Hansjörg Dilger, 2022, Learning Morality, Inequalities, and Faith: Christian and Muslim Schools in Tanzania, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 292pp., ISBN 9781316514221

Keywords: Religion, Education, Schools, Moral formation, Inequality, Social class, Inter-religious coexistence, Belonging, Tanzania

In the mid-1990s, about a decade after entering a phase of neoliberal economic restructuring, Tanzania saw the partial privatisation of its education sector. As government schools began to suffer a decline in their reputation, religious—and particularly Christian—private schools became increasingly attractive to middle-class Christian and Muslim families in urban contexts like Dar es Salaam. In more recent years, Muslim schools have also grown in popularity. Some, funded by international Muslim organisations, have particular appeal among middle- and upper-class residents, including Christian families (see Dohrn 2016 and Guner 2021). Meanwhile, there are other Muslim schools that have been developed by revivalist groups in Tanzania, and which cater exclusively to Muslim families and students. These, too, have also started to attract middle-class students, despite their structural marginality relative to the prestigious Christian and (international) Muslim schools mentioned above. While the backgrounds and orientations of these schools are highly diverse, they share a common appeal: they “promise to combine high-quality education with the moral (self-)formation of young people” (2) at a time of heightened economic uncertainty and enduring anxiety about moral decay in urban settings. In Tanzania, then, religious groups have, through the provision of private schooling, come to exert a considerable influence on the formation of students as moral subjects and citizens, and in doing so have afforded their parent organisations and movements greater public visibility and political reach.

In this book, Learning Morality, Inequalities, and Faith: Christian and Muslim Schools in Tanzania, Hansjörg Dilger draws on ten months of ethnographic research in Dar es Salaam, over the course of which he investigated the ordinary lives of six religious schools, some Christian and others Muslim, all of which have sprung up in the wake of privatisation. While the book has much relevance to those interested in Tanzania’s education sector, Dilger is primarily concerned with what these schools can tell us about dynamics of moral subject formation and social inequality in Tanzania—though here, the analysis also speaks to settings far beyond East Africa, including other postcolonial contexts with religiously plural populations. Dilger examines how the everyday moral strivings of students, families, and staff members are shaped through a range of entangled processes at various scales: from the reproduction of (class-inflected) networks of belonging, and (post)colonial dynamics of religious difference and educational inequality, to the embedding of neoliberal logics and transnational education policies in state apparatuses and institutional arrangements.

Dilger’s capacity to trace how these different threads are entwined with the making of individual subjectivities is enhanced by his refusal to allow his analysis to be confined to “the micro-social environments that anthropologists usually study” (234). He triangulates his comparative ethnographic findings with relevant knowledge from secondary sources, archival materials, and quantitative datasets concerning (post)colonial historical developments in the East African region, as well as ongoing political-economic shifts that have resonance at a global scale. The book models an approach to social research that combines rich ethnographic insights into ordinary realities and individual experiences with “a stronger focus on institutionalisation [and] configurations of inequality and power” (31) than is conventionally associated with anthropological studies. To anyone who has lived for any length of time in Dar es Salaam, it will come as no surprise that Dilger found many of his daily interlocutors—including very young students—already engaged in developing their own critical reflections about how their individual life circumstances and trajectories are enmeshed with “large-scale political-economic forces” such as “(post)colonial history” and “globalisation” (229). As I often find in my own conversations with residents of the city, the legacy of revolutionary Dar es Salaam and its radical intellectual tradition still reverberates in citizens’ ordinary discourse and imaginings.

Dilger’s commitment to a mixed-method approach does not dilute his ethnography, which is rich and detailed. Over the course of three chapters, he examines micro-dynamics of moral self-formation in the individual schools—two Sunni Muslim, two Roman Catholic, and two neo-Pentecostal. Conceptually, he seeks to combine both postructuralist and “ordinary” approaches to studying processes of moral becoming (11-16). Values were instilled in staff and students, Dilger explains, through explicit forms of instruction and discipline, as the schools themselves were keen to convey to (prospective) student families and the general public. Values were also instilled implicitly through informal interactions between staff and students. Here, Dilger understands the habituation of ethical dispositions to be more than a matter of cognitive conviction; it involves the tuning of particular affective and embodied dispositions (many of which are class-coded). As he goes on to show, these “reorientations” transform how students and teachers relate to their educational materials; to their respective classrooms, peer groups, schools, and home settings—but also how they relate to broader “socio-moral environments” (14): to the city of Dar es Salaam, and to their nation and its history. These processes of reorientation, Dilger suggests, also actively help to cultivate socio-moral environments and senses of belonging—in the schools, as social ecologies that differentiate themselves from rival institutions and the wider city, and also, one imagines, through the broader social networks into which each school is enmeshed. None of this is to say, Dilger emphasises, that students and staff were passive “objects of disciplinary measures” (223), even if there was remarkable congruence between the values taught and the values embodied and expressed by students, as well as a disinclination to explicitly contest schools’ ethical codes. On the contrary, for Dilger, learning morality is always intersubjective and co-agential; moral becomings are fluid and only ever partially accomplished; and moral subjects in complex environments like Dar es Salaam live in the interstices of multiple, sometimes incommensurable, value frameworks which complicate any effort to enact a “continuous” (14-15) ethical self.

Dilger’s comparative approach positions the book in an important seam of literature on inter-religious encounters in African settings that places a particular focus on the necessity of apprehending Christian and Muslim groups through a unitary analytical frame (233). Dilger takes as his tertium comparationis the historical and socio-political conditions shared by Christian and Muslim residents in Dar es Salaam, even if this “common ground” is, as we will see, “highly unequal” (21). In this respect, I am especially interested in Dilger’s account of religious politics and inequality in Tanzania; a subject that lies at the heart of my own research in Tanzania (Kirby 2017; see also Ndaluka and Wijsen 2014). In Chapter 3, Dilger frames his account with reference to the emergence, in recent decades, of Christian and Muslim movements of revival in Dar es Salaam, with proliferating religious organisations competing for space and public influence in the city. These developments, Dilger proposes, have given rise to frictions within and between religious groups. In particular, educational inequalities between Muslims and Christians have become an enduring point of contestation among many Muslim residents. These disparities are not new: as Dilger explains in Chapter 2, Christians and Muslims had unequal access to education under colonial rule, as well as the corresponding status that this education brought them. Indeed, these inequalities have, Dilger suggests, become even more stratified in the wake of privatisation, partly due to the fact that the standing of Christian organisations in the education sector is more established than their Muslim counterparts, but also because Christian schools have had greater success than Muslim schools with respect to establishing ties with international donors (or, to cite an alternative interpretation, they have been granted more latitude to do so by the government following the onset of the Global War on Terrorism). As a result, Muslims continue to face more barriers to education services than Christians, and Muslim education institutions remain “structurally weak” (19) (on Tanzania’s only private Muslim university, see Njozi 2016). Amidst the politicisation of Dar es Salaam’s religious field, there has emerged a common perception among Muslim activist groups that these inequalities have been explicitly engineered by members of the Tanzanian government (itself framed as “Christian” or “Catholic”) as part of a wider anti-Muslim conspiracy (see Kirby 2017). Fascinatingly, in one of the Muslim schools that Dilger studied, he observed that the moral formation of Muslim male students involved the cultivation of a sense of religious difference, marginality, and vulnerability to hostility and danger in the context of Dar es Salaam (148-151); a “reorientation” that elicited sensations of injustice and anger (15), but that simultaneously afforded a sense of unity between students (175). This case stands in stark contrast to, say, the Catholic schools and the middle-class sensibilities and the self-perception of privilege instilled in their students (190-192).

Dilger is conscious of the political sensitivity of these matters but also convinced of the “need to introduce new evidence into the discussion” (94) which might generate “new lines of ethnographic inquiry” (95) for responding to these frictions. His discussion of the dissolution of the East African Muslim Welfare Society (85-93), drawing on hitherto unpublished archival sources, sheds new light on a controversy that unfolded in Tanzania’s first decade of independence and that has, in subsequent decades, become a sensitive “memory knot” (Stern 2004) for many Muslim citizens (see, for instance, Said 1998). Similarly, his account of government registration figures for Christian and Muslim organisations in Tanzania complicates claims from Muslim activist groups regarding the government’s purported scheme to prevent Muslim schools from being established (78-85). Elsewhere, his ethnographic findings point to divergent experiences and perceptions of social (dis)advantage even between the students and staff at individual schools, revealing “a more nuanced view of the distribution of power and privilege within and across the religious field” (226-229).

This book will clearly have an important influence on future research concerning morality, inequality, and education—and particularly among scholars whose work focuses on religion and/or African contexts. Yet the book’s influence may not be confined to university campuses, as Dilger himself seems to anticipate. Books have interesting lives, and this is particularly true in Dar es Salaam where a number of scholarly monographs on matters of religion and uneven patterns of development in Tanzania have, sometimes years after their publication, been swept up into ongoing debates concerning Muslim marginalisation that take place in the city’s ordinary streets and houses on a daily basis. There is every chance that Dilger’s book will join them.

Works cited:

Dohrn, Kristina. 2017. A “Golden Generation”? Framing the Future Among Senior Students at Gülen-Inspired Schools in Urban Tanzania. In Amy Stambach and Kathleen D. Hall, eds. Anthropological Perspectives on Student Futures: Youth and the Politics of Possibility.

Guner, Ezgi. 2021. NGOization of Islamic Education: The Post-Coup Turkish State and Sufi Orders in Africa South of the Sahara. Religions, 12(1): 24.

Kirby, Benjamin. 2017. Muslim Mobilisation, Urban Informality, and the Politics of Development in Tanzania: An Ethnography of the Kariakoo Market District. University of Leeds. Unpublished PhD thesis.

Ndaluka, Thomas and Frans Wisjen, eds. 2014. Religion and the State in Tanzania Revisited: Reflections from 50 Years of Independence. Münster: Lit Verlag.

Njozi, Hamza M. 2016. The Mission of the Muslim University of Morogoro in Tanzania: Context, Promises, and Challenges. In Mbaye Lo and Muhammed Haron, eds. Muslim Institutions of Higher Education in Postcolonial Africa. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Said, Mohamed. 1998. The Life and Times of Abdulwahid Sykes (1924-1968). London: Minerva Press.

Stern, Steve J. 2004. Remembering Pinochet’s Chile: On the Eve of London 1998. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.


Benjamin Kirby is Junior Professor for the Study of Religion (with a focus on global entanglements) at the University of Bayreuth. He is interested in questions of religious politics and urban transformation from the vantage point of Dar es Salaam, as well as other cities in the African continent and the Indian Ocean region. In particular, he is interested in how religion intersects with popular forms of economic and political activity, especially in the context of inner-city commercial districts and global trade circuits.


© 2023 Benjamin Kirby

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