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Signs of the Prophetic Church in Tanzania


Signs of the Prophetic Church in Tanzania

Bishop Method Kilaini

The Church as Builder

The Catholic Church had its own type of non-negotiable prophecy from its earliest beginnings in Tanzania – to develop people through education and care for them through health services. Often mission stations started as schools. Many of the liberation leaders, including Tanzania’s first president, Julius Nyerere, were educated by the church. If faced with the choice to build either a school or a church, missionaries built the school. Just seven years after independence, in 1968, the church celebrated its centenary in Tanzania. Church workers had established 1378 primary schools, 44 secondary schools, 8 teacher training colleges, 15 trade schools and 48 home-craft centres in a mere hundred years. At that time, the church also ran 25 hospitals, 75 dispensaries, 74 maternity clinics and 11 medical training schools.

During colonial times, the church did not strongly oppose colonialism unless an officer was extraordinarily harsh to people. Often missionaries complained rather than take concrete steps of protest unless the injustice affected their survival as a church. Most did not support armed struggle and prevented the faithful from getting too involved until independence was assured. The lack of strong church involvement during the country’s liberation diminished its moral authority to criticise after independence. This was the case not only in Tanzania, but in many newly independent African nations.

At independence, Nyerere’s charisma captivated the masses. While his political theories sounded like a chapter from the Acts of the Apostles, their implementation was hardly perfect. When Nyerere made mistakes, only a few, such as Bishop James Sangu of Mbeya1, raised their voices in dissent.

In 1970, all schools except seminaries were nationalised. The church did not protest, but patiently continued its social ministry through health services, not knowing whether one day these services would also be nationalised.

In the 1980s, private schools were again allowed and the church began building. By 2003, she was running 513 kindergartens; 126 secondary schools including 26 junior seminaries; 20 primary schools; 73 technical and vocational schools; 54 home-craft centres for girls; two teacher training colleges; and six schools for the handicapped. Today, the church also administrates a university with four campuses. In the medical sector, she runs 43 hospitals, including an 850-bed consultant hospital in Bugando Mwanza, and 323 health centres and dispensaries.

The Church as Advocate

The years preceding the fall of the Berlin Wall were a momentous time around the globe. The historic event was a symbol for the whole world and a watershed to reform. In Tanzania, the church as well as the rest of the civil society awoke to their moral duty to defend the weak and the voiceless. The church continued with its social ministries, but no longer as a silent onlooker just waiting to fill the holes made by an irresponsible leadership.

After Nyerere resigned in 1985, corruption reached a very high level. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, it had become the norm. The Christian Professionals of Tanzania (CPT) wrote a critical and prophetic document, “Corruption and Public Losses,” after a seminar on corruption in 1990. This was preceded by another document, “Towards a New Tanzania.” Since then, they have continued with seminars and booklets on the different issues in the country.

CPT’s efforts gave data to the bishops who then addressed certain issues in their individual statements and speeches. In May 1993, the bishops issued “Ukweli Utawapenu Uhuru” (The Truth Will Make You Free). In this letter, they condemn the social evil of political lies, stating, “It is sad that in the political sphere there is a lot of cheating, lies, cunning, hypocrisy, double standards, bullying, ... the leadership is uncertain and has lost the vision of our nation.”2 In November, they published “A Good Conscience is the Vision of our Nation,” which analyses the national vision and criticises leadership for “monopolizing and appropriating the wealth of this nation.”3 The bishops refer to the breakdown of the constitution, lawlessness, abuse of freedom, individual profit-making from national wealth and the oppression of the poor in the name of economic liberalisation. They further explain the real meaning of vision, ideology, freedom, truth, peace and development, along with the duties of a good government and the role of faith and religion.

With the reintroduction of the multiparty system, the church, through its Justice and Peace Commission and other civic organisations like CPT, mounted a sensitisation and education program to teach people about democracy. The bishops issued directives prior to the first multiparty general elections in 1995, “Maelekezo ya Maaskofu Katoliki Tanzania juu ya Uchaguzi Mkuu wa Oktoba 1995” (Guidance of the Catholic Bishops on the General Elections of October 1995). They continue to give pastoral directives before the general elections.

Before the 1995 elections, Christians formed a common advocacy body, The Tanzania Ecumenical Dialogue Group (TEDG), to inform churches on matters concerning the social, economic and political welfare of the people. In 1995, TEDG coordinated the election-monitoring program. It trained 8760 observers and fielded 2400 official monitors, in addition to its other activities. Since then, TEDG has been sensitising and monitoring elections in the country in the name of the churches. During and at the end of the election TEDG evaluates the election process.

The Church as Agent of Peace

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, some Muslim youth trained in and financed by fundamentalist Muslim nations began preaching for Muslim liberation from Christian domination, destroying pork shops, desecrating bibles and endangering peace. Some Christians retaliated with their own fundamentalism. Fortunately, the conflict brought moderate Christians and Muslims together. In 1993, moderate Christians contributed financially to strengthen moderate Muslim organisations, since they lacked the monetary support enjoyed by fundamentalist groups. These Christians and Muslims, under the Tanzania Muslim Council (BAKWATA), the Protestant Christian Council of Tanzania (CCT) and the Catholic Tanzania Episcopal Conference (TEC), formed a joint committee for planning and action. The partnership represents more than three quarters of the religious population in Tanzania. Their main objective is to maintain peace and fraternity among believers.

With the introduction of the multiparty system in Tanzania in 1992, some unscrupulous politicians have tried to use religious differences to further their own political programmes. However, the joint committee has taken a common stand on political and social issues, so that religion is not manipulated for political gain. Since 1997 they have worked toward consensus in the Zanzibar conflict, meeting with the president and other government and party leaders to discuss the issue. Following the 2001 elections, an opposition party demonstration turned violent. Over 20 people died, many shot by the police. For the first time, citizens sought refuge in neighbouring Kenya. After writing a common statement on the conflict, the joint committee called for a conference of leaders from both the ruling and opposition parties to talk about unity, peace and forgiveness in democratic competition. They aimed to block moves by some political parties to divide people politically along religious lines. The conference was attended by top leaders representing all 13 parties. The Zanzibar Muslim leadership has joined the efforts which continue to date. The committees include top religious leaders and experts and exist at the national, regional and district level in many areas. These initiatives have spared Tanzania from a disastrous religious conflict.

Christian and Muslim fundamentalists in Tanzania still speak of crusades and jihad. Also, a well-organised group of Muslim scholars tend to blame their problems on Christians, inciting Muslims to liberate themselves from Christian domination. While Catholic leaders find it easier to work with other Christian leaders, they have slowly learned to interact with leaders of other religions, Muslims in particular. This is not always easy. All the same, Tanzania is a positive example of practical cooperation between Muslims and Christians. Perhaps this is the greatest of the church’s prophetic voices.

The Church as Challenged Prophet

Though the church has addressed the local situation, overall she has been too silent. Like the rest of the Tanzanians, she can quietly tolerate much. Tanzania has not had the governance, tribal, military and religious crises that many African countries have had. Church leaders can meet the country’s top leaders and express their concerns without having to criticise publicly. Although an effective method, quiet diplomacy has often made the church too accommodating. The church must become more vocal, continuing to expand its communications network which includes radio, television, newspapers and internet. The consistent use of print, electronic and live media can assist the church in her prophetic mission.

The next challenge is to learn how to defend the poor against the ever powerful rich. We must fight against the devastation of land by dubious ‘western investors’. The rich are defended as promoters of development by the capitalist world to the detriment of the poor.

The future of the prophetic church in Africa and Tanzania in particular is promising. The prophetic church must follow the example of Daniel who shouted against injustices as he defended the innocent Susana. We must cry foul against those not adhering to the laws of the common good, especially the powerful, while working to transform unjust situations.


1 Sangu was chairperson of CARITAS Tanzania at the time. While accepting African Socialism, he boldly criticised the malpractices of its implementation.

2 Bishop of Tanzania, “Ukweli Utawapenu Uhuru” (The Truth Will Make You Free), 1993.

3 Bishops of Tanzania, “A Good Conscience is the Vision of our Nation,” 1993.