Elizaphan Bwirima Wanjara, a Jita, was born in 1924 on Ukerewe Island, Tanzania, to non-Christian parents, one of five children. He was a major leader of the post-independence Seventh-day Adventist Church in Tanzania.
When his father died in 1930, he lived with his relative Isaiah Magesa on Ukerewe Island. Adventist Christianity was introduced to the island in 1932 by Jonathan Malelo Muganda and Petro Mugunda Muganda who swiftly organized more than 100 persons into a baptismal class and enabled Seventh-day Adventists to establish eight schools between 1932 and 1937 in a truly indigenous initiative. Wanjara was among the earliest students from 1932 to 1935, but he then had to leave school because of financial constraints.
He had a crucial experience in 1940 while on a fishing tour with three “backslidden” Adventists and one non-Christian at that time living at Geita. The non-Christian was eaten by a crocodile that had first passed by Wanjara. This brush with death made him decide to continue with school and to become a serious Christian.
After some more schooling at Bwasi Mission and Rusori Primary School, he started middle school at Ikizu in 1942 and finished eighth grade in 1946, which qualified him to teach at Ikizu Primary School. From 1948 to 1951 he taught at Bwasi, where Majita, the major Adventist mission station at Lake Victoria, was located, and from 1952 to 1955 he was the head of Suguti Primary School near Majita. He also got married at this time.
A new period began in 1956-1957, when Wanjara took the ministerial course at Bugema College, Uganda, the only place for Adventist pastoral training in East Africa at that time. Following this he worked for two years as the pastor at Majita mission station, and from 1960 to 1966 he was sent to the town of Morogoro, where Seventh-day Adventist operations had been initiated only in 1957. Together with literature evangelists (book colporteurs) Yohana Lukwaro who was stationed at Morogoro, Elibariki Misheto and Elikunda Mgeni who pioneered work in the Dar es Salaam area, and John Lyambwa who worked in the Mpwapwa and Dodoma areas, Wanjara was a pioneer in this large region in East and Central Tanzania, and he helped coordinate their work.
Already in 1959 Wanjara had organized a series of public evangelism meetings conducted by Fares Muganda, another Jita Adventist pastor. Attendance went up to 1000, but after a few days, people disturbed the meetings and started to throw stones at them. Thus the evangelism meetings ended. In 1962, however, eight persons were baptized in another public meeting, and in the following years Wanjara himself became a successful evangelist, leading sixty people to be baptized at Mpapwa in 1964, twenty at Iringa, six at Tabora, eighty at Singida in 1965 and thirty at Sumbawanga in 1966. Thus Wanjara boosted the growth of Adventist congregations in several towns in the southern half of Tanzania in the 1960s.
After these successes, he was elected the president of Majita-Ukerewe Field in 1967, an area about the size of a small diocese. After serving there until 1973, he worked as a Tanzania Union Stewardship and Church Development Director from 1974 to 1982, a position which put to good use his great ability to raise funds from church members for particular causes.
He spent the last decade of his career (1983-1993) as president of newly formed fields, first the West Tanzania Field, a large area spread across one-quarter of the country (from 1983 to 1990), and then, from 1991 to 1993, the newly organized South West Tanzania Field which comprised half of the former West Tanzania Field. In these capacities, he was able to combine his pioneering initiatives with his administrative duties and interludes as a public evangelist. Wanjara died in 2005 after years of active retirement during which he continued to be involved in evangelistic preaching and local church affairs.
Apart from a continuously active life, one characteristic element of Wanjara’s personality was his fearlessness. This can be illustrated by an incident in 1958, when serious conflict occurred at Majita, where he worked as a pastor. TANU (Tanganyika African National Union), which spearheaded the independence movement, had made a considerable impact in the area. Yet Wanjara openly advised Adventist church members not to join this party and preached that church employees and church elders were entirely forbidden to do so. This corresponded to the traditional apolitical stand of his Seventh-day Adventist denomination. Party members, however, announced that he and two fellow pastors would ultimately be seized, and that “their heads will be hung on the baobab tree at the mission.” Fortunately, Julius Nyerere came to Majita that year, and when he was informed about the controversy, he questioned Wanjara and others who opposed political involvement. They explained their persuasion that religious and political leaders should not be the same persons. Nyerere was wise enough to support this idea and to warn people not to mistreat their pastors lest they be cursed. Thus ended what could have become a serious conflict between Adventist leaders and the nationalist movement in Tanzania.
With a few other Tanzanian Adventist leaders who held leadership positions in this denomination in the 1960s to 1980s, Wanjara represents the first generation of national Adventist leaders. They gave the denomination an identity that was greater than that of a local Adventist folk church and which was no longer dominated by European influences. His enthusiasm for pioneer work and evangelism, and his strictness regarding traditional positions in his church must be particularly recognized.
Elineema, K. B. Historia ya Kanisa la Waadventista Wasabato Tanzania, 1903-1993. Dar es Salaam: By the Author, 1993.
Höschele, Stefan. “Christian Remnant - African Folk Church: The History of Seventh-Day Adventism in Tanzania, 1903-1980.” Ph.D. diss., University of Malawi, 2005.
Wanjara, Elizaphan Bwirima, interviews by the author, Morogoro, December 25, 2000, and on the telephone, April 8, 2003.
This story, sent to us in 2005 by Dr. Hudson E. Kibuuka, DACB liaison coordinator for the SDA East Africa Division, was written by Dr. Stefan Höschele, of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, a lecturer in Systematic Theology at Friedensau University, Friedensau, Germany (email: [email protected]; Web: www.stefan-hoeschele.de or www.thh-friedensau.de).