As of now, he has completed about 70-something parish visits, Dickson Chilongani, that is, the Anglican Bishop of the Diocese of Central Tanganyika. He has a total of around 260 parishes, each consisting of several congregations, sometimes as many as 7 or 8 different churches. In all he is the singular bishop to well over 1000 congregations, each 100 or 200 or more strong. It’s a lot, and Bishop Dickson is in the midst of doing something that would put any American bishop’s visitation schedule in the shade. He is visiting each one of those 260 parishes during his first year as diocesan bishop out of a desire to make his first connection with the people of the diocese in their part of the world rather than his. It is an endeavor that expresses Ujamaa, the Swahili word for ‘familyhood’ that like the southern African concept, Ubuntu, asserts that a person becomes a person through the people or community. And so, for Bishop Dickson, he is ‘becoming’ his episcopacy through the people of his community of Central Tanganyika.
In my eagerness to join him on this incredible odyssey, I spent the day on the road with the bishop and his family this past Wednesday. Bishop Dickson visits two parishes a day if he can. Each one takes about six hours in all. The roads as you get into the village areas are rough which adds some time, but the largest parcel of time is fellowship. The villagers dance and sing the bishop’s jeep into the village, and the singing and dancing remains part of the celebration throughout. Apart from meeting the people of the diocese, the purpose of the visits is to carry out confirmations. Each service last about three hours with around 50 or so candidates. The bishop preaches for about 40 minutes, all without notes, and half a dozen or so choirs make their presentations through the service. And then there is the presentation of the gifts…
Gift-giving, it would seem a lot like the presentation of songs, is an integral way that a village honors guests. Each representative group comes forward to make their offering. On the day I was there, the gifts ranged from shúkà, traditional garment sheets worn wrapped around the body, to a goat, and for me and a couple of others there was a chicken. This is the first chicken that I have been honored with (although when I lived in India I was once offered a share in a cow) and I think as far as chickens go, she was a keeper, at least until dinner the next day when we shared her with the neighbors kids in the form of a curry. She would not have made it past customs anyway.
The day with Bishop Dickson and his lovely family was over 13 hours in all, and by the end I was delightfully tired. I had caught a glimpse of life in Tanzania that dominates so much of the country. People who live subsisting day-to-day offering their gifts with generosity and joy. Here, the Church does not feel anxious about people coming to worship on a Sunday – or in our case, on a Wednesday – here the Church is the village gathering, and it was quite something to look out and see a man preach to a few hundred people huddled into a partially built church structure and reflect on the truth that in this moment the universal Church was also convened, made one body in Christ.
All of this makes me wonder about the state of my own Ujamaa. I can see, with even this short time away from the daily routines and habits of life, how easy it is for me to become bound up in concerns for the future, or entrenched in patterns of being that speak less of ‘familyhood’ and more of that great American dis-ease that says ‘I can make it on my own’. And as for the Church, nobody this past Wednesday made a note of how many people were in attendance and no one counted the offering to record it for the church parochial report. The concern here is not for the existence of the Church but for existence altogether. ‘Drought’ and ‘conflicts over land’ were the two challenges that the report which was presented to the bishop noted. For the people of the village, they know that they could never make it on their own. Ujamaa does not have to be taught, it is inherent. For one whose home context is so very different to theirs, I can only pray that I will be a faithful learner.