07 January 2022
East African Life-Writing and Colonial History: New Perspectives from EAP Tanzanian Church Records
Among the many fascinating sources from the Endangered Archives Programme’s EAP099 project, which conserved and digitised records of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Tanzania, is a set of Swahili-language essays, written in 1913 by young men at a German-led teacher training school.
The essays, written by 32 different authors on the subjects of their childhood and conversion to Christianity, are valuable examples of African life-writing during the era of European colonialism. Some of the authors went on to become leading church ministers and teachers. Others are unknown beyond the information left behind in these essays, which provide insights into early experiences of German colonial rule, reasons for conversion, and the impact of missionary activities on indigenous communities.
I came across the texts while conducting research for a three-month PhD Placement, in which I have been exploring the British Library’s collections for new perspectives on German colonial history. The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Tanzania evolved from the Leipzig Mission, one of several German missions active in the region after it became the colony of German East Africa in 1885. The British Library has digital copies of Leipzig Mission sources, mostly produced between 1895 and the 1930s, which are held in the archive of the Northern Diocese of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Moshi, Tanzania.
The role of Christian missions in European colonial projects is the subject of continuing debate. Missionaries’ goals sometimes conflicted with those of settlers and colonial administrations, and they occasionally helped to expose colonial atrocities. However, almost all missionaries supported European colonialism in principle, and missions were involved in various labour and educational initiatives to ‘elevate’ supposedly backward indigenous populations.
Around 95 percent of schools in German colonies were run by missions. As the school system in German East Africa expanded, it became necessary to train local people to become teachers, and to this end the Leipzig Mission opened the Marangu training school for teaching assistants in 1912. Among the first entrants were the young men who, in December 1913, were given the task of writing two essays: one about their early life, and another about their process of conversion.
The texts do not reflect local experiences of colonialism in all their variety. Most subaltern works of life-writing from the colonial era were produced in missionary contexts, and memoir material from those who refused to convert to Christianity is much more seldom. Furthermore, the students at Marangu came from various linguistically diverse parts of Tanzania, and had learned Swahili only upon joining mission schools. We do not know how far the challenge of writing in a second language affected the authors’ ability to tell their stories in the way they would have liked.
The essays nonetheless provide remarkable insights into life in Tanzania during the colonial era. We learn, for example, of the brutalities of German rule. Elia Tarimo’s essay on his childhood recalls the German army’s defeat of Chief Meli, the leader of the town of Moshi, in 1892, and the catastrophic consequences for Moshi civilians. ‘When the Europeans had defeated the Moshi people, they chopped down our banana trees, burned our houses and stayed on our land’, he writes.
An essay by Nderangusho Kimaro shows the effects of the ‘hut tax’, introduced by the German colonial authorities in 1898. Designed in part to make local people work on European plantations to raise the necessary money, the tax was enforced ruthlessly: failure to pay often resulted in askari (East African soldiers in the German colonial army) confiscating cattle. The local chief was sometimes held hostage until those in his village paid the tax.
When Kimaro’s mother could not afford to pay, her chief sold her livestock in order to gather the funds. Kimaro was then sent to work as a child labourer on a German plantation, and writes that he was beaten whenever he did not go to work there.
We also find out more about the authors’ reasons for converting to Christianity. Initial motivations for visiting the missionaries included the desire to learn to read and access to material benefits. An acquaintance with Christian teaching usually followed only later. Furthermore, the essays describe the strains on the authors’ relations with their family, friends and community in greater detail than most of the ‘conversion’ accounts by Africans which were published in Europe.
For many of the essay-writers, becoming a Christian meant ceasing to venerate one’s ancestors. This led to conflicts with friends and relatives. Elia Tarimo describes vividly the sense of fear as his family warned him that the spirit of his father, who was killed by the German forces in 1892, would in turn kill Tarimo if he embraced European culture. His teacher, however, told him that he would be condemned to hell if he did not convert before he died.
While some authors write of estrangement, others were eventually welcomed back by their families once they had been baptised. In some instances, the authors were not the only converts within their household. Filipo Njau’s decision to embrace Christianity was made easier by the fact that other family members had already done so. The essays thus hint at a variety of responses within communities to the changing circumstances caused by the European colonial presence.
Njau’s candid essay provides details on the early life of a long-serving representative of East African Christians. From 1926 until 1954, Njau worked as a teacher at the Marangu school at which he had been trained, and stood up for the dignity of Africans within the Church. He opposed, for example, the attempts by some white missionaries to uphold racist clothing distinctions by prohibiting black parishioners from wearing shoes.
My analysis of Njau’s text, and those of the other authors, relies upon German translations published in three volumes by Klaus-Peter Kiesel, who adds rich contextual information. Swahili speakers, however, will be able to read the digitised copies for themselves, and I hope that the essays will find wider audiences. Together with the church registers, parish council minutes, diaries and other source material digitised as part of the EAP099 project, they offer great potential for further research into the colonial, religious and social history of East Africa.
My thanks go to Professor Adam Jones for giving me permission to use the photos from the Leipzig Mission’s archive, and for providing further information about the historical context and the Endangered Archives Project EAP099.
Rory Hanna, PhD Placement Student, German Collections
References and further reading:
Klaus-Peter Kiesel (ed.), Kindheit und Bekehrung in Nord-Tanzania. Aufsätze von Afrikanern aus dem ehemaligen Deutsch-Ostafrika vom Anfang des 20. Jahrhunderts, 3 vols (2005-2013) [https://ul.qucosa.de/landing-page/?tx_dlf[id]=https%3A%2F%2Ful.qucosa.de%2Fapi%2Fqucosa%253A32377%2Fmets]
Sebastian Conrad, German Colonialism: A Short History (Cambridge, 2012), YC.2011.a.17036
John Iliffe, A Modern History of Tanganyika (Cambridge, 1979), X.800/27820
Gabriel Ogunniyi Ekemode, ‘German Rule in North-East Tanzania, 1885-1914’. PhD thesis (1973) [https://ethos.bl.uk/OrderDetails.do?did=1&uin=uk.bl.ethos.817253]
Klaus Fiedler, Christianity and African Culture: Conservative German Protestant Missionaries in Tanzania, 1900-1940 (Leiden, 1996), YA.1996.b.5134
Robert B. Munson, The Nature of Christianity in Northern Tanzania: Environmental and Social Change, 1890-1916 (Lanham, MD: 2013), YC.2014.a.2048
Majida Hamilton, Mission im kolonialen Umfeld. Deutsche protestantische Missionsgesellschaften in Deutsch-Ostafrika (Göttingen, 2010), [https://library.oapen.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.12657/32525/610325.pdf;jsessionid=C76FC24EAFEA6E388577C3D60DB600FC?sequence=1]
Thomas Spear (ed.), Evangelisch-Lutherisches Missionsblatt. Extracts on Arusha and Meru, 1897-1914 (Madison, WI: 1995), YA.1996.b.4628
Thomas Spear and Isaria N. Kimamba (eds), East African Expressions of Christianity (Oxford, 1999), YC.1998.a.4866
Simon Gikandi, ‘African Literature and the Colonial Factor’, in Francis Irele and Simon Gikandi (eds), The Cambridge History of African and Caribbean Literature (Cambridge, 2004), pp. 379-397, YC.2005.a.268
Gareth Griffiths, African Literatures in English: East and West (New York, 2000), m00/27805