This article was originally published by The Mennonite

Tanzania Mennonite Church marks 80 years

A look at the evolving relationship of U.S.-Tanzanian church relationships

Eighty years ago, a young Luo man on the shores of Lake Victoria hovered around the edge of a group of men. He had heard that white missionaries, newly arrived in Tanganyika, were looking for workers to help build their houses and that they planned to hire five men a month. Each month the shy young man came, and each month he failed to summon the nerve to ask for a job.

Finally, after several months, one of the missionaries noticed the quiet young man under the tree and called him over. “You have been here before,” one of the missionaries said. “What is your name?”

John Nyagwegwe, bishop of the North Mara diocese of the Tanzania Mennonite Church, says that Tanzanian Mennonites desire relationships with North Americans.
John Nyagwegwe, bishop of the North Mara diocese of the Tanzania Mennonite Church, says that Tanzanian Mennonites desire relationships with North Americans.

“Marwa Kisare,” answered the young man, who would become the first African Mennonite bishop. Shirati, the small village to which he went for work, would become the site of the first Mennonite congregation in East Africa.

The small dispensary that one of the missionaries began out of her home would become the Shirati Hospital, a 150-bed medical facility known throughout the country for its quality of care. And the Tanzania Mennonite Church—Kanisa la Mennonite Tanzania, or KMT—would grow from 21 believers in 1935 to 64,000 members today.

Eighty years after the missionaries arrived by dhow on the shores of Lake Victoria, Mennonites in Tanzania are no longer building houses for missionaries. Far from it.

Instead, they are doing educational, evangelistic, community development and medical work that, in the words of the mission statement of the North Mara diocese, one of 10 dioceses in KMT, “build on the inherent strengths of local communities.” With offices in Musoma, KMT has become a thriving national body of believers, with leaders confident in their mission to spread the gospel and improve the well-being of their neighbors.

The story of KMT is hardly unique. The well-worn narrative of global missions—colonial powers carve up territory and make it accessible to outsiders, missionaries arrive and do evangelism and development, churches grow and institutions develop, local leaders emerge, mission energy shifts elsewhere—played out in Tanzania as it did in countless other settings across the world.

Still, Shirati—which Mennonites there like to call “Jerusalem” because of its central locale in the history and imagination of the church—distills that narrative in intriguing and specific ways.

Dating Tanzanian Mennonite life and identity back only to the arrival of the missionaries would be a grand mistake, however. As Pakisa T. Tshimika and Doris Dube write in Anabaptist Songs in African Hearts, “Any person who takes time to listen to elders in African villages can report stories about African spirituality and the role God played in our lives before the arrival of the missionaries.”

Still, the 80-year anniversary of the first mission workers sent to Africa by Mennonites in Lancaster County, Pa., offers Mennonites on both continents the chance to take stock of their history, relationships and future.

What legacy did the early missionaries leave, and how has the Tanzanian church owned or rejected it? What does healthy collaboration between Tanzanian and American churches look like in the 21st century? And how can resources, both spiritual and material, shift from the paradigm of one-way transfer to a model of two-way sharing?

The shy young man who came to Shirati looking for work 80 years ago, Marwa Kisare (who became known as Zedekiah), and his peers became the first generation of Tanzania Mennonites. They played key roles in helping the early missionaries learn local languages and culture, and they also pushed the missionaries to expand the focus of their work from evangelism to education and to view the Africans as equals in Christ rather than as colonial subjects. “We pleaded for them to teach us English if they were unable to give us a general education,” Kisare wrote in his autobiography, coauthored with Joseph Shenk, Kisare: A Mennonite of Kiseru. “But they refused, saying that we had no need of English. ‘You cannot preach the gospel to natives in English,’ was their conclusion to the matter.”

Eventually, during the East African revival of the 1940s, in which missionaries confessed to Tanzanians their ethnocentrism and Africans confessed to missionaries their bitterness—along with a host of other struggles running both ways—the paradigm began to shift. Lancaster Mennonite Conference constituents still pressed Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities (now Eastern Mennonite Missions) to ensure that new believers in East Africa met central tenets of plain dress and other lifestyle and doctrinal requirements, even as Tanzanian Christians adeptly parsed the distinctions between core Anabaptist beliefs and Swiss-German cultural practices. Slowly, in fits and starts, they developed their own patterns of worship and discipleship, and the way was paved for local leadership of the church to emerge.

Shirati Mennonite Church was the first Mennonite congregation in East Africa.
Shirati Mennonite Church was the first Mennonite congregation in East Africa.

Tanzanian Mennonites still express satisfaction that their church gained independence before their country did. In 1960, the denomination was registered with the government, properties were transferred from the mission board, and the process of indigenization was well underway. Tanganyika as a country would only emerge from under the imperial thumbs of Germany and Great Britain a year later, in 1961.

The goal of Mennonite mission work all along had been that the Tanzania church be self-supporting, self-propagating and self-governing. EMM is no longer sending medical workers, community development workers or church planters, all roles that Tanzanians can now fill. A few long-term links do remain—Gloria and Joe Bontrager, sponsored by Eastern Mennonite Missions, do leadership training and mentoring of church leaders in Tanzania and Kenya, and EMM’s regional representative in East Africa, Aram DiGennaro, visits Tanzania Mennonite Church leaders several times a year and says EMM now serves in a “catalytic way, training trainers in strategic ways.” But the days of large mission budgets and a throng of career missionaries in the region are largely over.

Today’s leaders in the North Mara diocese of KMT voice dismay at what they perceive as a vacuum of relationship and interaction with Mennonites in the United States. Some Tanzanian Mennonites suggest that while the traditional missionary paradigm no longer fits, neither does what they perceive as a post-missions disconnect from the North American church. In a recent gathering of the executive council of the North Mara diocese, Tanzanian Mennonite leaders articulated a sense of abandonment by their North American sisters and brothers.

“There is nothing between us anymore since the missionaries left,” says Grace Okidi, a member of the executive council. John Nyagwegwe, bishop of the North Mara diocese, adds that the Tanzanian churches and North American Mennonite churches still need each other. “You don’t know us anymore, and we don’t know you,” Nyagwegwe says. “But we need you more now than we needed them in 1934; we just need you in different ways.”

So when a mission agency reduces its presence—because of the growing capacity of the local church, or changing missiological perspectives, or decline or shifts in funding—how can churches at both ends cultivate a new model of relationship? Nyagwegwe suggests that the model of congregation-to-congregation partnership is a key way that Tanzanian and North American churches can connect with each other. Fred Otieno, director of planning and development for the diocese, agrees. “It creates isolation if North Americans just send money,” he said. “Money alone can hinder sustainability of development work in Africa. When people come and participate in the work that we are doing, we are all richer for that experience.” Shantz Mennonite Church in Baden, Ontario, is helping to fund the construction of the Bishop Kisare Technical Secondary School, a church-owned school that Otieno hopes to open in 2015. Several members of the church traveled to Tanzania earlier this year to help with construction.

This type of congregation-level interaction is a model for the future, Nyagwegwe claims. It’s a model that EMM embraces as well. In 2012, during his first year as EMM president, Nelson Okanya, along with several Lancaster Mennonite Conference leaders, traveled to Tanzania and Kenya to explore what congregation-to-congregation relationships might look like in the 21st century. Okanya, who is originally from Kenya, says he hopes that “these relationships will continue to be nurtured and new mission energy will be unleashed.”

He is confident that, even as EMM itself faces declining giving from congregations, Tanzanian and U.S. Mennonites are making progress toward authentic relationship. EMM regional representative DiGennaro agrees, saying that a new vision is enlivening EMM’s work in East Africa, one that utilizes local assets rather than seeking more Western ones and that nurtures local leaders’ work in discipleship and mission.

Creating congregational partnerships can also fortify commitment—on both sides—to an Anabaptist understanding of the gospel. Otieno is concerned that young Tanzanian Mennonites are losing Anabaptist distinctives such as commitments to peacebuilding. He attributes this, in part, to the lack of theological education. The Mennonite Theological College of East Africa (MTCEA), established in 1937 as a Bible school and as a theological college in 1962, was once a vital center of theological and biblical education for pastors and church leaders in Kenya and Tanzania.

The college was recently shuttered for a term because of lack of funding, although it was reopened in January. “Many young Tanzanian Menno­nites now are just like most evangelicals,” Otieno says.

“We must have some centers of training at which young Menno­nites can learn Mennonite doctrine.” A group associated with EMM called Friends of MTCEA supports the work of the theological college.

Friends of Shirati, a nonprofit organization begun in 2005 by former missionaries, is another bridge between the Tanzanian and U.S. church. Working on projects proposed by hospital administrator Dr. Bwire Chirangi and hospital staff, Friends of Shirati has recently provided sterilizing units for the operating room and maternity ward, solar panels and a digital X-ray machine. With an estate gift, Friends of Shirati recently funded the digging of three wells in neighboring communities that are providing clean water to an estimated 15,000 residents. Water shortages remain a persistent challenge for the hospital itself, however, and the hospital administration is drafting a proposal for resolving this shortage for Friends of Shirati.

Additionally, Mennonite Central Committee works in partnership with KMT in conservation agriculture and food security, education and health care, and Mennonite Economic Development Associates has projects in agriculture and health in Tanzania.

Even as they welcome the support of Mennonites from other parts of the world for their ministries, Tanzanian Mennonites are also confident they have gifts to offer. They express concern that commitment to the Bible is eroding among Mennonites in the United States, and they also caution against the allure of technological solutions to all problems. “As you are moving on with changes in technology, this might sway people from the Word of God,” says Zedekia Achoro, pastor of the Shirati Mennonite Church. “We’d like to advise Americans that they should not be swayed.”

In contrast to the technology-saturated services of many Mennonite churches in Canada and the United States, hundreds of Mennonite congregations in Tanzania have either no building or else simple structures with half walls or tarps as roofs. Many in the North Mara diocese, one of the most economically depressed regions of the country, still meet under a tree. “The environment in which Mennonite leaders are working in Tanzania has a lot of challenges,” says deacon John Ojalla. “But all these do not keep us from carrying the Word of God.”

One hundred Mennonite congregations now exist in the North Mara diocese alone, a number that would certainly have startled the early missionaries back in 1934. And in 2012, KMT and the Kenya Mennonite Church formed a joint mission board called International Mennonite Mission of East Africa; “We are no longer churches that just receive missionaries but churches that send missionaries,” the church leaders state.

Even as Kisare moved from the edge of the crowd to the heart of church leadership, so have Tanzanian Mennonites moved to the center of their church’s story and future. Still, Tanzanian Mennonites suggest there is a role for the churchly descendants of the early missionaries. “Relationships should come back,” says John Nyagwegwe. “That is our cry.”

Valerie Weaver-Zercher, Mechanicsburg, Pa., is a managing editor at Herald Press. Her family lived and worked in Shirati during the 1960s and 1970s. She and her husband and three sons attend Slate Hill Mennonite Church. Weaver-Zercher took all the photos above.

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