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Life and witness in Tanzania

CMS missionary Liz Burns teaches at Msalato Theological College in Dodoma, Tanzania. Discover the importance for Liz to live a life consistent with the gospel, both inside and outside the classroom.

When I first started teaching at Msalato, it was a shock to the system. Although I had previously taught part-time classes in Swahili and English, full-time teaching in a college affiliated with the Anglican Church university (St John’s University of Tanzania) was a big change.

The complexity of college life

Our students arrive at college often only a year or so out of school, having finished the equivalent of Form 4 (Year 10). Many have never written an essay and often English, the language of tertiary education, is their third or fourth language. For many it is the first time they have moved away from home; others are already married with two or three children. If they are married, they are trying to support their family each holiday break by working in the fields or as labourers to help provide the basics of food and education for their children. As such, unexpected medical issues provide great stress, with students borrowing from their extended family and friends.

As a new staff member, I joined a community of about seventy students, eight lecturing staff and ten auxiliary staff, including guards and cooks. We were from five countries and there were at least eight different tribes represented, the dominant group being the local Wagogo. That’s a lot of different people, traditions and cultural norms to put together, as well as different theological backgrounds and great variety, particularly amongst the students, as to biblical knowledge.

Teaching students from the word

Last year in my first-year Old Testament Overview class, only half the students had arrived during the first week of lectures. No one knew how to use a computer or the format of an essay. I was unsure if half of the students understood my accent, others clearly did not and so the time in the classroom, at least in the first month, had to be divided between English and Swahili, with many students preferring that everything be taught in Swahili even though all their essays and exams are submitted in English. Most of the class had been involved in choir ministry in their churches and others in their school Christian group. However, few had read much of their Bibles, although nearly all had previously preached in their churches and been involved in various outreach programs as organisers or leaders.

It soon became apparent no one had read very much of the Old Testament. Few recognised Judah or Joseph, Joshua or Samson. David was a king but who was Samuel? Solomon was the king with many wives but what was the temple? Lots of material had to be read and considered. There were many light bulb moments as we realised that no one is perfect, no one is able to follow God’s commands, everyone sins, the Old Testament is not only about God’s anger but also about his patience with unfaithful people, sin is not breaking rules but breaking trust and relationship, marriages usually have problems and children do not always respect their parents. We learned to see the similarities between the Old Testament and life today, to see how patient God is with us. We learned a little more about the awesomeness of God. Some finished the semester determined to preach more accurately, to read more of the Scriptures or to live lives more in line with what they had learned.

Being a model in the community

So what does it mean to be a missionary lecturer in this context? As lecturers we become counsellors, advisors, friends, prayer partners, advocates and extended family members. Everything you teach in the classroom is measured against what is seen in your daily life. Everything you do is a statement of the reality of your faith and which things you hold as important. How you cope with the uninvited guest, or the local drunk who has come to beg for money, or the student with a sick family member or the demon-possessed child, or the student who has failed an essay is discussed and evaluated and considered as a model of Christian character and life. Will you lend a student some money, contribute to a bride price, attend a six-hour wedding, spend two or three hours at a funeral of a college neighbour, learn local language, wear local clothing, walk into a sick person’s room, pray with the fellowship or go door knocking with students? Students then decide, based on these and copious other events, whether your lectures and teaching are likely to be any good for ministry, or just something to learn in the classroom and be forgotten after the exams.

Everything you do is a statement of the reality of your faith and which things you hold as important.

If you get some of these things right, you then become the advisor in many practical and spiritual matters. You become the person to ask about how to improve a marriage, how to educate children, how to deal with demons, how to train church elders, how to get a brother out of jail and many other issues. You become a member of the community who is hopefully showing Christ through every aspect of life.

One of the things that I have learned while at Msalato is that we must encourage our students and the Church to read the Bible to find God’s answers to life’s questions. We can ask God to handle the same things again today as he always has in times past, and learn from him how to face them tomorrow. The Bible is a book to be trusted, even when our leaders or friends might not be available or wise. And what a privilege it is to be able to teach that in a college in Tanzania, where I learn more and more all the time about God and his people.

Another CMS worker, S, shares how he seeks to serve holistically even when unexpectedly finding himself as a businessman in South Asia. Read the full story here.


Pray that the students at Msalato Theological College would read their Bibles and be transformed by its teaching. Pray that Liz Burns and her fellow staff would persevere in their own lives and doctrine (1 Timothy 4:16).