Good news from Africa may seem a rarity, but some did come our way when two visitors from Tanzania visited New York in September. One was the vice chancellor of St. Augustine University near Mwanza, on the shores of Lake Victoria—the Rev. Deogratias Rweyongeza, who handles the day-to-day running of this new university. The other was his co-worker, Theodore Walters, S.J., deputy vice chancellor for academic affairs. I spoke with them at America House during a pause in their fundraising efforts. They were seeking scholarship aid for their students, many of whom come from poor families.
Owned by the bishops of Tanzania, the university began only in 1998, on the foundations of a training institute established over four decades ago by the Missionaries of Africa (White Fathers). It already has over 400 students working toward degrees in business administration and mass communication, as well as certificates in other areas. It also boasts a radio station operated by the students as part of their training in journalism and broadcasting. As Father Rweyongeza pointed out, in a country where relatively few have access to television or newspapers, virtually everyone has a radio—a circumstance that allows the university to extend its educational services far beyond its campus.
Tanzania has been fortunate in remaining free of the conflicts that have wracked other African nations. Happily, too, although over 100 ethnic groups exist within its borders, tribalism has posed no serious problems because of a prevailing sense of unity. This unity, Father Rweyongeza and Father Walters said, reflects to a large extent the efforts of Julius Nyerere, whom many regard as the father of the nation. As president from 1962 to 1985, the late Mr. Nyerere actively promoted both the sense of “familyhood” and the use of Kiswahili, which has since became the country’s common language. Mr. Nyerere also emphasized education. “He wanted everyone to have at least a primary education,” Father Walters said, and during his presidency up to 85 percent of the population achieved that goal.
Since then, however, the number of those receiving primary education has dropped as the country has grown poorer. Tanzania’s economy is based primarily on agriculture, and the price of coffee and cotton—two of Tanzania’s main exports—has fallen on the world market. As both visitors noted, economic changes like these are beyond the control of the people. The external debt has made matters worse. Until recently, Tanzania was devoting 40 percent of its annual income just to servicing the debt, without paying off any of the principal. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have reduced the debt significantly, they said, but the annual budget for education, as well as for health and other social services, has improved only slightly. Until a few years ago education and health care were free. The structural adjustment program imposed by the two organizations, though, requires that the people share in the costs of both. Not all can do so. Father Walters mentioned that people often ask for financial help to buy needed medicines.
Deepening the poverty still further has been H.I.V.-AIDS, which has struck with devastating impact. Father Rweyongeza said that on visits to his own village, he has seen houses closed “because the father, the mother and the children were all dead.” Orphans who survive tend to be cared for by already overburdened grandparents. “AIDS is destroying the ranks of those you’d look to for the development of the country,” Father Walters said—teachers, nurses and people in other professions. Taboos and reluctance to acknowledge AIDS as a pervasive problem have made matters worse. Many resort to euphemisms like “passed away after a long illness” when a loved one or colleague dies, Father Rweyongeza observed.
In the face of such grave problems, new endeavors like St. Augustine University represent hope for an as-yet distant future of economic stability in a nation finally free of AIDS.