It was thirty years since I had been a priest in the Diocese of Zanzibar in the twilight years of missionary direction. They had not been fruitful years for me; nobody had worked out what to do with the last of the new missionaries in the parishes, and I was glad to be moved to a theological college where I knew, and everyone else knew what I was supposed to be doing.

I went back last year to research a book; I was there for five weeks during which I preached twelve times, at first haltingly, then more easily as the language came back. It was hot, it was tiring, it was disorienting. I learned to avoid the people who wanted to answer my questions, and to listen to those who did not. And I reached conclusions which I checked with others, and with the literature, and discovered I was in agreement with the experts. Which was reassuring, for five weeks is not a long time.

So, what did I discover? After my first day I remarked that there was more sense of order. I was inclined to say that people were more intelligent, but mental alertness may be the best way to put it. Which I should have expected; in my day only 14%of children had any schooling at all and this had risen to eighty-five percent.

The second astonishing discovery was to see children playing games. Complicated games. Sometimes with complicated home-made toys, the boys particularly delighting in handmade toy cars which could be steered with long sticks. And the girls playing hop-scotch. Are hop-scotch squares the key to everything? (No, I am sorry, hop-scotch is not Scotland’s contribution to world progress; ‘scotch’ is a form of ‘scratch’). It was only after my return that I discovered that children’s games scarcely existed in Britain before the industrial revolution. Children helped their parents; they did not play with one another. But once they played with one another, they learned the ways of the whole world, and their own worlds widened.

And the third discovery came a few days after my arrival when I started to preach to a packed church, a vast and untypical stone building dating from German colonial days, which I remembered as having been three-quarters empty. What was different? And it dawned on me; women wearing glasses. These used to be rare enough amongst men but the idea of glasses for women! I had already noted that people were better dressed, and better fed, and of course there were many more of them, but it took longer for me to realise that women had made more strides than had men. In all fields of life.

As I listened, I began to get some idea of how people regarded themselves and the world. First, there was a good deal of quiet pride in what had been done since independence. Tanzania was a ‘haven of peace’, and the name of the capital, Dar-es-Salaam, means just that. There had been political stability, and a degree of democracy – imperfect democracy, but government generally responsive to popular will. Compared with the neighbouring countries – Zaire, Uganda, Rwanda, they have been fortunate. And they also consider themselves more fortunate than people in Britain. There is a religious view that the west is largely lost to Christ and lost to decency, and this has, surprisingly, been accepted by many Africans. I was forced to argue that churches in Europe were not in as bad shape as we supposed. I had great difficulty in conveying my conviction that young people were good-natured, open to spiritual influences, and with a strong moral sense, even if not quite that of the church. And I began to wonder if my hosts did not regard, and want to regard, Africa as the Christian heartland, replacing a Europe and an America which had fallen by the wayside.

And now the church. It was not as different from early days as I expected. Except that things worked better. There was less inertia, more drive, as there was in the country generally. And there were more people in church. The national population was four times what it had been thirty years earlier, but Christian growth in Africa far outstrips population growth. It is estimated that these Christians have multiplied from 25 to 100 million from 1950 to 1975, and may well number 200 million today. But in a mainly Islamic area such as coastal Tanzania there were not the mass movements seen elsewhere. There are some converts from Islam, and whole villages have turned from Islam, but Islam is still a strong force. And many Christians are very worried about Islam and ask if there is not a central plan by Muslims to take over the world. I tried to suggest that Muslims the world over are aware that Muslim states are generally not very successful, and they tend to get over-sensitive because they feel that Christians, for their part, are more united than they seem to be and want to take over the world, and that this leads to extremist movements and statements. But Muslims and Christians generally try to get on in Tanzania.

The worship differs from early days, just as it does here. The old Zanzibar liturgy has given way to a ‘Provincial’ liturgy~ this is like shifting from English Missal to 1982 Blue Book, though propers from the old are sometimes inserted into the new, and the old is still used for requiems. Of course some bemoan the changes, and some think they came too late, but that is much as it is here. But there are also , revival’ meetings, and gospel songs inserted into the more formal worship – some being translations from the English which completely disregard the rules of Swahili grammar. All this is attributed to invasions by American groups, mostly Pentecostal twenty years ago. They swept up what are described as the ‘nominal Christians’ (did anyone ask what the Anglican church lacked which made them nominal?) so the Anglicans responded by putting on revival services and songs in order to win these back, which, on the whole, succeeded.

When I went to Africa in 1959 the consecration of Africans to the episcopate was consigned to the remote future. Then came independence, and virtually all bishops were African. Since then there must have been a good thousand – Roman, Anglican, Lutheran, other. About 100 have been removed from office for various offences or have just failed to prove up to the job – this is about the same proportion as missionary bishops from Europe and about the same as bishops anywhere else. Looking back, Africans could have, and should have, been permitted to take control much earlier. That they were not so permitted was due to more than just race; it is within living memory that British bishops were still sought for dioceses in some of the white dominions.

Finally, the trappings of Americanism are everywhere. Soft drinks, of all things. abound in a subsistence economy. But Coca-Cola, which nobody needs, is a symbol of a way of life which everybody wants. And if it precedes Christianity, it becomes a sort of bottled John the Baptist. which will trouble some people who think Africans should be Africans, and that means no Coca-Cola, no electric altar candles, no American music. But the ‘ old’ Africa was based on imported seeds – maize and cassava – and Africa received from other continents as it gave to other continents. And with the coming of transistor radios and the sight of the Echo Sounding Balloon in the night sky (as startling to an agricultural people as the Star of Bethlehem and leading in the same direction), the move to westernisation was accelerated. Of course there will be an African style in all this, but Africans are very much a part of world society. And they are more like other peoples in the world than is generally realised.
The Rev’d Gavin White

(from an article in the Scottish Episcopal Church Review – Winter-Spring 1995)

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.