy creates less than 10% of the number of jobs required to cater for the new generation. It seems that in Tanzania, it is less a question of whether self-employment is better than employment, but far more a recognition that self-employment may be the only feasible option.

Whilst the topic for debate seemed rather dull in my books, the audience-cum-participants (it’s impossible to differentiate between the two) are energetically enthused: shouting, heckling and jumping up on their seats, desperate to be heard in the chaos. Every other moment is interspersed with appeals of “Mr Chairman, order please. Mr Chairman, order please.” (As to who the Chairman is, I have no idea).

Putting aside the ruckus (it is certainly more fun than debate club at school), as I listen attentively to the young people’s arguments, I am taken aback by the strength of the case against employment – from what I understand, young Tanzanians appear to view the employer-employee relationship as almost akin to a slave-master relationship.

Truth be told, when there is so much demand for a single job, employers quickly become authoritarian and dismissive, always demanding more and giving less. And reflecting on my interactions with people in Tanzania, I sympathise. You don’t need to look afar to see how many of those in employment are treated with contempt. Particularly those who are least educated and skilled. 

Whilst employment rights in Tanzania, stand in legislation (I must say, the sick leave is rather generous) it is not clear how much bearing it has on reality. No one would have the energy, time or resources to instruct a lawyer and attend an employment tribunal, if there is even such a thing in Tanzania. Well there are, but my guess is that they are not very busy.

For our audience-cum-participants, self-employment is about freedom, to a degree not dissimilar to the abolition of slavery, quite a poignant simile amongst Black Africans where the memories of slavery and colonialism are still alive. I do get the idea of freedom – being able to choose your own working hours blah blah, but the arguments put forward are on another level. The notion that you might be employed, earn a living wage and take home a regular, stable income to look after your family is just an illusion. It is therefore no surprise that anything other than self-employment is looked at with disdain. Our young Tanzanians have hit the nail on the head.

But this begs another question. Can so many young people successfully pursue the dream of self-employment? I guess that’s a question for another debate.