Bishop Martin Seeley's thoughts are on the Diocese of Kagera in Tanzania
The President of Tanzania, John Magufuli, died on March 17. He was 61 years old and had been president since 2015.
I am not usually very alert to the changes in political leadership around the world, apart from those the media especially focus on.
But for nearly 30 years the Church of England in Suffolk has been twinned with the Diocese of Kagera in north-west Tanzania, Africa. So President Magufuli’s death means rather more than it would have done if I had simply noticed it in the news media, and then with no connection just moved on.
And it means something for two particular reasons. First, the relationship with the bishop, clergy and congregations in that corner of Tanzania is a real relationship, a real connection of friendship and mutual care. And secondly, because President Magufuli would refer to an ‘unnamed respiratory disease’ and not coronavirus. And he believed this unnamed disease would be combated by prayer and traditional medicines.
Consequently, there has been no data published about Covid incidence in that country since last May, no provision for medical care for those suffering from Covid symptoms, and no campaign to stay safe.
Locally, many people, including in churches, have been taking care, have heard about the disease from their neighbours and instituted the sort of cleansing protocols that have become a way of life to us.
Several months ago we sent funds to the Church in Kagera to enable them to buy sanitising equipment for every church in their large diocese. The challenge for their people is both one of health, and one of economics, just as it is for us.
So the borders have been shut by their neighbours, and that means that important cash crops, that sustain the local economy, have not been able to leave the country to earn currency.
When I visited Kagera 20 months ago – and I was due to make a second visit last autumn – I saw the coffee growers and avocado growers who produce amazing crops with modest infrastructure, and then export them. I even have an avocado tree, grown from a stone from Kagera, that is already nearly 6ft tall.
The farmers’ families and villages depend on the income from these sales. But if the borders to Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi are closed, they cannot sell.
The churches work hard to support their communities, through pastoral care and improving agricultural practice, but they are thwarted economically when the borders are closed, and when there is no acknowledgment of the need to combat Covid.
We see here just how one approach to what is truth can have such a huge impact on other people’s lives, and indeed on their vulnerability to illness and death. It is hard to imagine why you would deny the disease is present when it is clearly so devastating. There are rumours, supported by the opposition party, that the president’s death was in fact from Covid, although he also had a long-standing heart condition which his supporters are pointing to as the cause.
We pray daily for our brothers and sisters in Kagera, and pray for wisdom and good judgement in their local and national leaders, and pray for the medical staff in the hospitals and clinics.
And I look forward to meeting up again and celebrate our friendship and mutual care once more.
- Bishop Martin Seeley is the Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich and is writing a weekly article for readers while church services are disrupted by the pandemic