Performance and Politics in Tanzania: The Nation on Stage

By Laura Edmondson. 2007. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 224 pages. ISBN: 978-0-253-34905-7 (hard cover), 978-0-253-21912-1 (soft cover).


Reviewed by Alex Perullo, Bryant University

[Review length: 991 words • Review posted on June 26, 2008]


In Performance and Politics in Tanzania, Laura Edmondson examines the performance routines of three Dar es Salaam-based troupes: Tanzania One Theatre (TOT), Muungano Cultural Troupe, and Mandela Cultural Troupe. The troupes feature a variety of musical and theatrical styles, including the presentation of plays, acrobatics, comedy, traditional music, and contemporary popular music. Edmondson explains that each group occupies a different social and economic status, and therefore has different forms of presentation. TOT is the wealthiest of the groups due to its affiliation with the ruling party, Chama cha Mapinduzi (the Revolutionary Party). This economic power has given TOT an advantage in having a better sound system, the best musicians and actors in the country, and even a tour bus. Muungano does not have direct connections with a political party but charges higher entrance fees than Mandela and can be considered more middle-class. Mandela is the poorest of the groups with “shabby” equipment and limited resources. Throughout the book, Edmondson explores how the different affiliations and economic standings of these groups result in varied relations to the state, tradition, and popular arts.

Edmondson divides her ethnography into three parts: Imagining the Nation, Sexing the Nation, and Contesting the Nation. The third part is the most interesting as Edmondson analyzes the competition between TOT and Muungano in three Tanzanian cities. The unfolding drama as these two troupes compete against one another usefully demonstrates the negotiating of public spaces, contestations of tradition and identity, and approaches toward praising or condemning the state, all topics that Edmondson deals with in some way. In particular, this section of the book adds a great deal to the ongoing academic press on the competition between TOT and Muungano (see, for example, Askew 2002 and Lange 2000).

The fourth chapter, “Popular Drama and the Mapping of Home,” which is in Part II of the book, is a valuable ethnographic look at the theatre of these troupes. Edmondson is at her best when she describes the way events unfold and the way audiences subtly react to key moments. It is in these thick descriptions that the reader gains insight into the social significance of these troupes. Nonetheless, no transcriptions of any of the plays appear in the book (there is also no transcription of songs, comedy, or any other artistic form that appears in the book). Considering the book’s short length, further examination of the plays through some form of transcription and analysis would have provided readers with an understanding of language use, presentation styles, and textual variation between events, something that readers could not otherwise gain access to, especially as these troupes have significantly cut drama from their shows in recent years.

Academic research on Tanzania is often heavily focused on the notion of nationalism. Certainly, Tanzania’s post-independence history warrants attention to this ideology, but often discussions of nationalism lead to reductive claims and nostalgic sentiment. Edmonson does well to try to problematize the notion of nationalism in performative settings, and argues that there is “a postcolonial context in which state and society work together on the nationalist stage in a fluid, dynamic, and interactive process” (7). To support this argument, Edmondson creates a series of terms that highlight different forms of nationalism, such as nationalism that is collaborative, alternative, strategic, and cosmopolitan. Collaborative nationalism, perhaps her main concept, emphasizes the dynamic role of performers, audiences, and the state as collaborators rather than “hegemonic or resistant forces” (17). Through this term, Edmondson wants to highlight the way that both the state and popular culture borrow from one another in Tanzanian national performance. Edmondson argues that this approach “helps to chart a new course that not only complicates conventional concepts of co-option, oppression, and resistance but also seeks to understand the contradictory and ambivalent impulses that pervade the nationalist project” (19).

Despite this push for a more nuanced perspective on nationalism, several sections of Edmondson’s ethnography appear rather contradictory. For instance, in employing the concept of strategic nationalism, which is the “ways in which nationalism served as a kind of façade” (41), she counters several of her own notions that “a sense of social cohesion continues to make the country [Tanzania] stand apart” (13). This is not to say that the various forms of nationalism do not exist in Tanzania, even ones that are contradictory, but sections of the book appear to question her overall argument about the ways nationalism is being performed rather than substantiate her initial claims. Part of the problem may be in the way Edmondson anthropomorphizes the nation. Borrowing from the work of Tom Nairn, Edmondson often equates the nation to the two-faced Roman god Janus (22, 34, 88, 112), a comparison that makes the nation seem human, rather than a complex series of human interactions, and reduces nationalism to a binary of traditionalism and modernism.

It is important to keep in mind the time period of Edmondson’s research. The bulk of her research took place in the late 1990s (1996-1997) when performance troupes were more popular in Dar es Salaam. As she found in subsequent research trips (2001 and 2004), these troupes now perform sporadically or with only part of the troupe. Edmondson’s research is therefore a valuable periodization of a transitional period in Tanzania as the country continued to negotiate the movement from the socialist past to a neoliberal present. For this reason, Edmondson’s book is a significant study for Africanists, anthropologists, and post-socialist scholars looking to identify the way the artists, the state, and audiences negotiate and interpret meaning in public performances. It is also an important contribution to the limited academic writing on the theatre arts in Tanzania.

Works Cited

Askew, Kelly. Performing the Nation: Swahili Music and Cultural Politics in Tanzania. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.

Lange, Siri. “Muungano and TOT: Rivals on the Urban Cultural Scene.” In Mashindano! Competitive Music Performance in East Africa, edited by Frank Gunderson and Gregory Barz, 67-85. Dar es Salaam: Mkuki na Nyota, 2000.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.