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Windows into Tanzanian theology (part one)

Arthur and I have put a lot of energy over the last 6 years into blogging about a Tanzanian understanding of prosperity. In part that’s because it is everywhere. If you talk to Tanzanians about the things that matter to them, success and prosperity dominate. We also believe that western Christians radically misunderstand much Tanzanian teaching on the issue; we started blogging on this just to process the massive head-shift we as westerners were undergoing. We continue because Tanzanians tell us we are seeing it clearly, and because we want western Christians to be able to see the theology of their Tanzanian brothers and sisters as beautiful, efficacious and sophisticated.

Prosperity is not the only theme however, though almost all others interact with it. We’ve been thinking about what some of the other core themes are in Tanzanian theology. Here are four of them.

Hakuna Mungu kawa wewe means “There is no God like you”. The phrase dominates Tanzanian praise music. Some of the most famous Swahili songs feature it, and there are hundreds of others. It’s popular across denominations and camps, in both town and village. It recognises who God is and gives him his due – an important part of a fear-power worldview – and it reminds and encourages the singer not to go looking elsewhere. The conviction and experience of Tanzanians is that if a person doesn’t go to God for healing, they will go to the witchdoctor. Other powers may seem to offer you what you want, and faster than God, so keeping the big picture in mind is vital. There is no God like the Most High God, and it’s to him that you owe your worship and your loyalty. Let him be your benefactor and no one else. Tanzanian Christianity is very interested in the idea of faithfulness to the end, and this phrase nurtures that.

Usikate tamaa translates as “do not despair”. Tanzanians are shocked by those who consider how things might go wrong in the future. Even if a person is terminally sick, you don’t talk about or plan for their death. That would be despairing. Instead, you continue to call on God for their healing. Words are powerful in Tanzania, and if you speak about something negative that has not yet happened, you may speak it into existence. Instead, speak words of life, like “I am victorious” or “I am rich“. This attitude is applied across the board from infertility to business ventures. People often wonder why Tanzanians fail to have a ‘Plan B’, especially when life and success are so tenuous. That’s because for many, to even think about needing a Plan B would be a lack of focus and even a sign of a lack of faith, or giving up. University graduates who value planning and contingencies may make ‘Plan B’s, but they’ll feel the need to justify to you why this is a moral thing to do, and they still may not be very practiced at it.

Usinipite is a prayer and song that results in genuflection and tears. It means “Do not pass me by.” I’m not sure I’ve got this one totally worked out. At one level, it’s an appeal to God to be seen by him, and to experience his favour, but it also seems to have overtones of repentance. There’s a widespread strain of theology which sees Christians as constantly moving from being in favour with God to out of favour with him, according to whether they have sinned, and whether they have treated God rightly. In a fear-power worldview, you can’t necessarily control how those in power will respond to you, but appealing to someone is an important part of recognising their power over you and turning their favour towards you.

Born again is mainly used in English; the Swahili is “nimeokoka” (I was saved). It’s rarely about when you moved from not believing in God to believing in him. It’s about when a person moved from having a religious label and cultural identity of being a Christian or a Muslim, to choosing to embrace and live into a Christian life. It’s less about a moment of belief, and more about a moment of decision that starts a life of discipleship.

More to come, including Tanzanian conceptions of the cross of Christ.

Categories: Tanzania Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.

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