Muslim-Christian relations in Mkumba: Co-operative, but guarded

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Imam Omari Bakari Mngwawaya (left) and Bishop James Almasi say relations between Muslims and Christians in southern Tanzania are positive. Photo: André Forget
Imam Omari Bakari Mngwawaya (left) and Bishop James Almasi say relations between Muslims and Christians in southern Tanzania are positive. Photo: André Forget

Mkumba, Tanzania
“Salaam Alaikum” (Peace to you).

The diocese of Masasi’s Bishop James Almasi stands beneath the spreading branches of a large tree at the centre of the village, and pauses as the people seated before him acknowledge his greeting with the traditional response: “Alaikum Salaam” (And to you, peace).

Many of the men wear the traditional Muslim kofia hat, and amongst the crowd of women draped in colourful kitenge fabrics, several sport the tightly wrapped hijabs, but when he follows the Muslim greeting by hailing them in the name of Jesus Christ, the response of “Amin” (Arabic form of Amen) is just as loud.

Speaking in Swahili, Almasi introduces the villagers to the group of Canadians gathered behind him, who have come to southern Tanzania to learn about All Mothers and Children Count (AMCC), a project focused on maternal and newborn health. The project was  spearheaded by the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund (PWRDF), the relief and development arm of the Anglican Church of Canada.

When Almasi finishes the introduction, a man sitting in the midst of the crowd stands and introduces himself as Omari Bakari Mngwawaya, imam of the local mosque.

“I would like to thank you for not separating the [Christian and Muslim beneficiaries],” he says. “The projects we received—of course, we are so thankful because one of the boreholes was put in very close to our mosque!”

There is general laughter, and the meeting gets down to business. Beneficiaries of a previous PWRDF program in the region (on which the AMCC project is based) stand to express their appreciation for the livestock, seeds and well they have received, and report on the progress made.

Some have Muslim names, while others are clearly Christian, but as on outsider, it is hard to immediately tell. based on name or dress, who follows what faith. Creed, in Mkumba, as in other villages in Masasi, is one strand of a complex web of identity.

Take Almasi himself.

The only son of two Christians from a small, predominantly Muslim village, his first name is Christian, but his family name reflects the Muslim heritage of his father’s family, most of whom practise Islam to this day.

Almasi’s father converted to Christianity under the influence of an uncle who was a church elder. But according to Almasi, the conversion did not cause a rupture within the family, nor has it had a detrimental effect on his own relationship to his cousins and uncles.

“They respect me to be part and parcel of the family,” he says later in an interview with the Anglican Journal. “If we could go back to my home village where my parents are, Christians in that village are a minority, Muslims are a majority. [But] what happens when I go there on Sunday to celebrate the Eucharist? The church is full! But three-quarters are Muslims.”

A similar dynamic was in action earlier that week, at the Sunday morning worship service at the Cathedral of St. Mary and St. Bartholomew in the city of Masasi.

Many men and women in the large throng of onlookers at the back of the church had been dressed in distinctively Muslim garb, and Almasi and the diocesan development officer, the Rev. Geoffrey Monjesa, both confirmed that these were indeed Tanzanian Muslims.

“Is very good! It’s very good,” Almasi says when asked about the relationship between Christians and Muslims in Masasi. “You should not forget one thing: in Africa, the life is a communal life…You wouldn’t expect that we can fight each other if my father’s side all are Muslims.”

 Imam Omari Bakari Mngwawaya addresses the delegation on behalf of the villagers of Mkumba. Photo: André Forget
Imam Omari Bakari Mngwawaya addresses the delegation on behalf of the villagers of Mkumba. Photo: André Forget

Tension over census

But while many Anglicans in Masasi stress the co-operative nature of the relationship between the two faiths, some also acknowledge that tensions exist between some Muslims and Christians in Tanzania.

PWRDF and its partner groups, like the diocese of Masasi, provide resources based on needs identified locally, without consideration of religious affiliation. However, the Rev. Linus Buriani, project manager for AMCC, says sometimes concerns are raised that PWRDF’s development work could be a cover for missionary activity.

“[Local Muslim] perception is, ‘Maybe these people are supporting us now, and later on they will baptize us,’ ” he says. “You talk about issues of health, [but] people are starting to ask, ‘Are you coming to build a church here?’ ”

Buriani says he and his fellow workers assure the people that, “We are not preaching the Bible, we are not preaching the gospel, we are preaching health. “We are doing work that God wants us to do to help anyone we meet on the way.”

And it is not only the Muslim population that suspects the other side of ulterior motives.

The diocese of Masasi is unwilling to publish numbers regarding its membership, out of a concern that if Christians are found to be in the minority, some Muslim leaders might try to push for recognition of Tanzania as an officially Muslim country.

Tanzania has not asked about religious affiliation in a census since 1967, though the Pew-Templeton Global Religious Futures project estimates about 60% of the country is Christian. These numbers are disputed, and many Tanzanians believe it is closer to an even split between Muslims and Christians.

Monjesa says there was an attempt, spearheaded by conservative Muslim groups, to include religious data in the 2012 census. “The Muslims actually wanted to know exactly how many Christians and how many Muslims [there were in Tanzania],” he says. “The reason behind was, if…they see that they are more than the Christians, they wanted to [say], ‘Why can’t we declare that the country is an Islamic country?’ ”

Christian groups resisted this attempt, insisting that it went against the nation’s status as a secular country, and in the end, the data wasn’t gathered.  Tanzania remains an officially secular country.

However, the issue is far from resolved.

According to the U.S. Department of State’s annual International Religious Freedom Report for 2015, the last year for which information is available, there have been arson attacks on churches in the western part of the country, and 2013 saw a number of attacks on Christian clergy and churches, including a bombing of a Roman Catholic church in the northern Arusha region.

Bishop James Almasi with some members of the PWRDF delegation. Photo: André Forget
Bishop James Almasi with some members of the PWRDF delegation. Photo: André Forget

‘We don’t have a problem here’

Back in Mkumba, the village imam Mngwawaya has agreed to answer a few of the Journal’s questions, with Almasi as interpreter.

“We, Christians and Muslims, we don’t have any problems, our life is a communal life,” he says, brushing away suggestions that there might be tensions between local Christian and Muslim communities.

“If someone who is a Muslim is having some sort of problems, that makes Christians come and work together. If Christians have problems, the Muslims go there and work.”

“We don’t have that problem here,” he says, when asked if there have been attempts from people inside or outside the community to sow divisions between Muslims and Christians. “And we don’t have any experience seeing some people to come and convince [us] not to communicate with the Christians.”

Mngwawaya reiterates his appreciation for cows and borehole provided by the PWRDF project.

As the delegation drives away from Mkumba later that afternoon, the villagers join in a circle dance, just as they had when we drove up earlier that day.

Some of the participants had introduced themselves as Christians then, and some as Muslims. In Mkumba, at least, they seemed to be able to find common ground.

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André Forget
André Forget was a staff writer for the Anglican Journal from 2014 to 2017.

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