Since I first started going to Tanzania in 2007, two things have been constant: I have wanted to visit Zanzibar, an island off the coast of Tanzania, and I have observed that the greatest need in East Africa is discipleship.

Operation World reports that more than half the population of Tanzania might be Christian. Many of these believers are living in the inland areas, while those living along the coast of Tanzania, in Zanzibar, and some of the southern provinces are largely (or almost entirely) Muslim.

ZanzFeatured imageibar actually consists of several small islands and two large islands. Unguja is the larger of the two and it is usually referred to simply as “Zanzibar.”  The capital is Zanzibar City and its historic center is Stone Town, one of eight World Heritage sites in Tanzania. The main industries on Zanzibar are spices, raffia, and tourism. It is often called the Spice Islands because of its large production of cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, and black pepper.

Zanzibar is mentioned in ancient texts as early as the first century.  Persian traders used it as a base for their voyages between the Middle East, India, and Africa. Vasco de Gama’s visit in 1498 marked the beginning of European influence. In the early sixteenth century, Zanzibar became a part of the Portuguese Empire. At the end of the seventeenth century, Zanzibar fell under the control of the Sultanate of Oman. In the nineteenth century, the island became a major center for slave trade, with as many as 50,000 slaves passing through the port.

Last summer, we had the opportunity to visit the slave market and go to the underground area where the slaves were kept for up to two weeks before they were auctioned and shipped abroad.  The slaves endured inhumane and unsanitary conditions and many of them perished before ever leaving the island.  Those that did live to make it to the auction were advertised as being “stronger” than those who  died and, as such, secured a high price.

As the anti-slavery movement grew, the British put pressure on the Sultan to end the slave trade. Eventually the English navy was able to enforce various anti-slavery treaties and by 1890 Zanzibar became a British protectorate. During this period England governed the islands through local viziers. In 1896 leadership fell through succession to a vizier who did not meet England’s approval; this resulted in the Anglo-Zanzibar War. On August 27, 1896 the Royal Navy destroyed the palace. A cease fire was declared 38 minutes later. To this day the bombardment stands as the shortest war in history.

The islands gained independence from the United Kingdom in December 1963, and a constitutional monarchy was established. One month later, the Zanzibar Revolution resulted in as many as 20,000 Arabs and Indians being killed, and the People’s Republic of Zanzibar and Pemba was established. In April 1964, the republic merged with the newly independent Republic of Tanganyika mainland to form the United Republic of Tanzania.  (However, Zanzibar continues to remain a semi-autonomous region.)

The average annual income for Zanzibar is not much greater than US$250 and is about half of what it is on the Tanzanian mainland.

I had the opportunity to go to Zanzibar with our Tanzanian national director and Brian Thomson from Source of Light Ministries. We conducted a two-day discipleship seminar for 70 church leaders. We discovered at least three things on this visit:

(1) many church-planting pastors have moved to Zanzibar from the mainland to plant churches; (2) the need for discipleship is great and is recognized by the church leaders; and, (3) the church is undergoing tremendous persecution.

We were able to worship with these pastors, hear their stories, pray for them, and offer encouragement. Two days were spent in Bible study using the discipleship materials that Source of Light produces. We provided each pastor with materials which could be reproduced to use with children and youth, as well as adults.

Estimates are that the population of Zanzibar is as much as 99 percent Muslim.  Christians are such a small minority on the island that they are easily targeted by extremist elements. The church where we had the seminar is the largest evangelical church on the island. Attendance runs around 1,000 each Sunday. The church was attacked by mobs in 2012.  They set fire to the church, burned Bibles, and even set the pastor’s car on fire. Almost every pastor we spoke with shared personal stories of intense persecution. They have been beaten; their homes have been burned; they have lost their secular employment; and, their children have been harassed and even denied access to public schools.

In the coming months, I am planning on visiting Zanzibar again with our national director and one of our regional directors. This regional director will provide the oversight and leadership.