An Interview with Festo Mkenda SJ

by Gordon Nary


Gordon: When and why did you choose to become a Jesuit?


Festo: I first thought of becoming a Jesuit in 1991. At that time I was experiencing two strong desires: to become a priest and serve the Church as such, and to go to the university and study economics. I then discovered the Jesuits in my reading. They struck me as priests and brothers who took scholarship seriously. Joining them appeared to me to be a way of fulfilling my two desires. I started communicating with the Jesuits then and eventually entered the novitiate in Arusha, Tanzania, in July 1994.


Gordon: In your studies to earn a DPhil from Campion Hall, University of Oxford, what interested you in specializing in African political history?


Festo: Sometimes I feel embarrassed to talk about the origins of my interest in African history. The teacher I had for African history during my philosophy studies was not particularly good, understandably so because he was not a historian. In those years, many Africans had to take on teaching Africa-related disciplines with very little preparation because the need was overwhelming. I then felt someone ought to specialize in African history and do it well, and I thought I could be that someone. When I completed my basic training in theology in 2005, I was allowed to pursue further studies in African history. My entry point was a Master’s degree in African and Asian History at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London. It was while at SOAS that I focused my interest on issues of identity and its political implications in Africa. In 2006, I moved from SOAS to Oxford because I had identified (now the late) Dr. Jan-Georg Deutsch as a scholar with interests similar to mine and thus a potential supervisor for my DPhil thesis. In my doctoral work, I sought to explain how the ethnic community called Chagga in northern Tanzania became part of a much larger national movement that campaigned for political independence in the 1950s and 1960s.


Gordon: What was the most challenging course that you took and why?


Festo: The most challenging course was “Slavery and Servitude in Sab-Saharan Africa,” which was taught by Dr. Wayne Dooling at SOAS. Dr. Dooling had a way of asking pricky questions that forced us to face some disconcerting facts. Moreover, the topic touched directly on the question of identity that was beginning to claim my academic focus. I had gone into history as a mature student and in the backdrop of philosophy and theology, which made me look at these questions from a viewpoint of one humanity that claims common descent from God. Whereas studies have often focused on apportioning blame, slavery, servitude and the slave trade actually drove a wage into the very essence of our common humanity, and we have not even started to address the theological implications of this difficult chapter in human history.


Gordon: When were you appointed the director of the Jesuit Historical Institute in Africa (JHIA) and what were your primary responsibilities?


Festo: I was appointed the director of the JHIA towards the end of 2010, and I started work in January 2011. I spent the first year studying, consulting and leading a brainstorming exercise that was designed to gather information and help to articulate the specific vision and mission of the JHIA. A subsequent discernment process arrived at a common decision of the Jesuits in Africa to create a unique center for purposes of preserving memory and promoting historical knowledge in Africa. We were to achieve this goal by collecting and preserving Africa-related records and publications on histories, cultures, and religions; documenting the evolution of Christianity in Africa; assisting researchers to access these records, and promoting targeted research. When we started operations in Nairobi in January 2012, my responsibilities consisted of pursuing this four-fold mission of the JHIA, and I continued to do this for the seven years that I was the institute’s director.


Gordon: Please comment on the disputed presidential election in Kenya, which triggered widespread violence rooted in ethnic rivalries that left 1,300 people dead.


Festo: The 2007/8 post-election violence in Kenya shook the stability of the entire eastern Africa region, Kenya being the most important economic center of the region. We thank God that, unlike in the case of Rwanda in 1994, the international community intervened extremely swiftly in the Kenyan case, and the situation was contained in good time, alas after so many people had lost their lives. One of the significant causes was indeed historical ethnic rivalries, and the trigger was a disputed general election. Yet, what we learned was that neither ethnic rivalries nor electoral dispute needed to lead to violence. Kenyans resorted to violence when they did not have other options available to them. The Kenyan constitution was already acknowledged to be very bad, the electoral commission was obviously partisan, and the judiciary was so compromised that nobody thought he or she could seek electoral justice in the courts. Kenyans must be given the credit for addressing most of these challenges especially though the new constitution that was passed in 2010. Moreover, the Kenyan story remains a warning to many other countries in Africa, not least my own Tanzania, which still survive on very poor institutions and largely depend on whims of whatever political class that happens to capture power.


Gordon: Does Tanzania experience any of those challenges that Kenya faced in 2007/8?


Festo: Yes, Tanzania is similar to Kenya in many ways, although it is also different in many other ways. Tanzania has a large number of ethnic groups—over a hundred-and-twenty of them. But, unlike Kenya, there is not one group that is excessively dominant over the others. This has facilitated the process of building a more cohesive society with a shared national identity. The Kiswahili language is more broadly spoken in Tanzania, and it has also been a significant factor in uniting the country. Many people have also pointed out that Tanzania’s first president, Julius K. Nyerere, worked genuinely hard to establish a sense of national unity in the country. These factors make Tanzania more cohesive than Kenya. But this cohesion has relied on matters that are not institutions in themselves, and so Tanzania’s peace and unity rest heavily on the goodwill of political actors. Tanzania could learn a lot from Kenya, especially in terms of establishing a constitutional basis for human dignity and economic progress.


Gordon: You mentioned Julius K. Nyerere. Can you comment on his cause for canonization?


Festo: Yes, indeed, a cause for the possible beatification of Julius Nyerere was opened in 2005. The diocesan process was concluded, and Nyerere was officially recognized as “Servant of God” by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. I do not know where the official process has reached beyond that stage. However, I am familiar with a number of writings that have highlighted the merits and weaknesses of the cause. There are some who are hesitant about moving forward a process of someone who was a politician, especially one whose socialist inclinations could easily be branded “communist”. Within Tanzania, there are contemporaries of his who differed with his poorly performing economic policies then and who still consider this to be an obstacle to publicly-declared sainthood. Moreover, Nyerere himself admitted to incidences of failure to accommodate criticism. Yet, many views these as human weaknesses that only serve to highlight his genuine effort to lead a life guided by faith in extremely challenging circumstances. He is probably the only African president of his generation who left office voluntarily to retire in a poor rural home, having resisted the temptation to accumulate wealth for himself. Many admit that, as president, he showed an exceptional capacity to treat all Tanzanians as equal and to seek the development of the whole country without favoring specific regions for political reasons. It is also important to note that Nyerere practiced his Catholic faith openly, even as he respected those of other faiths and worked hard to build a constitutionally secular state where all could enjoy the freedom of worship. He meditated on the scriptures regularly, and he left behind one of the fruits of his meditation in the form of the four gospels and the book of the Acts of the Apostles rendered into Kiswahili verse. It would appear that a canonized Nyerere would counter the generally assumed view of politics as a permitted dirty game even for men and women of faith, which is considerably prevalent in Africa.


Gordon: How could Nyerere practice his Catholic faith so openly and at the same time promote peace and unity in a country like Tanzania which has a large number of Muslims?


Festo: The Muslim population in Tanzania is significant. Muslims probably form up to forty percent of a total population of fifty million presently, with Christians of all denominations constituting another forty percent. Under Nyerere, Tanzania’s population was smaller, but these ratios were more-or-less the same. While certain regions of the country tend to have higher concentrations of Muslims or Christians than others, the two major religions are widely distributed across the country. Julius Nyerere realized fairly early after independence that differences between these two religious blocks could be exploited to create divisions within the country, and this realization informed his persistent argument for a secular state that guaranteed freedom of worship. After Nyerere, we have seen attempts to exploit these religious differences for political reasons. It seems that going forward, Tanzania will require a stronger constitutional bulwark to guarantee and protect continued peace in an environment of religious pluralism.


Gordon: I understand that the Catholic Church in Tanzania is a significant player in the provision of services in the country. What is the implication of this situation for the general practice of politics in Tanzania?


Festo: Right from pre-independence days, the Catholic Church in Tanzania invested significantly in education and in health. The Catholic Church runs several schools, colleges, and universities, as well as health institutions at deferent levels, from village clinics to referral and teaching hospitals. The contribution of the Catholic Church to the provision of social services in Tanzania is, in this sense, indispensable. What is most important is that this investment bears witness to the values of the Gospel which animate the Church, especially as the Church seeks to make herself a neighbor to Tanzanians from all faith backgrounds by attending to their human needs. It is also true that this situation gives the Catholic Church immense authority in the country. The position that the Catholic Church chooses to declare herself in favor of on social, political and economic issues is taken very seriously by all, even those who would disagree with her. On the one hand, this position of influence is a good thing for the Catholic Church in Tanzania. On the other hand, it places enormous responsibility on the Church, especially on the Tanzania Episcopal Conference, on individual Bishops and on others who speak for the Church, to consider their publicly-stated views carefully and, as much as possible, seek informed expert input before they can issue public statements.


Gordon: Thank you for a great interview

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