Being white in Africa

Greetings from Tanzania!

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 led us to some deep thinking about an issue that is clear to everyone here but 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 five 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, seeing 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, pregnant women, 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 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.

Ugandan missiologist Emmanuel Katangole, now a Professor at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, views the sacred act of eating together as a missiological model that bridges differences and creates space for the building of mutual understanding. When you approach the table of our Lord at your congregation’s worship, we invite you to think of the millions of African Christians, joining with you across the miles in the Eucharist. And if you want to experience the power of this sacred act firsthand, we invite you to consider visiting!

In this Epiphany Season, we wish you all new revelations of Jesus’ love and grace, and renewed awareness of God’s presence and power. A blessed New Year to you all!

Peace in Christ,

Cynthia Holder Rich and Mark Rich


8 thoughts on “Being white in Africa”

  1. Hi Cynthia and Mark! I did not realize you were back in the mission field and in Tanzania. Thank you for this reflection. I remember the strangeness we felt when we first arrived in Madagascar and being stand-outs as the only “pink skinned” or white people in the village with Pr. Kevin. In the minority but still privileged.
    Your children must be all grown up by now – or are they with you??
    Blessings on your ministry – PJ and Rusty May


    1. Hi, PJ! Yes, our kids are now young adults – and we are now with them in Columbus OH… see our latest newsletter!!


  2. Thank you for your thoughtful reflection. A couple of decades ago, while serving as Southeastern Iowa Synod bishop, I was privileged to visit our companion synod in Tanzania. A highlight for me was baptizing 74 people in one service. It was spiritually moving and humbling to be in that position. As the baptisms progressed, it be came a bit chaotic as parents crowded to the front to get in line with their babies. After the service, lay leaders of the diocese pulled me aside because they felt I “needed to understand what was going on.” They explained that parents were afraid I would get tired and their children would end up being baptized by one of the Tanzanian pastors, instead of by the white bishop from America. The perception that my baptizing was of more value than that of another pastor’s baptizing has haunted me ever since. My reflections on this were published in the former ELCA magazine “Partners” at the time. Colonialism and racism complicate our ministries.

    Philip Hougen

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for this input, Bp Hougen! You say that that was a “couple of decades” ago. It’s quite possible things have changed since then, and the reaction wouldn’t be the same. Like every group of people, Tanzanians change. The only way to know for sure if they have changed would be to repeat the experience as nearly as possible. But I also wouldn’t be surprised if it were different. For one thing, most people have cellphones, even in rural areas. So they have much more access to information and images from all around the world. That alone changes a lot of perspectives. In the peace of Christ, Mark Rich


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