I Wish Id Been There: Tanganyika,
by James Hertzler
Seven congregations of Tanganyikan Mennonites and Eastern
Mennonite Board of missionaries (EMBM, Lancaster) met in a conference
on a Sunday afternoon in Shirati, early August 1942. They gathered
at 3:30 p.m. for communion, but that sacrament was postponed
for the moment because of stresses within the Tanganyikan church.
At the end of that meeting, which did not break up until 9:00
p.m., Africans and missionaries were changed people. I wish Id
been there to witness that.
Revival had been happening throughout East Africa, since the
latter 1920s, beginning in Rwanda and spreading to the Belgian
Congo, Tanganyika, Kenya and the Sudan. Mennonite missions began
on the eastern shore of Lake Victoria in the mid-1930s, initiated
by the Lancaster (PA) Conference mission board, the EMBM. Pioneer
missionaries were Elam and Elizabeth Stauffer and John and Ruth
Mosemann. Consultation with other missionaries on the field led
the Mennonites to the village of Shirati, near the border of
Evangelistic, educational and medical activities began immediately
and additional missionaries came in. They were instructed to
present the gospel in ways appropriate to the local African culture,
but the missionaries had not been well-prepared in cultural anthropology.
Misunderstandings and strains developed between missionaries
and the African converts and also between the missionaries and
their home board in Lancaster. African customs such as knocking
out front teeth, stretching ear lobes, and especially polygamy
were opposed by missionaries who wanted to impose new customs
such as requiring black shoes, unmustached faces for men and
uncut hair for women. Missionaries were sometimes insensitive
to their African brothers and sisters. The Africans ridiculed
the cultural errors and personal habits of the missionaries and
were jealous of the apparent wealth and power of the Westerners.
Impatience, gossip, hypocrisy and sin were present, according
to Bishop Z. Kisari.
Preaching and prayer preceded the conference in Shirati in
1942. On the last day of the conference there was a feeling that
God would visit us, wrote Kisari. Prayer, silence
and weeping occurred. Kisari described the event, writing, It
was as when you strike a match to petrol. People began
confessing their sins and our self-righteousness melted
before one another. The 5 ½ -hour meeting closed
with prayer. In Bishop Kisaris words, That August
evening in 1942 the Holy Spirit gave us the insight that both
the missionaries and the Africans were all lost from that one
true village of God the Father.
Lives were changed, of Africans and missionaries alike, and
they experienced new peace and joy with each other. The mission
of the church expanded in the latter 1940s and African leadership
emerged with ever-greater authority over their church.
James Hertzler is retired after 32 years
on the faculty at Goshen College as a history professor, teaching
African History among other things. He is an active member of
College Mennonite Church.
Mennonite Historical Bulletin, April