For nearly 15 years, Christ Lutheran Church in Marine has partnered with a Lutheran “sister" church in central Tanzania. Every few years, small groups from St. Croix area churches have made the 19-hour flight to Dar as Salaam (capital of Tanzania) and driven 10 hours to the smaller city of Iringa.
Last November, as we drove from the tropical lowlands toward the cooler drier highlands, we passed many small villages. Lining the highway were tiny stalls made of sticks with thatched or corrugated tin roofs, filled with fruit, sodas, hardware and plastic housewares. Heavy wooden bed frames were laid out on grassy slopes. Village women regally balanced baskets of food or wares on their heads. Many women had babies nestled in slings on their backs. Men with bundles of sticks or bags of rice on their heads rode by on bikes. At times we saw a Massai herdsman wrapped in scarlet cloth, his long thin staff in hand, tending small herds of goats or long horned cattle.
Weary, we arrived at the Lutheran Center, our home for the following two weeks. April, our missionary liaison, had planned a busy itinerary for us for the next week, before the trip to Ugessa, home of our sister church. The following five days were spent touring various projects, which included well drilling, the “Million Trees Planting project," the SACCOS (offering small low interest loans), and a Christian radio station. We met with our Tanzanian counterparts to get updates on their successes and challenges. We toured Neema Crafts, a nonprofit run shop employing craftspeople with disabilities. We visited a preschool, a school for unwed mothers, toured the University of Iringa and Illulu Hospital. (Recent updates from the diocese inform us that Illula Hospital has been preparing for COVID-19 and that the Iringa area is managing the pandemic thus far.) We played with children at Huruma Orphanage. All spartan by western standards, but welcoming.
We shopped for souvenirs at the Massai market, which sells jewelry, woodcarvings, fabric and artwork to tourists, as well as the big bustling city market. At Boma History Museum we learned how in the late 1800’s the local Hehe warriors repelled German invaders. However, they were later colonialized by Germany. After WWI, Britain took over until 1962 when Tanganika became an independent nation, changing its name to Tanzania in 1964.
Despite economic challenges and a high birth rate, this fledgling democracy is stable and safe. The people we saw were gregarious and cheerful. We visited 14-year-old Mary, one of our church sponsored students at Image Secondary School. The $300.00 yearly tuition is prohibitively expensive for most Tanzanian families, so some of our local churches pay the expenses. Mary, who is preparing for a career in computer science, is evidence of the value in supporting education, which will propel Tanzania forward economically.
Tanzania is a socially conservative country. Roughly half it’s people are Muslim (mostly in the eastern part of the country), and half are Christian. About 2% practice a tribal religion. Missionaries from Germany arrived in the area in the late 19th century, and while not always culturally sensitive, they taught a faith that was fully embraced by the local population. We saw that faith in action as we visited Ugessa and it’s surrounding village churches. Each church we attended had a lively toe stepping; handclapping welcome, harmonized singing and drumming on homemade skin drums. We, as their honored guests, were warmly drawn into their dancing circles before being led into the simple mud brick building. People dressed the best they could afford, women in brilliantly colored dresses, and children with leaf circlets around their waists. One young boy was uncomfortably ensconced in a haybale, a hole cut out for his face.
Sunday worship at the main church in Ugessa began with thirty minutes of high energy line dancing accompanied by their new electronic keyboard, as a female singer belted out hymns in Swahili. After a long service (2 ½ hours), that included liturgy, sermon, a charismatic chorus of prayers ending in impromptu songs, we feasted on chicken, rice, cooked greens, and boiled potatoes, finishing with fresh mangoes. Meat and rice are luxuries for ordinary Tanzanians. Their staple diet consists of “Ugali", a cornmeal mush served with vegetables.
During our three-day visit to Ugassa, we stayed in the pastor’s home. Small bedrooms surrounded a courtyard. A dark, cavernous room served as the kitchen. A group of five women cooked meals over an open fire. Our milk came from a cow tethered nearby. Water was carried in buckets from a well. In a tiny back room, our toilet consisted of a porcelain covering which was placed over a hole in the ground and a bucket of water for “flushing."
Days began before dawn as the women made a fire and warmed water. As I sat in the courtyard to finish knitting hats for local babies, the women watched in fascination. Having never seen anyone knit before, they were eager to learn the technique. They were delighted to give it a try.
One memory that remains with me was the evening devotions, led by Suzanne, our group leader and Upenda, our pastor/translator. We each spoke from our experiences and our hearts. As we prayed together, we sensed their love and care for us. Our faith family so far away in Ugessa, will always be remembered.