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Tanzanian women: a hunch about leadership

When I show our video on women to Tanzanians, they affirm it as an accurate representation of the state of play for many women in Tanzania. Since then I’ve been working on adding more shades to that, which I’ll share over this post and the next.

Disclaimer: these are mere hunches. They’re unproven and I haven’t run them past any Tanzanians yet. They’re based on my observations alone and my experience is limited: aside from only being 3 years, it’s also urban and among a university crowd, hardly the rural poor that make up 75% of Tanzania’s population! There is much more to the picture than what I can see, which will become especially apparent at the end of the next post.

Theory One: successful Tanzanian women leaders access and operate in the role of ‘mother’

The question of women’s success in Tanzania is a fraught one. At one level, women are some of the most disenfranchised people in Tanzania. However there are significant women in positions of authority be it church, business or politics. Tanzania’s VP is a woman; middle class women overwhelmingly return to work after 3 months maternity leave so they are well represented in the broader workforce (thanks to nannies).

In the west, the legacy of second wave feminism makes us a bit nervous about women in leadership positions. The myth persists that women leaders are trying to be like men. (I dismantle that here.)  However, it seems to me that the Tanzanian women who have risen to prominence conduct themselves in a particularly feminine way, specifically in a maternal way. Hear a woman preach and she’ll be imploring in her tone. Even if she’s quite loud and intense (and many Tanzanian women are), she’ll probably also speak of her love for those she’s speaking to and her desire to see them flourish. These are aspects of Tanzanian motherhood.

Being an actual mother helps: our local MP in Dodoma used to bring her grown sons to sit with her at events, like a status symbol, perhaps a seal of credibility. But we’ve seen unmarried women do it as well, not least the principal of Elliot’s school, a nun, who is perhaps the most formidable woman I’ve ever encountered, and whose maternal advice extended not only over the children but me as well!

There are all kinds of tropes and roles that women can adopt, but my observation so far is that women who advance have used the mother paradigm to their advantage. How, or why? My hunch is that it gives them a say without threatening men, and it expands on the honour mothers are afforded in Tanzania anyway.

Categories: Tanzania Woman Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

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