Recent publications have described both the strength of Roman Catholicism among the Fipa of southwestern Tanzania and the ways the church has adapted to their traditional practices. Kathleen R. Smythe, an historian at Xavier University in Cincinnati, considered these issues in a 2006 book that reviewed both the history of their conversion to Catholicism beginning about 1880 and the ways in which the new faith affected their approaches to child raising.
The Fipa remain strongly Roman Catholic, much like the rest of Tanzania. In 1999, 45 percent of the nation’s population was Christian, 35 percent Muslim, and the remaining 20 percent held traditional beliefs. About 28 percent of the Tanzanian people were Roman Catholics. People in the southwestern part of the country were the most heavily committed to Catholicism. In Mbinga, an area in the southwestern corner near Mozambique, 85 percent of the people profess Catholicism, while in the Sumbawanga region, the center of the Fipa people just to the north of Mbinga, Catholics make up 70 percent.
Even so, syncretism—the melding of local, traditional beliefs and practices with Christian ways—is acknowledged as an important subject by Roman Catholic sources. “The Church has to study seriously how to incarnate the Christian faith in the traditional culture” writes one official website. “The Church must preserve the traditional African cultural values.” The same official source mentions the rapid growth of the Catholic Church in Tanzania, and discusses cooperative efforts with Protestant groups and the national government to continue developing social and educational services for the people.
Evangelization by other Christian groups could also have a significant impact on the Fipa. An article in a Christian magazine a couple weeks ago described how “God is moving in the unreached and isolated villages of the Rukwa Valley in Tanzania,” a part of Fipa territory. Missionary Ted Rabenold “had a vision” that he should take a boat out onto the waters of Lake Rukwa, on the eastern side of the traditional Fipa lands, so he could reach villages that had no road access due to the lake and the surrounding mountainous country.
Mr. Rabenold and his wife Kim Rabenold have lived in the Rukwa region since 1991, and they have raised their three children there. In 2001 they moved into a Fipa village called Kapenta, in the Rukwa Valley. From their profile on the Grace Ministries International (GMI) website, the organization that has placed 13 missionaries, including Mr. and Mrs. Rabenold, in southwestern Tanzania, it is obvious that the couple is dedicated to developing many vocational and practical programs among the people they serve—aquaculture, forestry, carpentry, water works, and so on. The paragraph about their good works concludes, “all of the above-mentioned projects are to show the love of Christ to their Rukwa neighbors.”
Lake Rukwa is “not a deep lake but it’s a wide lake, and it has many fishing villages where you cannot drive to,” says Sam Vinton, the Executive Director of GMI, in the Christian magazine news story. He is obviously impressed with the initiative of the Rabenolds. The people in the lakeside villages, he continues, “follow local animistic beliefs, living in fear of the spirit god of the mountain.” In contrast to the Roman Catholic statements of wanting to preserve traditional Fipa cultural values, he says that the GMI tries to “show them how they can be freed from [their beliefs] because we have the true God who has sent someone to save them.”
While both the Roman Catholics and the Evangelical Protestants offer similar, practical programs to help the people of Ufipa, different attitudes toward traditional beliefs between the Christian churches are striking.