Greetings from the campus of Mount Meru University near Arusha, Tanzania, in eastern Africa. This is my third and most gratifying voluntary mission to the only Baptist university in the whole of East Africa, a tribute to the missionary enterprise of Baptists in the United States.
Established in 1962 as the International Baptist Theological Seminary of Eastern Africa by the Foreign Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, the school has provided much of the pastoral leadership for the churches in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.
Despite more than a century of religious education in Africa–and now with thousands of churches and millions of Christians, including 4.5 million Baptists in 58 unions and conventions–African Baptists are asking: Why are we so poor?
It is a haunting question that is being addressed by the national Baptist administration of Mount Meru University, which led the institution to earn university status from the government of Tanzania last September with the addition of a school of education. Future plans call for departments of information technology and business.
Accreditation is a milestone in the work of national Baptists. First of all, the government requires a degree from an accredited university in order to teach in public schools or hold other key offices. Consequently, graduates of the seminary have not been eligible for such positions, although they are properly educated and trained, including proficiency in English, where there is a critical shortage of teachers.
Accreditation means that the graduates can continue as ministers but also be employed as teachers and in other government positions as well. Most pastors receive little or no income from their churches, as the annual per capita income in the country is less than $300. This potential new source of revenue for the pastor will help to expand tremendously his ministry and effectiveness.
Theology will continue as the largest of the university’s schools. The SBC International Mission Board continues to provide scholarships, professors and other services for the institution. According to university officials, the additional academic offerings will open new opportunities for evangelism as students seeking degrees in education, business, technology and other disciplines will be exposed to the Christian faith.
Accreditation of the school is a dream come true, according to Harrison Olan’g, vice chancellor for administration for the university, and executive vice chancellor and academic dean Joseph Kahindi. Both hold degrees from colleges and seminaries in the U.S.
Both men express profound gratitude to “the missionaries” for providing their education, and are committed to Christian higher education, which they believe should include more than just religion courses. And therein, they suggest, is part of the answer as to why African Christians are so poor.
“When the Baptist missionaries came to East Africa more than 40 years ago, we did not even have a dictionary of our national language,” Kahindi said. “They helped us develop one that is now the standard throughout the region.” (Swahili is the national language in East Africa, although English is the official language of Kenya and is required in public schools in Tanzania.)
“And the missionaries taught us about Jesus, for which we will always be grateful,” Kahindi continued. “As a result, the primary focus of our education has been on religion at the expense of other equally important disciplines, such as finance, business and technology, and that has crippled our ability to develop national leadership beyond the pulpit.”
Baptists and other Christian faith groups need to reassess their mission strategy in Africa. The masses have heard and responded positively to Christian gospel, and continue to do so at an amazing rate. Yet poverty, crime, AIDS, disease and other ills abound due to the lack of education beyond religion. It is a haunting question deserving an answer from world mission bodies.