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Suffolk clergy inspired by ‘life-changing’ visit to African region where generosity and community spirit shine through poverty

When a group of Suffolk clergy visits churches in a poverty-stricken part of Africa you might expect to see a one-way delivery of help, donations and support.

But that was far from the case when nine people including Bishop of Dunwich the Rt Revd Mike Harrison spent two weeks in one of the poorest regions of rural Tanzania.

They brought back as much as they gave in terms of learning and inspiration from Kagera, which has been linked with the Diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich for almost 30 years.

Inside one of the churches in Kagera
Inside one of the churches in Kagera

Even though living conditions are desperately hard they say the spirit of joyfulness, gratitude and generosity of the villagers they met shone through.

With women and children as young as six walking miles to fetch water, no public transport, and crippling poverty the daily challenges in this stunningly-beautiful part of Africa are relentless.

Scratching a living from growing crops is made even more difficult by climate change which has brought more extreme periods of rainfall and drought. Most people live on less than £1.50 a day.

Bishop Mike Harrison with villagers in Kagera diocese
Bishop Mike Harrison with villagers in Kagera diocese

But the sense of community and joyful commitment among the Christian congregations left a lasting impression that the visitors are keen to encourage back home in Suffolk.

Bishop Mike, who has visited Kagera Diocese before and led the visit with the Revd Canon Sharron Coburn, said: “I have always wanted to take a group of priests to be inspired and come back and inspire the congregations they lead.

“I have come back inspired by what I have seen, and with a question about how we shift from an ‘audience’ culture to a participation culture. How do we break out of our culture which places ‘me’ at the centre of the whole word. Gratitude is at the start, generosity quickly follows.”

Bishop of Dunwich Mike Harrison, Revd Nicola Tindall, and Revd Diane Grano go through Nicola's notes from their visit to Kagera
Bishop of Dunwich Mike Harrison, Revd Nicola Tindall, and Revd Diane Grano go through Nicola's notes from their visit to Kagera

In Kagera the Church gives practical help in ways that include education, providing rainwater-collection tanks, and encouraging the sustainable growing and selling of crops to provide a living.

It is also linked to a hospital where staff make heroic efforts to provide healthcare with only rudimentary facilities and a shortage of drugs. Patients’ families are responsible for bringing them food, and if they have no-one the hospital chaplain provides money.

The Revd Canon Sharron Coburn, who has just been appointed diocesan director of mission and ministry, and until recently was rector of St Peter’s Church, Brandon, said: “The hospital was the most inspirational place for me.

Clergy from Suffolk and Kagera diocese with one of the concrete water tanks installed by the churches
Clergy from Suffolk and Kagera diocese with one of the concrete water tanks installed by the churches

“They were doing so much with such a cheerful heart yet having so little to work with. This could be said of most departments. The physiotherapist was seeing over 100 people a month yet the entirety of his resources consisted of one bed and a large ball.

“Yet the leadership were so full of hope for the future and spoke about their strategy for the next six months and three years which was inspiring.”

And the Revd Nicola Tindall, associate priest at the Four Marys Benefice near Hadleigh, also praised the invigorating leadership and financial management.

Bishop of Dunwich Mike Harrison and Bishop Darlington Bendankeha of Kagera with one of the motorbikes bought with donations from Suffolk for priests to travel between their churches
Bishop of Dunwich Mike Harrison and Bishop Darlington Bendankeha of Kagera with one of the motorbikes bought with donations from Suffolk for priests to travel between their churches

“The hospital is a church foundation in the village where we were staying. What came across is that they are not looking for charity. They want to be able to be self-sufficient. They will accept gifts but the day to day running of the hospital has to cover itself.

“There is very, very good financial management. The new CEO is trying to raise this district hospital to a regional hospital to get more funding.”

Sharron described the visit to Tanzania as amazing. “The people were so welcoming and the way we were offered hospitality was outstanding. At every visit there was always food on offer and a time for us to get to know one another.

“I was struck by the way every part of the land in the area we visited was given over to growing food with little space for ornamental gardens and flowers.

“Even in the fields with avocado or banana trees, there would be maize stalks growing to make use of every part of the space. The country was lusciously green.

“The schools were full of children and young people whose faith was evident in the way that they worshipped; at each school we were greeted with singing and dancing.

“I was struck by the numbers in the classroom, some 50 – 60 children to one class teacher, yet all beautifully behaved and engaged, even the four year-olds.

“In church, expression of worship was once again offered through dance and singing. “The second Sunday, when I preached, I was given a bag of nuts and one egg which were purchased during the service and offered to the preacher for a good sermon.

“When people have no money for the offering, they can bring items to be auctioned off and the thought that someone came to church with one egg was quite profound.

The Revd Diane Grano who works with the Forest Heath Team Ministry based at Red Lodge was also touched by how all the congregation brought what they could afford to church, no matter how small.

“Everyone gives, even if it is one egg. The produce is auctioned and the church decides how to use the money.

“If we as a country could be as generous as they are we could alleviate poverty. We were incredibly blessed that in the midst of struggle and privation there is a joy and generosity and love that I don’t think we see in our country in abundance.

“There is a real sense of community. They take care of each other. My hope is that as a church community here in the UK is that we can learn from this community to just be joyful in our worship and generous and loving in a community.

“The churches are full. They have vision. There is a real steadfastness, even with the challenges. They keep going until they achieve what they need to. There is a real commitment.

“This visit has really united us as a team. We formed a real bond. We were totally inspired by their enthusiasm. It is life changing.”

People in rural Kagera survive with few of the things the developed world takes for granted. “There is no infrastructure, no fresh water. It is the women’s job to collect the water from the river, carrying it for miles.”

Water has to be boiled before it is used, and even so eight of the nine in the Suffolk party were hit by stomach trouble during the visit.

The Church is installing tanks in villages to collect rainwater which is used for crops. “They use cement tanks rather than plastic because it keeps the water cooler and doesn’t perish,” said Diane. “There is no machinery. All the planting and digging is done by hand.”

Education is valued and children will walk miles on their own to get to school, but for some it is unaffordable.

State schooling is free but parents must pay for uniforms, books and writing materials. Church schools have to charge fees to cover the cost of teaching and maintenance. Donations from Suffolk have helped with school building.

“Some parents make sacrifices to pay for schooling, some don’t,” said Diane. “They might need the children to work the land, or there might be no jobs at the end of it.

“In some of the very very rural areas you find churches with a blackboard for teaching children. In one place there were 30 children every time. The minister teaches them, while they sit on the dirt floor.”

They also saw the heartbreaking plight of some disabled children who can be rejected by society and their families because of conditions like blindness, or Down's syndrome. “We saw these children sleeping on a hard concrete floor in state schools,” she said.

Two new dioceses are being created in the Kagera region and another of Bishop Mike’s priorities was forging deeper relationships with them and finding out more about their needs and aspirations.

“We are now linked to three dioceses. Some of us visited the other two and saw projects and churches. They are nearer to Lake Victoria, hotter, more humid, still very hilly, deeply rural.

“One day the rains came down. You could see how treacherous it was. We went into a ditch but being in a four wheel drive managed to get out.”

All the party were struck by the beauty of the area including magnificent sunrises and sunsets. “It is really lush verdant countryside,” said Mike.

“Where we stayed is high up so there was little oxygen and you would get out of breath. It is twice the height of Helvellyn - you can see three countries, Burundi, Tanzania and Rwanda from where we were.

“There have been more droughts and more heavy rain recently. The dry season is drier and the wet season is wetter.

“Both have been affecting the crops so the income from maize has been unpredictable. Seeds can be washed away by rain or they dry out and stop growing. There has been some diversification like with avocado planting.

“Part of what the church is doing is a programme called CCMP (Church and Community Mobilisation Project) to train people to grow their own food and sell it to make a living, also growing trees for firewood and maintaining the environment - helping people to be resilient.”

He said the number of churches in Kagera is growing at a phenomenal rate with an average of 10 new ones every year.

“The tools they use in their worship - music, dance - make it a more participation culture. When the choir sings they dance as well … joyful dance and song is at the heart of their worship. Here we are more self conscious.” He also noticed a big difference in how happy people were to declare their faith.

Nicola, who works in the Four Marys Benefice covering Higham, Holton St Mary, Raydon and Stratford St Mary, said: “I think the visit has changed how I look at the church and life in general.

“The generosity and joyfulness in their worship and everyday lives struck me more than anything else, in spite of the poverty and what we found were challenging conditions.

“I felt their sole purpose is to make sure that there is food on the table, and they will worry about tomorrow’s food tomorrow. They put their trust in God that He will provide.

“It was lovely to feel I could be a Christian 24 hours a day and no-one was going to bat an eyelid. You could express your faith and your thoughts.

“Every time we went on a trip we saw a new church being built. As soon as the walls were up and possibly the roof on they would be inside using them.

“The lack of stuff in homes was also something I noticed, the complete simplicity. I went to one priest’s house and there were three children playing with a broken toy car on the floor, the only toy. But they were pushing it around with a stick.”

There was also a meeting where the role of women was discussed. “We talked about gender equality and the status of women in the church and I feel there is some way to go.

“They don’t have women priests but I didn’t get any feeling that they were antagonistic towards it,” she said.

“There is a deep rooted belief that women are the ones who do the work. There are things there we in the West would feel uncomfortable with. Women look after the crops, look after the house and the children. It’s definitely a patriarchy.”

Nicola took with her money from church collections in the Four Marys Benefice to buy a motorbike to be used by the priest in Kagera's Ngakafandi parish.

Suffolk’s links with Kagera will be further strengthened by more visits and plans to mark the 30th anniversary of the connection between the two dioceses.

A group of adults and teenagers are going this summer, and a youth trip is being planned for early 2025.

Mike said that costs are covered by personal contributions and contributions from the training funds for priests. They also pay the carbon offset for the flights.