Laurenti Magesa, priest, theologian and teacher, born Musoma, Tanzania, 10 August 1946; died Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, 11 August 2022. A giant of African theology, he rose from humble origins to become an exemplary teacher, whose insight, originality and analysis redefined the meaning, significance and practice of inculturation.
Laurenti Magenti, one of Africa’s greatest theologians, died on 11 August 2022. To many, Magesa was a father (Baba) and grandfather (Babu); a friend and a mentor; a brother and a teacher. In some African cultures, towering personalities are likened to a giant tree in the forest. Their demise is aptly expressed with the metaphor of a fallen tree. A Jesuit colleague announced Magesa’s death with the words: “Our brother, friend and priest, and giant of Africa has gone to the Lord.” Magesa’s pilgrimage from humble origins to global renown as one of the giants of African theology tells the story of a faithful pastor, humble scholar, beloved teacher and exemplary Christian.
I first met Magesa in Musoma, Tanzania in 2004, where he was doing pastoral ministry in a rural parish. His book Anatomy of Inculturation: Transforming the Church in Africa (Orbis, 2004) was in preparation for publication. He gave me a galley proof to read. The significance of that book was instantaneous and unmistakable: Magesa had written the Magna Carta of African theology of inculturation. The combination of his penetrating insight, engaging originality and evidence-based analysis redefined the meaning, significance and practice of inculturation.
Magesa was born in Musoma, northern Tanzania in 1946. He attended primary school in Musoma and secondary and high school at St Mary’s Seminary, Mwanza, Tanzania. He studied theology at Makerere University, Uganda before earning an MA and PhD from Saint Paul University, Ottawa and the University of Ottawa. From 1985 until 2000, he served as a parish priest in Catholic parishes in the diocese of Musoma. Magesa authored, co-authored and co-edited several groundbreaking books, including What Is Not Sacred? African Spirituality (Orbis, 2013), in which he brilliantly explored the beauty of the spirituality of African religion and its enduring gift to Christianity as a light, not a shadow, as it had tended to be portrayed by those who were either ignorant or biased against its true nature. Earlier, he had published the first comprehensive account of the moral theology of African religion, African Religion: The Moral Traditions of Abundant Life (Orbis, 1997). In his usual style, he developed a compelling narrative of the importance of life as understood in African religion, not only as a biological phenomenon, but more importantly as a moral category for making and evaluating public and private ethical choices and conduct.
The final work Magesa published was a contribution to A Pocket Companion to Synodality: Voices from Africa (African Synodality Initiative, 2022). In “Journeying Together in Service and Harmony: The African Jamaa as a Model for a Synodal Church,” Magesa explored the meaning and practice of synodality from the cultural perspectives of Africa. He pointed out that “what is intended by the synod as a whole is unity in thought, word, and deed of all the faithful who as a body and beyond the purpose of jamaa – which is primarily social self-preservation – are on the road toward the objective of their salvation and the redemption of humankind.”
Magesa was a consummate learner and a compassionate teacher.” Starting in the late 1970s and continuing for many years, he taught theology at various institutions, including Kipalapala Major Seminary, Tabora, Tanzania; Tangaza University College and Maryknoll Institute of African Studies – both in Nairobi, Kenya. He was a pioneer lecturer at the then Catholic Higher Institute of Eastern Africa (CHIEA), Nairobi, which later became the Catholic University of Eastern Africa (CUEA). From 2009 to 2021, he lived and taught theology at the Jesuit School of Theology, Hekima University College, Nairobi.
His professional career as a theologian also took him to several institutions as a visiting scholar and fellow, notably the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University in the United States; Selly Oak Colleges in Birmingham, United Kingdom; Maryknoll School of Theology in New York; the Xavier University at Cincinnati; the Jesuit Institute South Africa; and DePaul University in Chicago. The last of these awarded him an honorary doctorate in 2014.
Magesa practised the art of theologising with grace, candour and integrity. He respected his students and always made a point to remind them that he, too, was a learner. A man of humble demeanour, he was not given to self-aggrandisement. His thinking was always lucid, original and inspiring. He provoked constructive thinking and shunned ideological controversies and intellectual artificiality aimed at damaging the reputation of his trade or the position of those who held a contrary view. Magesa’s scholarship, research, writing and publications gave a distinctively African face to inculturation theologies, liberation theologies and Catholic theological ethics. Strikingly, he put his theological convictions, ideas and principles into action in his everyday living. During his teaching spell at Hekima University College, he created and led inculturated Eucharistic liturgies that drew on the best traditions and values of African cultures and religion in dialogue with the Gospel.
I last met Magesa on his seventy-sixth birthday, the day before his death, in the Aga Khan Hospital in Dar es Salaam. The pancreatic cancer that finally ended his earthly life had taken a devastating toll on his body. Surrounded by his beloved brother and primary caregiver, Professor Evaristi Cornelli Magoti of the University of Dar es Salaam, and his relatives, Magesa remained the humble and amiable Christian that he always was. As we gathered around his bed and expressed our emotions of sadness and grief, he muttered, “Don’t do that … this [suffering and death] is part of life.” His imminent death did not rob him of his graciousness, warmth and respect for people. The belief is strong in many parts of Africa that the status of an ancestor is reserved for people who have made a transformative and enduring contribution of service to their community. By his life of service as a pastor, the depth of his scholarship and the example of his life as a Christian, Magesa now qualifies to join the ranks of the ancestors of the Church in Africa and the universal Church.
Agbonkhianmeghe E. Orobator SJ
Orobator SJ, Agbonkhianmeghe E. “Obituary: Laurenti Magesa.” In The Tablet (20/27 August 2022): https://www.thetablet.co.uk/features/2/22253/obituary-laurenti-magesa. Accessed 1 June 2023.
This obituary was received in 2022, and was written by Agbonkhianmeghe E. Orobator SJ. Dr. Orobator was a professor of theology at Marquette University, but is now the Dean of theology at Santa Clara University and is the president of the Jesuit Conference of Africa and Madagascar. This obituary is reprinted, with permission of the author, from The Tablet (20/27 August 2022):