My Mission Trip To Tanzania
By Clark Wilson
(Author's note: I decided to interview myself for this article. Many people have asked me questions, so a Q&A format made sense. Also, if I interview myself it's easier for the interviewer and me to schedule a time to get together. And I can be less concerned about the interviewer misunderstanding my answers.)
Was your trip a success?
Yes. We had clearly stated goals that were defined by the host and the Orthodox Christian Mission Center (OCMC). We achieved those goals, and the host afterwards expressed satisfaction and gratitude.
What were the goals?
Our mission was to teach the basics of Orthodox Christianity to approximately 70 lay leaders from throughout the Metropolis of Mwanza who would then catechize others. The Metropolis is in the northwestern corner of Tanzania. The two major cities are Mwanza and Bukoba.
Why was this important?
The Metropolis of Mwanza has about 150 parishes but only around 30 priests, so lay catechists help fill the gap. Furthermore, Orthodox beliefs are often being challenged or adulterated by heresies, Islam, and traditional religions, so it is important to reaffirm and transmit Orthodoxy.
What about deacons?
Good question. It seemed to me that permanent deacons could be very useful in this situation, but I didn't encounter any evidence of efforts to cultivate the diaconate. I'll pursue this question if I get a chance.
What exactly was taught?
The list of topics was defined by the host and then refined in conversations with the OCMC. Each team member prepared to teach three topics. The topics ranged from the Trinity, to details of the Church calendar, to prayer, to HIV. We were free to handle the topics in our own ways. My topics were the Bible, prayer, and the lives of the saints.
What was the format?
Each topic was covered in an hour: 40 minutes of instruction and 20 minutes for questions. We taught each topic twice, each time to half the students. What we said was translated into Swahili in real time. We also had blackboards for diagrams and key terms. The question period was lively and challenging—for these students the subjects were not vague abstractions but matters of life and death. We covered five topics a day for five days and then had two days of looser instruction that culminated in a multi-hour Q&A session.
What particular questions caught you personally off guard?
When I taught the lives of the saints, the students were intensely interested in physical things—relics, and the True Cross. I am a book, icon, and prayer person and I have never been especially interested in or concerned with physical relics. I am not faulting the students for this interest—they were being more Orthodox than I was. I hurriedly grabbed Fr. Tapio from outside the room to answer these questions.
Fr. Tapio? Let's talk about the team.
There were eight of us, quite diverse, and the team gelled extremely well. The youngest was from New England, in his senior year in college. The oldest was a tiny Greek woman in her late seventies, always wearing black. In between were a young aspiring actress from Los Angeles, a young man with a master's degree in public health, me (age 59), and Fr. Michael, the team leader (in his upper sixties).
That's only six.
Correct. The other two were from Finland: Fr. Tapio and Outi Vasko. They were both in their thirties, I think. This mission was the first formal cooperative mission by the U.S. mission organization (the OCMC) and the official Finnish Orthodox mission organization. Outi was at that time the acting director of that organization. Their English was outstanding, which was really helpful since our Finnish was non-existent. She had a lot of relevant experience, including overseeing an aid project in Ethiopia and writing a master's paper on Orthodox curricula for primary and secondary schools (religious instruction is part of the Finnish public school system). We are all hopeful that this pattern of international Orthodox mission cooperation will continue and expand.
You mentioned the “host” several times. Who was that?
In the simplest sense, our host was His Eminence Ieronymos, Metropolitan of Mwanza. The Metropolis is under the Patriarchate of Alexandria and all Africa. His Eminence amply demonstrated that he took the school seriously. He visited the students beforehand and had a two-hour session to introduce us to them and to encourage and exhort them. This session included singing and dancing, and His Eminence also danced. He came at the end of the school session for a church service and a 90-minute completion ceremony and discussion. And he had a special dinner for us in the bishopric in Bukoba.
His Eminence danced?
Yes, exuberant group singing was part of every event, and often dancing as well. The people sing the entire service loudly and confidently, without service books. Each class began and ended with energetic student singing and clapping. So at the session with students, His Eminence did a dignified but by no means awkward solo dance to the students' singing and rhythmic clapping.
Did you yourself dance?
Yes. There was one parish we visited that was cheerfully relentless and got all us wazungu to dance, including me. I am told there is a video of this somewhere, but I have not yet received any blackmail demands.
What about your living conditions? I've heard things about no electricity and no flush toilets.
Those facts give a skewed picture. We stayed at a seminary that had solid, nicely finished buildings. We had warm showers courtesy of seminarians who heated water in an oil drum over a fire and then bucket-carried the water to a reservoir on the roof of the shower building. The temperature was in the low 60s overnight rising to the low 80s in mid afternoon.
What about the living conditions of the people there?
We were in an area of subsistence farming, which means that basically you survive on what you yourself grow. The people also have some crops (bananas, coffee, and pineapples) they can sell to get a little cash. This kind of poverty does not throw itself into your eye the way urban poverty does. The people were not visibly weighed down by their poverty—they were uniformly cheerful and generous. I myself got to hold the rooster one parish gave us when we visited. We ate local staples—rice, plantains, cassava root, pineapples, beans, and so on.
You were gone for three weeks. How long were you actually “on station” at the school?
Nine days, maybe ten. We had a two-day orientation at OCMC HQ in Florida. We probably spent a total of five days getting into the country from here and then getting out of the country to here. We also had an excursion to Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda, where we saw elephants, hippos, warthogs, antelope, and other wildlife.
Are you going back?
Probably. God knows.
Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria and All Africa
Includes a brief biography of His Eminence.
Orthodox Christian Mission Center
Queen Elizabeth National Park