Everything You Need To Know Before Attending A Tanzanian Church Service

While living in Tanzania, and on our many return visits, I have been lucky enough to be invited to many a Tanzanian church service with friends and family. Personally I am not religious, but almost always say yes for the experience. Here’s everything you need to know.

Introduction
Celebratory events in Tanzania
Traditional Maasai events
Is it worth going to a Tanzania Church Service?
Know Before You Go
Top Tips

Introduction

As a visitor to Tanzania, if you make friends with any locals, you’ll almost certainly be invited to a Tanzanian church service. If you aren’t and you want to go, all you need do is ask. Before you do ask, it’s really important to know what you’re getting into, as it’s quite hard to get out of later! Church is a really important part of weekly life in Tanzania; Tanzanian church services mainly take place on Sunday mornings, and it’s an outing for the whole family. The services themselves are a source of great pride to many Tanzanians, as well as a chance to showcase themselves and their family, and a social event.

Religion in Tanzania is split fair evenly between Islam (around 40% of the population) and Christianity (c. 60%), with most coastal areas of the country and Zanzibar being largely Muslims and the majority of mainland Tanzania mostly Christians. Churches are, for the most part, Lutheran or Protestant (look this up), but thematically, the services are very similar – we’ve attended both kinds and didn’t find they differed much from each other.

A line of Maasai men wearing shuka blankets and holding spears
Maasai preparing for jumping dances
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Weddings, funerals and other events

Tanzanians go to church (or at least have religious services) a lot. As a religious country, they will happily take any excuse to dress up nicely, and give thanks for their blessings. Over the years we’ve attended: weddings, funerals, birthday parties, school assemblies, graduations, adoption ceremonies and christenings. We even went to one male circumcision party, though that was more of a traditional Maasai event. These all tend to be big religious events. If you get invited to one of these events, of course our advice is absolutely: go! They are an amazing opportunity to experience a slice of culture that you don’t get anywhere else, and a great chance to meet some local people. That being said, they all follow a very similar format to a traditional church ceremony, so it is worth being prepared, as it’s not all just fun, games and partying.

Note: as a guest (particularly if you happen to be white or clearly not Tanzanian), you will usually be treated with as an honoured visitor This means, you usually get pride of place during the service (you might be asked to sit with the family), you will almost certainly be asked to meet a lot of important people and people will be very curious about you. This is all done with the best intentions, and is very normal in Tanzania. Though it can feel very intimidating and bizarre, we definitely advise going with an open mind and with the objective to enjoy it as much as you can!

Emma and Murray are sitting with a group of Maasai smiling at the camera. They are all waiting for an event to take place.
How is a Maasai Ceremony different from a Tanzanian church service?

While many Tanzanian Maasai do practise Christianity, it’s not their original faith, and many still hold stock in traditional beliefs and practices. One such practice is adult circumcision for boys aged between 12 and 15. This is the age they are typically believed to be old enough to enter manhood. We have attended a circumcision ceremony before and it was a lot of fun (though presumably not much for the boys – luckily we didn’t see any actual circumcisions!). In Maasai culture, male circumcision is worn like a badge of honour. The boys are circumcised publicly (in front of men) without flinching or expressing any signs of pain or discomfort. As well as the numerous academic sources backing this up, we had this directly from a Maasai friend. He described watching his oldest son’s circumcision as ‘the proudest moment of his life’, since his son did not show any sign of pain.

The afterparty

In terms of the after party (which is the bit we can speak to, as it’s the only part women are invited to), it is mostly like a big informal celebration – we drove out to the bush where there are no facilities, and sat around drinking beers for a while with friends (who are Maasai) after the circumcisions had taken place. This was mostly the extent of the party, except that someone brought along a set of speakers, so we had some music and dancing/jumping later, and then after this, someone else brought round an entire goat leg, and proceeding to carve it for everyone to eat. I wasn’t vegan back then but even still I don’t remember enjoying this bit too much! I distinctly remember there still being hair on the goat leg which really is no fun to eat. Anyway, all this to say, not much happened at this party that was especially religious and that has been the vibe at a lot of Maasai parties we’ve been to, unless they are centred around religious occasions (like funerals or christenings). This makes it pretty different from a church service where (obviously) the whole event is centred around the religious part of the ceremony.

A maasai event. There are Maasai everywhere and boma (traditional mud huts) in the background
Is it worth experiencing a Tanzanian church service?

In our opinion, yes! It is a great way to learn more about the local culture of Tanzania through an event which is really important and special to many Tanzanian people. It is visually very beautiful, and the choir singing is a lovely part of the service, so it is a great thing to witness (however please see our note on taking photos below). That being said, it is really important to know exactly what you are getting into, as this is not a show or tourist spectacle, it is a real part of life in Tanzania and a very significant cultural event to many people. It’s worth bearing in mind that there may be parts of it you don’t understand (in terms of language) or times you may be a little uncomfortable from the duration/comfort of the seats. Overall, it is certainly worth doing at least once, and is a very unique thing to do.

Know Before You Go
You need to dress appropriately

Tanzanian church services are quite formal affairs. Even if you don’t attend one, you’ll probably notice all of the locals dressed up to the nines on Sundays. Women generally wear beautiful kitenge fabric dresses with hats or fascinators, and the men will be in suits or at the very least smart trousers and a shirt. The aim is: dress to impress. Culturally speaking, this is seen as a chance to show off how well you are doing, or at the very least, not appear to be struggling. For both women and men, you should dress modestly. This means: no shorts and t-shirts for men, covered knees and shoulders for women, and nothing with too much skin exposed – definitely no crop tops or anything backless. If you have a fancy dress or suit, this is recommended, but it’s not essential as long as you look smart and are covered up.

A typical Tanzanian church Service is very long

The shortest Tanzanian Church service we have ever been to was 2 and a half hours long. They are generally around 3 hours and we’ve even known them last as long as 4 hours (normally for a special service like a wedding). This is a very long time to be praying and listening to religious ideals if you are not religious. Honestly we think even the most devout Christian would probably struggle! There’s not really much you can do about this, except to be aware of it and not make plans after, as you probably will be finishing late.

On the plus side, there is a lot of variation to the services, so you may see a few choir performances, have chance to sing some hymns yourself (though they’re usually in Swahili) and do some dancing, plus some churches even put on reenactments of bible passages, so you can try to figure out which bit of the bible they are enacting, which is always fun.

The interior of a Tanzanian church. A very beautiful Anglican Church interior with a congregation seated
The service itself will probably be in Swahili

If you don’t speak Swahili, you may struggle with this one. We haven’t yet been to a church service in English, which can be a challenge as Murray does not speak any Swahili at all. I speak enough to get by in Tanzania in general and be able to follow which bit of the programme they are up to, however it’s not really enough to understand every bible passage or follow the sermon. In our experience, the sermon is generally the most difficult part of the service to get through. It usually lasts a good 45 minutes or longer, and is usually one vicar giving a very long monologue in Swahili. This is the part of the service we usually fully zone out for and go to our happy place! As above, there’s not much you can do about it, except be prepared, and it’s the only bit in our opinion that really does drag on. Hymns, bible passages and any re-enactments will also be in Swahili.

At some point during the service, the vicar may ask you to stand and introduce yourself as a new visitor (we’re led to believe this is common for all new arrivals to the church, although this could just be a ploy to get us to introduce ourselves each time!). You can do this in English and we have introduced ourselves in English a few times. The vicar will generally translate after you have spoken so that everyone catches what you said. If you can learn a few words of Swahili for the introduction, this is generally very well received, and the congregation will be grateful. We normally say something simple along the lines of:

Swahili Introduction

Habari ya asubuhi? (wait for congregation to say nzuri) ‘Jina langu ni Emma na nimefuraha sana kutembelea kanisa hili na kusherehekea nanyi nyote leo. Asanteni sana’

‘Good morning. My name is Emma and I am very happy to visit this church, and to celebrate with you all today. Thank you for having me.’

The collection

As in most churches, in a Tanzania church service there will be a collection after the service. It is expected and almost mandatory to give something. People often make quite a show of how much they are giving, in order to highlight their generosity, which earns a degree of respect from others. As a visitor, it’s advisable to take some cash to donate – around 5000-10,000 shillings (about $2-$5 USD) is enough.

Side note: this is a common part of culture in a lot of East Africa based on conversations we have had with friends there (I can’t speak for the rest of the continent but it may also be the same elsewhere too). Poorer members of the community often feel obliged to donate even when they may be struggling financially, as it’s really seen as quite an embarrassment not to be able to donate to church. From what we have seen, the amount the churches give back to the communities varies hugely, so it is not a given that they will get this back in community support, though hopefully some of them do.

Time of day

Most Tanzanian churches will run two services on Sundays, one around 6 or 7am and one around 10am. The choir, vicar and church staff are involved in both, so for them it is a full day event. You can arrive late and it is not really an issue, though as visitors we tend to avoid this as it can draw a lot of attention. Church is generally a social event in Tanzania, so there will be a lot of milling around before and after, and the church usually provides a small meal buffet afterwards. This is likely to help the poorer members of the community who are struggling but in our experience, everyone eats it. From what we have seen, it’s usually something very simple like chicken soup or chai and chapati.

A beach in Tanzania in Dar Es Salaam. There are palm trees along the edge and the beach is pretty much empty.
Tanzania is beautiful no matter where you are
Your religion matters

As we have mentioned before, we do not practise any religion and most of our Tanzanian friends are aware of this or at least semi-aware (in the sense that they absolutely know it is a thing, but choose to ignore it completely). Like we said, it’s not a problem to attend a Tanzanian Church Service if you’re not religious or not Christian, however it’s probably not smart to reveal this part-way through the church service.

Unfortunately I found this out the hard way when a friend of ours asked which church I attended at home during a service once, to which I automatically told him we were atheist, assuming he would either be fine with it, or not be 100% sure what it meant. I was correct on the latter, but didn’t expect him to then Google it immediately, only to be presented with a rather regrettably pious direct translation from Swahili: ‘one who rejects God’ Cue a very long church service of our poor friend looking immensely worried for our lost souls and praying especially hard for us until we left church, despite my endless reassurances that we’d be fine and he needn’t worry. For any Tanzanian Church Service you attend, we’d advise sticking with the party line that you are a Christian, or at least a believer in a monotheistic God, no matter your actual faith. You can always explain any differing realities another time.

Emma and Murray are standing either side of two older Tanzanian women wearing beautiful dresses ready for church.
A very proud moment for our friends who were part of this service!
The Churches

Tanzanian churches are usually colonial style. The décor can be bright and colourful, as can the outside (like the Anglican Cathedral in Zanzibar, which we actually included in our photo guide of beautiful places to visit in Stone Town). The pulpit, alter and lectern etc. are usually fairly typical, and they will normally also have kneeling pads for the prayers. The seats are usually long wooden benches – not the most comfortable and they don’t usually have any cushions. Take a coat or jumper to sit on if this will bother you for an extended period of time. On Sundays, they generally pack out, so there will be a huge congregation of people, maybe up to 200 or 300 depending on the size of the church.

Can you take photos?

The vicar and congregation are generally OK with it, if you’re taking photos of the service itself, however it can feel a bit awkward, just because you’ll stand out. At the last service we went to, one of our friends was in the choir so we (along with all of her family and friends) were taking quite a lot of photos and videos, which was such a sweet way to remember the day. In general, in Tanzania, it’s best to avoid taking pictures of random people (as with anywhere!) – with Tanzania in particular, there are some cultural beliefs among certain Maasai that when your photograph is taken, so is a part of your soul. As you can imagine, certain locals are very uncomfortable being on camera even if they are not Maasai, so be mindful and definitely don’t point your phone or camera in the faces of members of the congregation. We’d probably also avoid general photos or videos of the congregation for the same reason, but like we said, it’s normally fine to document parts of the service with the vicar’s permission.

A choir of women singing in a Tanzanian church service. They are wearing white formal dress and the vicar is next to them.
Our Top Tips:
Eat before you go and go to the toilet

Trust us, you do not want to be stuck starving and desperate for a wee 20 minutes into a 3 hour long service! There usually aren’t any toilets on site, so it’s best to deal with that before you arrive. We’d probably also advice a strong coffee before arrival, but that’s personal choice!

Wear your best

You really don’t want to look scruffy when everyone else will be at their fanciest!

Learn a few words of Swahili

Either to introduce yourself if needed, or else to try and follow along the sermon a bit

Get involved!

It’s always more fun when you can try and get into it – dance or sing along, try to follow the programme and enjoy meeting people at the end

If you’re not religious, don’t mention it

It sounds obvious but you wouldn’t believe the amount of tourists we’ve seen go to church ceremonies and then announce afterwards that they don’t believe in God… embarrassingly, me among them (though it was only said quietly to a friend!). Don’t be that person… if you have no faith (like us), just don’t mention it. You can always say things about how the ceremony was interesting, or you enjoyed the singing if you’re not sure what to say. If you’re directly asked, we find it best to say something like ‘the UK is a Christian country’ or adapt that to suit wherever you’re from.

If this doesn’t sound like it’s for you, don’t go

This may feel rude (and to be honest, it is a little rude to decline the invite), but it will feel less rude to decline than to go and hate it, as everyone will be able to see it on your face and you may cause insult. You can always say that you are not religious or don’t practice Christianity (Tanzanians are very understanding of different faiths).

If taking photos, stick to the ceremony itself, not the congregation

See our note above on taking photos. It’s really important to be respectful about this in Tanzania

Go with a local friend

This is the best way to find a service and be well looked after. A friend may also translate for you or help show you expectations/ways to behave at different parts of the ceremony

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Written by Emma Cartwright 16 January 2024

Emma

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