Tuesday, June 29, 2010



By Jerry Okungu

Nairobi, Kenya

June 29, 2010

July 1987 will always remain engraved in my memory for years to come. It was the year I first travelled to Dar Es Salaam that exotic city by the Indian Ocean that I had hitherto only in the news or history books.

The reason I went to the Harbour of Peace was to attend the then famous Saba Saba International Trade Fair that attracted corporate companies in East Africa. It was called Saba Saba because it always took place on the seventh day of July every year.

I travelled to Dar as an exhibitor in the textile category since I worked in Kisumu then as head of Sales and Marketing at Kisumu Cotton Mills Limited. However, what I realized even before I left Kisumu was that this trip to a neighboring East African country would not be as smooth sailing as it might have happened ten years earlier. I needed to prepare my travel documents together with my US dollars as if I was going to Europe or some distant destination in West Africa.

Ten years earlier, I would not have needed foreign currency, a valid passport or a yellow card. It wasn’t necessary because we East Africans were one country and one family. After July 1, 1977, the situation drastically changed. First the borders with Tanzania were temporarily closed and when they were eventually reopened, all the rules governing foreigners were imposed on Kenyans just as the Kenyan authorities did the same to visiting Tanzanians.

On arriving at the sweltering Dar es Salaam Airport, Customs and Immigration officials left nothing to chance. We Kenyans just like other nationals from the Middle East and the Far East were subjected to thorough body search. Our luggage were emptied at the Customs Desks and turned upside down. When the ordeal was over, with details of our place of stay in Dar , the number of nights recorded, we were ordered to change US $ 50.00 at the airport irrespective whether we needed to spend all that money or not. In those days, any unspent Tanzanian shillings when one left the country were not exchangeable for foreign currencies. Incoming visitors were advised to spend all T Shillings they had changed before departure or else they would be forced to carry the worthless currencies back home.

This trip to Dar was just two years following Mwalimu Nyerere’s departure from politics. His shadow still hovered over President Mwinyi in almost all spheres of life. One thing that struck me was that Dar was relatively expensive compared to Kisumu or Nairobi. A bottle of beer was the equivalent of Ksh 15.00 when it was still Ksh 5.00 within our borders.

Walking along the streets of Dar revealed an economy in dire straits. Shop shelves were empty. Nationalization of the means of production, export and import sectors had caused capital flight. It was when I realized that most of my Kenyan colleagues that had relatives and friends in Dar had carried such basic commodities as Kimbo, Blue Band, bar soap, Omo, maize meal and sugar.

One needs to understand that prior to July 1, 1977 when the economies of the three East African countries functioned together, such shortages were unheard of because free movement of people, goods and services flowed in all directions. The closure of the borders had done untold damage to the ordinary people of Tanzania who had for years depended on regular supplies from Kenya.

When I next visited Dar es Salaam seven years later as an investor, the situation had drastically changed. President Mwinyi had eased travel between Kenya and Tanzania, especially across the Namanga border. Goods had returned to the shelves and streets were awash with four wheel fuel guzzlers. Mwinyi had slowly moved Tanzania away from Nyerere’s socialist ideology and opened the country to free market economy.

Therefore by the time I was ready to launch the East African Newspaper in 1994, Dar es Salaam had changed in more ways than one. IPP Ltd had become a manufacturing and distribution force to reckon with. Not only that, its CEO Mr. Reginald Mengi got inspired by our newspaper investment and went ahead to open the first TV station in Tanzania together with at least three newspaper titles before we even launched our paper.

What I remember most was the speech Benjamin Mkapa the incoming Third President of Tanzania made when he came to launch our paper at Kilimanjaro Hotel. He used that occasion to implore East Africans to embrace the paper as it would create a forum in which all East Africans would debate and exchange ideas about the future of East Africa.

Looking back now, I can see that what we saw as a purely economic venture triggered off something nobler that was not a priority in our mind. Suddenly East Africans in the three states started engaging in debate on crucial issues that they had struggled with for 17 years since the collapse of the EAC. And as the debate continued, the East African Heads of took the cue and started pursuing the revival of the East African Community with vigor. Five years later, a new EAC Treaty was signed at Arusha.

The rest is now history.