‘Uncountable blessings’ in helping nurture sustainable Tanzanian community

How does it feel to have been involved in the building of Bahá’í community in a developing country, from formative stages through years of momentum-building, until the community substantially sustains itself?

“Uncountable blessings,” write Jim and Becky Fairley, who left the U.S. Northwest in 1982 and lived for many years in Tanzania (with an early 1980s sojourn in Honduras) before moving back to the United States this past year.

Becky served on Tanzania’s National Spiritual Assembly for 23 years. Jim was an Auxiliary Board member, helping develop the grassroots community-building process, for 15 years. Both educators, they worked at a Bahá’í-inspired secondary school from 1996 to 2010.

Settling in Conway, South Carolina, for their retirement years, it’s quite fitting that they have described it as “moving to another post.” Though busy with grandchildren, they have already been involved in home visits, local devotions and a study circle.

Their 32-year story as international Bahá’í pioneers reveals a long stint of vigorous, collaborative work energized by occasional miracles.

And how long did they originally expect to keep this adventure going? Becky recalls that in preparation for their first move to Tanzania, the family met a couple “who had pioneered to Ghana for seven years. I was amazed at how they could stay so long.”

Pioneers from the start

The Fairleys became Bahá’ís in 1978 — already living in what was considered a pioneering post, the vast Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Montana. As they set about sharing Bahá’í teachings and supporting the community, many of their activities would probably be familiar in retrospect to pioneers: making local connections and supporting civic activities; traveling long distances, often to other reservations and elsewhere in the region; gathering with fellow Bahá’ís for mutual support and encouragement; helping local believers get to know those from outside their area.

From early on they aspired to move to another country to help meet the worldwide needs of the Faith at the time, and their move to western Oregon for Becky’s graduate degree work helped equip them. The National Assembly’s office overseeing international pioneering helped them find opportunities, and in 1982 they began teaching at a school in Arusha, a major city of northern Tanzania.

The next few years, the Fairley family — in Honduras as well as Tanzania — experienced much more open receptivity to the Bahá’í teachings than they had seen in the United States. Jim traveled with very diverse teaching teams that introduced the Faith to dozens at a time in both countries. On two memorable occasions, those expeditions came in contact with a village chief (in Honduras) and members of a church (in Tanzania) who all had felt spiritually prepared to hear the message and share it with their fellows.

One of those occasions came in 1993 in the wake of initial Bahá’í contacts with members of a church in Ipapa, southern Tanzania. Jim was part of a Bahá’í follow-up team alongside three Tanzanians, two other Africans and a Persian. The first church member to meet the team shouted “God is here! God is here!” and more than 50 eagerly gathered, welcoming the group with song and dance. After discussions about Bahá’í teachings and biblical prophecy that also involved a few Ipapa youths who had recently visited the National Bahá’í Center, enthusiasm spread quickly. The church’s entire local membership accepted Bahá’u’lláh within days, and over the next few months many members of other branches of the church became Bahá’ís.

Gradual development

Today, Ipapa is part of one of the most advanced clusters in Tanzania’s national Bahá’í community. But just as with anywhere else, its progress came step by step over the years.

Through much of the 1980s and 1990s, teams made song-filled and joyous travels across the country to teach the Faith, follow up and assist new believers in deepening their understanding of the Bahá’í teachings. But people who had earlier become members were hard to find on later trips, it was difficult to form Spiritual Assemblies, and any lasting effect seemed elusive.  

“Over the years and especially through the institute process, the role of pioneers began to change to one of raising up human resources and then accompanying those resources to take on the administrative and teaching activities of the Faith,” the Fairleys observe.

Becky and Jim had been exposed to training institute courses as early as 1984 while they were in Honduras. Not long after they began work in 1996 at the Ruaha Secondary School in Iringa in Tanzania’s interior—she as principal, he as a teacher and “jack of all trades”—the process of study, service and reflection at the heart of the training institute began to get traction.

As an Auxiliary Board member, Jim traveled widely to accompany others across the country in institute training, organizing devotions, teaching children’s classes and facilitating junior youth groups.

Enlarging the circle

The Ruaha school soon became a focus of this process. First the staff, then increasing numbers of students, were brought into study circles. Teachers and older students were trained as animators and the younger students were enrolled in junior youth groups. One intention, the Fairleys say, was “to nurture the Bahá’í students to rise up to serve in the teaching field and later as administrators.”

Then the circle was enlarged to include more of the village, especially with children’s classes and junior youth groups. This initiative, they say, “really made a difference in the relations between the Bahá’í school and the surrounding community.”

Bit by bit, with the assistance of many pioneers and through a number of challenges, the school’s work and the constructive effect of institute training bore fruit.

By the end of their 14 years at the school, “so many students had gone on to university and were serving as Auxiliary Board members, institute coordinators, area teaching committee secretaries, members of Regional Bahá’í Councils and even on the National Spiritual Assembly and as teachers and administrators in the school,” they report.

During her service starting 2010 as National Assembly secretary, Becky continued to focus on capacity building, “to encourage and inspire the young friends working at the National Center to develop the attitudes and skills to be of effective service to the national community.”

Meanwhile Jim was serving as director of New Era Nursery School in Dar es Salaam — one of the more than 50 community schools operating in Tanzania under the Ruaha Mwongozo Foundation, overseen by the Office of Social and Economic Development at the Bahá’í World Center.

The two 2013 youth conferences held in Tanzania, plus a special gathering in a refugee camp, brought together more than 2,800 young people in total. Not only did the focus and service mission of these gatherings strengthen the youth, “the capacity of the Regional Bahá’í Councils and the institute boards and coordinators at all levels was elevated to a much higher level,” they report.

By 2014, every member elected to the National Spiritual Assembly was Tanzanian. With that milestone achieved, the Fairleys returned to the United States.

Connections with Africa remain intact, of course. One of their two daughters, brought up mostly in Tanzania, is married to a Tanzanian and living in Virginia; the other lives with her husband in Egypt. The parents don’t have specific plans, but “it is likely we will visit Tanzania again some day.”

Whatever happens, they can look back in joy at having played a part, through years of effort, in “increasing the involvement of the friends in the local community in a sustainable way.” And they can look forward to continuing to apply their capacity for service in their new home community.

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