Six weeks into my stay in Tanzania, I was almost in tears as I walked down the hill to vespers. During the afternoon I had discovered that the source of the pain I had been feeling in my leg for the last week was not just any infection: it was an infestation of maggots that were eating my flesh. I had managed to extract four of them. Two maggots were left. I had swallowed my panic, but it was eating at me no less than the worms themselves. The next person I saw was going to get a tongue-lashing, and there was nothing I could do to stop myself but pray.
God was merciful. Vespers takes place on African time, and there was nobody at the church when I got there. Some of the neighborhood children followed me into the courtyard, and I spent time just holding Agape, a little girl not quite old enough to walk yet. The priest, Fr. Paul Kagoma, and a chanter showed up eventually. I was able to greet them politely before we went into the church to praise God.
Still deeply disappointed, I did not sing. It was all I could do to stand upright. Finally I collapsed into a chair as the chanter read what sounded like most of 1 and 2 Kings. Agape sprawled across my lap and went to sleep. I listened with half an ear to the exploits of Elijah against the priests of Baal, but mostly I just breathed in her sweet, sweaty scent. Breathing in and out, thinking without words: here I am, God is here, it could be worse. Slowly I came to a sense of peace and even gratitude. The stillness in my heart was the voice of God.
I got the rest of the maggots out that night and completed my two-month stay in peace. As an Intercultural Studies major at Biola University, I had chosen to complete my required cross-cultural internship by working for OCMC in Tanzania. Missionaries James Hargrave, Maria Roeber, Felice Stewart, and Michael Pagedas welcomed me, along with Metropolitan +JERONYMOS of Mwanza and too many Tanzanians to name. I put my linguistics training to use learning Kiswahili and making recommendations to improve the curriculum the other missionaries were using to learn the language.
When I arrived in Tanzania, I knew two words of Kiswahili, and I wasn’t totally sure they meant what I thought they meant. By the time I left, I could carry on a simple conversation (if my interlocutor had the patience of a saint) and I had a number of friendships with local people. I loved learning to communicate with people on a number of different levels. I loved learning the language and the rituals that communicate their culture. I loved trying to understand the thoughts of people who are different from me, and I loved praying with them. Like many people who visit Africa, I had Africa fever: the desire to return, even if I myself didn’t exactly know why.
One of the articles in the GPA curriculum that OCMC missionaries use to learn the local language talks about the difference between “us stories” and “them stories.” “Them stories” are the primary way expatriate workers talk about their host cultures. We use our cultural experience and shared referents to interpret the behavior of our hosts. “You’ll never guess what happened to me today,” we say, throwing up our hands in good-natured dismay. “While I was paying for my new pair of shoes, someone came along and stuck his feet into my old pair and walked away. What was he thinking?” We remain perpetually on the outside looking in, and we are frequently perplexed.
When we learn to tell “us stories,” sometimes it doesn’t occur to us that these are stories at all. Of course we bring a kilo of sugar as a gift when we visit someone’s house; that’s just what Tanzanians do. We have learned to see the world, at least in this small instance, as the host culture sees it. We have become able to dialogue within the culture, not just about it.
To me this is one of the primary goals of missionary service. The missionary comes not to offer more healthcare or make more converts, although these things are important. The goal of missionary service is to create an icon of the Church by sharing in communion with aliens. Aliens: foreigners. The people that, the more we learn about them, the less we feel we understand them. Nevertheless, the less we feel we understand them, the more we realize our common humanity. The paradox deepens as we keep learning the culture.
The noise of dancing and singing was barely a breath away in the crowded church. The bishop radiated joy as he addressed a gathering of Tanzanian religious education seminar participants and short-term missionaries in the following words. As best as I can remember, he said: “We are here in Ibale on July 28th, 2011. We are here in Ibale, Kagera region. We are here in the Church of the Resurrection in Ibale.
“We must love one another.”
I am reminded of St. John. When the churches asked him for a sermon, he merely said, “Little children, love one another.”
I saw the Church in its fullness as Tanzanian readers and catechists came to be taught more about Christianity, and as individuals from America and Finland took their time to do the teaching. It’s a cliché, but a true one, that the missionaries learned as much from the experience as the students did. Christianity is always embodied, never abstracted. Here the embodiment of Christianity is the sharing in communion of people with very different cultures and experiences, serving one another.
“Mjakazi,” the old man, a participant in the religious education seminar, called to me. “Can you help me? I lost my pen.” I hurried to dig a new pen out of the box and brought it to him triumphantly. Later it occurred to me that my real triumph was the title he gave me. Mjakazi. Not mgeni—foreigner—or mwalimu—teacher—but servant girl. I was one step closer to having a real role in this community. I wasn’t entirely sure I liked being called a servant, but the title helped me identify more with the Tanzanians. And that was everything to me.
I remember that when I was asking permission to serve my internship in Tanzania, the bishop welcomed me and added, “Let us pray she may find this place worth to return.” I saw him again, in Irvine, California, after my internship was complete. He gave me a big, joyful smile. When he invited me to return to Tanzania, I heard the voice of God, through his Church, addressed to me. You are welcome to join in this work.