The Sierra Leone experience was one of pressure and discovery. We went there primarily to observe the election, but also explore other opportunities for Carter Center programming. Expectations were very high as those who won the internship were considered to be “smart” people. Indeed, I was in the company of some very competent and accomplished young people and had to really up my game. Ambitious and smart young people at American workplaces are fiercely competitive, even when pursuing the same objectives. To remain relevant at Carter Center, I had to work hard and also learn both global and office politics. Our Sierra Leone project leader was a cheerful, sharp and very committed Harvard-trained Human Rights lawyer, Ashley Barr, who was a very helpful and a good mentor to me. It was indeed an awesome experience. I travelled around and saw a bit of the Sierra Leone countryside, and had to learn a lot about Liberia, Guinea and Ivory Coast as all these countries, together with Sierra Leone, form an interlinked conflict ecosystem. As an old refugee camp staff, my pull in Sierra Leone was in the internally displaced people (IDPs) camps in the countryside and around Freetown. The common – and very brutal – feature of the Sierra Leone war was the chopping-off of hands of innocent people by RUF rebels. I will never forget an occasion where I had a chat with a group of energetic young people in one of the IDP camps in Freetown. I chose to put on spot this beautiful young girl who had both her hands cut off right at the elbows. I asked her, rather dumbly in retrospect, what the most challenging part of her situation was. She smiled and threw back the question to me: “What do you think?” She went on to answer, rather bravely particularly with the presence of boys in the group, something along the lines that “each end of the month is traumatic, as for a couple of times a day for the entire week, I have to ask someone to help change my female sanitary pads”. At that point I was lost for words, but then I had a sense of satisfaction that the career I had chosen - to study peace and conflict so as to help end war and violence - was the right one. I ended my Carter Center gig on a high note - meeting with President Carter and his wife, Rosalynn Carter. We took a picture, which President Carter graciously autographed a few days later and it was the first ever picture that I framed. Until today, it sits atop my bookshelf.
Before I moved to Atlanta and subsequently to Sierra Leone, I had met my future wife at my university campus. She was living in Atlanta at the time, and was visiting her sister and her sister’s boyfriend (whom I both knew) in Minneapolis. They came along with their mother (who was visiting from Tanzania) and a kid brother who was touring campuses in search of a college of choice. They called me up one rainy afternoon seeking to visit St. John’s. I was very delighted to welcome them. I gave them a campus tour, and I was a very eager recruiter - but my focus was really on “The Sister from Atlanta”. They visited my dorm, and I had coincidentally cleaned my room spotless and had adopted a small pot plant. I thought I had sufficiently charmed “The Sister” but I wanted to do more. So, I held them until after 4pm to leave campus. For decades, 4pm has been a sacred hour at St. John’s University and monastery. That is when the famous and very nutritious “Johnnie bread” comes out of the oven. For us at St. John’s community, the Johnnie bread is an institution. Its Bavarian recipe and baking method have remained the same for over a century. I thought I should impress the girl with Johnnie bread. So, at 4pm I did indeed hand over to her the warm bread. Although I had emphasized that the bread was special, I later came to learn that it was just taken to be some strange bread (and indeed for the uninitiated, its shape, colour and size may look awkward). Anyway, we started communicating. I chose to apply for the Carter Center assistanceship, not just for its prestige, but because she lived in Atlanta where the Carter Center is headquartered. Long story short: The bread did not work the first time, but I eventually succeed. We courted, I came home after grad school and she followed shortly thereafter. We got married and we live happily with two beautiful children.
After the Carter Center, I decided to go for graduate school. I applied into two graduate programs: University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace for MA in Peace Studies; and George Mason University’s Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution for MSc in Conflict Analysis and Resolution. I was accepted into both and it was a tough choice but I decided to go to ICAR at George Mason University. But there was one small problem. I did not know how to pay for it. I had applied for scholarships here and there but I had not been successful as I was a bit late (as I was also late in deciding to go to Grad school). So, I reported to school with no school fees. The beauty of the American system (well, at least the George Mason University system) is that you can register for classes upon advise from faculty advisor, you can get your library card, your meal card without having to pay cash right there – they create an account for you and they bill you later. I had some money for rent in subsidized off-campus housing and for textbooks. So, I started attending classes while hustling to look for tuition fee and other billed items. I wrote to everybody: Oprah Winfrey, Salim Ahmed Salim, Koffi Annan, Bill Gates, President Benjamin Mkapa and many others seeking help. My attitude was that the worst thing they will do with my letters is to say No. In my letters, I packaged my transcripts and every document with good things written about me. After a fourth week in class, Student Accounts at GMU ordered that I be removed from classes and my account was frozen and the cards were disabled. But my professors who at that point had taken liking of me had difficulties kicking me out of class, so they would just say, “January, please see Student Accounts after class”. Guess what? On fifth week, I got a response from one of the multitude of letters I wrote. President Mkapa responded. My school fees will be paid for one year the letter said. And I should provide the Bank account number. Soon, with my cheque in hand, and after one hour of moving from one campus office to another, and making the case for my situation, I was reinstated. Despite the challenges, I did very well during my first year, in a very difficult program where Professors are top-notch: Kevin Avruch, Chris Mitchell, Dennis Sandole, Sara Cobb, Terrence Lyons. I got a Research Assistant job on campus which, during the second year, paid for a huge chunk of my fees. I also won a Brenda Rubenstein Scholarship for best second year student. I even published a paper in an academic journal with my two professors. I learnt that persistence pays.
George Mason University is in Fairfax, Virginia which is part of DC Metro area. The university was part of the consortium with some leading Universities in the area: Georgetown, John Hopkins, George Washington, and others, where you could take classes as well. I took advantage of that, and eventually delved into the Washington DC policy and intellectual community – attending talks, workshops and seminars, and discussions at leading DC think tanks. I enjoyed that world. It was a great time for networking and for maturity. You see familiar faces, for instance at JHU SAIS monthly talk on African issues. You are on important email circulation lists. And eventually you feel responsible and confident. And when that happens everything is possible.
For my second year internship, I chose to come back home to work in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I was assigned at the Department of Africa and Middle East (back then one department). I worked under Ambassador Mangachi, back then the Director. I enjoyed the assignment I was given. It entailed travelling to Burundi, Congo, Rwanda and Uganda to meet all sorts of people – with consequence to Tanzania foreign policy. I learned a great deal about regional politics and power dynamics. I produced what was regarded as a useful report for consideration. Although I had always aspired to work in diplomacy, after my internship experience, I could not see myself working for government because of what I concluded as its rigid structure and culture that prized procedure above everything else. It encourages you not to make anyone uncomfortable and to abide to status quo. It requires bravery to be a maverick and retain free-thinking as a junior level civil servant.
With all those beliefs, after graduation, still, I was hired by government, and could not refuse. The principals believed that my expertise could be of use given that Tanzania was deeply involved in mediating peace particularly in Burundi. And the nature of my rescue scholarship was with the expectation that I would somehow serve the public. So, I came home and rejoined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The idea, before I came back home, was to join the Tanzania Mission at the United Nations in New York, but politics intervened, and I got back home and went to work at the Ministry headquarters.
At the Ministry, I was assigned at the same desk as during the internship – Africa and the Middle East. The new department Director, Ambassador Joram Biswaro, was an academic, really a non-traditional bureaucrat, who enjoyed a vigorous policy and intellectual debate that I always was keen to have, particularly during our departmental meetings every morning. I didn’t quite feel that I should be constrained by the civil service customs so I was outspoken in airing my views and a prolific writer of Memos and analyses on current affairs and matters relevant to the work of our department.
So, even when our Minister then, Hon. Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete, decided to run for President I was audacious enough to write him a paper on how he should organize his campaign. By then we had interacted because I was in the Ministry teams he was working with as he was leading the mediation process for Burundi. Although I enjoyed my work at Foreign Service working on peace processes, as I was doing something I went to school for, my heart was really in the bush – with the refugees and rebels. When the inevitable frustrations of working in the bureaucracy started to set in, I seriously contemplated leaving government service altogether to join the International Crisis Group, the outfit I admired the most for its work in our field, and where I had contacts. I also did phone interview with one American NGO to go to work as Program Officer in the Afghan refugee camp in Peshawar, Pakistan. But then, my future wife was about to follow me back to Tanzania and I felt the need to settle down and start a family.
On one fateful afternoon, I was asked to join the Minister in Arusha where he was attending the meeting of the East Africa (Community) Legislative Assembly. I was surprised because East Africa Community was not my desk (by then there was no Ministry of EAC Cooperation yet). So, we did the meetings at AICC and later in the evening, at his hotel, the Minister asked me to present to him my Campaign Memorandum that I wrote several weeks back and had forgotten about it. I somehow managed to wing it, but after I had presented it to him I left with the itchy feeling that I did not quite nail it – that it was not as impressive in clarity and depth as I had suggested it would be. Nevertheless, it must have been well received as in a few days later, I started working in the campaign behind the scenes putting together notes, briefings and coordinating a policy group that the candidate had put together. And further down the road, when formal campaigning started, I took a leave of absence from Foreign Service and became a full time campaign aide, participating in strategy design and execution. This was all over a sudden Bundesliga for me. I travelled to every corner of Tanzania – and learned quite a lot of local issues and challenges that the candidate had to address. There were only two aides - so I carried my own printer and laptop in a bag, functioning as a mobile office, and did all the briefings and talking notes for every constituency that the candidate visited. It was tedious but extremely rewarding. I absorbed a lot during a short period of time. I struck an intellectual partnership with the candidate through our daily end of the day meetings we used to do to assess the day and plan the day ahead.
I felt blessed to know my country in such breadth and depth, and to know key political and community personalities in all corners of the country. As you travel this vast country, you cannot fail to appreciate the sheer magnitude of the development challenge for Tanzania. But again you cannot miss the hopes for a better future that people carry with them as they tend to their farms, livestock, or market stalls, or as they tight their belts and save to the last shilling to get their children to school, or as they walk miles and miles carrying ailing kin in search of health service.
The campaign itself was one of hope. The theme was Continuity and Change - and doing things with “New Vigor, New Zeal and New Speed” to bring “Better Life to all Tanzanians”. The candidate was fresh, and articulate. The message was clear. And the final tally was a resounding 80 percent victory for our candidate. The President was sworn in, and less than a month later I was appointed one of his aides, dealing with speechwriting. My formal title was Personal Assistant to the President – Special Duties (PAP-SD). I was the youngest back then of all the aides. The position, in government civil service ranks, was quite senior. It was a high pressure, long hours, and emotionally draining post. Working at the State House is like living in a glass bowl – everyone peeking from the outside trying to figure out how you got there, how much influence you have on the President etc. You can bet that your phones are being tapped, your emails are intercepted and you are a subject of reports on your whereabouts, dealings, remarks and relationships. I survived because of the trust and confidence of the President himself – and the commitment I put into my work, as my work spoke for itself as speeches were a daily occasion.
The magnitude of the office and responsibilities required me to remind myself to remain humble everyday. As you travel with the President; as you have access to him at all times; as you can call any office and get all the information you need; and as you are driven to and from the office; and have people serving you tea and food at the office, if one is not careful, the arrogance of the office may get to your head. If you are not careful, you may regard anyone who is calling you as having a problem or a favour to ask. I forbade my secretary at State House (Mrs. Aziza Bukuku) to call me “Boss” (as is supposedly customary) as I thought it sounded awkward and demeaning to her. She insisted, and later we made it a joke.
The five years at State House were quite a journey. Presidential aides attend cabinet meetings as observers. In fact, we are sworn in during the very first cabinet meeting we attend. I recall the nervousness I had when all the Ministers were seated and looking as the President presided over my oath before proceeding with the cabinet meeting. It is a very special feeling and indeed an honour. As I attended the cabinet meetings, and communicated with people throughout the government, as I travelled with the President in almost all the regions (again) and overseas, I learnt a lot about how government is run, the nuances of high-level diplomacy, dilemmas and choices in policymaking, the difficulties in executing big government programs, and why progress can be difficult in some areas. More importantly, the office gives you the confidence to interact with the wider community with authority of knowledge and experience. You are taken seriously and you are respected. You are listened to, and therefore rest, to impress or to disappoint, is up to you. The only problem is that, once you disappoint you let down the President because it reflects on his ability to choose the right people. I made a lot of acquaintances in the diplomatic community and political circles, and friendships were forged later on beyond work relations.
As a presidential aide, I was also responsible for sitting in and taking notes when the President meets with dignitaries. As a result, I had the fortune of meeting and listening to some of the great personalities in global politics and business having conversation with my boss. I met, shook hands and sat in meetings with George W. Bush in the White House in Washington DC (after a meeting with my boss at the Oval Office, he hosted lunch for 8 members of our delegation at the White House in August 2008. I remember vividly this rainy day in the White House because it was the day when John McCain announced Sarah Palin as his running mate (and all TV sets in White House lobbies were tuned to Fox News, and the press was not allowed to ask questions after the meeting because President Bush didn’t want to answer questions about Palin mainly because he did not even know her. He was charming throughout lunch, and afterwards, he gave us a tour of the White House); Muammar Gaddafi (met my boss on AU issues several times, and every time there was a surprise – sometimes I would skip notes just amazed by his stories and theories); Shinzo Abe (a pleasant Japanese Prime Minister); Robert Mugabe; Morgan Tsvangirai; Tendai Biti (a sharp guy); Bill Gates (came to the President’s hotel in New York City to talk about his Foundation’s work); Mwai Kibaki; Yoweri Museveni; Paul Kagame (in New York also, came to talk about the Isaka-Kigali railway with people bearing a big map); Uhuru Kenyatta (in Dar es Salaam, as leader of PNU delegation during post-election violence in Kenya); Bill Clinton (a couple of times, last time at Kirchner Museum in Davos, Switzerland in January, 2010; I consider some of his aides my friends); Raila Odinga (this one I met without the President, I had breakfast with him at his house on Christmas of 2007, two days before the election); King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia (we had the honour to have dinner at his palace in Riyadh, a magnificent place); Romano Prodi (a very intelligent chap); Jacob Zuma; Jeffrey Sachs; Bono, the rockstar (in New York, another intelligent chap); Gordon Brown; Ban Ki-Moon (at the 38th floor of UN HQ, a very pleasant man); Inacio Lula Da Silva (in New York, at UNGA Hall meeting booth, a cheery and confident leader); Thabo Mbeki (a mentor and friend - emailing). In his very first visit to the United States in 2006, the President was invited for lunch at the Senate Dining Room by five Senators (Dick Durbin, Russ Feingold, Barack Obama, Richard Lugar and Thad Cochran, who hosted the lunch). The President was asked to bring two people for lunch. He brought me (as a note taker) and Hon. John Cheyo (MP for Bariadi, who was part of our delegation). Barack Obama, as the most junior Senator then met us at the steps outside and ushered us to the dining room. One interesting thing about the lunch meeting was that Obama was mostly quiet, just listening. And whenever he spoke, he asked questions. Feingold mostly talked about Zanzibar. Lugar asked about Chinese influence in Africa. The list is really long and impressive. I also met and interacted with a number of diplomats and business leaders in World Economic Forum meetings and other conferences and here in Dar es Salaam.
Now, these details would seem irrelevant and sort of bragging, but for me they add to the sum of what I know about the world, and therefore who I am. It is part of my story. At the end of the day, what makes a person is the sum of his values and beliefs and life experiences. When I was a kid in the village, on weekends when I did not go to school, my grandmother would leave me to attend the pub for patrons who wanted to have an early start. The regular customers on those days were former hardcore criminals who were in a rehabilitation program at a halfway prison camp in Kitengule/Mwisa village near our village, who were allowed to leave camp on weekends. So, there will be me, 9 or 10 years old, and some criminals – me serving them alcohol and them telling me stories. I would be fascinated by the stories of their exploits. Yet, this was a very dangerous exposure for a young child. But I made it. I made it to be able to share a lunch table with George W. Bush at the White House as he recounted his recent trip to the Olympics in China; as he talked about malaria in Africa; as he did a small talk with his fellow President. Sometimes, in these meetings, I would reflect on where I had come from and I get swept by the vastness of the journey I have taken. I conclude that nothing can pull me down, and that anything more than what I have now, and where I have reached, is simply a blessing and not a necessity to complete me.
At State House, I learnt a great deal beyond my field of study. I can confidently say that I self-taught graduate level Development Economics as I delved into textbooks I bought through Amazon.com and other publications on topical issues and journals that I subscribed. I continued to read about politics and philosophy, my first love. In travelling overseas, I used every occasion to learn about the history and the politics of places we visited. When we visited Cairo, Rome, Istanbul, and Jordan I stole some time to visit the remarkable monuments of three great monotheist religions – Islam, Judaism and Christianity - and learnt about the rise and fall of two great empires – Roman and Ottoman. In Rome I visited the Colosseum, The Panthenon, The Roman Forum, and learnt about statecraft. In Cairo, I took a crash course on Egyptology.
As a result of all this, I left State House enriched with deep knowledge on many issues and countless lifelong lessons. I will always be grateful to the President for this exposure and for giving me a front seat view to history.
Any story has to be wound up. I end with a new beginning - my new career in elective politics. After five years as Assistant to the President, and with all the experiences I already mentioned, I thought it was time that I moved on, and part with the comfort and prestige of working at the State House. I would step out of the shadow and seek direct mandate from the people of Bumbuli, my ancestral land, so that I can represent and speak for them in the Parliament - and also work with them to advance the development of our region. The campaign for my election was inspirational to me, as throngs of people – young and old, men and women – trusted my word that I will serve them diligently and with all my abilities. I go on with tremendous hope and optimism – and indeed bolstered by the trust and confidence that my people have reposed in me. We are going to attempt some bold ideas for the development of Bumbuli as nothing less is required. And perhaps we can write a new history.
This is my story. I left a lot of detail because this is not an autobiography and more – particularly about my own campaign and five years at State House – is yet to be written. The story is a portrait of events and experiences that have made me who I am today. Everyone has their own story and I know that others may have more captivating stories than this one. In general, I have been successful – in raising a good family, with two beautiful children but also getting all this exposure and experience. But, I have been lucky that I was spotted and given an opportunity to prove that I am indeed worthy of big responsibilities. Other young people, perhaps more competent than I am, have not been spotted yet. I have therefore made a point of advancing young talented people in positions of public service. I won’t mention names but I am proud that there are more opportunities for young people now to serve their country and society.
I will finish by admitting that my last name has helped me because of the ready-made network of willing helpers. But also it has placed undue burden and responsibilities, including inheriting enemies who we haven’t even crossed paths. I also had to work twice as hard to prove that I am my own person, and my successes are borne out of my own efforts. I saw my family fortunes go up and go very down – one of the lowest points was when both my parents were unemployed and we lived with relatives in Korogwe while father tried-out timber business. It is rare to get an opportunity to tell my story which indicates a humble background – internal displacement, growing up with jiggers and stomach worms, raised under a leaking roof. I grew up with value of fierce independence, concern for others and being true to one’s self. I hope to bring these values into my political career.