Reverend Philipo Mafuja Magwano overflows with excitement when he starts talking about the Bible. From Northwestern Tanzania, he is on a mission to educate pastors and church workers to minister throughout Africa.
Tanzania has a high rate of HIV/AIDS infection, and 62 percent of its people live below the poverty line. But Mafuja, principal of Nassa Theological College in Mwanza, Tanzania, sees the power of the gospel to change lives.
“When I was beginning to understand my call to ministry, I read Joshua 1, where God is calling Joshua to lead the Israelites. God tells Joshua to be very courageous, and he assures Joshua that he will be with him. And he tells Joshua to meditate on the law day and night. As a minister of the gospel, I’m encouraged to remember that God’s presence is with me—and I’m challenged to be obedient to Scripture, and to read the word of God day and night.”
Mafuja learned about Christianity from his mother, who taught Sunday school and led Bible camps. He decided to follow Christ in high school after hearing a preacher speak on Matthew 7:21–22. “It was the passage where Jesus says that not everyone who calls his name will enter the kingdom of heaven,” he recalls. “I realized that being a part of a church is not the same thing as having a relationship with Jesus Christ.”
Mafuja began his journey to ministry shortly after committing his life to Christ, preaching and leading worship with a local Christian Union Fellowship group during high school and college. His passion for education prompted him to become trained as a teacher, pursuing degrees at Scott Christian University and then at International Leadership University, both in Kenya. In between degree programs, Mafuja worked in high schools run by Africa Inland Church Tanzania (AICT), where he taught Swahili and geography.
Christianity and Culture
According to Mafuja, Tanzanian religious affiliations do not follow tribal lines as strictly as in other African regions. Tanzania’s transition from English colony to a democratic country was not as rocky as in some neighboring countries—it has not experienced coups and civil wars like Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Religious violence and tribal conflict don’t seem to plague the country, either. “Even with the two major religions of Christianity and Islam making up most of our population, violent conflict on religious lines is very rare,” he remarks.
The history of Christianity in Tanzania goes back to the early 1800s, when many missionaries from different Christian mission agencies of the western world arrived overland via Kenya. “The influence of these denominations is much stronger in each of the areas where they were first introduced,” Mufuja says. “You’ll find Mennonites in the southern part of the country, and some Anglicans. There are Lutherans in the north. My denomination, Africa Inland Church Tanzania, is prevalent in the Lake Zone and western part of Tanzania.”
The 150 years of missionaries from different denominations laboring in isolation has led to divisions among Tanzanian Christians over time. Yet Mafuja hopes that Nassa’s work in training students—who come from a range of denominations—will help build bridges. “In addition to serving in one of our other neighbor schools, the health center, or the dispensary hospital, we assign our students to a weekend ministry in one of the surrounding AICT churches,” he explains. “They go every Sunday and sometimes mid-week to minister there and serve their communities.” This hands-on experience gives pastors-in-training a chance to apply principles they are learning in class.
Despite denominational differences, Mafuja says that Tanzanian Christians find common ground in their culture. “Like other Africans, Tanzanians have an oral culture. People love to listen to storytellers, but studying the Bible individually is not common, so the understanding of Scripture is low.
This is especially true in rural areas, where people farm long hours.”
Mafuja says that, for many Tanzanians, a Sunday church service is the only time they encounter the Word of God. “Most people prefer to listen to a preacher speak than to read the Bible on their own.” The “Jesus” film and others like it have been very popular, he says, because they offer people a way to connect with Scripture through its stories.
Mafuja sees this connection through stories as a unique bond that church congregations share: “It has a way of encouraging people as they come together, and it builds trust and respect between the listeners and the storyteller. Increasingly, this type of community is found only in rural areas, as cities modernize and new technology becomes available.”
Challenges for the Church
As in many countries, proper training is the biggest need for pastors in Tanzania, but the country’s poverty makes theological education a challenge. The school Mafuja leads, Nassa Theological College, has only 51 students. Many pastors would like to attend, he says, but cannot afford to pay tuition.
Mafuja is encouraged to see the difference that education makes in his students’ lives. “We are equipping church leaders and ministers of the Word of God, training them to follow the calling God has placed on their lives.”Every culture with a history of Christianity has its share of people who are Christians in name only. Mafuja sees this phenomenon at play in many different walks of Tanzanian life—from corrupt business leaders, to people who mix tribal religions with Christianity, to prosperity-gospel preachers. “As in the rest of the world, we have churches here that focus on miracles or material success rather than teaching the word of God. They preach about miracles with no Bible study and no discipleship.”
Mafuja compares this spiritual double-life to syncretism (which in Tanzania usually means a combination of native animism and Christianity). In his view, both errors are essentially the same: People seek answers from sources other than Scripture. “If someone comes to church in the daytime and goes to the witch doctor at night, they have a double standard. Another example: Our neighbor country of Rwanda is more than 80 percent Christian. But in 1994, Rwanda saw a genocide that killed 800,000 people. What happened? Where were all the Christians during the genocide?”
For Mafuja, these questions drive home the necessity of teaching the Bible thoroughly. “The church needs ministers of the gospel who have been grounded in Scripture so that they can teach others,” he says. “A church can grow in numbers, but if the people in it are not mature, the number doesn’t matter. But if we train the leaders and pastors well, they will teach their members, and we will see real change and growth in the Church.”