Academic journal article African Studies Quarterly

African Imaginations of Moral Economy: Notes on Indigenous Economic Concepts and Practices in Tanzania

Academic journal article African Studies Quarterly

African Imaginations of Moral Economy: Notes on Indigenous Economic Concepts and Practices in Tanzania

Article excerpt

Abstract: In response to economic influences emanating from abroad, African people have always created unique socioeconomic relationships and ideas. Examining four well-known Swahili words, utani, chama, ujamaa, and ujanja, this paper offers some tentative and exploratory comments on 'indigenous' moral-economic concepts in Tanzania. These terms convey not only notions about social relations but also relations, which one could consider economic, along with unique cultural connotations. Various things Westerners consider separate are impossible to disentangle in these concepts; joking and mutual aid, dance and politics, wit and cunning, all related to people's subsistence economy. These phenomena cannot easily be put into pre-arranged Western categories nor should they be disregarded from a modernist perspective, because these concepts and practices reflect a rich tradition of self-help solutions in Africa, thereby serving as a source of imagination for alternative visions of economic development.

... we start from a full acceptance of our African-ness and a belief that in our own past there is very much which is useful for our future. (Julius K. Nyerere "The Purpose is Man")

L'imagination au pouvoir! ("Power to Imagination!") (A popular slogan coined in 'May 1968' uprising in France)


On any estimate, sub-Saharan Africa is the poorest region on the planet. After a fruitless attempt of each nation to gain economic independence, there is a growing sense that free-market prescription is the only solution to get out of poverty, however difficult it may be. At present, however, deregulation of national economies in general has resulted in appallingly uneven distribution of wealth, both in the region and worldwide. At the same time, given the notorious inefficiency of governments, Africans cannot safely rely on the protection of the state against rampant market forces. The only remaining option for the majority of people is to take refuge in the existing communal ties.

That is why we are concerned with the economy of communities, i.e. economy based on moral considerations or 'moral economy' in Africa. Moral economy is not the 'traditional' or 'indigenous' norm per se, as often alleged by critics of the concept. Rather, this is the norm created in response to external forces, such as harsh climate, clamorous government, and most specifically, capitalist economy. We have to note, at the same time, that it does not spring up in a vacuum, but takes shape as collective imagination inspired by the existing communal values, as demonstrated by the works of two eminent proponents of the moral economy concept, E. P. Thompson and James Scott. Both described how the populace behaved resolutely but sensibly to defend inalienable rights of subsistence amidst the upheavals brought about by the capitalist economy. [1]

As Karl Polanyi convincingly argued in his classic work, a large part of the significant social changes that occurred since the 18th century can be understood in the context of a countermove of society against the stormy forces of a self-regulating market. [2] Africa is no exception. The capitalist economy, which expanded rapidly since the early 19th century, did not leave even the Africa's deep interior immune from it. To take today's Tanzania as an example, its history may be grasped from the viewpoint of constant pressure from world capitalism; from slave and ivory trade in the 19th century, through the colonially imposed modern economic system and ensuing socialist backlash, to the present-day economic liberalization. Along the way, people have become increasingly involved in commercial activities.

Looking at the situation from the increasing cash or wage nexus, however, gives us only half of the picture. In each stage of these economic changes, people in Tanzania devised a variety of unique forms of economic relations and concepts, which grew alongside the increasingly powerful market economy. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.