British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by Alan Hall
(Principal Cooperative Officer, Tanganyika 1951-63)
Wind of Change in Songea
Arthur Creech Jones
I arrived in Songea, as a newly appointed Cooperative Officer, in the same night Winston Churchill was returned for a second time as prime minister of Britain. Cooperative Officers were, at that time - October 1951 - a new kind of animal in the Colonial Service: they were first recruited under the aegis of the previous Labour government, whose Colonial Secretary, Arthur Creech Jones, a pacifist trade union leader, had been a strong supporter of the Cooperative movement. It was therefore slightly ironic that my arrival in a remote up-country station in south-west Tanganyika under these somewhat 'lefty' colours should coincide with the start of a Conservative administration at home. And, indeed, there can be no denying there was to be at times a somewhat 'edgy' relationship between the established order in Songea and this ignorant young sprat (me) who would be trying to teach his grandmother to suck eggs. My instructions, however, had been clearly described in the letter of introduction to Denis Hill the District Commissioner: 'It will be his duty to assist Major Stevens in both his capacities, i.e. Executive Officer, Songea Native Tobacco Board (Sontob), and Manager, Ngoni Matengo Cooperative Marketing Union Limited (Ngomat), and eventually to take over from him when he goes on leave...' Significantly, it concluded: 'It is hoped ... that he will be given as much opportunity as possible of guiding the primary societies in cooperative principles and practice, and eradicating the shortcomings to which attention was recently drawn by the auditors'.

Wind of Change in Songea
Picking Tobacco
The set-up within which these 'shortcomings' occurred had by this time become pretty well the standard form of organisation in Tanganyika for marketing a main cash crop - tobacco in Songea, coffee in Moshi and Tukuyu, cotton in Mwanza. So that, in Songea, the farmers' crop was collected in the field by primary cooperative societies, of which they were members; then consigned to the Union of these societies, Ngomat, which processed it in its factory; then 'shipped' the baled leaf to markets in Liverpool and Kampala. Supervising all this activity was Sontob, a statutory Board charged with controlling the whole industry. Simple enough to say, but in a District twice the size of Wales, four hundred miles from the coast and virtually cut off by road from the rest of the country for about half the year during and after the rains, the logistical problems were immense. Just as well, you may think, that the whole business was then being managed by a former KAR army officer, whose main objective was simply to 'make the show work', and no fiddle faddle nonsense about 'cooperative principles and practice'.

I met 'Steve' Stevens at breakfast that first morning, after not nearly enough sleep: an amiable chap with an impressive handle-bar moustache (looking, if anything, almost as overhung as I did, having celebrated Churchill's victory into the small hours). After briefly introducing ourselves to each other over the toast and marmalade, he drove me down to the factory on the outskirts of the township. I was astounded: at the end of a bumpy, dusty old track, in an area of scrubland and the odd shamba of maize or cassava, was a large, totally modern factory. Built under the direction of Sir Alexander Gibb and Partners, it represented the culmination of twenty years' development of the Songea dark-fired tobacco industry, a period during which the original three tobacco marketing societies had grown to twenty, and the crop had swelled from less than a hundred to nearly a thousand tons. That's a lot of tobacco. What I did not know, as I gazed in admiration at this impressive building, was that the industry had now outgrown its capacity to handle it.

Wind of Change in Songea
Baling Tobacco
At the 'receiving' bay, where lorries piled high with tobacco were being unloaded, I met the factory manager, a burly Southern Rhodesian, berating the society committeemen for bringing in improperly graded leaf. At Steve explained, societies had been accepting - and paying for - far too much tobacco as top grade, when it was often of lower quality. Indeed, many society members were in the habit of briefly dunking their baskets of leaf in the river on their way to the gulio (receiving shed), in order to be credited with a few more kilos. Inside the factory, where the leaf was piled into huge stacks, Steve described how wet tobacco was causing leaf to heat up the bulk. Yet so much tobacco had been brought in from the previous, huge 1950 crop - still not fully regraded, conditioned, baled, etc. - that there was, even in that large new warehouse, no space to turn the bulks. Losses from charred leaf were apparently colossal. The Songea tobacco industry was in fact approaching disaster, but no-one had yet appreciated just how disastrous - certainly not the tobacco farmers out in the field, chortling over the high 'advance' payments they had been receiving. My job, it seemed, was to disillusion them, and take those smiles off their face - to be replaced, one hoped, by sober determination to do things in future by the book.

Wind of Change in Songea
Songea District
Denis believed that safaris were good for young officers. So some days later found me seated by the driver of an empty tobacco lorry on an easy one-way trip out to Gumbiro, which had a society only 25 miles or so from Songea, on the Njombe road, with my newly recruited cook, Rashidi, and a young (government) Cooperative Inspector, Peter Moyo, plus all my recently acquired safari gear from Messrs Griffiths McAllister in the back. When we got there Gumbiro proved to be a dismal clearing surrounded by four or five grass-thatched huts with mud walls and a small collection of sun-dried brick buildings, only one of which was wholly built, with a rusty corrugated iron roof and partly surrounded by an old bamboo stockade. Beside it, dirty and unswept, was a crumbling courthouse: this was the baraza of Nkosi Zulu, one of the two Ngoni paramount chiefs. The place had an air of desolation and neglect - not a soul to be seen, just a few cooking pots, and the usual scrawny chickens scratching about in a litter of maize husks, to suggest human habitation. Having expected to see a bustling rural tobacco market, this was disappointing. Where was everybody? Peter led me through the trees to another clearing, with a mud building similar to the baraza but if anything even more dilapidated, its thatch slipping off to leave gaping holes in the roof. This, apparently, was the Gumbiro Cooperative Marketing Society Limited.

Gumbiro, as it happened, was not typical of Songea's tobacco marketing societies, but it exhibited (when Peter had managed to assemble a few of its officials and assorted members) many of the characteristics common to all of them: chiefly, a complete lack of understanding on the part of members of what their chama (society) stood for. They did not realise (because discussion with farmers had been largely in the form of instruction rather than explanation) that paying themselves over the odds for low grade tobacco merely reduced the second payment when that tobacco came eventually to be sold for its true value. And in due course, these chickens obviously did come home to roost. The District-wide discontent occasioned by the delay in clearing and then, eventually, making an exceptionally small final payment on the 1950 crop was the catalyst for what subsequently transpired, and was sufficiently vociferous to disturb the great ones of Sontob in Lindi (then the seat of the Provincial Commissioner, Andy Pike, who was the Board chairman) and, more especially, Dar es Salaam, where the Commissioner for Cooperative Development, Robin Malcolm, scion of a Scottish lairdship and a great wit, had long kept a finger on the pulse in Songea.

At a memorable meeting of the Board it was decided, after much previous high-level confabulation, to make a clean sweep of a system that had for many years served the industry well, but had now ceased to be a force for development, and had indeed become a brake on it. The cooperative societies' legislation stated that 'the control of the affairs of a registered society shall be vested in the general meeting', which elects a committee that 'shall exercise all the powers necessary for the full and proper administration of the society'. In Songea these powers were not being exercised. The committee of the Union was virtually ignored; it did not occur to Steve, the Manager, that he was in any way subordinate to it; committee members of the societies were treated by the Board staff more like common labourers than having any authority at all. This state of affairs - of the Board, via its Executive Office, virtually running the growers' business with only the most perfunctory consultation - was what I had been briefed, had to change; and which now the Board did change.

Setting the Record Straight
Wind of Change
It is difficult to convey to the present-day reader the atmosphere at that time, but looking back now at a distance of nearly sixty years, I see very clearly that the turmoil of events in Songea was typical of the 'wind of change blowing through Africa' that Harold Macmillan spoke of in a famous speech a few years after the dust of them was settling in our remote upcountry district. The Board's radical decision to sack all the European staff save one was a dreadful shock, not only to those who lost their jobs, and to their families, but to the whole close-knit community of expatriates on the station. For me, who was now ex-officio Secretary of the Board, it was especially wretched. No matter how much I might have disagreed with my colleagues' professional attitude, we had been friendly with each other; they had introduced me kindly to my new life and I had experienced the warmth of their hospitality. Now they had lost their jobs; and yet, in spite of my sympathy for them, I could not feel other than that the decision to remove them had been right.

It was not the end of the story, of course. I was to remain in Songea for an exceptional three tours, and witnessed the Union's disastrous appointment of its first African Manager, a politically motivated primary school teacher, who toured the District dispensing patronage with such abandon that he eventually aroused the hostility of those who had not been favoured, to the extent that the committee, to my great relief, at last screwed themselves up to the disagreeable decision in turn to sack him. He however had merely been a nuisance: the major problem now facing the Union was, as a result of the 1950 crop experience, a serious decline in tobacco cultivation throughout the District. From being overwhelmed with too much poorly presented leaf, the magnificent new factory was now handling crops too small to cover its overhead costs. Much effort was therefore expended in trying to explain to irascible general meetings the whys and wherefores of their tobacco marketing account; and serious attempts were made to get the crop properly graded, so that the price of top quality was not lowered by adulteration. Simple lessons, and so much depended on their being learned; but it was always an uphill task when so much now depended also on self-discipline.

I am not qualified to write of Tanzania's experience of Cooperatives after Independence, other than to note that over a period of fifty years they have gone through an almost continual process of restructuring and reorganisation, with frequent legislative amendment designed to improve what a 2000 Presidential Committee described as their 'poor performance' due to 'lack or non-functioning of internal controls'. The Government's latest initiative is The Cooperative Reform and Modernization Program (note the spelling), known as 'CRMP: 2005 - 2015'. They are not going to give up on Cooperation yet.

British Empire Map
Map of South-Western Tanganyika, 1949
Colony Profile
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 107: April 2014


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