On August 26 Tanzany embarked on a national census. It’s an ambitious and earnest exercise. And counting people is always a tricky political process – just look at the politics around the US census, a considerably more mature democracy.
Here, on the other hand, the process reminds me of nothing so much as the old story about blind men feeling different parts of an elephant. Each one has a different part of the elephant and is trying to figure out what it is.
One of the strangest things to me, is that Tanzanian officials appear to set great importance on completing the census in one week. It seems to me that goal would be ambitious for a society as organized as … say, Singapore. The US, which has been conducting censuses since 1970, gives itself at least two months.
- more than 42 million people,
- no organized identity registry,
- around 90% of it’s population scattered across a large country with a lot of unpaved roads, and
- a number of Islamic groups that do not want to participate..
I just don’t understand why anyone suggested a week as an achievable target. Heck, that’s not a “stretch goal.” It’s more of a James Cameron sci-fi fantasy. Unless … you don’t think … perhaps they didn’t want to pay census counters for more time perhaps? Nah, that couldn’t be it.
Well, I for one am shocked (shocked!) that the census bureau extended the deadline a week later. They claimed that 95% of people had been counted – but I think that’s highly unlikely. While I did get a visit from a census worker, the three people who work for us have not yet been counted despite living in relatively developed Dar es Salaam. So take your pick – somewhere between 25% and 95% of the country has been counted. I’ll take the under on 50%. Not that we’ll ever know for sure.
The woman who took my census details was young, polite, and organized. She was also diligent – she had to come to our house several times before she caught me at home. Her English was only slightly better than my Swahili so I would not be surprised if there are data collection discrepancies on my form.
Most of the questions were more or less what I expected – age, gender, education level of people living in the household. Then there were a few that make sense in the Tanzania context, but are odd for an outsider:
- Are you an albino?
- What crops does the household grow?
- How many goats, cattle or sheep were available on the census night (August 26)?
- Is any member of the household engaged in fish farming?
Although I may not have been the easiest interview for my census taker, I’m far from the most difficult.
Sometimes the census has to offer some groups “treat” for participating in the census. This has generated some problems, my favorite of which was the Hadzabe bush tribe. The Hadzabe hunt baboons as their preferred meat. The Hadzabe demanded baboon meat and “gongo,” a locally brewed alcohol, as their census “treat”.
The gongo wasn’t a problem, but census officials refused to hunt monkeys because of the protected status. I have to back them up on this one. We actually visited the Hadzabe in April and saw what they do to the baboons with our own eyes. Remember the disgusting kids song that started: “Great big globs of greasy, grimy, gopher guts/ mutilated monkey meat, chopped up parakeet.”? Yeah, it’s like that.
Anyway, after some tense negotiations, the census officials countered with an offer of zebra. The Hadzabe accepted, 15 zebra were shot and roasted, and the census rolled on.
Also amusing, but more depressing, has been the griping from local officials about their census “treats.” It’s quite common in Tanzany for government officials to demand “sitting fees” and per diems. In essence these are payments to get the government officials to do their jobs. And the Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and donor projects get hit up for them all the time by all levels of government. Tanzania is not unique in this regard, but many local officials have made the practice into an art form.
And it seems like in this case, the higher ups siphoned off much of the per diem money. For example, The Citizen reports on problems conducting the census in the Serengeti District:
“These grassroots leaders were supposed to attend the seminars instead of us councilors,” [Ward councillor in Mugumu township Marwa Ryoba] admitted, observing that the ongoing registration of people for identity cards also was doomed to fail for adhering to the same botched systems.
Councilors, who receive monthly salaries, were paid sitting allowances during the seminars while the volunteering sub-village and neighbourhood leaders have not received a penny.
As a result, some of the key players in the implementation of the national census have reportedly vowed to give the clerks the cold shoulder.”
– The Citizen, “Census is mired in record challenges, Kikwete admits”, August 29, 2012.
The local bureaucracy is also not particularly enterprising. For instance, in the Temeke Municipality clerks were scratching their heads as to how they could proceed with the census as the national census agency had not provided pens or pencils. C’mon people – go down to a local duka and spend 5,000 Schillings on a box of pencils. You can do this!
Not surprisingly, the Census has become a convenient scape-goat for bad behavior. For example, a couple of weeks ago the government wanted to stop a protest by the opposition Chadema party in Morogoro. The Morogoro police chief denied the permit for the protest on the grounds that it was likely to “disrupt the on-going census.” (The protesters decided to go ahead and tragically one person was killed when the police broke up the demonstration).
Even so, I’m glad that that Tanzany is surveying itself. I think it has the potential to help the country make more informed decisions. Hopefully someone, somewhere will be able to pull it all together.
Let’s just hope that they will work for zebra.