Theology in Swahili

Centre Chair Roger Bowen is working to make Swahili-language theological resources available in East Africa.

The Revd. Roger Bowen chairs the Henry Martyn Trust, which operates the Cambridge Centre for Christianity Worldwide. He has long experience working in East Africa and continues to stay engaged with the church in retirement. On a recent trip in February and March, he made significant progress on a project that will make available Swahili-language theological resources to East African Christians. He writes about his visit.

Swahili is the lingua franca of many parts of Eastern Africa, spoken by some 150 million people.  Populations are growing at an average rate of 35-40% every 10 years.  The Church is growing even faster – in some areas doubling in size every 10 years.  It is clear that, facing such a challenge, the church’s ministers need tools for their trade.

In 1977, when I worked in Tanzania, I was involved in a programme that published 40 basic theological text books in Swahili. The goal of these texts was to educate ministers to serve their people and to equip the growing churches. By 2000 most of these titles were out of print, and there was no proposal to reprint them or to issue new theological titles.  The ecumenical Swahili Textbooks Committee of the Eastern Africa Theological Institutions had ceased to function, and the Roman Catholic Bishop of Kondoa wrote, ‘There are no publishers of theology in Tanzania’.  By 2016 pastors and students, most of whom communicate entirely in Swahili, were crying out for help.  This cry was heard by the Revd. John Sembuyagi, Theological Co-ordinator of the Anglican Church of Tanzania, and he shared it with me. I had chaired the Committee that had commissioned all those books over a generation ago.

After contacting SPCK Worldwide and some of the authors of the original works, as well as Lutheran, Baptist and Roman Catholic leaders, all of whom expressed the same need as the Anglicans, we’ve been able to make great progress in restarting a programme of reprinting using the original Tanzanian publishers and a printing house in India.  Even though extensive sales are assured, it will take a long time to build up sufficient capital to reprint the 25 books that church leaders have earmarked as priority titles. Our task now is seek donations from those who wish to offer strategic support to the East African church so that we can accelerate this programme.

The vision for this new work originates not in the United Kingdom but in Tanzania, the home of Swahili. A Memorandum of Understanding drawn up with SPCK will ensure that funds are used to rebuild a basic theological library in Swahili, on the Bible, Church History, Doctrine and Practical Theology, so putting tools in the hands of ministers equipped to use them.

Those interested in more information about the Swahili theological book project may contact the Centre.