The Festival of Pasaka

Pasaka is the Swahili word for Easter.

And at Kijana Kwanza, it’s just another excuse for a party. 

Over the last couple of years, as I visited a wide variety of NGOs in Tanzania, I quickly realised that many local organisations were run by faith-based groups. In the past, I too have worked in the faith-based sector and I can acknowledge the powerful role of faith in giving and advocating for social justice. 

But there is a clear distinction between the religious motivations of donors and charity leaders and a direct attempt to proselytise and propagate a particular belief system, either by discriminating against certain beneficiary groups or by insisting that beneficiaries partake in religious rituals as a condition of their support. The domination of faith-based NGOs in Tanzania, and Africa more generally, is a recognition of the continuing role that religion plays in the society. But it is also a remnant of a colonial agenda when waves of missionaries descended on Africa to convert ‘the heathens’ to Christianity. Concerned by the growing number of Africans converting to Christianity, including many Muslims, Islamic groups instigated their own missions. Central to this strategy was exchanging food for faith.

I am not making such public comment to criticise religion or the work of religious missions. Rather, I find the direct link between alleviating poverty and an explicit missionary agenda somewhat unethical and tantamount to the exploitation of the poor. Faith and belief are a personal choice, not a bargaining tool for overcoming poverty. Regrettably this is widespread in Africa with Christian and Muslim groups in direct competition. And whilst Christians and Muslims are nominally at peace in Tanzania, there is an underlying conflict not immediately apparent to the foreign eye. 

Kijana Kwanza is a strictly non-denominational organisation. The charity employs a quota system to ensure equal access for people of different faiths (I recognise that ‘quotas’ are in themselves problematic – we should be blind to someone’s religion – but sometimes an artificial delineation is the only way to overcome our inherent prejudice and bias). All our young people are given the space and opportunity to practice their faith – whilst encouraging them to learn about different faiths and cultures by communally celebrating all religious festivals.

At the start of Holy Week, Christian (the student, not the religion!) delivered a presentation at Kijana Kwanza to a to a group of young people from the local area, on the significance of the Easter. We then watched a short film on the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. I was actually quite impressed by Christian’s confidence and presentation skills. 

On Good Friday, our Christian students went to church and our Muslim students attended Friday prayers at the mosque. After returning from the mosque, the Muslim students prepared a special meal of ugali and fish for their Christian friends. And they ate together in solidarity. (I hope that the Muslim students will attend church next year, but one step at a time. I don’t want to cause a riot!).

Across the weekend, we organised special activities – the students visited an orphanage nearby to distribute Easter gifts to the children, a mini-disco and buffet, a trip to Marangu Falls and special screening of Mowgli in Swahili at our weekly Outdoor Cinema. Over 40 young people from the area attended our celebrations – and throughout we emphasised the importance of mutual respect, tolerance and understanding. 

Looking back at the last weekend, Hassan said to me, “Now I know what Easter is. Christians are our brothers and sisters.”

Whilst this approach is hardly revolutionary, it is uncommon in Tanzania. I hope that one day, faith-based NGOs in Africa will differentiate between their religious identity and their obligation to alleviate poverty, without discrimination.

Mohammed S Mamdani