Eating with Muslims (October 2016)

“So, where did this meat come from?”

This was the question I asked Jackson and Simon (the chairperson of the village of Songiwe, and its minister, respectively) as we sat down to eat after a long day of work installing a hand-pump at their new well.  I typically don’t ask questions about food here, but on this occasion I felt the need to, because of who was eating with me…

…because together with the aforementioned hosts of the meal, we were eating with John (one of the other church leaders from a different district who serves on the water committee), and Sulemani, a technical expert with decades of experience, one of the outside experts that we contract with for key aspects of our project.

And Sulemani (pictured on far left) is a Muslim.

I believe his faith is one reason why he has spent much of his life in the field of clean water provision and sanitation.  For most Muslims, these are not simply health issues but religious issues; cleanliness is requiring for worship.  But Sulemani delights in working alongside our churches; he has commented on the goodness and integrity of our church leaders, and he has no objection to our prayers for God’s blessing, in Jesus’ name.  And on a personal note, he and I have enjoyed many spiritual conversations together, learning from each other’s faiths.  In spite of these points of commonality, the customary village meal can become divisive.

Simply put, Muslims observe dietary laws, especially related to meat. In sum, no pork is consumed (which I’ve never been served in the village anyways), all slaughter must be done according to certain sanitary and humane principles, and prayers are to be performed at the time of slaughter.

Some background information is needed: in Tanzania, over a third of the population is of Muslim faith. From its beginnings as a country, Tanzania has never had a religious majority, and has had to learn how to navigate many sensitive issues for the sake of national unity. For example, by law, all meat sold at the thousands of tiny butcheries scattered throughout the country is slaughtered in approved abattoirs, with the oversight of Muslim leaders. By entrusting commercial animal slaughter to the Muslim community, any Tanzanian can enter any eating establishment and eat without concern.

But this policy cannot extend to rural communities, where people produce—and slaughter— their own food. In Sukumaland, young children slaughter chickens, goats and cows are slaughtered with whatever sharp(ish) instrument is available. But since, generally speaking, Muslims do not live in their communities, it is not a problem.  Except when the troublesome missionary (or sometimes a government official) brings a Muslim with them.

When we had finished the work of installing the new pump, we were invited to the meal.  I talked to Sulemani on the side, knowing he would prefer to just start the drive back towards Mwanza, but he understood that my work in this community compelled me to receive their hospitality.  So we headed to the nearby house where food was waiting. First, a huge platter of rice appeared. I had hoped that we might also see some beans, or greens, or fish—anyone can eat them.  But after the prayer, the other food dishes were uncovered. Chicken. Goat.

I started asking some hopeful questions. “So, did someone go to town to see the butcher today? Where did this meat come from?”. “No, this food isn’t from the butcher.  It’s from right here!” was the answer. But as Sulemani let the food dishes pass him by, the village Mwenyekiti unveiled his secret: “Sulemani, eat!!! We went to town to bring a Muslim here to prepare the food today.  We need to all be together! So don’t be afraid!!! EAT!” Which he—and we—did.

I would like to think this example of true, sacrificial hospitality is a success of our training and discipleship work in the church (some other church leaders have told me that while they don’t feel required to accomodate people with different dietary beliefs, it doesn’t seem Christ-like to not go the extra mile.  How can we claim to love someone if they don’t feel welcome at our table?).  Alternatively, perhaps it was just a success of national politics and culture in Tanzania, or some combination of factors. It’s impossible to know.

Regardless, the result was a joyous meal at the end of a long day in Songiwe, where clean water was just one of the outcomes that brought glory to God.


–written by Kevin Linderman, Facilitator of Health and Community Development