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The Catholic Church in the Tanzanian village of Chala is healthy and prosperous—but so are many traditional Fipa beliefs and practices that the church dislikes. Kathleen R. Smythe, an Associate Professor of history at Xavier University in Cincinnati, did field work in Chala between 1994 and 1996. She observed a flourishing congregation, Roman Catholic funds available for various purposes, and church officials who played important roles in local political and economic endeavors. She was also aware of social and cultural practices that the Fipa cherish despite church opposition.

A new book by Smythe focuses on the work in Ufipa of the Missionary Society of Africa, the so-called “White Fathers” and “White Sisters,” from the 1880s to 1960. Her purpose is to show how Christian evangelizing influenced the Fipa, particularly the ways they raise their children. She defines a family, within the context of Fipa society, as children, their parents, grandparents, uncles, and aunts. She emphasizes that the people were highly focused on their family relationships, which they believed were essential for properly socializing their children.

The book concentrates on the ways traditional Fipa beliefs and practices have changed—or not changed—under pressure from the missionaries over the past 120 years. For instance, a century ago the tasks of Fipa children were gendered, but not rigidly enough for the priests. Boys usually herded the livestock, did the farm work, and collected wood while girls normally carried water, cooked, cared for younger children, and helped with farm work.

But even tasks that were closely associated with girls, such as housekeeping, cooking, or grinding flour, would be done by boys if circumstances required. In some cases, girls had to herd the livestock. The missionaries attempted to end those practices and get the parents to socialize their children according to proper European notions of rigidly separated gender roles. The Fipa resisted, for they were more concerned about developing useful skills than with male/female propriety.

The missionaries were even more strongly opposed to the way Fipa children of six or seven—or sometimes even younger—would move out of their parents’ houses and into the homes of their grandparents. Then, when the children became adolescents, they would move into an intuli, a separate building next to the family compound where the young people could sleep and socialize but not, normally, cook or eat.

The point, for the Fipa, was to avoid all possibility of incest with their parents. The young people could socialize, unsupervised, in the intuli however much they wished with their age-mates, then pair off until they were ready for marriage. The missionaries strongly opposed the practice: they believed it encouraged illicit sex.

The priests strongly advocated the primacy of the nuclear family—children should live in houses with their parents, not their grandparents and certainly not in separate buildings with age-mates. They felt that only parents could properly control children. Smythe suspects that the missionaries may have viewed the grandparents as rivals for control over the Fipa kids. They clearly realized that grand parenting was a very important role in the society.

The priests also tried to prevent the Fipa from dancing, which they presumed led to sexual activity. The missionaries tried to restrict dances to Thursday and Sunday evenings, and they felt they should end by 9:00 p.m. They also sought to confiscate and destroy the drums the young people used for their dances. Nonetheless, dancing is still an important part of Fipa culture, at least at weddings.

The book discusses the establishment of boarding schools by the missionaries. The author makes it clear that many families early in the century kept their eldest children at home to help maintain their households, to make sure they would have many children to continue their society, and to ensure the continuation of their farming and herding economy and culture. But parents also recognized the value of having some of the younger children educated in the mission boarding schools, so long as the missionary education was balanced by the appropriate socialization of the oldest offspring into Fipa ways.

By the middle of the 20th century, many parents began to realize that education for at least some of their children provided more security for themselves as they aged. They also came to see that their children’s futures were more secure if they were educated; some applied that reasoning to their daughters as well as their sons.

One of the obstacles to the complete acceptance of Catholic ways by the Fipa was their perception, early in the century, that the Fipa who became priests were discriminated against by the White Fathers: they were accepted only as social juniors. They were excluded from dining together with the White Fathers, and they were subject to other slights and discriminatory practices. The Fipa had expected to be treated as equals, once they had reached the priesthood, and the fact that they were not fostered considerable resentment throughout Ufipa.

The author points out that one of the unique features of Ufipa is that it never had many European settlers, other than the missionaries, due to its remoteness. During the colonial period the Fipa themselves had already settled the area thickly, and the Fipa elders did not want non-native settlers, a desire the British evidently respected. In 1935 the region was closed to settlement by outsiders. At that point, eight Europeans, other than the missionaries, lived in Ufipa and owned only 2,956 acres. The nine mission stations of the White Fathers accounted for the bulk of European residents in 1940.

Despite the fact that the Fipa are now virtually 100 percent Catholics, a strong belief in witchcraft remains. Many Tanzanians view the Fipa as less Christian than the rest of the country. For their part, Fipa in the 1990s spoke to the author of the convergence of their own beliefs with the tenets of Catholicism. But in reality, the White Fathers were not successful in stamping out all vestiges of Fipa traditional beliefs. Young people still spend a great deal of time, or even live with, their grandparents while they are growing up. The Fipa attend traditional shrines to ask help from the spirits before they go hunting. Many Fipa believe that Catholic practices may work best on Sundays, but traditional habits are superior the rest of the week.

Smythe, Kathleen R. 2006. Fipa Families: Reproduction and Catholic Evangelization in Nkansi, Ufipa, 1880 – 1960. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann