Making a fool of myself — and loving it

Published 8:00 am Thursday, July 26, 2018

I never intended to make a fool of myself, and perhaps I didn’t.

It sure felt that way, though.

As some of you already know, I was in Tanzania for a good part of June. I wasn’t quite sure why I was going.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

My friend from seminary, Father Emmanuel Bwatta, is the dean of the Anglican Seminary in Kasulu, a dusty little city in western Tanzania. He had been imploring me to come to Kasulu for a number of years, and he said that he needed me to teach preaching in English to his seminarians.

I was dubious of my capacity to teach preaching, let alone teach preaching to people who didn’t have a firm grasp of English. Other than “asante” and “hakuna ma tada,” I didn’t know a darn thing about Swahili or any other African language.

What could I teach to a bunch of seminarians who didn’t know English very well?

Father Emmanuel’s persistence paid off, and he convinced a small part of my ego that my presence was vital to the survival of the Anglican Church in the Diocese of Western Tanganyika. I finally told him in January that I would indeed be coming to Kasulu this June.

My wife was even less sanguine on my intended trip to Tanzania than I was, and she kept asking me, “Now, what exactly are you going to be doing over there? Couldn’t Father Emmanuel just get an African to teach preaching to Africans?”

I began to organize my affairs for the upcoming trip. I was going to need an up-to-date passport, many shots for tropical diseases and a roundtrip plane ticket to western Tanzania.

My good friend, Ms. M, said, “Robert, you’re a fool if you go on this trip? What will happen if you die? They’ll turn you into a martyr, build a statue in your honor and memorialize you. What could be worse? You can’t go over there and die!”

I appreciated Ms. M’s concern, however misplaced it might have been, but I felt obligated at this point to follow through on my promise to Father Emmanuel.

The night before I was to leave on my trip, my head was all a swirl with worst-case scenarios. I could die of Ebola, I could be kidnapped in Dar es Salaam, I could just be miserable for three weeks.

All these thoughts and more swirled around my head. I was a tired, miserable wreck on the way to the airport. I was stepping into the unknown, and at least the actuality of the trip would quell all the voices of potential doom.

By the time I had arrived in Kasulu, Tanzania, I had been traveling for two days, and my sleep was intermittent at best over that time.

I wanted to crash and sleep for days, but Bishop Sadock wanted to have a feast in my honor shortly after my arrival. I freshened up and put on my best game face.

That night, we ate, told stories and laughed a lot. Bishop Sadock told me at the end of the night, “You will see and experience many strange things here. Everything is just the same here in Kasulu as it is in Tryon, except it is completely different. Don’t be afraid to enter into the strangeness of your experiences here. The people will be very thankful if you do.”

Those words stuck in my mind as I fell asleep that night. I knew exactly what the bishop meant, and yet, I had no idea at all what he meant. What strange experiences where in store for me, and what would I have to enter into here in Kasulu?

On my first Sunday there, I was scheduled to preach at St. Andrew’s Cathedral.

I asked my friend, Emmanuel, what this service would be like. He said, “Don’t worry, there will be 1,500 people at the first service, and they are very excited to hear you preach. By the way, the first service begins at 6:30 in the morning and lasts for three and a half hours, so get a good night’s sleep.”

I was wracking my brains about what and how I would preach to a congregation full of people who didn’t speak English.

That morning, as we were driving to the Cathedral, I was clinging tightly to my preaching notes. Emmanuel leaned over to me and said, “Don’t worry, just enter into the experience and have fun with your time this morning. They will be grateful for whatever you give them.”

That morning was a blur, and it was the first time I had ever preached with a translator. I’m not sure what Emmanuel was saying in Swahili, but the people were responding with “amens” and other shouts.

After the preaching was over, Emmanuel turned to me and said, “Things are about to get interesting, so get ready to enter into a very different form of worship than in America.”

I looked at him with a “what in the heck are you talking about?” look. I thought to myself, “This is already the strangest worship experience that I have been to. How can this get stranger?”

He was right, of course.

The choir began to sing and dance, the whole congregation began to dance, and then Emmanuel said to me, “It is time for you to dance!” I looked at him in horror and said, “I’m not much of a dancer.”

By the time I had finished the sentence, he had grabbed my arm and taken me down to the choir. Then, I was dancing.

I was trying to keep up with the choir and dance somewhat like them. Then the rest of the congregation got up and began to sing and shout.

It was like the whole congregation went from being traditional Anglicans to the most joyful and natural dancers in a blink of an eye.

I was dancing and I was trying not to feel self-conscious. I was trying to enter into the experience with as much joy and reverence as I could muster. I thought to myself, “So what if I make a fool of myself! I’ll just dance until they tell me to sit down.”

When I got back from church later that afternoon, I knew what the bishop meant. I was exhausted. I had been dancing, preaching, singing, shouting and praying for hours.

I just let myself sink into the experience without the self-conscious voice of critique or embarrassment. Yes, I had probably made a fool of myself, but making a fool of oneself seemed like the much better option than not being with the people, loving the people and worshiping with the people.

I hadn’t gone to Africa as a cultural anthropologist who was studying exotic cultures, languages and people. I was just trying to be with the people, no matter how foolish that made me seem.

If you think about it, that’s really the goal of our lives. Just be with the people around you, no matter how strange or weird they seem, and dance around with them in love and gratitude.

If you want to see Father Robert actually dancing and making a fool of himself, go to

Father Robert Ard, Holy Cross