Mama Maria Magige Nyerere was the first lady of Tanzania from November 1964 to November 5 1985. Almost 29 years later, she still attracts the respect she did when she was wife to Mwalimu Julius Kambarage Nyerere, Tanzania’s first president after Independence.
Mwalimu commands an almost cult following in Tanzania. Today, momentum keeps building on calls for his beatification, a process, which if approved by the Vatican will see the legendary statesman become a saint.
It is in this light that Mama Nyerere got known to some Ugandans, being the poster-child of the project.
“I did not know that she is still alive. It was pleasantly surprising discovering that Julius Nyerere’s wife is still alive,” says Joel Kidandaire, a student at Uganda Christian University.
At this year’s Martyrs Day celebrations, she sat calmly, her grey hair, chocolate brown skin and African dress standing out, next to President Museveni. But who is Mama Maria, as she is fondly known in Tanzania?
A devout believer
Maria, who got married to Mwalimu in 1953, has five sons and two daughters, according to juliusnyerere.info.
Her pursuit for the beatification of Nyerere is not one of a widow going out of her way to bring honour to her late husband, but rather that of a believer, strong and grounded in the Catholic faith. It is said in one of Nyerere’s numerous profiles that their family never skipped prayers daily.
Recently, she called for divine intervention, urging her countrymen, “...insulting remarks about the founding leader of Tanzania are a bad omen for our country’s future unless corrective measures are taken to ensure its peace and prosperity.”
This streak of spirituality runs in the entire family. Their son, Mr Charles Makongoro Nyerere, one of Chama Cha Mapinduzi’s MPs-elect to the East African Legislative Assembly ( Eala), speaking for the first time of his tribulations during campaigns for the seat, thanked opposition parties for their support, but did not forget God and his mother.
Mama Maria, who briefly attended the homecoming ceremony, reportedly, “comforted her son and described his experiences as a war between good and evil. She told him to believe in God because evil had been defeated. She could not stay long since she needed to rest.” Thus is the making of a woman to whom everything can only be attached to God.
Straightforward and tough
There is a culture in Tanzania’s Butiama village, Mwalimu’s birthplace, where pilgrimage is paid by admirers and journalists in memory of his death. Reporters being the sneaky people they are, often take the opportunity to ask questions on her relationship with him.
However, last year, in a statement issued by her son, Madaraka Nyerere, the widow of the deceased Father of the Nation flatly refused to have any interview with reporters, a move that closed doors to reporters wishing to write the widow’s feelings, assessment and expectations on the 14th anniversary of Mwalimu’s death.
“I’m tired of responding to questions from reporters who have been posing the same questions every year,” said Nyerere’s widow in a short message released through her cell phone.
She has also been a tough critic of female genital mutilation, locally known as ukeketaji since her days in state house.
Nyerere brand still alive
In Uganda, she receives near diplomatic and presidential attention, sitting next to the president and attracting sizeable media attention. Only last year, when EALA speaker, Margaret Zziwa, announced her presence, Mama Maria Nyerere received a standing ovation from the regional assembly.
As humble as Mwalimu loved it
“Nyerere moulded his family as a typical Tanzanian unit; the members not being granted special privileges. Some school heads as well as senior civil servants incurred the wrath of the man, as father, for breaching that code,” wrote Tanzania’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, during the 10th anniversary of Mwalimu’s death.
She added, “Now under the charge of Mama Maria, a grand old lady whose disposition is most admirable, the members remain typically Tanzanian in the general context, the Nyerere tag being merely that; a tag.”
On September 24, this year, Mama Maria, now in her mid-80s, donated to the national museum for preservation, a Mercedes Benz, registration number T2K 6902, the same car her late husband was driven in on his way for treatment in London in 1999, a move that received immense approval ratings.
It is this brand identity that has seen her get association with a number of national programmes reaching for her patronage.
Now in the evening of her life, she serves as a member of the 10-member council of elders of the Alliance for Tanzania Youth Economic Empowerment (Atyee), known as Chama cha Kukuza Uchumi kwa Vijana Tanzania (Chakuvita) in Kiswahili. The council of elders boasts of a powerful profile, which includes former Union President Ali Hassan Mwinyi and former Zanzibar President Amani Abeid Karume.
“To be associated with Mama Nyerere is to be credible; her name is associated with noble intentions and good character. She commands respect some top religious leaders in Tanzania do not command,” Andrew Mkama, Tanzanian student.