Tuesday, 19 December 2017

An African at heart?

A couple of weeks ago the church I attend in Mbeya, Majengo Baptist, celebrated the induction of a new pastor. After coming back from a trip, I discovered I had been appointed a member of the organising committee! I cynically assumed I was appointed because I am wealthy (in the eyes of people here), and all committee members had to contribute money to the costs of the event. But to be fair, I have never been asked to be on a committee before and I have attended the church for a good number of years, so although this may have been a contributing factor, I’m sure it wasn’t the only reason; they probably just thought it was about time I took my turn!

When I first found out I was on the committee and they explained about needing to make a contribution, I asked to see the budget so that I could understand how the costs were being worked out. Most of the budget was for food. They were anticipating catering for around 300 people! The event would be held in the new church building (on the same plot of land as the current church), which at the moment is little more than a roofless shell but is significantly bigger than our current building, so money was also needed to hire plastic chairs (to supplement all the wooden pews that were moved there from the current church) and to decorate the stage area. People were also asked to bring any tarpaulin they had to create some kind of covering against either sun or rain (thankfully it didn’t rain). The budget seemed reasonable, except for the oil. They had included 20 litres of cooking oil! I confess I couldn’t hold back the nutritionist in me and suggested they reduce it. Lo and behold, at the next committee meeting (the only one I actually succeeded in attending), they announced what I had said, agreed to reduce it and joked that I should teach them how to cook using less oil! I was somewhat embarrassed but it was all in good fun, and I think they did reduce it a tiny bit as I think they ‘only’ bought 15 litres in the end. The rest of the meeting seemed to be about who hadn’t paid their contributions yet, whether we should serve chicken to the important guests and what colour clothes we should wear to show we were the committee members. Like committee meetings the world over, it seemed to take very long time to achieve very little!

The day (a Saturday) came and I turned up around 9am to help with the food prep. I came armed with a chopping board, knife and potato peeler as I had a hunch they might come in handy, as well as a kanga (local cloth) to wrap around me for an apron. Other than the fact I was told I shouldn’t use a kanga that is mostly white when working in the kitchen, I seemed to fit in. I set to peeling and chopping carrots. A small group of children soon gathered round me – they all know me as I have taught most of them in Sunday school. They were fascinated by the peeler and were soon taking it in turns to peel the carrots while I was busy chopping. They were also fascinated by how fast I chopped – that’s the benefit of using a board (which I have never seen a Tanzanian using). We sat outside on some steps as we worked away. The other helpers seemed to get a kick out of seeing me there, and enjoyed how I was learning to do things their way.

After the carrots it was peppers. We had some good maths lessons as we went, as they counted out how many slices of peppers I was cutting, and then we did some subtraction and a bit of English. Next was a big basket of tomatoes (at which point I had to move to a shady spot, as I was in the direct sun and it was strong). Finally I helped grate some ginger (by which point I had a nice fat blister on my finger). After that there didn’t seem to be much else I could do, so I wandered over to where the induction service was in full swing and listened in to a visiting pastor preach for a bit. It was great to hear him switch briefly into the Nyakyusa language and promote the Nyakyusa Bible! (This is one of the languages that we are working with – we hope the New Testament will be published in 2018).

Finally the service was over after much singing and dancing around the newly inducted pastor and the giving of gifts (of which there seemed to be a lot, including things like new suits for him to wear). I was assigned to help serve the important people (the pastors), who ate in the pastor’s office and the Sunday school room, but I soon realised I wasn’t really needed there, so I went to help serve the long queue of people outside. There was rice, cooked bananas, beans, beef and a hot chili sauce and the inevitable sodas. I had already eaten (I was urged to do so before we started serving, as others involved in cooking were also doing, otherwise we’d be eating very late after everything was over). The queue went on and on, I’m sure some people there had essentially come for a free meal rather than because they cared about the induction service. The children were all made to wait until last which, on reflection, is the exact opposite of what seems to happen at celebrations in England!

And then the dish washing began. Piles of plates to wash in buckets (on the floor, being filled from an outside tap), with an old bit of sacking as the dishcloth. The plates were very greasy and the water was cold, so even after washing with lots of soap and rinsing, they still felt greasy! I helped with this for a while, but it seems that dish-washing is what the younger girls (teenagers) are supposed to do, so I was able to hand it over, which is a good job as my back couldn’t take much more bending in awkward positions! After making sure all the plates had been gathered, it seemed like there was little more I could do, so I said goodbyes and started to head off, but before I had got very far one of the ladies asked if she could borrow my knife and board to cut up a chicken. It turned out there was a whole cooked chicken left, and some rice, and so now it was the committee members’ turn to get a treat (i.e. chicken meat) and have a soda.

It had been a long day and this is a long blog! And I haven’t even mentioned the smokey wood fires, the massive cooking pots, eating rice with hands (the rice being so greasy that it sticks together), the need to add purifying tables to the pre-meal hand-washing water due to the current outbreak of cholera in the region and my sunburn!

The next day the new pastor thanked me for helping, and told me people had asked him if I had been born in Africa! Someone else commented that though I am an ‘mzungu’ on the outside (i.e. I have white skin) I am an African at heart! While unfortunately this isn’t really true (I am all too aware of how often I don’t know how to behave in this culture and how different my thinking can be), I took it as huge complement, and I thank God that in so many ways I do feel that this is my home and that I am an accepted part of the church family.

As I reflected on the whole event, I was struck by how on one level it is just like an induction service in England – with visiting pastors, lots of guests, a church service, food and a busy team of people in the background making it all run smoothly. But on another level it was so totally different, from cooking outside over wooden fires to dancing with gifts up to the pastor to brightly coloured cloth bedecking the stage to the absolute necessity of sodas being provided (maybe that’s not so different from the absolute necessity of a British church providing cups of tea)!

It was certainly an experience I won’t forget, and I pray that I may continue to serve as part of the body of Christ in Majengo Baptist Church, as God leads me, despite the deep cultural differences that sometimes threaten to overwhelm me and make ‘church’ something I sometimes find very hard to attend. Please pray with me that this church might grow in maturity, that the new pastor would grow in wisdom, that God’s Word would be taught faithfully and that as a body we might be “growing in every way more and more like Christ, who is the head of his body, the church” (Ephesians 4:15 NLT).

Friday, 2 June 2017

A wonderful opportunity or a waste of time?

“The pastor will meet us in Mbalizi at 8.30am.” I picked up my two Tanzanian colleagues en route and arrived in Mbalizi at precisely 8.30am. The pastor was, indeed, already there, but he hadn’t expected us to be on time! He still had some shopping to do and the shop he needed to go to was still shut. While we waited, he invited us all to a little cafĂ© to get breakfast. I declined to eat what the others chose – chicken, stock (with flat globules floating attractively on top) and chapattis (greasy but yummy). I couldn’t quite stomach that for breakfast and was glad I’d already had my porridge!

We had been invited to teach at a seminar in a village church in the Malila language area. The pastor was a former student of mine, someone I had taught at Southern Bible College (Tanzania Assemblies of God), and who was keen for me to visit his church and teach. He had got in touch with me through one of his fellow students, Oscar, who now works with us as a Bible translator. So Oscar came along too, together with Heri, a Malila colleague who would be able to teach people how to read their language.

We finally left Mbalizi at the time I thought the seminar was supposed to start! The village proved to be further from the main road than we had anticipated (a good 40 minute drive), and the road was quite rough and included a somewhat rickety bridge! However, we travelled safely, even if my car did get covered in dust (inside and out).

We had been told that we would have a morning and evening session on Saturday, an opportunity to preach in the Sunday morning service and another session on Sunday evening. We prepared to teach a number of topics: The importance of reading the Bible so that we can grow spiritually; how to read the Bible carefully and meditate on it; Bible overview; the need to love and value our children and teach them God’s Word; how to read the Malila language. We did indeed have all three sessions, however, over half of each session turned out to be choirs singing, so I had a lot less time than anticipated to teach! The choirs sang and danced with gusto and the sound system was loud – I found stuffing toilet paper in my ears helped make the volume bearable. My favourite songs were the ones sung without the sound system, where I was actually able to understand the words rather than them being drowned out by the music. By the end of two days I felt like I had spent a disproportionate amount of time sitting around compared to teaching. Each day we spent a good hour getting there and another hour getting home (after an unnerving drive in the dark). Each day I was in the village for about eight hours, but was only teaching for a couple of those. It felt like a very inefficient use of my time. But was it?

There were up to a hundred people there, from more than one church, who seemed to engage well. We were warmly welcomed by all, food was provided for everyone and all our expenses were covered. They even gave us a gift towards the project as well as a large sack of peanuts and another of maize. The pastor said more than once that he wants me to go back and teach for a whole week next year, though I find it hard to know whether the enthusiasm is to do with my white skin (which is very rarely seen there and so sadly people often see us as something of an attraction and even as superior) or a genuine desire for the things I teach, so I might be declining that invitation! However, usually we are the ones arranging workshops, encouraging churches to get on board, struggling to get people to contribute to the costs and therefore covering most of the costs ourselves. While this has the advantage of us being able to do things as we want (from setting the schedule to inviting participants from multiple denominations) and being necessary in new situations where we’re not known, it was refreshing this time to be invited and provided for.

So was it a waste of time? I don’t think so. But I do have to frequently remind myself that God’s economy is different to humans’, and trust that He can and will multiply the work of our hands.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Not alone

You have heard a lot about what I do here in Tanzania, so now it’s time I introduced you to some of my colleagues and helped you get a feel for the scope of Scripture Engagement work in Mbeya.

Jo records some Safwa singers
Jo (a British lady) specialises in making audio and audio-visual Scripture products available to people in their language, as many people prefer this way of engaging with Scripture, and some people can’t read. This week she is going to the Bungu language area to record local people reading Ruth and Jonah in their language. Once she has finished editing the recordings, we hope to distribute them via phones, CDs, radio and solar-powered audio devices.

Konga & Heri are kept busy supervising the literacy and Scripture Engagement (SE) workers who live in their language areas. They themselves were once literacy & SE workers in their own language areas – they did such a good job that we invited them to come and work in our main office in Mbeya to support their colleagues. They are frequently travelling to visit their colleagues, to encourage and advise them and help them teach workshops. We primarily conduct two kinds of workshops – one is to train Sunday school teachers in interactive ways to teach children the Bible (this often includes teaching them to read their language so that they can use local language Bible resources with the children) and the other is to train leaders in churches to read their language and prepare and lead Bible studies.

Frank (Tanzanian), Karin (German), Alison (American), Gift (Tanzanian) and Baraka (Tanzanian) focus primarily on literature production and literacy training, but their work often overlaps with Scripture Engagement, as books and literacy (as well as Jo’s audio and visual resources) are all essential to helping people engage with Scripture.

Literacy & SE colleagues (photo taken 2016, a couple more people have joined the team since then)
Prisca, Mwangunga, Mwangosi, Sambwe, Ngwatta, Nsolelo, Amani, Nzowa, Pitrosi, Majaliwa and Nyambo live further afield – they are the Literacy / Scripture Engagement workers who live and work in their language areas. They are involved in advocacy, teaching people to read their language, leading Bible studies and groups for listening to audio Scriptures and training others to do the same. They have a challenging task! Some have taken bold initiatives. Nsolelo & Amani recently started up two ladies’ football teams in Amani’s village, Mshewe. Before practising, the young ladies meet to learn to read their Safwa language and study the Bible together! A couple of other neighbouring villages have also started teams, led by Safwa literacy teachers.

Young ladies playing football in Mshewe
These are just the people directly involved in Scripture Engagement here in the Mbeya Cluster Project. There are so many more who are essential to the overall goal of seeing people engaging with God’s Word in their language and being transformed by it. I haven’t even mentioned the translators, linguists, IT specialists, administrators and others involved!

So, I’m not alone in this work! I have my own specific role to play, but I am very much a part of a broader team, and it is my privilege to work alongside these people. Please pray that God would direct our steps and that we would work together well, with God as our ultimate leader and teacher.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Laugh or cry?

Coming back to Tanzania after four months in England meant that certain aspects of living here became freshly frustrating – sometimes it can be hard to know whether to laugh or cry. But then there’s other things that I see that give me a good giggle, where a local person wouldn’t notice anything strange. So here’s a few things that I’ve smiled about during my time here:
  • How do you tie back the curtains in church? Pringle tubes cut up to make loops!
  • How do you transport your pig? On the back of a motorbike! In fact, I would love to have my camera ready in time to snap pics of the many things I have seen on the backs of push bikes and motorbikes, from armchairs to trays of eggs piled high to baskets of live chickens.
  • While many younger people here follow the fashions we may follow in England (especially university students), there are some who have a uniquely Tanzanian dress sense. There’s the bright printed fabric trouser suits, the shiny lilac suit a colleague of mine wears (replete with shiny pointed shoes) or the man I saw walking to church today wearing a bright pink t-shirt, shiny pink trousers and pink shoes. I think they find our way of dressing often rather too casual – I certainly get the most complements from Tanzanians when I am wearing one of my locally made outfits.
  • Who should be in class first – the student or the teacher? At a workshop I was teaching on for colleagues, a student ran ahead of me to reach our room first, as it’s not good for the teacher to be the first to turn up! (I wish this happened in our village workshops though, where everyone is happy to be an hour or more late!)
  • I went to a local shop (situated on the grounds of the prison) to pick up a few items and suppressed a laugh when my shopping was packed into…wait for it…ASDA bags!!! Where did they come from?!
  • Have you ever seen a rain frog? Little things that puff up and give off quite a croak. They’re hilarious.

And here’s some times when I don’t know whether to laugh or cry:
  • Getting back from a couple of weeks away to find that all my rice flour has gone mouldy. As I try to avoid wheat, and therefore have to arrange for rice flour to be ground rather than just going to a shop to buy some, this could have made me cry. But then I have to smile too – I’d never have had to spread my flour out on a sheet to dry out before using it in England! And the neighbours’ kids happened to be visiting when I discovered the problem, so one of them emptied out the flour, another cleaned out the tub and then we played Uno! It’s impossible to be upset surrounded by excited children.
  • Discovering some lush chocolates a friend sent have strangely melted and become infested with bugs. This has only ever happened once here, but why did it happen to this particular form of chocolate?! Bugs, bugs, bugs – we are often chasing cockroaches, swatting flies or sifting weevils out of flour. However, I recently spent some time in a town near Lake Victoria, and I suddenly realised how fortunate I was to live in Mbeya. Our cockroaches are slim, smallish, brown things, while theirs were big and black. We only get ants round our waste food bin, they have them running in a constant stream across work surfaces, however clean they might be.
  • Back in Mbeya I pulled on my sandals for my first day’s walk to work. As my feet quickly became dirty from the combination of wet grass and dirt footpaths, I remembered that I had been choosing to wear walking shoes rather than sandals to go to work. I feel like I never have clean feet here, but I do rather like wandering around bare foot!
  • Water pressure – another frustration. Often the pressure isn’t high enough for my electric shower to turn on, so I have a cold dribble of water to bathe in. The strange (and good) thing is that my housemate’s shower doesn’t seem to have this problem, so when I just can’t face the cold dribble, I use her shower. I really need to get someone out to look at it, but finding good plumbers who turn up on time is as much of a challenge here as in England!
And so I am settling back into life in Mbeya, with plenty to laugh over if only I have eyes to see it, so much human and divine creativity to make me smile. And in those times when it all just feels too much, I know that God knows what it’s like to suffer and He sees my struggles, and tomorrow is a new day.

Amazing rock formations (Musoma, near Lake Victoria, north Tanzania)
Enjoying colouring truths about God