Furaha na amani! Joy and peace!
And greetings at last from Mwanza, Tanzania. I arrived here on Friday 17th September and am just settling in-- staying in temporary lodging and searching for a house at the moment. It's too soon to report news from here, as the dust hasn't yet settled. So instead I'd like to tell you some things about the thousand-year-old civilization I have just left behind: East Africa's Swahili Coast.
The Swahili Coast stretches for more than a thousand miles from southern Somalia southward across Kenya and Tanzania all the way to central Mozambique. It also includes the Comoros Islands. Many of the major towns were once city-states, sometimes independen and sometimes tributaries to each other or to the Omani empire. By the early 20th century British, German and Portuguese invadors had conquered all of the Swahili sultans and today the coastal cities are linked to various inland countries created in the colonial era.
While Swahili civilization shares a common language, the people differ from one another in many ways. The Swahili are of no single ethnic group but include many races: Goan, Gujarati, Punjabi, Shirazi (Persian), Arabic, Mijikenda and other Bantu peoples. Their religiouns are likewise diverse: Jainism, Sikhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Ismailism, Bohra, Sufism, and Shi'a are all well-represented. Sunni Islam is, however, the dominant faith.
Like Christians, Sunni Muslims practice the spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Whereas historic Christianity has many fasting seasons throughout the year (Lent, Advent, etc) the Islamic faih has only one fasting season, which is the month of Ramadan. And while historic Christian fasting involves simplification of the diet and abstinence from certain foods for a season, the Islamic fast involves total abstinence during daylight hours followed by uninhibited consumption at night.
This means that, during Ramadan, Swahili cities come alive at night. Tables appear on the streets, and when the muezzin announces sunset people begin feasting together on dates, sweet ginger tea, an almond pastry called halwa, and many other foods. Mosques are decked in lights as the muezzin chants splendidly for hours on end.
Like Christians, Muslims fast as an exercise of faith. Fasting is a reminder that "man does not live by bread alone," but that we can depend only on God for true nourishment. By abstaining from food during times of plenty, one can learn to cope faithfully in times of famine. A soul that is freed from earthly cares can more easily fly heavenward.
Of course the differences are very real. Islam denies the Holy Trinity and the Incarnation; its understanding of God is as an entity distant and unknowable. In many parts of the world (though not, thank God, in Tanzania) Christians and Muslims live in mutual antagonism and fear. But all the same, I will not soon forget the experience of a Swahili city at Ramadan.
Ramadan ended on 10th September and was followed by the holiday of Idd al Fitr (called Eid in the United States). I had the good fortune to be on Zanzibar Island during part of the Idd celebrations. There were great festivals in the city parks, teeming with families and young children until late at night. It was fun to be in the midst of such color and excitement.
In a PS to this email I will reflect on possible Christian responses to this culture.
As always, I thank you for your friendship, encouragement, communication, financial participation and especially for your prayers. It is exciting to be in this place, seeing and learning all that I do. To have been sent here by all of you is a great privilege.
By your prayers,