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Doing "God's Work" in Tanzania

In Implicit Interfaith Connectivity 

Doing "God's Work" in Tanzania 

by Daniel Bellerose 

Bumping down the red dirt roads in East Africa, my wife and I made our weekly voyage to the city of Iringa. Our driver was Eliah, a biologist, birder, and devout Christian with a kind smile and a wonderful mind. After four months in Tanzania, I had developed an interest in interfaith development and decided to ask him his opinion of my work.

  Mount Meru, Tanzania – Photo:    holgersbilderwelt.de, C.c. 2.0 nd

Mount Meru, Tanzania – Photo: holgersbilderwelt.de, C.c. 2.0 nd

I wanted to bring people together, I told him, to unite Christians, Muslims, and Pagans in Tanzania while working to improve their lives communally. He looked me in the eyes and said with complete sincerity, “God will bless your work.” This sentiment was echoed by many in Tanzania, from the city streets of Iringa to the arid Maasai plains. Their fierce hope for unity both surprised and inspired me, especially when set beside the fear of interfaith engagement I’ve seen exemplified in the Western world.

“Third-world” nations have been relying on the principles of interfaith community development for generations, while Western thinkers are just now starting to explore and promote them. While neighbors of different religions often never speak to each other in the West, faith in Tanzania is simply a matter of life. It does not dictate the bounds of community.

  Hilltop view of Iringa – Photo:  Wikipedia

Hilltop view of Iringa – Photo: Wikipedia

My first experience of this built-in connectivity among religious communities came while spending a weekend in Iringa. We stayed with Mama Furaha, a wonderful woman whose name literally (and appropriately) means “happiness.” Her infectious laughter and constant smile imbue her life with a sense of worship. She is a social butterfly and spent most of our weekend together introducing us to various friends and relations. On one such visit, we walked to the end of a dirt road where a man stood by an old pickup truck, piled high with fresh produce. I approached him and, with stumbling tongue, asked, “Wewe ni mkulima?” Are you a farmer? He laughed and responded in perfect English. “No, actually I’m the former Archbishop of Tanzania. It’s good to meet you.”

On Sunday, we joined Mama for worship at the local Anglican church. We sang songs from our own country and attempted to sing songs in Swahili. There was laughter and dancing, and as always, everyone in the church shared an infectious smile. On the way home, we ran into another of Mama Happiness’ friends, a teacher in the local public school. She introduced us, and told us that he worshiped at the mosque up the road from the Anglican church. He happily greeted us and invited us to his home – as did almost everyone we met.

  Muslim girl – Photo:  Ümmühan Özkan, IHH, C.c. 2.0 nc nd

Returning home with Mama Happiness, I asked about her friendship with her Muslim neighbors. I was curious: how did she, a devout Anglican, view Muslims? What was her opinion on the difference between a Muslim and a Christian? Coming from a Western academic background and conservative Christian community, the difference between Muslims and Christians has been stark for me, and incredibly important. In my world, entire churches have split over the question I was asking. I anticipated the same response I had heard from many Christians in the West, and winced in anticipation. Her words came unexpectedly, refreshingly: “They worship on Friday, and we worship on Sunday. We’re brothers and sisters. There’s nothing else.”

It was a beautiful sentiment and has stuck with me since. This feeling of brotherhood and sisterhood pervaded communities in Tanzania. Everywhere we went, the expected animosity among Muslims, Christians, and Pagans was replaced by an openness and an understanding of the need to live in community. This isn’t meant to sugarcoat the religious populations of Tanzania. There are, of course, religious tensions in certain areas. But, on the whole, most people we met seemed to have an innate understanding of interfaith engagement. It was simply a natural way of life, rather than a learned philosophy.

  Maasi village – Photo:  Pixdaus

Maasi village – Photo: Pixdaus

Deep into our trip we visited a Maasai village in the desert flats beneath the Iringa plateau. The Maasai constitute one of Tanzania’s best known Pagan tribes. They have a relatively monotheistic understanding of God, somewhat similar to their fellow Abrahamic religions. Their God is called Ngai, which also means Sky, and is thought to dwell physically in the sky. As one anthropologist who joined us on the trip explained, their understanding of God is directly linked with their understanding of the sky. While calling them pantheists would be incorrect, they do invariably worship the sky along with their God.

During our time with them, we had a brief conversation with the men of the village. I wanted to learn more about their religion, so I asked: “Who is God?” They answered, “God lives in the sky” and laughed. One of their young men wondered, why did I ask that? It seemed novel to them that someone would even bother to discuss theology, when there were so many more pressing things in the community. God need not interfere with their engagement with those around them.

This is not to say that God is unimportant to them. But God is so obvious a fact that theological conversation is unnecessary. The fact that their God lives in the sky and the God of Islam lives in heaven doesn’t bother them. They feel no need to question their neighbors’ beliefs. They work together. They live together. And no matter what, they are all Tanzanians.

Where We Get “God’s Work” Wrong

Despite the structural connectivity I detected, faith-based development organizations from the United States typically assume that they must impose their own religious structures on the African communities they’ve come to serve. Working with several faith-based organizations while I was there, I found a sense of superiority to be disturbingly pervasive. The people of Tanzania not only needed our work, but they needed our faith – whether or not they were already Christians. Their understanding of interfaith engagement wasn’t particularly important. What was most important was that they shared our particular brand of understanding, which generally excluded their non-Christian neighbors from the community. This was considered “God’s work,” not the interfaith community which I had come to know and love, not the interfaith development on which my Tanzanian friend had given his blessing.

While their intentions came from a place of love, how these American Christians approach development in East Africa needs serious examination. “God’s work” can be ground-up rather than top-down, and should come from the people who understand the situation the best, that is, East Africans. The role of the Western development groups should not be conversion but encouragement. Of course, the situation in Tanzania is not unique. All over the world, a multitude of “developing” communities already have an understanding of interfaith engagement. To come into that picture and divide, rather than encourage, is not only irresponsible, but morally questionable.

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Fortunately, the story of Western development isn’t all bad. Since visiting Tanzania I’ve been researching faith-based development programs around the world. I founded the Global Symmetry Project for just this purpose, to research and promote principles of interfaith community in development work. There are faith-based organizations doing wonderful work in interfaith development and intuitively supporting structures that communities have established. Catholic Relief Services, for example, is one such organization. Both in Tanzania and around the world, their work acknowledges the various faith communities who are stakeholders in development, and works with them, rather than against them, to promote a more sustainable future.

Catholic Relief Services and organizations like it exemplify best practices in the world of faith-based international development nonprofits. Many communities around the world already exist in a state of interfaith harmony and may easily resonate with holistic development projects in their countries. The example of Tanzania, and the wonderful people living there, is an inspiration for those of us in the development world. There is a future for interfaith cooperation, sourced in ways we never imagined, and new achievements may be more attainable than we ever realized.