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Ijele: Art eJournal of the African World (2002)

ISSN: 1525-447X


Fadhili Mshana

Staffs come in different materials and forms and most examples in Africa are made of wood and are most commonly used for walking, though some staffs serve as ritual items and as symbols of authority. For example, chiefs, diviners, and linguists own staffs connected with their obligations. This is not to say that such types of staffs are used on a daily basis. Rather, these items are employed during special events and for performing specific tasks. These include chiefs who display them to legitimize their title, and to represent their realm and power. Healers and diviners also utilize staffs in their activities, as do linguists, orators, and leaders of associations (fig.1). To cite an example, in Ghana, major Ashanti chiefs have an okyeame or public spokesman who holds his staff as he speaks to underscore his authority and message.
While the woodcarver was the main creator of staffs, the chief or title-holder could ask other artisans like a smith to work with the carver. Indeed, a combined effort perhaps depended on the materials that a staff demanded. If, for instance, metal such as iron and copper was needed, then specialists in this field of metallurgy were called upon to contribute their expertise. In another example, a bead-worker may be involved together with a woodcarver in the creation process if a staff was to be decorated with beads. Considering the crucial functions of staffs, it would seem that after the creation process is completed, other actions may be taken upon the objects. For example, a practitioner would be given the task of manipulating a staff with view to consecrate it, thereafter the object is given to the title person.
In this essay, I examine Zaramo’s kome, mganga’s staff, and kifimbo (though it is not exclusively a Zaramo object) in order to explore the ways these staffs have been used in dress codes and as prestige symbols to construct political authority (fig.2). I might add that for the most part in this discussion, kifimbo features in the national political context of Tanzania. So, I analyze the three types of staffs within the contexts of changing cultural traditions, social statuses, and especially political authority and power. I shall demonstrate that individuals who own staffs continually recreate, reposition, and manipulate the staff to suit their needs. Although the focus here is on staffs used in political institutions, curing rituals, and ceremonial contexts, I also make a general reference to staffs that lie outside of these areas of social life. Since these objects embody an element of continuity, I make a parallel discussion between traditional forms and contemporary transformations. This bridges the temporal gap between old and new and allows us to see patterns of continuity and patterns of difference.

Because of the introduction and dissemination of new ideas and technologies, and the resultant changes that many societies in Tanzania have undergone, the staff ‘s use has declined overall. When it is employed, however, it is with changed meaning. The variety of changes that staffs have undergone range from materials for constructing staffs, shapes of staffs, decorations and symbols, and uses, to the institutions in which staffs are found. As we examine the three types of staffs: kome, mganga’s staff, and kifimbo, we might benefit by rethinking the assumption that: “All societies that are in contact with each other eventually exchange materials, items, and ideas. If two societies are in long-term contact, and are at greatly different economic and technological levels, great modifications are introduced into the material culture of the less-developed societies.”1 In the course of the discussion, I will highlight Zaramo and Tanzanian responses to these staffs as they relate to socio-cultural factors of change and re-socializing processes. For our present purpose, however, I explain those responses connected with European modes and cultural values, politics of nationhood, modernization, dressing codes, not least ethnic and cultural identity.
Dress Codes and Prestige Staffs

It was a general practice among men of many ethnic groups in Tanzania to carry a walking staff as an important accessory--a part of dressing, when going on a trip or when attending a public event, since traditionally walking staffs were objects of prestige. Walking staffs would also act as means of support, especially for old men and women. Obviously some of these walking sticks could be used as weapons when a quarrel broke out. They have also been means to deter animals. But because of changes related to dressing patterns, and changes upon traditional institutions in which staffs were usually utilized, the custom of carrying walking sticks has now declined. The practice now is to dress without carrying a walking staff. For example, one does not often come across Tanzanians in the urban areas carrying staffs. However, even as this custom of using walking sticks as prestige symbols is declining, vifimbo (pl.) staffs, which also act as prestige symbols, are common features among officers of the Tanzanian armed forces. The kifimbo has taken the place of walking sticks, not in the everyday dress of the common man, but in the military, the political leader’s strong arm. Since the kifimbo is not used for walking support, but as a symbol of prestige and authority, its shape or design differs from the walking stick’s. In his short paper on staffs of office of Central and Eastern Africa, Leo Polfliet appears to refer to these objects as kifimbo.2 However, I understand kifimbo as a small stick--a literal translation since fimbo means stick in Kiswahili. The prefix, ki denotes size, quality, and quantity. In this case, small, refers to size.

Fimbo/gongo/mkongojo also mean staff. The version of kifimbo that concerns us here is a rather small and very short staff (figs.2-3) usually held by hand or clasped under the armpit (fig.9). It is in this sense that kifimbo is also referred to as a “hand stick.” In terms of size, it is obvious that this small staff differs from say, the chief’s staff mkomolo (fig.1), or those walking ones held by then Presidents Nyerere of Tanzania and Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya (fig.4). The continued (and changed) use of staffs (kifimbo) in the military shows how these objects are utilized with changed meaning: as a part of dress, and as symbols of authority and leadership.

I would argue that traditional cultural forms in which a variety of staffs were utilized were fertile ground for the use of staffs in other aspects of society. In other words, the practice of carrying staffs spread beyond the confines of ritual and political/administrative contexts. This can be seen in the trend in which people (who are not connected with these contexts) carry prestige enhancing, embellished walking sticks as well as objects such as fly-whisks. For instance, when the Zaramo were still under the rule of chiefs, they produced staffs called kome la pazi--carving of chief/headman. Examples of such elaborate sticks appear to have been used beyond the institutions of Zaramo local leaders given that it was considered a part of the “dignity” of a man to carry a big, nicely carved stick.3 Kome in their old form have disappeared because the headman institutions linked to them are no longer in place, or they have been replaced. I refer here to the executive position of chief among the Zaramo. Chiefs were relieved of their political powers throughout Tanzania in 1963.

The political turmoil in Tanzania after independence affected the meaning of staffs. Although staffs continued to be used, their meaning was transformed since the contexts where they were found changed. There was a change in the use of staffs and kome after the cessation of local political leaderships--a move that then ruling party, Tanganyika African National Union (TANU) and government took to consolidate the state, to forge national unity, and strive to build a national culture. To provide a short historical perspective of the position of chiefs under colonial rule, it is worthwhile mentioning that colonial governments utilized local leadership structures in their administrations. As an example, the Germans generally accommodated existing chiefs as their agents in government service. In cases where such local leaders were not available, however, the Germans appointed akidas, who came from the coast, whose duties were to try cases and collect taxes.4 For their part, the British adapted Indirect Rule as the official policy of Tanganyika from 1925 until after World War II; that is, ruling indirectly through a local authority structure first experimented with in Nigeria.5 In Uzaramo, the British had a District Officer with assistants; however, 132 village headmen, wandewa, each with a local court--baraza--were responsible for legal proceedings and local civil affairs.6 When these local political leadership positions were functioning staffs and kome flourished. After independence the post of chief as an executive was annulled throughout the country and local authorities were integrated in local governments. In 1964, for instance, TANU introduced an organization of ten-house leader--balozi/mjumbe wa nyumba kumi--in both the rural and urban areas, and whose roles were political and administrative.7 It is noteworthy that Tanzania has witnessed much restructuring of political organization over the decades especially, in the post 1967 period. Thus, the political reorganization affected use or meaning of staffs and kome.

The continued use of staffs resembling Zaramo kome is testimony that traditional forms are perpetuated, or modified and utilized in contemporary situations. In this connection, given that contemporary designs of walking staffs differ from traditional forms of kome, understanding the form and symbolism of kome allows us to gauge meaningful change on the staffs. Reckling, in his 1942 work describes kome as often carved from blackwood or mpingo, taller than a man, and embellished with human and animal figures.8 Whereas in the past the mwana hiti (a wooden figurine given to a Zaramo girl in initiation into adulthood) image may have served as the top of Zaramo staffs, today one is likely to see a naturalistic representation of a human figure (fig.13).

9 Kome were status symbols associated with the office of a chief. Furthermore, kome served as prestige walking sticks. It appears that some of these kome were the property of Zaramo waganga.10 It is difficult to piece together the form and symbolism of these kome. Presumably, since staffs of title-holders serve important functions connected with the holders, some of these objects carry symbols whose significance may not be apparent to everyone. And perhaps these aspects varied in correspondence with the title-holder to whom a staff belonged. Felix describes briefly the chief’s staff as follows: “Chiefs used to have rare staffs that depicted two mwana hiti . . . The one on the top was definitely female and the one that could be male was at the midpoint of the shaft.”11 I disagree here with Felix’s reading of the male and female mwana hiti. Aside from the elaborate carving work on the staff, it is difficult to tell whether the two mwana hiti images are male and female representations. It appears that Felix’s interpretation is based on the characteristics of the image at the midpoint of the staff. This image has a protuberance that may represent a navel--it does not have depictions that in other mwana hiti we interpreted as breasts. In spite of these differences, it could be misleading to make a rash judgement that the figures stand for the two genders. What if the carver chose to exclude the other representations of organs commonly found in the mwana hiti image? In fact, even the “head”of the so-called male representation of mwana hiti found in this staff is unlike much of other representations of the head. We do not have interpretations for other carved sections of the staff which look like mortars or miniature stools. What is apparent to me is the rather plain section below the top of the shaft.

This seems to be the part where one would hold the staff. This assumption is supported by practical reasons. Given the length of the staff (116 centimeters), the ideal part for grasping or holding the stick would be the plain section below the top image (16 centimeters). Moreover, the top of the staff was by all counts a showcase, not a place to put the hands. Doing so would prevent the viewers from seeing the image since this was the focal point of the staff--the area onlookers would direct their attention to when the staff was held for its various purpose. Though much of the symbolism concerning this intricately sculpted staff seems to escape us today, at least we can appreciate the beauty of the object. This piece further exemplifies the imagination and the artistry of its Zaramo creators.

Like walking staffs, fly-whisks have become invested with political meaning. Traditionally, fly-whisks were usually used by courtiers and ritual and spiritual leaders, although some old folks utilize them to chase flies since they may sit at one spot for a long time. Thus, they are a part of dressing as well. Among African national leaders, Kenyatta, at least from the early 1960s until his passing in 1978, used to carry a fly-whisk even in the political arena. Among the Maasai, fly-whisks have been used by leaders as devices for blessing. A fly-whisk, once dipped in traditional beer, is waved over the group giving everyone a taste.12 Some of the leaders have waved a fly-whisk to show their agreement with a certain decision. Zaramo waganga (traditional healers) use these items in cleansing rituals. It becomes clear that walking staffs and fly-whisks have served as both dress codes and authority objects.

Other factors responsible for the decreased use of prestige walking staffs are increased urbanization, forms of acculturation, expansion of European forms of education, and improved transportation systems. These factors have contributed to increasing the pace that consequently altered and shaped much of Tanzanian societies. For example, initiation rites, healing and cleansing rituals, and traditional forms of leadership for the majority of Tanzanian peoples have entirely disappeared. These forms have for the most part been replaced by modern agencies like schools, religious institutions, the mass-media, modern medicine and ways of healing, as well as new systems of leadership. Needless to say, European ways of dressing and European accoutrements included walking sticks such as canes, which were borrowed or adapted and often modified by Tanzanians. Such notable imposition of European cultural values upon Tanzania society detrimentally affected staffs by rendering them less authentic and meaningful.
Mganga’s Ritual Staff of the Zaramo: Interpreting Traditionalism and Modernity

To a considerable degree, the Zaramo have meaningfully taken hold of a basic sense of their own form of reality by continually following specific social practices they have considered important to their way of life. A case in point is the continuation of social rituals in which several types of staffs can be utilized and interpretation of traditionalism and modernity made. In this connection, traditional designs of staffs and traditional social rituals have been adapted to modern uses. In Zaramo society, tradition and modern exist side-by-side in the social order. Thus, the rituals and staffs used therein are mila (tradition) even as they are practiced in a modern social context. In this way, they can be seen as modern practices that are acculturated and have become mila.

In Zaramo society, in addition to headmen, other ritual specialists who have used staffs in different ways include diviners, exorcists, witch hunters, and healers. It is not difficult to understand that some objects in the Zaramo staffs’ corpus have persisted because the ritual contexts in which they appear are still important to the Zaramo and thus continue to be followed. Carved staffs are still used in ritual contexts such as in the initiation ceremonies for Zaramo youths where a staff called mkomolo (fig.1) appears. A clan leader would hold this staff as a symbol of his title. The Zaramo mganga also utilizes mkomolo in a spirit possession rite called madogoli (the plural form of dogoli) which is the drum utilized during exorcism rites.13 Madogoli also refers to the actual exorcism rite, the healing ritual. The study on waganga in Dar es Salaam that L. Swantz conducted in the 1970s found that not only does the mganga still occupy a prominent position in a modern environment, she or he also preserves traditional Zaramo culture since the mganga acted as a bridge for the Zaramo “to adjust to the modern world.”14 Zaramo waganga have also used another heavier and shorter, elaborately carved version of staff which was stuck in the ground, where upon the patient could lean against it as a backrest during exorcism and healing rites. Some of these staffs of the waganga have wooden hooks (part of the staff) for suspending gourds containing medicine, as the Kwere example shows. I am not making the point here that because this type of staff has hooks, it is a multi-media object. In addition to their use in healing rituals, Zaramo staffs with hooks from which small gourds of traditional medicine can be hung, are implanted in the ground during initiation ceremonies (fig.5).

As Zaramo social rituals continue to be practiced in contemporary Zaramo society, staff design also reflects tradition and modernity. In other words, traditional staff design that incorporates the mwana hiti image as found in mganga’s staff, appears in healing rituals in the 1990s Zaramo society. A good example of this traditional staff design is the mkomolo staff that exhibits fine execution which is testimony to the great traditional artistry and craftsmanship of the Zaramo carvers. This exquisite piece is not only topped by a mwana hiti figure, but below this image is another elaborately carved section. This part of the staff is decorated with the “circle and dot” motif. The section below the beautifully embellished section of the shaft is plain. The mwana hiti image is repeated in Zaramo objects used in ritual, including musical instruments, thrones, fly-whisks, wooden grave sculptures, medicine gourds (fig.18), staffs, and posts. Thus, as the mwana hiti image proliferates and permeates these important objects, it is understood by the Zaramo to signify reproduction and continuation of the cycle of life; simply, that life goes on. As well, the image also fulfills the purpose of ornamentation on the objects which incorporate it. With respect to the “circle and dot” design, apart from decoration, its other significance among the Zaramo is unclear at this point. But this design can be examined in relation to the geometric designs comprised of rectangles, squares, and circles found on many objects belonging to people living on the East African coast.

The general impression of these geometric designs was that they were merely decorative devices deriving from coastal culture, and that coastal craftsmen applied them on objects used in Swahili and Islamic communities on the coast. In view of recent research, however, this theory, which traced the designs to Islamic craftsmen among coastal Swahili communities, has been challenged.15 For example, Castelli argues that among several Bantu peoples in Tanzania and Kenya, line symbols served a memorial function--such as a form of writing to communicate and symbolize the spiritual and secular position of lineage and association leaders.16 Additionally, the lines were used as design elements on all the objects belonging to these leaders. In any case, it seems conceivable that the designs may have crossed over from either of these cultures and were adapted to suit particular cultural situations, thus gaining new importance. This assumption bears some validity when we take account of the exchanges that have occurred in the areas of language, dressing, crafts, architecture and other crucial elements of social and cultural life between the Zaramo and the Swahili.

Though the “circle and dot” design utilized in Zaramo objects like staffs as well as the so-called “Swahili”designs such as the Zaramo fly-whisk’s handle, can be considered as traditional designs, they are also modern. Indeed, Zaramo Sculptor Salum Chuma’s intricately carved door at the Simba Grill of the Kilimanjaro Hotel in Dar es Salaam (fig.6) recalls chip-carved Islamic patterns principally patronized by Swahili artisans. I also observed that Zaramo carvers working essentially for the tourist art market at “Uzaramo Uchongaji Sanaa” cooperative in Dar es Salaam (fig.7) continue to apply these patterns as surface decorations on items like wooden treasure chests, which are associated with Swahili coastal culture. Again, this is a clear indication of exchanges and development of ideas and techniques that have occurred in cultures on or near the East African coast. At any rate, the foregoing shows not only trends in which traditional items and motifs of Zaramo social practices are interpreted into modernity, but the ways such cultural phenomena are also perpetuated as mila in contemporary Zaramo culture.

Despite the multitude of changes, the Zaramo have preserved the integrity of their way of life by following specific social practices crucial to their livelihood. The continuing use of mganga’s staff, and the ritual and ceremonial forms of which they are an integral part, evidently points to the significance they possess in Zaramo cultural and social life. The Zaramo have experienced an array of changes resulting from social, political, religious, and economic developments. Urbanization, Western education, Christianity, Islam, colonialism, post-independence government policies, and processes like ujamaa (African Socialism) and Villagization, have significantly contributed to altering Zaramo life. Though she did not include art objects in her analysis, M-L. Swantz argues that the Zaramo have shifted focus to protect their core since they are not in a position to close entrances and defend the boundaries of their society.17 Our integration of art objects (staffs) in the investigation of aspects of change in Zaramo cultural forms needs to be seen as an effective approach geared to expose these developments.
Kifimbo: Constructing Political Authority with Staffs

Vifimbo of the Zaramo are said to have been used by leaders as symbols of rank, though for the most part, ritualists utilized them to cast spells and cleanse people and houses.18 As can be seen from this Zaramo kifimbo, it is topped by a mwana hiti. Although examples of this style of staff, produced by people such as the Gogo of Central Tanzania, have figurative representation (fig.2), some lack such depictions. Instead, such a kifimbo may comprise of a plain shaft with a slightly bulbous top.
Other examples of a similar style that I have seen in Tanzania also serve as personal weapons. In such a style, the shaft has a dual purpose. It is the main part of the kifimbo as well as the sheath for the long slender iron blade like a stiletto, whose handle is the top of the staff. This means that the kifimbo is comprised of two main parts: a wooden shaft and a knife. Once the staff is assembled, the latter is hidden in its case. In the event of an attack, the owner/holder of the kifimbo would feign to strike with the staff, thus luring the assailant to hold the lower part of the shaft or case. This would trigger at least two responses: if the assailant holding this opposite lower end (the sheath) pulls the shaft towards him/her, or the owner of the staff also pulls the upper section of the weapon, the move would release the long knife out of the sheath. In this way, the assailant will be faced with a man holding a knife in an advantageous position for attack. This kifimbo-cum-knife may have “tell-tale” marks to indicate that it is not the ordinary type. For example, an iron ring/band is to be found just below the top of the staff. Its placement there could as well serve as a design element, but also to strengthen the top end of the wooden case. Vifimbo are carried by Tanzanian politicians, and just like walking staffs these small items can be found among wazee of Tanzania.

Carrying a kifimbo appears to have become a relatively popular trend instead of fimbo or bakora. The latter accessory item may now be seen held by wazee who use it for support when walking and may be a sign of their seniority, age-wise. In rural Tanzania, staffs may be carried in social and cultural events such as community meetings, weddings, or ceremonies involving traditional authorities. For example, the Maasai (who live in Tanzania and Kenya) have sections’ spokesmen for every age-set whose function is to preside over meetings and secular activities in the council of their age-mates. These spokesmen have a club (olkuma) of mpingo, or rhinoceros horn.20 In Maasai society, a club and a fly-whisk are emblems of leadership. Also in Tanzania, a kifimbo that is not a ritual item may be carried by wazee and not vijana (youths). One such mzee who was hardly seen in public without his kifimbo is former President of Tanzania, Julius Nyerere (figs.8, 9).

I use Nyerere here to illustrate the transformation involving the use of fimbo--staffs (fig.12) similar to kome of Zaramo chiefs--to kifimbo. One might also say, he transformed the use and meaning involving a kifimbo like the Zaramo’s that ritualists utilized to cast spells, to a Tanzanian staff that came to be used for building political authority. Furthermore, I contend that though Nyerere’s kifimbo has been an effective mechanism in enhancing his personal identity, the matter does not end there. More than this, his kifimbo has also served as a symbol of male elder identity, given the placement of this staff in the center-stage of the national political space that Nyerere occupied for a considerable number of years. Nyerere was the country’s leader for 24 years before his retirement as president in 1985, and almost 30 years before stepping down as Party leader. Thus, Nyerere’s kifimbo enables us understand the manner in which individuals tenaciously hold on to objects that accentuate their positions in social and political arenas.

Mwalimu Nyerere, as he is popularly known, used the long walking staffs at least since the 1950s up to the early 1960s before settling on kifimbo. I have pointed out that in Tanzania men would carry fimbo when attending important functions or when on a journey. Nyerere was not an exception in this regard. He carried a walking stick when holding TANU meetings in the 1950s.21 During this time Nyerere was in his thirties; therefore, carrying a walking stick was more in concert with his political eldership role than old age. Nyerere also carried a staff when he was Prime Minister and then President of Tanganyika and Tanzania respectively, as well as TANU and CCM party chairman. In the early years of independence, Nyerere appeared in public holding his fimbo.

Another fine example to this effect is Nyerere’s early official portrait (fig. 8). At the time, such a staff was one of the popular accessories for middle-aged men like Nyerere, and needless to say, for old men as well. Apart from its prestigious symbolic aspect, I would argue that it was also a means for Nyerere to assert his preference for traditional African cultural items, similar to contemporary African leaders. That is, Nyerere utilized traditional African cultural items to redefine and reassert the African personality. But Nyerere was caught in a bind. On the one hand, he appeared to side with African culture. On the other hand, Nyerere contradicted himself in the ujamaa policy of Villagization when he attacked without discrimination the very traditional beliefs and authority figures of Tanzanian culture that he was utilizing to construct a national culture after a period of colonial subjugation and misrule. In light of these developments, while we may ask what culture Nyerere was building, his strategy seems to have been to coopt culture for political ends.

Nyerere’s use of traditional African emblems was probably found useful by other African leaders seeking political dominance. Among Nyerere’s contemporary African leaders who used traditional African accessories, especially in the 1960s (the dawn and hey-day of African nationalism) through to the 1970s, we might mention Nkrumah, who often appeared in the public sphere wearing a traditional clothing called ntoma in Ashanti--some kind of a toga. Kenyatta with his fimbo, but more characteristically, his fly-whisk; late President Mobutu of then Zaire, now, Democratic Republic of Congo, donned his famous leopard-skin-patterned cap while brandishing his elaborate staff, among others.

In Tanzania for example, a 1963 photo shows Nyerere wearing a Western suit while two members of his Cabinet, Rashidi Kawawa and Oscar Kambona, donned a traditional toga. In this case, they wore an mgolole, a large sheet of cloth usually worn over another dress. As can be seen in this figure, the mgolole does not cover the right upper part of the shoulder. In certain groups of Tanzania, it was a custom for chiefs to wear an mgolole and carry staffs. And Nyerere also wore a toga. In the picture, Kawawa is seen holding his fimbo. Appearing in this apparel, one may reasonably intimate that perhaps the ministers were identifying with the dresses and accessories of traditional chiefs. Indeed, with regard to these emerging leaders in Africa, it was an opportune moment at which to return to African cultural roots and celebrate African heritage after a period of cultural subjugation under colonialism. The dresses and accessories these leaders found fashionable was a powerful statement of pride about the aesthetic importance and relevance of traditional African culture.

But these new leaders of Africa were, for political purposes, merging traditionalism with modernity by coupling traditional dress and accoutrements with Western or Eastern attire. In a sense, synthesizing the old with the new, but marketing it as old. Nkrumah not only adopted Maoist and Euro-American dress, “his adoption of paraphernalia associated with Asante royalty underscored a desire to appropriate traditional significations of authority.”22 Nkrumah, apart from adjusting his traditional attire to correspond with “the voting alliance,” the sword carrier and the orator followed Asante models, as did virtually all of the arts that his administration commissioned.

23 Regarding dress, Nyerere’s trademark from about 1966 on was the Mao-style safari suit (figs.3, 6). Already uncomfortable with Nyerere’s growing ties with China, many Europeans and Americans in East Africa had circulated a story that the suit was another indication that Nyerere was “going Chinese,” but Nyerere is said to have first seen the suit in Zanzibar and adopted it for its simplicity.24 Having worn its top myself, we knew it as a “Tanzanian suit” because Tanzanians were following Nyerere’s lead in donning it. However, I vividly remember that Tanzanians called the suit’s style “Chou En-lai,” after the then Chinese Premier Chou En-lai. But Chou En-lai himself, on a State Visit to Tanzania, had stated that the “suit was not heavy enough for the Chinese climate.”25 Though its marker was Chinese, it was a truly Tanzanian suit. Often Nyerere’s headgear was a Muslim/Swahili embroidered kofia (cap). In an incident about this cap, initiated by a local elder of TANU, mainland Tanzania’s political party at the time, Nyerere injected sentiments of nationalism. “‘Why do you wear that?’ the elder asked Nyerere. ‘It is a Zanzibar cap.’ ‘No,’ quipped Nyerere, ‘it’s a Tanzanian cap.’”26 Through his emphatic response Nyerere may have meant to illustrate the concept of Tanzanian Union which still appeared unreal, but he may also have aimed at a fusion of and identification with all the cultures of Tanzania.

Regarding accessories, it did not take Nyerere long to switch to kifimbo, further illustrating political investment in traditional garb. For example, in a photograph taken in June 1964 with Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, who was on a State Visit to Tanzania, Nyerere is seen holding his kifimbo. The kifimbo would increasingly become a conspicuous accessory of his presidency and his tenure as the Party leader. Nyerere, even after retiring from both the government and Party positions, has continued to carry his kifimbo whenever he attended public events (fig.9). As I pointed out previously, this item helped to give Nyerere another sort of identity. For in Tanzania, besides his title of Mwalimu (teacher), Nyerere had in recent years attained a nickname of Mzee Kifimbo (Elder with Kifimbo). Interestingly, one is prompted to ask whether the mere habit of carrying the small staff resulted in this name? Certainly the Nyerere kifimbo does not serve the purpose of a walking staff since it does not reach down to the ground. Yet Nyerere the mzee carried his favorite hand stick around, though clearly the reason for doing so is not for walking support.

Like other politically charged objects, we can liken Nyerere’s kifimbo to Kenyatta’s flamboyant fly-whisk or Kenneth Kaunda’s famed white handkerchief. The objects also became symbols of national identity/national dress taking into consideration of the people involved here. Other than being men, they were national leaders. They may have fancied holding these items just as any other person would or might wear a hat. But once such an item becomes a key characteristic of a national political leader’s attire, it then acquires the added dimension of political tool. It may become an issue for discussion and a contested terrain because of the status of its owner. Why is the leader using it? What ends does it serve? Is it for political/social purposes, for example? With respect to Nyerere and his kifimbo, Tanzanians have since raised similar questions. A common question revolves around the issue of whether the kifimbo has contributed to advance Nyerere’s political career. It seems that even as Nyerere dominated the national political landscape in Tanzania, his use of the kifimbo led to its recognition as an emblem of his leadership largely because the object attracted national attention as well.

So his employment of the staff was a success. In the first instance, his new image vis-a-vis the kifimbo may have come about because of the kifimbo he owns and flaunts. But secondly, it could be due to the power, real or imagined, that the staff is said to embody.

Nyerere’s kifimbo achieved both political and cultural significance (fame) in that an entire folklore developed around it. Though Nyerere’s kifimbo is associated with superstitions--especially as a magic device--it carries no sacred airs. The earlier version, carved from mpingo or African Blackwood (Dalbergia melanoxylon), was rather plain with no intricate carving work. The late example (fig.9), also of the same kind of wood, is elaborately executed while the tip section of the shaft appears to be of bone. It has been rumored that Nyerere’s kifimbo was essentially a magic wand for his protection, especially in view of the dangers associated with his holding the highest public office in the land. Furthermore, Tanzanians circulated stories which increasingly fueled this magic wand myth. One story is told of an occasion in which Nyerere forgot his kifimbo somewhere. Nobody was able to pick it up until Nyerere himself realized that he had left the kifimbo and came to fetch it. Another story has it that when Nyerere became uncertain about a trip he was about to make, he would point his kifimbo in the direction he would take. Were the staff to bend, that was an indication that the journey would not have a happy ending, that danger lay ahead of him. As such, Nyerere would cancel the trip.

However, I have no evidence to support these stories though by all counts Nyerere’s staff is surrounded with mystery whose validation is hard to ascertain.

We might intimate that the superstitions about these objects and the leaders who own them, constitute some power. But it is not necessary to examine the mechanisms leaders in Africa have used to achieve political authority and invest legitimacy and longevity in their regimes. Doing so would move us beyond the scope of this inquiry. Instead, it is enough to recall Nkrumah’s beliefs connected to his accoutrements, and which like Nyerere may have contributed to his mystique and political strength. “Nkrumah was credited with the power of witchcraft, for example, as a consequence of his residence in the town of Nzema; his white handkerchief and walking stick, and his practice of leaving his hair unparted, were associated with ‘the accoutrements of traditional fetish priests,’and he was said ‘to commune periodically with Mame Wata,’ an act ‘which gave him privy to information about the machinations of imperialism.’”27 Additionally, Nkrumah was “believed to communicate with a Muslim advisor from Kankan, who gave Nkrumah herbs to bathe in and ingest in order to retain his power.”28 This shows that the folklore surrounding these objects and their owners equals a kind of power in itself.

Another more appealing way of considering the Nyerere kifimbo is as a practical aid which probably helped in creating and reinforcing an aura of mystique and enormous political power. Often Nyerere used his kifimbo to wave to his supporters, make certain gestures when addressing political rallies, and in some instances, use as a pointer. In other occasions, he would clasp it under his left armpit, or place it on the table. But some superstitious minds would probably interpret these movements of the Nyerere kifimbo as constituting the casting of spells upon those he led. We may recall that the Zaramo kifimbo was also used by ritualists for casting spells and cleansing people. So regardless of the practical uses of Nyerere’s kifimbo, its supposed uses wielded a large degree of power.
Whatever interpretations one may generate on the manner Nyerere handled his kifimbo, his was not an isolated case in the African leadership circle during the post-independence era. One of Nyerere’s nationalist contemporaries, Jomo Kenyatta, used a popular slogan before addressing a political rally. He would say, harambee! (let’s all pull together--a call upon Kenyans to pool resources/efforts together in community development or self-help projects) while at the same time making a swirling movement of his fly-whisk in the air. The multitude would respond, heee!, signaling agreement with Kenyatta. Interestingly, Daniel arap Moi, who became President after Kenyatta passed away in 1978, also carries a small club-like staff called Fimbo ya Nyayo.29 This kifimbo of Moi is carved from ivory and decorated with gold rings. When not in use, Moi would put the staff on the table. When he spoke, he raised the Nyayo staff in the air to let people know that he is in total command and were one to err, he had a way of punishing people.

30 In this context, the staff serves to enhance Moi’s image as an authoritative figure. Moi’s nickname is Nyayo, which is Kiswahili for footsteps, and following the promise he made to Kenyans when he was sworn in as President of the Republic of Kenya he continued his predecessor’s policies. To put it in another way, Moi pledged to follow Kenyatta’s footsteps in presiding over Kenya. So, when Moi holds the Fimbo ya Nyayo in the air and says, harambee, the response is nyayo! 31 Through this staff, Moi also combines traditionalism and modernity to construct and advance his political authority and foster nationhood.
It is fruitful to consider the political leader’s kifimbo with the positions of teacher, leader, and elder. In Tanzania, a teacher is seen as someone who is knowledgeable and who imparts knowledge to others. He or she is also seen as a leader, since a teacher becomes a role model for his or her students. Likewise, an elder is perceived as the store of knowledge and wisdom that he or she has accumulated over the years. Ideally, in a community’s perception of the wise elder, he or she is expected to pass on this heritage from one generation to another through the process of socialization.

Kenyan writer Micere Mugo describes the prestigious status and roles of elders in pre-colonial Gikuyu Kenya as follows:
Elders were viewed as the embodiment of all that the community cherished--wisdom, justice, understanding, dignity, visionariness etc. . . . They would sit for hours in council, listening to the complaints and defenses. Their sense of fairness was unquestioned. Through proverbs, sayings, stories and illustrations they would counsel, to show what needed to be done to remedy a given situation. They were the preservers and protectors of wisdom, accumulated through long years of communal experience. They were the guardians entrusted by the community of the living and the dead (the ancestral spirits) to ensure that there was harmony, coherence and well-being in the community.32
There is a Swahili saying popularly used in Tanzania which beautifully captures and illustrates these notions of the wazee (elders): Penye wazee haliharibiki neno. That is, in the attendance of elders a problem does not get out of hand because it is resolved.

Nyerere’s association with his staff parallels the roles of teacher, leader, and elder. His practical use of the kifimbo possibly has its roots in his former teaching profession, and which he symbolically perpetuated as leader of the country. In Tanzania, teachers in primary and secondary schools carry sticks. Some teachers employ the staffs as pointers in teaching while others use them to discipline their students. In politics, carrying a stick symbolizes the act of leading. That is, showing the way that those under his/her jurisdiction ought to take: it does not carry the dual meaning of a leading and a punishing symbol. There is the example of the biblical Moses and the staff he carried when serving as the Israelites leader. He even used his staff to perform miracles. Interestingly, another nickname for Nyerere, which was current at least in the late 1970s and the early 1980s, was Mzee Musa, named after the Moses of the Bible. Tanzanians likened Nyerere with the biblical Moses who led the Israelites out of Pharaoh’s Egypt towards the promised land, only to wander in the wilderness. It was said that Nyerere did the same to Tanzanians economically since he ignored advice given him by his economic advisors.

While in public office, Nyerere utilized his teaching experience and the staff to create an atmosphere of teaching and learning rather than govern. On the whole, Nyerere displayed an uncanny ability to render complicated matters in simple language and speech. In addition, he was a charismatic speaker and a great debater. One characteristic phrase, nitarudia (I will repeat), which punctuated Nyerere’s public speeches, is reminiscent of a teacher emphasizing a point to his/her students. It thus joins Nyerere’s governing skills with the pedagogical skills of his former profession. Teachers identify, incorporate whips; that is their symbol of authority as it is Nyerere’s image as President. To put it in another way, kifimbo as cane is similar to “teacher’s” power-cane. Indeed, what could be more handy to augment his political messages than the kifimbo? Finally, his hand stick must have gone a long way toward reinforcing some of his mannerisms when conducting public business.

The kifimbo that Nyerere carried as leader of Tanzania helped to recreate and augment his personality and build Tanzanian nationalism. The kifimbo sat well with Nyerere’s other title of Baba wa Taifa (Father of the Nation), though some Tanzanians are irked by this title, and derogatorily call him Father of the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi--Party for Revolution (CCM). They do so in part because of Nyerere’s apparent favoritism towards his CCM party in national politics. Indeed, the hand stick has led to Nyerere’s nickname of Mzee Kifimbo, and obviously, without the staff that name would not have been given. But besides the fact that this nickname is associated with Nyerere’s possession of the kifimbo, it may also lie on his apparent manipulation of the object in the political arena. In this way, the kifimbo became a national symbol connected with a national leader who charted the country’s destiny. In the same way that traditional African chiefs, linguists, and national leaders like Moi held their staffs to stress their authority, so did Nyerere. These uses of the kifimbo have transformed it within the modern political and administrative landscape.

The staff that Nyerere or any other national leader carries today may not have sustained symbolic proportions as did the staffs of African chiefs or ritual leaders. Despite the absence of those elements, however, the positioning and use of the object remains central: it is an emblem of authority for the leader who owns and uses it to further his/her administration.

The kifimbo appears to have achieved a significant presence when Nyerere made important decisions affecting the health of the nation. In this sense, Nyerere’s use of his staff compares with the Zaramo mganga (who tackles health issues and other social predicaments facing the Zaramo) and his staffs, such as the mkomolo. Swantz describes a scene of madogoli rite of the Zaramo with waganga in the curing act: “The woman sitting on the mat, legs stretched out, a black cloth on and a three-colour turban around her head, is the patient sitting against the mkomolo stick. The medicine bag is placed on a three-legged stool, the tail-whisk is on the ground ready for the patient, mteja as soon as she is in trance she gets up and begins to dance. An assisting woman keeps on putting water with herbs in it over the patient. The waganga wear a black and white headcover of a colobus monkey.”

33 A madogoli rite is also attended by relatives of the patient as seen at the bottom right of the figure. These participants may also take part in the singing, which is another component of the rite. Similarly, Nyerere may be perceived as a ritualist who takes care of Tanzanians’ array of problems as a Zaramo mganga does. To illustrate the power that Nyerere wielded in the country after leaving office, in 1995 during the first multi-party elections in the country, he is said to have been an influential force behind the CCM’s nomination of Benjamin Mkapa to run for President of Tanzania. Nyerere even went a step further and campaigned openly across the country for this CCM presidential candidate, also, his former student and colleague in the CCM. Eventually, Mkapa won the presidency.
Nyerere’s public use of the kifimbo could band him together with the likes of Nkrumah, Kenyatta, Mobutu, and Moi, who appropriated and utilized traditional African objects and symbols to build and advance their political authority, while also muscling out their opponents. Yet Nyerere was markedly different, and he is respected for advancing the cause of his countryfolk and Africa. An elder statesman who had earned international respect due to his integrity, honesty, and intellect, Nyerere perhaps astounded the world when in 1985 he became one of Africa’s few Presidents to retire voluntarily. Among his many political achievements was his masterminding the Union between the Republic of Tanganyika and the People’s Republic of Zanzibar in 1964.

Nyerere’s personal conduct added another dimension to the kifimbo: that of a staff of morality, principle, and dignity. As head of State, Nyerere was known for his simplicity and humility. He shunned wealth and strove to involve his fellow Tanzanians at all stages of development, while also striving to improve their lot. This is not to say that Nyerere is above reproach; criticisms have been leveled against him and his administration. Given the myriad of problems facing Tanzania, Africa, and the world at large, Nyerere has not been an exception to the norm. But contrary to African leaders who preferred to be reified, Nyerere was opposed to a personality cult. A good example is his refusal of public glorification as Bismarck Mwansasu recounts: “It has covered a number of areas ranging from his refusal to have streets and other places named after him to erecting his monuments.”

34 This is illustrated in the few streets and public facilities named after Nyerere. The Dar es Salaam City Council planned to demolish the famed Askari Monument in the commercial district of the city and put up a statue of Nyerere in its place, but Nyerere turned down the idea.35 In 1988 the University of Dar es Salaam constructed a stand in front of the Assembly Hall, also called Nkrumah Hall, with view to put on his bust, but again Nyerere would not accept. The project was abandoned forthwith. In this light, the kifimbo that Nyerere used should not be seen as an object of glory, but much as a staff of morality, principle, and dignity. For this it fulfills the other meaning of an elder’s staff. Whatever other ends the kifimbo has served, it has remained a personal accessory of the elder statesman.

In sum, the ways individuals relate to staffs and use them to advance their occupations or positions in society are numerous. Additionally, even as social and historical forces have transformed uses, contexts, significances, and forms of these objects, individuals continually recreate and reposition staffs to suit their needs. We have observed how kome, mganga’s staff of the Zaramo, and kifimbo registered changes while they continued to be relevant to their traditional institutions and contexts. For instance, the dressing patterns in Tanzania changed as prestige items like walking staffs became increasingly unpopular due to a variety of social and cultural factors. As well, kome-like staffs or fimbo were utilized by new leaders in the 1960s, not only in Tanzania, but across Africa as part of dress that celebrated African cultural pride and formed their political presence. Another example concerns changes of form pertaining to staffs used by Zaramo waganga. While for example, some have the mwana hiti image, today some examples portray a naturalistic figure. We can not determine how successful a mganga is in his or her trade on the basis of figurations on mganga’s staffs. What is clear is the persistence, or reinterpretation of traditionalism and modernity with these staffs in the institutions they belong to.

And although today a political leader in Tanzania may use a kifimbo instead of a fimbo, this does not suggest that such person rejects a traditional accessory or symbol in favor of a modern one. Rather, such a leader may have chosen a staff that befits his specific purpose, since examples of these styles of staff have also been used in both traditional and contemporary African society. Perhaps this person may be following a fashionable style. African political leaders, though, have strategically appropriated traditional African paraphernalia, or merged these items with contemporary ones, to help the advance of their agendas. They combine and reinterpret traditionalism and modernity to dovetail with their political and cultural positions. It is not hard, therefore, to grasp the transformation of old into new forms--traditional forms into contemporary symbols of the new crop of political leaders, or the “new elders.” Ironically, the continuation of the tradition of staffs is predicated upon ongoing change and transformation.

Peace be upon you