A Wall of Witness
by Major David Watson
MBEYA, in the southern highlands of Tanzania, around 900 kilometres from the commercial capital Dar es Salaam, is considered to be a city but the rural scene is never far away. In this semi-rural setting sits The Salvation Army’s Shukrani International College, surrounded on three sides by a wall topped with barbed wire and at the front by a wire fence – to keep intruders out and to keep wayward resident students in! For many years the wall, like most local structures, has remained plain grey cement – few people here waste money or paint other than on occasional advertising.
|Local people are reminded of Bible stories while going about their everyday business|
|A painting on the wall of Songea’s Roman Catholic cathedral|
|The bare wall around Shukrani International College before its transformation|
|Major Christine Watson and local children admire the finished work|
|The story of Deborah – Tanzanian style!|
|Artist John Chota works on the Crucifixion scene|
|The panel showing Abraham preparing to sacrifice Isaac|
In 2004 I supervised the Community-Based Rehabilitation Project for Disabled Children – a scheme funded by the Norwegian Government and The Salvation Army’s Norway, Iceland and The Færoes Territory which assisted more than 600 children and their families. During my work on the project I saw other walls, mostly in schools, which had been decorated at the behest of enterprising teachers. There were physiology or biology charts and maps of the world or Tanzania.
Most Tanzanian schoolchildren have only the basics – one, maybe two or three exercise books, a pencil and ruler. Very seldom do they have textbooks, so the walls themselves were used to give the information that, in better-funded schools, would be found in books.
Much the same situation applies to Christian literature. The majority of Tanzanians do not have Bibles – even though a Kiswahili Bible can be purchased for about 5,000 Tanzanian shillings (US$4.40), equivalent to the cost of 15 soft drinks. Much as in Europe or Australia, where Christian literature does not feature highly on most people’s spending lists, there are different priorities in Tanzania – the foremost of which is often a mobile phone!
In 2006, during one of our infrequent escapes from the college, my wife, Major Christine Watson, and I visited Songea, about 400 kilometres from Mbeya. The Roman Catholic cathedral there is a far cry from the traditional Gothic-style buildings seen in much of the world – architects would shudder at the ‘boxy’ design – but the cruciform layout has been retained. The high walls surrounding the central space above naves and aisles are decorated with murals. Rather than grey stone or cement it is an absolute riot of colour, with the many panels depicting biblical scenes. Above the entrance doors a mural shows Jesus welcoming a group of Africans, all robed in white.
The idea seems wonderful but we noticed that the Africans depicted are all men – there are no women or even children, and it is a sad reflection of the age and gender bias which exists in this society.
I am not sure at what stage the inspiration came to my wife – it was certainly from the Lord – but she said: ‘Why not create a “Wall of Witness” at Shukrani College?’
Ninety metres of blank, drab grey wall seemed to be crying out for artistic attention. Rather hesitantly, she raised the idea at a general staff meeting and it was backed by our Christian staff with loud applause.
Amazingly, finance quickly came in from some friends in Australia. A Christian teacher who periodically visits the college to conduct classes on ethics located our artist, John Chota – again, a Christian. John commenced painting the Garden of Eden on 15 August and a month later the wall was finished, from Eden all the way through to the Last Judgment.
The final panel lists the Mwanjelwa (local corps) activities and portrays Jesus welcoming children. Along the top of the wall are four Scripture quotations: John 14:6 (‘Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”’), Joel 2:32 (‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved; for on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be deliverance, as the Lord has said, among the survivors whom the Lord calls’), Revelation 3:20 (‘Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me’) and Romans 6:23 (‘For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord’).
Each of the 40 panels bears a brief caption and the relevant Scripture reference in Kiswahili.
The local mosque is a hundred metres down the road from the college and early in the project there was some debate with a few of our Islamic friends. They mistook Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac as a depiction of a Muslim killing a Christian, so Abraham’s headgear had to be changed to something less ‘religiously definitive’ – and that caption was painted on very quickly!
All the figures in the panels are Africans and Debra (Deborah) has an army of African warriors. We had to persuade our artist to retain the same colours for the children gathered around Jesus – I’m sure he would have wanted to include a few white faces, but this is a gift to Tanzania and our African colleagues and friends.
Unfortunately the wall will not be seen in its ‘full glory’ until some days after the equinox as the sun tracks southward to Australia. Mbeya is about 8.5 degrees south of the equator – so we await the day when it will no longer be in part shadow. But already this ‘Bible in pictures’ is making a tremendous impact on the many who trudge these roads – children on their way to school, women carrying their goods to and from the nearby market, young hawkers carrying their handfuls of shoes, clothes and belts as they eke out a living, and others passing on their way to work.
Even some of our Muslim friends have expressed their amazement at the way we have presented the message. The pictures of young and older Tanzanians who pause and look tell their own story, as they consider or wonder about these Bible stories, write down notes or ask questions.
One bibi (grandmother) was gazing at the wall with tears in her eyes. She told Major Christine: ‘I cannot read but at last I have a Bible I can see.’ It is not only the dearth of Kiswahili Bibles that makes it hard for local people to read the Bible – many of the older generation still speak their vernacular or tribal language and there is nothing for them. The ‘Wall of Witness’ – a Bible in pictures – is fulfilling a great need.
Major David Watson is from The Salvation Army’s Australia Southern Territory. He works as Tutor, Technical Adviser, Resource Person and in other roles at Shukrani International College, where his wife, Major Christine Watson, is the Principal.