I have been reflecting on experiences during the joint Baptist-Muslim mosquito net distribution in Tanzania. Here are some of my thoughts.
Sitting under a mango tree, an elderly woman awaits the distribution of mosquito nets in a village outside Dar es Salaam. (Photo: Robert Parham)
First, I was impressed with the mutual respect that people of different faiths show one another in Tanzania. Every village we visited to distribute mosquito nets had both Muslim and Christian members living as neighbors and working together.
In both the private schools and the schools run by the government, Muslim children and Christian children were studying together and playing with one another with no signs of division or tension.
Second, I was especially impressed by the hospitality of our Muslim hosts. They provided our transportation, lodging and meals during our stay. Expecting and fully prepared for Spartan accommodations, we were pleasantly surprised to have private, air conditioned rooms at the Giraffe Hotel on the Mbezi beach with a spectacular view of the Indian Ocean.
Every meal we ate was good, but the highlights of the trip were the times we were invited to eat in the homes of the headmasters of the Turkish-sponsored private schools in Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar. In both cities, we were treated to multiple courses of exquisitely prepared Mediterranean cuisine.
Both headmasters went out of their way to make sure we were comfortable during our visit to their homes. The weather in Tanzania is very hot and humid. Electricity is expensive. A simple home electrical connect fee is more than four times the average annual income in Zanzibar.
Few are so fortunate as to have an air conditioner in their home, and few of those who do have air conditioners can afford to run them much. The headmasters were no exception, but they made sure that the room in which we ate and conversed was comfortable during the time of our visit.
Third, I was impressed with the self-confidence, initiative and industry demonstrated by many of the people I saw in Tanzania. The country has an abundance of people who appear willing and eager to better themselves by working hard to improve their living conditions.
They lack good educational opportunities (a pupil teacher ratio of 120 to 1 is not conducive to good education), vocational training for 21st-century job skills, and a reasonable possibility of attaining gainful employment.
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Fourth, I am concerned about the number of young men I saw standing at the side of the road and sitting on porches looking for something to do. Pineapples, mangos, coconuts and bananas are abundant in the areas around Dar es Salaam. No one is starving for food at that location, but many seem starved for something constructive to do with their time.
Jobs are scarce. Internet service is rare. Meanwhile, when foreign countries like China undertake construction projects in Tanzania, they are also exporting tens of thousands of their own citizens to fill up the manual labor jobs that Tanzanians could easily do.
Finally, I am concerned about the subordinate role of women that was apparent in both Muslim and Christian societies in Tanzania. I remember seeing only two women with positions of responsibility: the principal of a primary school and a social worker.
Both were Christians working for the government in positions that would traditionally be filled by women. The only woman I saw with a semblance of authority was the wife of the Turkish ambassador, who represented her husband in his absence at the Feza School's graduation ceremony.
Bruce Prescott is executive director of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists, president of the Norman, Okla., chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and host of "Religious Talk" on KREF radio. He blogs at Mainstream Baptist.