Barbro Johansson was a teacher who became a missionary, a citizen of Tanzania, a member of parliament, an embassy advisor, and a popular educationalist. She was known as ‘Mama Barbro’ to a whole nation.
Barbro Johansson was born in Malmö in 1912. Her family had produced teachers for generations. Her father and mother were a head-teacher and public-school teacher respectively, and two of her siblings also became teachers. Once she had gained her school-leaving certificate from Tekla Åbergs högre läroverk för flickor (Tekla Åbergs’s advanced school for girls) in 1932, Barbro Johansson decided to to follow the same path. In order to qualify for teacher-training and to deepen her knowledge in her areas of interest she studied at Lund University, gaining a Bachelor’s degree in religious history, philosophy, and pedagogy. She then entered the public-school teacher-training programme in Stockholm.
Barbro Johansson’s first teaching post was in Malmö. She went on to spend seven happy years there. “From the outset I realised I was in the right place”. The more modern methods which she adopted there — including drama and gymnastics — would influence her teaching over the years to come. The basic elements of her future activities were apparent: pedagogy, politics, internationalism, and the women’s movement. Members of her family were also politically active. Her mother was a liberal whilst her father was a paternal and authoritarian right-wing man. “Perhaps I became a socialist because father was such an ardent right-wing man”, she said.
Although religion was not a topic of discussion in Barbro Johansson’s home, the children were all baptised and confirmed in the Swedish church and attended services from time to time. Barbro Johansson’s decision to become a missionary thus came as a complete surprise. She had come into contact with Evangeliska Fosterlands-Stiftelsen (EFS: the Swedish evangelical mission) and had attended a Christian students’ meeting in 1942. She initially applied to travel to India through EFS but in the end it was the Swedish Church mission to Tanzania which took her on.
After completing a month-long missionary course in Uppsala, and going through the formal ceremony of becoming a consecrated missionary in St Petri church in Malmö, on 19 June 1946 Barbro Johanson travelled to Bukoba in northwest Tanzania onboard the missionary airplane Ansgar. She spent her first two years on site teaching on a teacher-training programme for men, her first efforts of this kind on African soil. Throughout this time, however, she focused on re-opening a girls’ school in Kashasha which had been closed down during the Second World War. In February 1948 the first general school for girls was opened in the area, offering four years’ education, from fifth through to eighth grade. Barbro Johansson was the school principal. The intention was to teach the girls to be both good wives and mothers whilst also becoming engaged members of society who were equipped for future careers. A British school-inspector produced a very positive report: “I have never seen such a strong sense of community in a school – the children appear happy, independent, and well cared for”. Barbro Johansson worked at the girls’ school in Kashasha from 1948 until 1960.
The Tanganyika African National Union (TANU) was founded in 1954 with Julius Nyerere as its leader. Barbro Johansson found that what she had read about TANU in the press and Nyerere’s statements concurred with her hopes for Tanzanian independence. The two of them met for the first time when Nyerere held a rally near Barbro Johansson’s school in Kashasha. They began to correspond following their first meeting. “Our shared interest in education turned into a friendship and shared political views and I became increasingly engaged in TANU campaigns” she wrote.
In 1958 an initial election was held in preparation for independence and the party asked Barbro Johansson to stand as one of 10 white candidates. At the next election, in 1960, she was elected as a member of parliament for a period of five years and resigned her position as school principal. She moved to her constituency in Mwanza, south of Lake Victoria. The Swedish Church mission and church in Bukoba accepted the new direction her life was taking. She never felt there was any contradiction between her Christian belief and the political message of TANU. Barbro Johansson was impressed by Nyerere’s deeply ethical stance and his conviction that all people were equal. Nyerere also expressed his admiration for Barbro Johansson’s activities.
In 1965, following her first period as a member of parliament, Barbro Johansson once again became a school principal. The Tabora girls’ school was the sole government boarding school for girls which offered education from ninth to fourteenth grade. It was intended to be a place for educating the daughters of the nation’s elite but it had suffered from poor management for some time. Barbro Johansson endured a few difficult years at the school but eventually turned the place around. A number of her students became the first generation of female leaders. One of these women was Gertrud Mongella, who became a member of parliament, a government minister, and one of the few women within the party’s central committee. She was also elected as chair of the UN’s women’s conference in Peking in 1995. Another of the school’s graduates was Anna Tibajuka. She became the head of the UN’s Habitat section in Nairobi before she too became a government minister in Tanzania. Along with others who were “Mama Barbro’s girls”, she set up a school in the spirit of Barbro Johansson outside Dar es Salaam, which still offers stipends to poor but talented girls. The school is renowned for its success.
Barbro Johansson took on another task following her time in Tabora. From 1970 to 1973 she was appointed embassy advisor at the Tanzanian embassy in Sweden, whose remit included all of the Nordic countries. It was no easy duty dealing with the Swedish press, given her dual identity: a Swede who was a Tanzanian citizen.
Following Barbro Johansson’s return to Tanzania she once again became involved with Nyerere’s new adult-education programme. She became the head of section for the national adult-education programme at the education department in Dar es Salaam. “The goal was both to teach leaders to hold daily adult-education courses at each place of work and to mobilise the youth to participate as teachers in literacy.” Barbro Johansson herself was heavily involved in mobile teams offering courses throughout the country. Barbro Johansson served as a member of parliament on two further occasions: in 1975 she was nominated by the trade unions and in 1980 she was nominated by the party’s women’s association. Meanwhile she was also in close contact with the academic world. She was a member of the Dar es Salaam university board from its inception in 1970 until 1988 when she abstained from re-election. Further, she was an active member of the board for the agricultural university in Morogoro. She also received an honorary doctorate from the University of Gothenburg in 1968.
When Barbro Johansson reached the Swedish retirement age, the church in Bukoba informed the Swedish Church mission that she was welcome to continue working as normal. This involved running courses in villages and towns in all sorts of subjects, using the interactive pedagogy which she had always used during her teaching life in Tanzania. Barbro Johansson served as a bridge between Sweden and Tanzania. Julius Nyerere’s first visit to Sweden occurred in 1961, at Barbro Johansson’s invitation. On this occasion he met Tage Erlander and Olof Palme at her sister’s home in Bromma. This marked the start of a friendly relationship of collaboration and aid, lasting many years.
Barbro Johansson died in December 1999. Her final years had increasingly been spent in Sweden due to heath issues. The large congregation which filled Uppsala cathedral at her funeral bore testimony to her extended contact network: family, friends, politicians, diplomats, fellow missionaries, and Tanzanians living in Sweden.