Vol. 33 No. 2 (2024): Nordic Journal of African Studies
Special Issue: Time and Imagined Futures in Eastern African Art Forms, edited by Alex Perullo, Claudia Böhme, and Christina Woolner

Memories of Failed Futures: The Autobiography of Nicco ye Mbajo (1950–2021), a Popular Artist in Tanzania

Uta Reuster-Jahn
University of Hamburg

Published 2024-06-19


  • autobiography,
  • Nicco ye Mbajo,
  • Swahili popular literature,
  • Kwaya music,
  • Ujamaa socialism,
  • cultural history of Tanzania
  • ...More

How to Cite

Reuster-Jahn, U. (2024). Memories of Failed Futures: The Autobiography of Nicco ye Mbajo (1950–2021), a Popular Artist in Tanzania. Nordic Journal of African Studies, 33(2), 157–176. https://doi.org/10.53228/njas.v33i2.1220


The autobiography of Nicco ye Mbajo (1950–2021) provides insight into the life of an artist and his experiences as a cultural producer in Tanzania from independence to recent times. Belonging to the first generation of modern cultural producers, Mbajo contributed significantly to popular culture in Tanzania as a writer, magazine editor, illustrator, cartoonist, and choirmaster. In his autobiography, published in 2020, he reflects on his artistic career, which, as the title Laiti Ningelijua (‘If Only I Had Known’) signals, ultimately fell short of the potential he thought possible. The text offers Mbajo’s subjective view of the various, often contradictory cultural currents and social struggles related to the political project of decolonization, socialism, and “national culture” in post-independence Tanzania. Through reading Mbajo’s autobiography and relating it to his other works, as well as drawing on interviews with the author, this article explores how he imagined his future as an artist in a society where there was neither a pre-established nor a legitimate place for independent artists. The informal production modes of popular culture in Tanzania allowed Mbajo to use diverse approaches and experimentation, while political restraints, financial hardships, lack of training opportunities, and breaches of trust inhibited his artistic progress and economic success. With his autobiography, the author leaves a legacy for future generations of artists in Tanzania to learn from and a rich source for the country’s cultural history.


  1. Aminzade, Ronald. 2013. Race, Nation, and Citizenship in Post-colonial Africa: The Case of Tanzania. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  2. Askew, Kelly. 2002. Performing the Nation: Swahili Music and Cultural Politics in Tanzania. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  3. Barber, Karin. 1987. “Popular Arts in Africa.” African Studies Review 30 (3): 1–78.
  4. Barz, Gregory. 2000. “Politics of Remembering: Performing History(-ies) in Youth Kwaya Competitions in Dar es Salaam.” In Mashindano! Competitive Music Performance in East Africa, edited by Frank Gunderson and Gregory Barz, 379–405. Dar es Salaam: Mkuki na Nyota.
  5. Beck, Rose Marie. 1999. “Comic in Swahili or Swahili Comic?” AAP 60/Swahili Forum 6: 67–101.
  6. Beez, Jigal. 2003. “They Are Crazy These Swahili. Komredi Kipepe in the Footsteps of Asterix; Globalization in East African Comics.” International Journal of Comic Art 5 (1): 95–114.
  7. Bertoncini Zúbková, Elena. 2009. “The Tanzanian Mainland. From the 1960s to the 1980s.” In Outline of Swahili Literature. Prose Fiction and Drama, edited by Elena Bertoncini Zúbková, Mikhail D. Gromov, Said A.M. Khamis, and Kyallo Wamitila, 74–117. Leiden and Boston: Brill.
  8. Bgoya, Walter. n.d. [ca. 1985]. Books and Reading in Tanzania. Paris: UNESCO.
  9. Blommaert, Jan. 1999. State Ideology and Language in Tanzania. Cologne: Rüdiger Köppe.
  10. Briggs, John. 1979. “Villagisation and the 1974–6 Economic Crisis in Tanzania.” The Journal of Modern African Studies 17 (4): 695–702.
  11. Brennan, James R., Andrew Burton, and Yusuf Lawi, eds. 2007. Dar es Salaam: Histories from an Emerging African Metropolis. Dar es Salaam: Mkuki na Nyota.
  12. Burton, Andrew. 2005. African Underclass: Urbanisation, Crime and Colonial Order in Dar Es Salaam. Oxford: James Currey.
  13. Chachage, Chachage S. L. 1991. “Publishing in Tanzania.” Africa Bibliography, Volume 1990: vi–xviii.
  14. Frederiksen, Bodil Folke. 1991. “Joe, the Sweetest Reading in Africa: Documentation and Discussion of a Popular Magazine in Kenya.” African Languages and Cultures 4 (2): 135–155.
  15. Garnier, Xavier. 2006. Le Roman Swahili. La Notion de ‘Littérature Mineure’ à’l Épreuve. Paris: Karthala.
  16. Gehrmann, Susanne. 2021. Autobiographik in Afrika. Literaturgeschichte und Genrevielfalt. Trier: WVT Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier.
  17. Ivaska, Andrew. 2011. Cultured States: Youth, Gender, and Modern Style in 1960s Dar Es Salaam. Durham: Duke University Press.
  18. Krings, Matthias. 2010. “A Prequel to Nollywood: South African Photo Novels and Their Pan-African Consumption in the Late 1960s.” Journal of African Cultural Studies 22 (1): 75–89.
  19. Krings, Matthias. 2015. African Appropriations: Cultural Difference, Mimesis, and Media. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  20. Lejeune, Philippe. 1975. Le Pacte Autobiographique. Paris: Seuil.
  21. Mbajo, Nicco ye. 1982a. Ikibidi Kufa, Nife. Dar es Salaam: Mcheshi Publications.
  22. Mbajo, Nicco ye. 1982b. Mmempa Achume! Dar es Salaam: International Publishers Agencies.
  23. Mbajo, Nicco ye. 1982c. Dhamana ya Mapenzi. Dar es Salaam: Press and Publicity Centre.
  24. Mbajo, Nicco ye. 1983a. Manamba. Dar es Salaam: International Publishers Agencies.
  25. Mbajo, Nicco ye. 1983b. Piga Moyo Konde na Hadithi Nyingine. Dar es Salaam: Mcheshi Publications.
  26. Mbajo, Nicco ye. 1983c. Mfadhili wa Dhiki. Dar es Salaam: Mcheshi Publications.
  27. Mbajo, Nicco ye. 1984. Sifi Mara Mbili. Dar es Salaam: Mcheshi Publications.
  28. Mbajo, Nicco ye. 2003. Sitathubutu Aslani! Dar es Salaam: Mcheshi Publications.
  29. Mbajo, Nicco ye. 2020. Laiti Ningelijua. Maisha na Usanii, Enzi za Ujamaa mpaka Leo hii. Dar es Salaam: Tuwakadabra.
  30. Mtobwa, Ben R. 1990. Dar es Salaam Usiku. Dar es Salaam: Heko Publishers.
  31. Mulokozi, Mugyabuso M. 1985. “The Present State of Swahili Literature: A Survey.” In African Literature Studies. The Present State/L'État Présent, edited by Stephen Arnold, 171–188. Washington D.C.: Three Continents Press.
  32. Oduor, Reginald M. J. 2014. “A Critical Review of Leonhard Praeg’s A Report on Ubuntu.” Thought and Practice: A Journal of the Philosophical Association of Kenya (PAK), New Series 6 (2): 75–90.
  33. Perullo, Alex. 2011. Live from Dar es Salaam. Popular Music and Tanzania’s Music Economy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  34. Reuster-Jahn, Uta. 2016. “Private Entertainment Magazines and Popular Literature Production in Socialist Tanzania.” In African Print Cultures, edited by Derek Peterson, Emma Hunter, and Stephanie Newell, 224–250. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
  35. Sabea, Hanan. 2010. “Codifying Manamba: History, Knowledge Production and Sisal Plantation Workers in Tanzania.” Journal of Historical Sociology 23: 144–170.
  36. Shafi, Adam. 2013. Mbali na Nyumbani. Nairobi: Longhorn.
  37. Sturmer, Martin. 1998. The Media History of Tanzania. Ndanda: Ndanda Mission Press.
  38. Valentine, Theodore R. 1984. “National Pay Policy and Economic Instability in Tanzania.” Labour, Capital and Society / Travail, capital et société 17 (2): 222–256.
  39. Vierke, Clarissa. 2019. “Intervention, Patronage and Performance.” Matatu 51 (1): 4–10.
  40. Walibora, Ken. 2014. Nasikia Sauti ya Mama. Nairobi: Longhorn.