Bishop Martin in Kagera

From where I am sitting I am looking out across the wide valley of the Kagera River in north-west Tanzania, East Africa.


In the distance, the other side of the river, is Rwanda. The vast hillsides are still largely bare, apart from dried grass and scrub, after the devastating Rwanda genocide of 1994 when refugees flooded into Tanzania to seek safety, and trees were cut down for firewood and to build shelter.


I came here a week ago, to visit friends and make news ones in the churches and the institutions of the Diocese of Kagera, with which our Diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich has been twinned for nearly thirty years.

This is my second visit, but for half of the group of six people that have come with me from churches in Suffolk, this was their first.


For all of us, whether the first or second time, this visit has been life changing, as any visit to a profoundly different context and culture will be, when staying among and experiencing the daily lives of those whose home this is.


There are many dimensions to the partnership between our churches in Suffolk and the churches here in this deeply rural part of Tanzania.


One of the most tangible is the practical expressions of our friendship that the people of the churches in Kagera wanted to show me, where people from Suffolk had contributed material and financial help.


I unveiled a plaque at the Ngara Anglican Primary School giving thanks for contributions from Suffolk towards a range of buildings that have enable the school to grow and strengthen its care and education of now 550 children.


At the local hospital, run by the Church, I was shown a new blood analyser, which cuts the time for blood tests to two minutes, again which people from Suffolk churches had paid for.


And at another village I turned on a tap from a new water tank, capturing the seasonal rainfall, to provide the vicarage, the church and their neighbours with water. Before the tank was built, paid for by Suffolk church contributions, people had to walk almost four miles to fetch water.


These life changing interventions are beyond the financial reach of the communities here, but relatively modest cost for us. The water tank cost about £800; a new motorbike for a vicar to travel between their many churches, about the same amount; a new toilet block for the primary school will cost £2,000.


In fact, because the church is growing so much, the Diocese of Kagera have started building a new cathedral – begun in hope, without the money raised, building stage by stage. So far the foundations, floor and concrete frame have been erected, the cost of which has been largely raised by the existing cathedral congregation.


The total cost of this vast new structure, to seat 1,000 people, larger than the cathedral in Bury St Edmunds, will be 1 billion Tanzanian Shillings – which is about £330,000, the cost of a house in Suffolk.


Of course this is a very important part of our relationship with Kagera, but the relationship is genuinely mutual in many ways, and the financial contributions are just one part. As I told a gathering of clergy and church members here, we receive far more in return.


Their hope, faith, joy, laughter and encouragement are immense gifts to those of us who visit.


And behind that is a very appealing simplicity of purpose, as well as simplicity of method.


They want to have a church in every community, in every village.


And they want to serve the needs of their communities. The aim is to serve every community spiritually, physically, mentally, and economically.


So they build churches, and they develop extensive social programmes – schools, a hospital, and innovative farming projects to help clergy, congregations and communities to become self-sufficient in food and timber in the changing conditions of the environmental crisis.


As their bishop, Bishop Darlington, put it, “The church exists to go outwards, it belongs to the community.”


He was quite clear that, while the social outreach is undertaken for its own sake, “to show God’s love,” it also introduces people to what the church is for and so for some is a route into discovering faith – which would not happen if the outreach did not happen.


I hope this may even sound a little bit familiar.  Since the pandemic, when the churches of Suffolk turned outwards more and more, even beyond what they had been doing to serve those in need, we have spoken about the core of the life of our churches being worship and service of others.


That simplicity and clarity of purpose makes sense in Suffolk, just as it makes sense in Tanzania.


I will be returning from Tanzania not just with that simplicity of purpose reinforced. But also with a determination to learn from the Diocese of Kagera’s simplicity of method in working towards that purpose.