An American in Tanzania: Thoughts on National Leadership

I was 23, fresh off the plane, fresh out of language school and fresh with naivete when she approached my office in the upstairs portion of the orphanage. My director came up and told me that the following day, she and the other senior missionary were going to Arusha and would be there the whole day. I was new at the orphanage and was pretty novice about missions in general, but my response was chalk full of implication.

“So I’m in charge then while you’re gone?”

The question mark there is how I said it, but it was more of statement than a honest question. I was ready, or so I thought, to be in charge.

She, smirked and replied, “well you, and Eli, and Baba Pendo.” Meaning, “not really, that’s not needed and there are Tanzanian staff who have been here much longer, are more informed and more invested.”

Despite being the youngest staff, despite having a tenure of weeks, not months or years, despite the integrity and knowledge of local staff, I assumed that I would be in charge. I assumed that authority based on two truths, I was the American missionary at an American-run orphanage. I’m grateful for my director slowing me down. At best, I would say that was a starting point for me on this journey in partnership with national Tanzanian leaders, but at worst it was blatant paternalism.

Who should be in charge? There is a lot of nuance within this subject, but it’s one that we must be willing to look at and engage. You have to take into account the calling of missionaries, that there was something that drove them to be wherever they are serving. You have to take into account equally the locals that have an equal calling on their lives. You have to take into account the authority and insight that locals have over their own culture. You have to take into account the resources (and not only material resources) that westerners might bring to the table. How do we determine who the boss is?

One of the difficult things that I’ve run into with the format of Kingdom Families is this question, how are you going to get parents to adopt children and make that huge sacrifice? How would they do it of their own volition with the best of intentions? How do you know that they’ll treat the kid well? From a western mindset, it’s a lot easier to just do all the work yourself and establish an orphanage of your own or just adopt however many kids you’re able to. This is seen as safer, because then you don’t have to worry about how solid the people are that you work with or you can gloss over that which you don’t understand culturally.

However, the more that I live and work in Tanzania, the more I realize that some of the best people I know are Tanzanian pastors and church goers. They’re just as human as you and me, but they’re good people and worthy of trust. As a now 30 year old missionary, my view of many of the leaders within our network has increased, I’ve realized that they are the heroes that this country needs.

I’ve of course voiced my frustration over the common institutionalization of impoverished kids in Tanzania and other countries. A lot of this is based out of an understanding of what’s the best situation for a kid to grow up in. But a whole other element is that the Tanzanian authority, the Social Welfare office, is opposed to institutionalization. One of the assistant commissioners in Dar-es-Salaam told me face to face that “family based care is the direction we want to go” and the the regional director here in Kilimanjaro told me that the government “wants to abolish the orphanage system.” Now, it is nonetheless common here, the government itself doesn’t have the necessary infrastructure and man power to implement the family-based care that they desire. Orphanages are the system in Tanzania although all but one are privately owned and operated (there’s a government orphanage in Dar-es-Salaam, I hear).

Part of the paternalism comes into play when westerners come over and open orphanages without consulting or submitting to the social welfare office. The idea is that they aren’t coming to the government and the churches and saying “how can we serve you?” Instead they are coming with an idea that is contrary to best practices, contrary to what the government wants and instituting whatever they want completely aside from government oversight. The government is then forced to either try and shut down the orphanage after the fact which can be tough when they’ve already taken in kids, or forced to try and monitor something that they never asked for in the first place. Do you see the problem in this?

In Moshi there was recently several orphanages shut down and only five remain. Does that inform us about the governments desire? Part of Kingdom Families’ positive relationship with social welfare is because we’re able to engage them and just say we want to support their initiatives from the NGO sector. That’s called honoring national leadership and it’s a lot more comfortable than trying to accomplish something against the flow of their office.

There is this other element to the story where we talk about the churches that we partner with. Our view often concerns how do we raise national leaders. I learned something though about leadership, in my view, leaders aren’t raised, they’re recognized. If someone is a leader, that means others will naturally follow. You’ll see their following, their demeanor and talent and recognize that they are a leader.

When I think about a couple like my friends Clint and Esther, who are bravely adopting from Tanzania currently, I see leaders. They aren’t pastors, they don’t work for my ministry or any other, but their character and drive causes me to recognize that they are leaders. Undoubtedly, there have been people that have fed into them over the years, just as with anyone else, but God puts that flame in them. For those others, we just sit and recognize the leadership anointing on them. I could say this about a lot of Tanzanians that I know, within the clergy, within the congregation and within the government.

When it comes down to it, if Tanzania or any nation is going to change for the better, there’s only one entity that can cause that change: the local church empowered by the Holy Spirit. Our role as immigrants to this country is to support the leaders within this movement that God has anointed. Just as Aaron and Hur held up the arms of Moses, that’s what we need to be doing as guests in our nations.

“For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” – Luke 14:11

Honored to serve the leaders of Tanzania