Greetings from Tanzania! Happy New Year!
We had some wonderful days over the holidays with our niece, who has lived and served with Peace Corps in Mozambique for the last few years. Reflecting on our conversations with her has led us to some deep thinking about an issue that is clear to everyone here but is often difficult to discuss elsewhere: being white in Africa.
We live and serve at a university with over 75 staff and faculty and nearly 4000 students. There are six white folk in that group. We are 2 of them. Everyone knows who we are—students in law, education, and social sciences, whom we have never met and will never teach—they, along with their professors, know who we are. We stand out—not just because of Cynthia’s white hair nor Mark’s great height. No, the color of our skin makes us remarkable and memorable in ways that are different, requiring adjustment on our parts.
We look like early missionaries—and colonists—who arrived in East Africa in the 19th century. We come from and represent a partner denomination—one of a group of 13 partners, all of whom are majority white denominations and organizations, which provide a lot of the university’s financial support. We witness lots of examples of donor-driven activity here—programs that exist because someone—generally a white person—in a foreign city far away decided that the program was needed, or the building should be built, or a staff or faculty member should serve here.
We teach at a university that has one of the best academic libraries in East Africa, a library that holds the largest group of research about the church in East Africa in the world (RESEARCHER FRIENDS TAKE NOTE), and a book and database collection that would look paltry and insufficient for any institution of like size in the US. Our students come to us from an educational system that is underfunded and schools that are overcrowded. These realities have a great impact on what, and how, we can teach.
Over the last three years, we have had a number of students leave campus for a time because of the death of one of their children. Others have left because their wife or husband died. On two occasions, one of our students has died. The terminal illnesses varied in these cases, having only one thing in common: they were all treatable.
We serve in a deeply patriarchal society, the impacts of which splash over into the church. Some parts of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania partner with the ELCA. Others partner with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. Our students, and many in the ELCT, perceive that the money of the partners comes with strings attached—either pressure TO ordain women or NOT TO ordain women. Leaders strive to keep all relations with the partners copacetic, while (sometimes openly) resenting the power that these white-led partners in ministry have over ministry here.
All of these issues are impacted by race—so being white and serving in Africa, a distinctly non-white space, puts us in positions that are clearly privileged and often painful. Tanzania is in the process of registering all residents with national identification cards. The process includes many steps and lots of visits to different offices. The lines are long and require patience—and for us easily-burned white folk, hats—as we stand in the hot sun. In one of these lines last month, our years in Africa rendered us both not surprised and chagrined when a government official, who saw us through a window, came out and told us to jump the line and come inside. Part of this is because our process is different and longer because we are not citizens. Part of it is because we are white. Walking past old people, moms carrying babies, and people with disabilities to get served first is awkward, and it reinforces colonial ideas about race which we work to disrupt.
As white disciples serving in Africa, we are really grateful for our colleagues and students, who have welcomed us to ministry here at the University. Serving here offers opportunities for deep conversations about all of these issues in our classes, as race impacts the way we read the Bible, understand mission history, comprehend God, view the church and relate to each other. Being white in Africa has changed us.
We are looking forward to congregational visitors this year—a great way to start these kinds of conversations. Ugandan missiologist Emmanuel Katangole views the sacred act of eating together as a missiological model that bridges differences and creates space for the building of mutual understanding. We share some pics below of US college students and our students eating together, experiencing the power of this model. We have no doubt that everyone who takes part in visits here will have this as part of their time. The impact of visiting is both significant and lasting! If you want to talk about coming to see what God is doing here at the university, please be in touch!
We are preparing our 2020 congregational visit schedule. Some dates are reserved, and others are in conversation. Congregations pay for travel, meals and lodging. We expect by March 1 to have the weekends reserved. There are some August, September, October weekends and lots of time during the week available. Contact us soon if you’d like to see us this year! We really look forward to seeing you! Here, some views of our life over the past month, including the visit to campus of a J-term class of 30 students and their profs from Carthage College, an ELCA school in Kenosha, WI.
As always, we thank you for your support, without which none of this would be possible. Blessings in this Epiphany season! May you see, hear and experience God’s revelation in new and powerful ways as this year begins.
In Christ, Cynthia Holder Rich and Mark Rich