Cinema, Community and Zanzibari Capitalism: A History of the Film Exhibition and Distribution Industries in Tanzania



For more than three generations going to the movies was the most popular form of leisure in urban Tanzania. From at least the 1950s, and in some towns well before, thousands of people went to the show each week. Movies, and the social experience of being part of such a large crowd, were so popular that a vibrant black market in cinema tickets burgeoned from the colonial through the socialist eras. Films—from India, Egypt, Europe and America-- were the cornerstone of urban conversations, as friends, neighbors and complete strangers debated the meaning and artistic style of the film they had seen that week.

This paper examines the business behind this most popular form of urban leisure, explaining not only who the men were who built the industry but exploring what their success as both capitalists and philanthropists illustrates about conceptions of being ‘a good man’ in early twentieth century East Africa.  The men who built the industry in East African forged and maintained impressive transnational networks of supply that allowed them to bring the latest technologies and cinematic styles to their communities. And they turned a handsome profit in the process. But definitions of  ‘success’ are always socially constructed and historically contingent. Comparing the cinema industry in early twentieth century East Africa to more common industrial patterns in America, England and South Africa demonstrates the particularities of East African capitalism and the ways in which social, cultural and religious concerns impacted not only business and businessmen, but their communities.

Laura Fair is a historian of Tanzanian urban social and cultural history.  Her first book, Pastimes and Politics: Culture, Community and Identity in Post-abolition Urban Zanzibar, 1890-1945 (Ohio University Press, 2001) illustrates how former slaves used the social and cultural tools at their command—including music, sex, Islam, fashion, football and neighborhood-- to demonstrate their freedom from slavery and articulate alternative visions of justice under colonialism. She has also published Historia ya Jamii Zanzibar na Nyimbo za Siti binti Saad (TWAWEZA, 2013) (A Social History of Zanzibar and the Music of Siti binti Saad). Her current project is a wide-ranging study of commercial cinema in colonial and postcolonial Tanzania, exploring changes in exhibition, distribution and reception over time. ‘Making Love in the Indian Ocean: Hindi Films, Zanzibari  Audiences and the Construction of Romance in the 1950s and 1960s,’ in Jennifer Cole and Lynn Thomas, eds., Love in Africa (University of Chicago Press, 2008) explores the complex interplay between popular melodramas, such as Awara (Raj Kapoor, 1951) and the struggles of men and women in Zanzibar to redefine love, romance and marriage over several generations. She teaches at Michigan State University and is currently in residence at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities and Social Sciences.

  • The Business History Seminar is organised by the Business History Centre and has been made possible by financial support from the Erasmus Research Institute of Management (ERIM) and the Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication.