Around thirty-plus Tanzanians joined a flood of other Commonwealth citizens to say prayers at the Westminster Abbey last week. The ceremony took an hour and was as sombre as it can get. The presiding priest led the sermon. The choir from Lancing College chanted in unison. Old European hymns flew across the very, very old building and rose above the very high walls that conceal all sorts of historical relics and secrets. An eerie, special and tense experience.
Westminster Abbey is not just a sort of an establishment you step in and sit and listen to prayers. Not even if it is for Tanzanian people celebrating 50 years of their Union. It feels like Abunuwas folklore or Alice in Wonderland – but that is demeaning, because Miss Alice and Mr Abunuwas are fantasy stories. This is not a fantasy.
In the middle of it you take out your I-phone, keen to snap the polished marble, brown walls with amazing architecture. These days we love taking pictures. Everything has to be photographed. The reality of 2014.
So? Fast and swift like a Serengeti cheetah a man in a long robe dashes over and gestures you to stop. OK. You stop. But the stern man signals you to put away the camera. Quickly, says his gesturing. You are still gripping the I-phone like a cup of warm coffee. His severe, unspoken manner wants the gadget out of sight. As this goes on, the singing and the sermon rise on, while a three-year-old boy keeps shouting “Amen” after every few minutes. Whispering frantically, his embarrassed Tanzanian mother wills him to shut up. Ironically, the little innocent boy is the only unusual activity allowed in here.
The man in a robe picks up a wooden sign that indicates “No photographs!” Then bowing apologetically he smiles as if to insist he is just doing his job…
Welcome to Westminster Abbey.
Last time you were here was October 1999, when we all flocked past President Julius Nyerere’s body. The icon had finally died at St Thomas Hospital in the South East area; other side of London. We are in South West; close to the famous Big Ben. Government Issue.
Westminster Abbey pays respect to those who deserve it. And vice versa. That is why no picture taking is allowed. This service is part of Commonwealth nations’ annual service. In attendance and the only name listed in the programme – of Choral Services – is the High Commissioner, His Excellency Peter Kallaghe, members of his staff, representatives of the British Tanzania Society, media and all those wishing the best of the country.
As the Choir of Lancing College sings, accompanied by distinct, superfluous church organs, it is time to reflect. Inaugurated by King Henry III in 1245, Westminster Abbey has since 1066 – been the final resting place for 17 monarchs. A list of notable figures in British society is buried here. What a place! This is a house, a church, a graveyard – rolled into one. No wonder the little boy’s innocent chants of “Amen” seem strange and funny at the same time.
Writers – William Shakespeare, who embodies the soul of the English language – which we have come to accept as part of our culture – and Charles Dickens, are buried here. Scientists Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin (founder of Theory of Evolution) as well. Or the explorer David Livingstone, a doctor – part of East and Central African history, colonial or not.
Yes we have come to pray for Tanzania. Fourth stanza of Hymns (written by the 1872 born Cyril Allington) says:
“Praise we in songs of victory
That love, that life, which cannot die
And sing with hearts uplifted high:
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!”
Praise for and to Tanzanian people everywhere, echoes the presiding priest.
“This sort of ceremony,” later High Commissioner Kallaghe tells us, “is carried every year to all members of the Commonwealth nations.”
Of the union of Tanganyika and Zanzibar, 50 years after. There is so much tension and calls to break off the Union. But who cares?
Religion and prayers are meant to bring peace and harmony. And how?
One of the most cherished views of Tanzania is her enduring peace and religious tolerance. No wonder the true reflection of Tanzania’s non-religious vibe is seen in the broad number of attendees: Bohra, Muslim, Christian and even atheists. All are present.
Heroic sons and daughters
By coming to Westminster Abbey, where our hosts have buried their heroic sons and daughters; marriages and ceremonies of their kings and queens have been witnessed; we lay down the symbolic gesture for eternal peace. Peace not as imagined but as wished. Peace and of course, justice. Remember the saying “Be careful what you wish for?”
Right now, Africa really needs peace. Alas. The whole world needs peace, actually.