Sunday, February 28, 2010

Zion Lutheran mission to Tanzania

This week, instead of visiting a choir elsewhere, The Itinerant Chorister was at my own church, Zion Lutheran Church, 1501 W. Liberty in Ann Arbor for presentation of the experiences of the group who went on a mission trip to Mto wa Mbu, Tanzania last August. This group included me--see my earlier reports here and here. Tanzanian and African music was really not featured in this service, although I actually got to use my somewhat meager abilities on the piano to re-create one of the things that happened in Tanzania--my friend Kent Peterson played the trumpet along with me, performing "Healer of Our Every Ill." While in Tanzania, part of the purpose of playing this was to encourage the son of our hosts to continue learning to play the trumpet, and also to fulfill the expectation of the church that we were attending that we provide some musical entertainment for them.

The centerpiece of this service was witnesses from each of the nine people who were on the trip and present today. In my own, I talked about how connections with my own job, researching the effects of intensified farming on the climate of East Africa, had led me to participate in this group starting six years ago. I also highlighted the vulnerability of African people to local climate and weather because of the expense of transporting food. In doing all this, I highlighted my own status as a left-brained person. The witnesses from my fellow team members would melt a stone heart, though, especially those of Kent and his daughter Marcie.

There were also some videos shown from church services that we attended there, and one of the things that caught my attention was this: Following the service at Kanisa Kantate (Church of Singing) in Mto wa Mbu, they had some items of food that had been given as offerings to the church, and they converted this into cash by auctioning off the items. The video showed part of this process, and right at the end, they have a bid of 600 Tanzanian shillings (shilingi mia sita), or about 50 cents, are asking for a bid of 650 shillings (shilingi mia sita hamsini), and all of a sudden our host Bethany Friberg jumps in and increases the bid to 1000 shillings (shilingi elfu moja), or about 85 cents. This small amount of money drew actual applause from the group assembled.

One of the things that struck me this morning, though, was that a number of paradoxes arose out of our actual experiences and what was said this morning. I think that some of these can be accounted for by looking at Tanzania through American eyes. One of these was that Mto wa Mbu was referred to as a remote village. In the larger scheme of Tanzania and Africa, it is difficult to really back up that description. A number that was thrown out in one bit of the talk today is that its population is 15,000 people, while Wikipedia quotes the 2002 census at 16,068, and I have no doubt that it has grown considerably since then. One major reason for growth is that since then it has acquired an asphalt road that is still in good condition. This is the main route between Arusha, a major portal for tourists coming on safari, and the safari sites of the Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti. Also, Lake Manyara National Park is directly adjacent to Mto wa Mbu. There is an electrical grid there, although most people are living in houses without electrical service, and there is also abundant water for irrigation that comes from a stream flowing off the escarpment there--namesake of the town, which translates as "River of Mosquitos." But a lot of things make it look to us like a remote village. One that was highlighted today is the lack of even the most basic level of dental services. Other things they don't have include banking (there was one ATM which apparently didn't work), 24-hour shopping, city parks, news and entertainment media, Internet and medical services above a quite primitive level, etc. However, this did not reach the level of two previous trips that I took to Gilai Lumbwa, where there was no electricity and not even a place to drop snail mail. It was stated by the dentist in our group, Dr. Barbara Wehr of Dexter, that she trained several of the doctors from the area to back to their more remote locations and be able to perform tooth extractions with local anesthesia, and indeed these are more remote locations than Mto wa Mbu.

Sometimes we who visit from the west engage in a sort of game of one-upmanship about how deprived we are while on a trip like this. One bit of advice, though: Never try to compare this deprivation with the daily lives of ordinary people from the developing world. If you as an American try to play that game of one-upmanship, you are going to lose decisively.

Another sort of paradoxical thing: We befriended many of the people of Mto wa Mbu, but did any of us become one of them? Even though we grew some strong bonds, and they were impressed with the manual labor that was performed by these wazungu (white people), I will have to say no, because we just got on the plane and came back to Ann Arbor after two weeks. In many ways, we are better able to help the needy there by living and working in Ann Arbor. Even our hosts, Dr. Steve Friberg, his wife Bethany, and their three children, live lives that bring them in constant contact with the local people, but do not make them one with the natives. They are able to retreat to their own house, which is much more comfortable than their neighbors', take occasional vacations on the Indian Ocean coast, and biennially make months-long trips back to the USA for touching base with their family, friends, and sponsors, and expose the kids to life here. Dr. Friberg was raised as a missionary child in Tanzania, moved to the USA to complete his education, and has returned to Tanzania because of his dedication to the medical needs of people there. But he lives in a land in which Dr. King's dream of being judged not by the color of your skin has been realized to an even lesser extent than here in the United States.

Paradox #3: A couple of team members talked about the language barrier, while one said that most Tanzanians know some English. Again, yes to both, and it really depends on the level of schooling and ongoing use of English that people have. Some English instruction is provided at the primary school level, but the main language of instruction is Swahili. At the secondary school level, English is the language of instruction, and at one school that I visited, signs on the classroom doors said, "Speak English in this room." The level of competence in Swahili among our group was very low, and non existent in any of the other tribal languages that people regularly use there, such as the Maasai language. Dr. Friberg talks to the staff doctors at the medical clinics in English, in which they are fluent, but speaks to everyone else in Swahili.

I encourage everyone to go on a mission/service trip to the developing world. Do the service that you can and learn what you can, but just because you do, don't imagine that you have become one of the underprivileged people of the world. You have a long way to go in getting there.

Next week: The Itinerant Chorister hits the road, attending Mount Calvary Lutheran Church in Boulder, Colorado.


  1. Were we playing the one-upmanship game in our witness today? Where have you experienced this game? I enjoyed reading this blog. thanks Brent

  2. Kent,

    No, I don't think it was really happening during today's service, but it sometimes does happen--who rode on a bumpier road, who had bedbugs in their mattress vs. no mattress, lack of hot water, etc. Actually, the reason why I brought it up here is that I realized that I was sort of doing it by saying that Gilai has no electricity and no mail drop.

  3. Here's another story that comes to mind, from a long time ago (almost 25 years). At that time, China was more of a developing country than it might be considered today, and I heard a travelogue presentation from a woman who had visited China. She spent most of her time alternating between complaining about the bus rides being long, crowded, bumpy, and dusty on one hand, and gushing about how charming the people were on the other hand. I thought it was rather silly to hold up the people in a sort of patronizing way, while at the same time complaining about dipping one's toe into their environment and way of life.

  4. ok I see what you mean now. Dr. Barb instant messaged me last night and said she really liked this blog post as well.