by Jonathan Arensen
Students’ lives are changed through the Houghton in Tanzania program, which immerses them in the culture.
Many years ago I sat in the Amazon jungle and listened to a missionary insist that she was not a change agent; no, she was a Bible translator and she prayed that people would become followers of Jesus through the reading of the translated Word. But becoming a Christian in any culture demands considerable change. Missionaries by their very presence are agents of change. It is a question of whether they are promoting positive Christian change or merely promoting Western values. To be effective it is important that missionaries are sensitive and knowledgeable about the receptor culture; gaining this cultural sensitivity takes time and training.
Certain topics are best learned in an experiential setting. This is especially true of such issues as anthropology, cross-cultural adjustment and missiology. A number of mission organizations are now doing some of their final orientation in the receptor countries. SIL International has been doing this for a number of years and during the 1980s and 1990s I taught three-month orientation courses in Kenya with the goal of preparing SIL personnel for work in East Africa. These courses took place in rural settings with direct access to the people, languages and environment. These courses proved to be highly successful and well received by new personnel. After leading thirteen sessions I changed assignments and began teaching anthropology at Houghton College. I decided to lead similar semesters abroad for Christian college students who were interested in working in the Majority World. We have now completed nine semesters in Tanzania and the program is flourishing.
This semester is not a short-term mission trip. To gain entrance into the Tanzania semester students write an essay stating their purposes for taking the program. Occasionally I get an essay from a perspective student stating that he or she expects to do missionary work and convert people to Christ during the three-month stay in Tanzania. I respond with a firm letter stating that at this point he or she knows virtually nothing about Tanzanian people and therefore has little to offer. If he or she wants to enroll in the semester that person needs to go as a humble learner with no immediate missionary agenda. I argue that the semester in Tanzania will begin the process of making the individual into a culturally sensitive missionary.
THE HOUGHTON IN TANZANIA PROGRAM
The Houghton in Tanzania program is a fully accredited semester. Most of the students attending this course are taking intercultural studies, a major that specifically prepares them to work in cross-cultural situations around the world. There are three main goals in the semester: academic learning, community living and spiritual growth.
Academically the semester is holistic with different topics overlapping each other. Courses include East African Cultures, African Literature, Wildlife Behavior, East African History, Applied Missions and Intercultural Experience. These courses are academically challenging with lectures and readings; more importantly, they are experiential. For every hour of lecture there are up to three hours of immersion: living with Tanzanians, speaking Swahili, observing wildlife, visiting historical sites, interacting with missionaries and working on community projects. This emphasis on experience greatly enhances the learning which takes place.
Community living is also a new experience for most students. The simple campus is located at an altitude of five thousand feet and is next to a waterfall on the Ruaha River. Students live in tents and study in a grass-roofed classroom; faculty live on the same basic level as the students. Everyone eats together and shares in camp work. Every other week is spent traveling to various locations in four-wheel drive vehicles. Students interact closely with each other on the trip. Personal differences have to be worked out and people become part of a team. Over time deep friendships are formed. It is especially rewarding to be a faculty member in this kind of program because faculty and students get to know each other at a deep and personal level.
Taking people out of their comfortable home culture makes them think in new ways. It can seriously impact their established worldview and can raise deep personal and spiritual issues. Students ask hard questions and seek new answers. The faculty are mentors who facilitate discussion and worship, but they are not pastors. Students must search the scriptures for answers. Conversations and prayer with friends help the students come to terms with spiritual issues.
The best way to assess the impact of such a program is through the comments and writings of the students. During the semester each student keeps a journal of what he or she is learning and of his or her personal feelings. At the end of the program these students write reflective papers. The following vignettes have been taken directly from reflective papers the students wrote after their return to the home country. They are broken down into seven general categories: freedom from possessions, generosity, praising God, community, learning humility, finding God’s will and thankfulness.
FREEDOM FROM POSSESSIONS
Certain key issues arise every semester. One of the dominant issues is the gap between the rich and the poor. Upon arrival in Tanzania the students suddenly see themselves as extremely wealthy. As Christians they often struggle to know how to help and how to reach out to the poor. They learn about the global factors that cause much of this poverty. More importantly, they learn compassion and a new way of thinking about material possessions. Read this student’s reflection:
My first lesson began when I received my backpack from Dr. Arensen. I looked at it and thought, “Three months! Everything I take to Africa must fit in this backpack?” I think back to how I filled every corner, stuffed every pocket and was convinced that I would forget something vital. I think of it now and smile. If only I knew then what I learned over the semester—how little “stuff” I actually needed. By the middle of the semester I was freely giving away t-shirts, notebooks, pens, pencils—everything I could let go of and still survive. The freedom of not being burdened by the “stuff” was incredible. I remember waiting for a bus to arrive that would take us to Zanzibar during our last week in Tanzania. As we stood on the side of the road an old man wearing a tattered shirt and ragged pants walked by. Mary, a student at Gordon College, watched him and said, “I wish we had some clothes to give him.” Without thinking, I unwrapped the sweatshirt from around my waist and ran after him. “Baba,” I called, “Zawadi” (“Father, a gift.”). He gratefully took my sweatshirt and wrapped it around himself. I will never forget the freedom I felt at that moment — the complete freedom from an attachment to my possessions. I have brought this lesson home with me and have found my life here in America so much purer.
In Africa it is easy for rich westerners to get jaded by the poverty around them. There is a tendency to put up a defensive wall and to look the other way. There is a desire to want to protect ourselves from the constant demands. But the unexpected generosity of an African child can go a long way toward breaking down these walls. Read this student’s reflection:
As I walked through the cattle corral near our camp, a little Maasai girl ran up to me. I thought she was going to ask me for something; instead, she came and gave me a little bead bracelet she had with her. I had taken off all my jewelry so as not to have to give it to the children. It crushed my heart that I had nothing to give her back. In the middle of a Maasai corral in Tanzania a little Maasai girl taught me the lesson of generosity.
One of the greatest benefits to meeting Christians in another culture is the exposure to new ways of worship. Many American Christian students are strongly ethnocentric; they assume that the Western modes of worship are the correct ones. Most students visiting Tanzania are amazed by the depth of worship which takes place in other societies. Each year the students spend some time with Maasai who have recently become Christians. These Maasai still retain many of the trappings of their traditional culture, but at the same time they worship God with joy and enthusiasm. Read this student’s reflection:
The Maasai taught me the purity of praise. After driving for miles and then walking on a thorny path in complete darkness, we arrived at a Maasai homestead. A number of Maasai believers had gathered together to encourage a widow whose house had burned down. Never in my life had I experienced such pure praise, fellowship and enjoyment of God. Under a sky saturated with stars and surrounded with the smell of cows, I held hands with a little Maasai girl and an old Maasai man. We danced together, jumping first forward and then back. I wondered if jumping this way was a way of getting closer to God. I knew it was. My heart burned with the pleasure and discovery of a new God that I can worship with my body, my song, my strength and my newly-discovered brothers and sisters.
Living in an intentional community is a new experience for many students who were raised to be individualistic. It has potential for trouble and students and faculty have to learn to constantly think about meeting the needs of others. People sometimes offend others and there may be a need to clear the air and a time to ask forgiveness. Overall, however, the friendships that are formed during the three months of community living are exceptionally strong and lasting. Read this student’s reflection:
My greatest fear coming to Tanzania was the group of thirty Americans I would have to live with for the next three months. The first three weeks were the toughest time for group dynamics, and I had low expectations of making any best friends. It was not until Tarangire Game Park that Emily, Hope and I opened up about our struggles, pains, jealousies, anxieties and desires. We became each other’s counselors. I have never gotten so close to two other people in such a short time. Seeing Hope grow from being an unbeliever to being an on-fire Christian has been one of the greatest and most humbling blessings I have received. We spent endless hours by the Ruaha River talking about salvation and Christianity, listening to each other’s stories and making sense of the world so far away. Hope lived with us, heard about Christianity and saw Christ in our lives. This month she was baptized. She has been studying the Bible by herself. She has also been leading a Bible study. She is considering missions as an option for her future. I am so proud of her, and would have gone to Tanzania even if she was the only good thing that came out of it.
As westerners going overseas we often feel we are in the power position. We have good educations and access to financial resources. There is an inherent tendency to look down on people who have less of these things. Near the end of the semester the students go out in pairs and spend nine days living with rural Tanzanian farmers; they sleep in their houses, speak Kiswahili, work in their fields and eat their food. This home-stay period is the most stretching period in the semester, but it is also the time when the students learn the most. Even though the host families may not have much in the way of formal education or financial resources, they are wealthy in spirit and relationships. The secret for the student is to put him or herself in the learning mode and learn to respect the host family. The students quickly discover that everyone knows a great deal about something. Read this student’s reflection:
Looking back at my time in Tanzania, one relationship there became a great blessing to me—the relationship with my host father Japhet. During what could have been the most difficult period of my stay, he played the most gracious Christian host one could imagine. We could only communicate in the most basic Kiswahili, and he did a great job of speaking slowly and choosing simple words and verb constructions. He never got frustrated with us, but was happy to continually repeat himself until we found the words for a response. Despite our lack of fluency and our quietness, he never stopped engaging us in conversation. He wasn’t afraid to make jokes with us, and even laughed at the clumsily-phrased jokes we made up. While we were working in the fields together he would never cease to encourage us, while gently teaching us a better way of doing the task. But what struck me about this man, more than his incredible hospitality, was the joy and contentment that seemed to radiate from him. He really loved the people around him, and went out of his way to interact with and to help out his neighbors in every way he could. I found myself wishing that someday I could have faith as strong and beautiful as this simple Tanzanian farmer.
FINDING GOD’S WILL
A major issue for many young Christians is finding God’s will for their lives. Many of the students coming to Tanzania are looking for a “calling.” They are looking for a vocation and a place to serve; they are hoping God will show them his chosen assignment. Instead, many find God’s will at a broader level. Read this student’s reflection:
For so long I had been in search of God’s will for my life. I thought of his will as an arrangement that he had formed for me and that I had to discover. I lived in fear that I would not find it in time or that I would somehow make a mistake and miss his will. Throughout my years in college I had been in the process of learning to trust him more and believed that he would eventually reveal the bits and pieces of his will as I needed to know them. But while in Tanzania I discovered that I had known his will all along; I had just never really understood it. This discovery happened slowly, as week by week we interacted with missionaries from all over Tanzania. Upon hearing every testimony and learning the mission statement and goals of each organization, I was convinced that this was the one I wanted to serve with. Then the next week came and I met another missionary with another missionary organization. This one was even better than the last. It continued until finally I asked the Lord, “How will I ever choose? Which organization is your will for me, Jesus?” As I questioned, prayed and got bogged down in my mind’s confusing chatter, I finally heard him say, “Child, where do you want to serve? It is up to you! As long as you are following me, I will use you. I have given you talents, abilities and passions that I have not given to other people. All I ask is that you use these things to glorify me. This is my will for you.” Deuteronomy 10:12 has solidified this lesson: “And now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and to observe the Lord’s commandments and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good.”
Most students take in the fullness of this cross-cultural experience in Tanzania and embrace it. They realize they have been changed by the experience; they also realize they cannot stay students forever. However, they have the wisdom to be thankful for what they have learned and how they have matured. Read this student’s reflection:
Tanzania is now one of my homes. My last day in Tanzania was spent with a family who had adopted seven street kids. I had the privilege to get to know them, teach them English and be part of their family. For about ten minutes I had to get away and sit on a sand dune to cry and prepare myself for the journey back to America. As I sat on the dune, I praised God. I thanked him and made a promise to him. Although I knew I would miss Tanzania, I promised that I would not be angry or sad because I was no longer in Tanzania. Instead, I promised God that I would be thankful for allowing me to come to Tanzania and to live with the Maasai and the Safwa. I promised him I would be thankful for everything I had experienced and learned; for all the people I had grown to love; and for how I had changed. My journey of life is not about where I am going; rather, it is about who I am following. Tears may continue to fall down my cheeks, but they are tears of gratitude, love and expectation of a wild future in Christ.
Dallas Willard once wrote that “it is a peculiarly modern notion that the aim of teaching is to bring people to know things that may have no effect at all on their lives” (1997, 112-113). He went on to write that we often regard learners as containers—students to be filled with information. In contrast, Jesus taught using parables and illustrations and most of his teaching was taught in context. His teaching was experiential; He taught “in such a way that he would impact the life flow of the hearer” (1997, 112-13). This is the goal of the semester in Tanzania. For most students it is a life-changing experience. They fall in love with Africa and its peoples and most likely, they will return.
Willard, Dallas. 1997. The Divine Conspiracy. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.
Jonathan Arensen has spent thirty years working in East Africa with Wycliffe Bible Translators as a Bible translator and anthropologist. He holds a doctorate in social anthropology from Oxford University and is currently teaching at Houghton College in Houghton, N.Y.
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