Tanzania: A Church Looking To The Future With Hope

In 2018, the Tanzanian Church will celebrate 150 years of its presence in the country. Recalling the past when the first Missionaries of the Holy Spirit arrived in Bagamoyo helps to better face the future of the Catholic Church in Tanzania.

When the first missionaries arrived in Zanzibar and then in Bagamoyo, on the shores of the Indian Ocean City, those territories were called Tanganyika, a Swahili word meaning ‘impenetrable jungle space’. As a matter of fact, the hinterland of the country was discovered only after the arrival of explorers, traders, slavers and missionaries. All these people marked the historical periods of the country. Tanzania is the result of the union of Tanganyika with Zanzibar in 1964.

As explorers discovered the African hinterland, its resources (wood, slaves, minerals or ivory) began to be exploited, products such as cotton fabrics, weapons, plants or tools were imported and the establishment of the Catholic Church led to the construction of clinics, schools, chapels, and to the formation of parishes and dioceses, and the production of books, publications and translations.
Languages, cultures and religions put down roots in East Africa and they gave birth to the Swahili culture and the Swahili Islam. The Catholic Church adopted the Swahili language and developed it by translating religious texts (Bible, Gospel or catechism,), by using it in the liturgy and celebrations, as well as for the publication of religious books, magazines and leaflets.

The Swahili language, the Arab traditions and the Muslim culture were intertwined and the interaction of ideas, cultures and religions played a decisive role for the spiritual and social development of the Church over the 150 years of its presence in the country. The Church has also been a cornerstone in the construction of the Tanzanian national identity through its positive contribution in the fields of education and professional training.

The first Catholic evangelization was by the Portuguese Augustinian missionaries who arrived with Vasco De Gama in 1499 at Zanzibar. They did not last long due to Arab Moslem opposition. Their mission ended in 1698 due to the Oman-Arab conquest. The second and successful evangelization in the 19th century was pioneered by three religious congregations, the Missionaries of the Holy Spirit, the White Fathers and the Benedictine Monks.

The Missionaries of the Holy Spirit, under the leadership of Fr. Antoine Horner, were the first to arrive in Zanzibar in 1863 and crossed to the Tanzania mainland, Bagamoyo, in 1868 where they opened freed slaves’ villages. In these villages they received and taught slaves freed by the British marines from the Arab slave traders. With the help of catechists trained in these villages, the missionaries evangelized northwards as far as the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro. The ex-slaves were the first catechists.

The missionaries of Africa (White Fathers) led by, Fr. Livinhac, arrived in 1878 in two groups. One group started to operate on the shores of Lake Tanganyika and the other in Mwanza. The goal of the missionaries was the evangelization of Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda and Eastern Congo and the formation of local clergy. They opened the first seminary in Rubya, in the region of Bukoba, in 1904. Thirteen years later, in 1917, the first four local priests were ordained. Bukoba was the first Diocese of Tanzania and it was established in 1952; its local bishop was Laureano Rugambwa who, in 1961 would be appointed cardinal by Pope John XXIII, becoming thus the first African cardinal in the history of the Catholic Church. The Benedictine missionary Monks of St. Ottilien arrived in Dar es Salaam, the current economic capital, in 1887. From there they evangelized southward to Ruvuma River on the border with Mozambique. Their two monasteries of Ndanda and Peramiho became centres of development and modern civilization in the South of Tanzania.

Benedictine communities have been particularly active in the promotion of printing, graphic arts and publications, as indispensable tools for the teaching of the Christian faith.

These 150 years of presence of the Catholic Church in Tanzania have opened the horizon to many challenges: the role of the laity in the dioceses and parishes; the education and training of young people; the ecumenical encounter with other Churches (mainly the Anglican, Lutheran, and Protestant one); the relationship between political institutions and the Catholic Church; the interreligious meeting and coexistence, especially with Muslims; the defence of the poor and the refugee; and the local Church’s missionary dimension.

The memory of this century and a half of the Catholic Church in Tanzania is a way to better face the future through the knowledge of the past.

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