Kula (Tanzania)

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Kula 🇹🇿
Tanzania map.png
Location: Tanzania
Definition: Lit. ‘eating', gaining access to resources to satisfy needs, often a euphemism for corruption
Keywords: Tanzania East Africa Sub-Saharan Africa Euphemism Food Access Problem-solving Need
Clusters: Domination Motivational ambivalence Co-optation Patron-client networks
Author: Richard Faustine Sambaiga
Affiliation: Department of Sociology and Anthropology, University of Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania
Website: Profile page at UD

By Richard Faustine Sambaiga, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, University of Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania

The literal meaning of the word kula in Kiswahili (also known as Swahili) is ‘eating,’ that is, one of the basic requirements for human survival. This may include getting access not only to food but also to other such basic needs as shelter and clothing. However, kula may also be used figuratively to denote ways of gaining access to resources that allow people to satisfy other needs and aspirations, including the use of corrupt practices. In Tanzania, indeed, the word is commonly used in order to normalise or justify corruption.

The frequency with which the word kula is used in Tanzania reflects the extent to which corruption has permeated everyday life in the country. It also sheds light on how individuals and groups strive to accommodate corrupt practices regardless of ongoing anti-corruption initiatives at various levels in the country. Attempts to close loopholes for corruption are seen as denying people the opportunity to eat (kula), in which case people complain about being hungry (njaa). This is especially true of those who benefit from corrupt practices, since their livelihood and efforts to realise their aspirations depend on such activity. But the term is also used by members of the elite not only to describe ways of satisfying their own desires, but also to justify distributing benefits to their clients and supporters.

The ways in which kula is used in everyday discourse in Tanzania can be divided into two broad categories. The first entails expressions that justify taking bribes or engaging in dubious deals in order to gain wealth or access to opportunities and resources. This first category includes but is not limited to the following:

1 (a). Kupata/kupewa ulaji (to get or to be given the opportunity to eat). These expressions refer to gaining access to opportunities and resources pertinent to the fulfillment of one’s aspirations and desires. They may for example be used when someone is appointed to a position in the public or private sector that allows easy access to resources. They may also denote securing a lucrative job, tender or business. In anti- corruption discourse, the expressions are used to describe people who use public office simply ‘to eat’ (kula tu), that is, to exploit public resources for their own personal interest. A similar practice, whereby those in power control appointments to posts at both central and local level, is known in Nigeria as ‘stomach infrastructure’[1], while Jean-François Bayart used a Cameroonian expression, ‘the politics of the belly,’ in his classic study of the relationship between clientelism, corruption and power in African politics[2].

1 (b). Kula maisha (to enjoy life). This is a powerful discourse which frames corruption as a means to enjoy life in the sense that of allowing people to gain access to resources and wealth. ‘Enjoying life’ is often expressed in images of ‘a better life’ (maisha mazuri) that highlight material possessions and the culture of consumerism. The accumulation of wealth, regardless of its source, is portrayed as something to be admired and desired. This in turn justifies and normalises corruption.

1 (c). Tukale wapi/tutakula wapi/tutakula nini? (where/what should we eat?). In this discourse, corruption is depicted as a means of eking out a living. In this case, eating is not limited to gaining access to food but includes a wide range of goods and services, while corruption is presented as an essential mechanism for coping with life’s challenges. This is consistent with literature on the causes of corruption which suggests that low and inadequate salaries paid to public servants exacerbate the practice of corruption[3][4][5][6]. Proponents of this view acknowledge the fact that, when confronted with pressing needs, people resort to all possibilities in order to satisfy them.

The second category includes expressions that justify giving a bribe in order to gain access to certain services, resources or opportunities. These expressions emphasise a sense of reciprocity grounded in the idea that nothing is for free: if you need something, you should give something in return (hakuna cha bure). This second category of expressions includes but is not limited to the following:

2 (a). Kula uliwe (in order to eat you should allow others to eat from you). This expression is frequently used to justify giving a bribe in exchange for a particular opportunity, favour or right. It is common when people are seeking to secure a tender, job or political position. Political corruption is taken for granted even by voters, who see state elections as ‘eating times’ or ‘harvesting sessions’ when aspirant politicians seek votes (kura) in order to obtain opportunities to eat (kula). While politicians bribe voters in order to get an opportunity to eat (kupata ulaji), voters take the opportunity to ‘eat’ from the politicians in return for their votes. Politicians will accordingly be allowed to ‘eat’ with impunity and guaranteed immunity from prosecution for corruption as long as they remain politically influential and continue to defend their voters.

2 (b). Wakale wapi/wanakula humohumo? (this is where they eat/where should they eat?). This reflects the third expression in the first category above, where officials in low- paid jobs ask, ‘where and what should we eat?’ It justifies giving a bribe on the grounds that the bribe enables the official to eke out a living.

As seen above, the notion of eating (kula) represents corruption as a means to realise multiple ends. Those who solicit bribes and those who give them justify their actions by reference to ‘eating’ in the sense of gaining access to basic, even essential needs. As a result, corrupt practices are depicted as justified and attempts to counter corruption by means of sanctions are undermined.

In their comparison of informal practices in Tanzania, Mexico and Russia, Baez-Camarga and Ledeneva explore patterns of informal governance that work effectively in all three countries, enabling members of the elite to maintain their grip on power while at the same time allowing ordinary citizens access to scarce services and resources. They argue that the resilience of corrupt behaviour across all three countries can be explained by the fact that informal governance norms are permeated with ambivalent meanings. In Tanzania, for example, they found that corrupt behaviour is both publicly condemned and privately tolerated since it provides effective alternative means of access to essential resources that are needed not only by the elite but also by the general population. ’Regimes with systemic corruption declare wars against corruption,’ they conclude, ‘but in fact are also dependent on existing corrupt practices for the purpose of reproduction and legitimacy’[1].


  1. 1.0 1.1 Baez-Camargo C. and Ledeneva A. 2016. ‘Where does informality stop and corruption begin? Informal governance and public/private crossover in Mexico, Russia and Tanzania.’ Paper presented under the auspices of the ANTICORRP project, University College London
  2. Bayart, J.-F. (1993). The State in Africa: The Politics of the Belly. London and New York: Longman
  3. Ferrinho P. et al. 2004. ‘Dual practice in the health sector: Review of the evidence,’ Human Resources for Health 2004 2:14 http://human-resources- health.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1478-4491-2-14
  4. Chand, Sheetal K., Moene, Karl O., 1999. "Controlling Fiscal Corruption," World Development, Elsevier, vol. 27(7), 1129-1140
  5. Mookherjee, D. 1997. ‘Incentive reforms in developing country bureaucracies. Lessons from tax administration,’ paper prepared for the Annual Bank Conference on Development Economics. Washington, D.C.: World Bank
  6. Andvig J. et al. 2000. Research on Corruption: A policy-oriented survey. Bergen and Oslo: Chr. Michelsen Institute and Norwegian Institute of International Affairs http://www.icgg.org/downloads/contribution07_andvig.pdf