Kibira, Josiah Mutabuzi Isaya (1925-1988)
African Bishop in the Lutheran church in Tanzania and international church leader
Josiah Mutabuzi Isaya Kibira was born at Kasyenye, Bukoba, Tanzania in late August 1925. He was Haya by tribe. His father’s name was Isaya Kibira and his mother, one of two wives, was Esteria. A week after his birth Josiah contracted a fatal illness from which he somehow miraculously recovered. In response, his father gave him the names Josiah Mutabuzi. Josiah means “the Lord heals” and Mutabuzi, a Haya tribal name, means “He is a savior.”
Josiah’s father died in 1929 when he was four years old. Josiah was the last child born to his mother Esteria who had three other sons and two daughters. His father’s last words were “My sons still carry on what I wanted to do and could not achieve.”
Josiah was baptized by a German missionary when he was a small boy. After his father died, his mother took on the responsibility of raising him. Josiah, who was very grateful for all that she did for him, wrote about her in 1960, saying, “I was raised by my mother. She tried to teach us how we should follow the Lord and that we had to go to church. She also taught us to pray and sing. I especially learned from her how to pray in faith and very simply. (…) I am always thankful for her efforts.” She died in 1984 at the age of 106.
At the age of fifteen, Josiah Kibira was confirmed by a German missionary. He received his early education at Kashenye Village School. Then he had four or five years of schooling at the Kigarama Mission School. At Kigarama Josiah composed songs which he taught to the choir. He also liked theater. He taught ordinary subjects at Kashenye Village School. One day he baptized an old woman who was seriously ill and she recovered.
After passing the examination at Kigarama, he started attending Nyakato Government Secondary School on February 2, 1942. Joel Kibira, his elder brother, was responsible for paying the school fees. Josiah was a tall, slim, attractive young man who showed a talent for leadership.
Wilfred Kilyanga, Josiah’s closest friend, commented on his friend’s life saying, “Many feared Josiah because he was an extraordinary person. He was very demanding and serious in all his endeavors and always accomplished what he had decided to do” (Larsson 6).
While at Nyakato, Josiah was such a devoted Christian that he was made a church elder. During this time he led evening prayers, taught Bible knowledge to lower classes, and was the choir leader for a group of evangelical students.
For a while he passed through a period of spiritual darkness and rebellion. Josiah said that people thought he was a good Christian at that time while, in reality, he was living a hypocritical life. He even told his schoolmaster, “Let me get old; after that I shall devote myself to spiritual matters” (Larsson 7).
Two Anglican preachers from the Katoke Teachers’ Training College visited Nyakato and preached for three days at Nyakato Secondary School. After listening to their message, Josiah was personally convicted and, at midnight on March 21, 1947, he made a confession of faith, claiming Jesus as his personal savior after saying a simple prayer, “Lord Jesus, come into my heart.” Thus he received Jesus into his heart and believed that he had been forgiven his sins. He confessed his sins to his roommate Wilfred Kilyanga who also confessed his sins to him. The next day Josiah publicly declared his new life in Christ. At that time Josiah was a church elder in the school congregation. As a result of this experience, he changed his hypocritical life and started to live a true Christian life. Kibira said that from that time on he remained a true Christian by his own personal conviction.
Now Kibira felt that he had been liberated and set free. When he completed his education at Nyakato, Mr. Shan, the headmaster, wrote on Josiah’s school certificate that he was “exceptionally good” (Larsson 9). We now know that Kibira belonged to the revival movement led by the two preachers from the Teachers’ College.
From Nyakato Secondary School Kibira went on to attend Tabora Government School in 1948 in order to study to become a teacher. Tabora was also the center for political and nationalistic feelings for Tanganyika which was under British rule at the time. At Tabora Kibira had the opportunity to meet Julius Nyerere and Rashid Kawawa who were to be the future political leaders of an independent Tanganyika. Years later, when Kawawa, a faithful Muslim, visited Bukoba he did not miss the chance of meeting Kibira.
After finishing his studies at Tabora Government School, Kibira graduated as a Grade I teacher. Afterwards he was assigned to teach in church schools in Bukoba and was posted at Kigarama.
On November 25, 1951 Josiah married Martha Yeremiah, also a member of the revival movement. They had five sons and four daughters. Martha recalled that when her husband was a teacher at Lukange in Karagwe District they had only one room and she cooked outside.
The church asked Kibira to come on staff and become the second master at the newly opened secondary school at Kahororo. As a result from 1951 to 1957 Kibira taught in some reputable schools. The Evangelical Church of Buhaya at that time was supported by three missions: the German Bethel Mission that had been there since 1910, the Church of Sweden Mission, replacing the Bethel Mission that left the Buhaya church due to the second World War, and the Danish Missionary Society that joined in the 1950s.
The German Bethel Misson gave Kibira a scholarship to study theology at Bielefeld in order to become a pastor. Consequently he, his wife, and their children left for Germany in 1957. At Bielefeld Kibira fearlessly spoke in favor of the independence of the Buhaya church. He continued practicing revivalism that was new to some Germans. He said that missionaries were also sinners who needed a savior just like Africans (Larsson 14).
He finished his theological studies in Germany in 1960 and returned to the Evangelical Church of Buhaya with his family. He was ordained on December 4, 1960 at Kashura church. He was assigned a position at Ndolage congregation, near the Lutheran hospital. Per Larsson writes that after his ordination Kibira never became an ordinary pastor, because of his spontaneity and somewhat explosive temperament (Larsson 15).
After a while, Kibira left for Germany to finish his theology degree at the Mission Academy in Hamburg. As he did very well he was able to begin a masters in theology. In 1960 Bengt Sundkler, a missionary and lecturer at Uppsala University in Sweden at the time, was elected the first bishop of Buhaya Church. Sundkler had good relationship with Kibira and decided to help him find a place to do a masters of theology. After he found a program at Boston University (U.S.A.), the Lutheran World Federation provided a scholarship for Kibira’s studies in Boston from 1962 to 1964.
In May 1964 Kibira wrote to Bishop Sundkler saying that he had finished his program so successfully that he was being offered the opportunity to pursue doctoral studies at Boston University. Sundkler was not in favor of the idea and Kibira returned to Tanzania.
The synod elected Kibira assistant bishop in 1964 even though many missionaries disapproved of his election because they feared his radical views and his outspoken attitude; moreover, Kibira was not a Yes man. Nevertheless Kibira became the first African to be elected bishop of the Evangelical Church of Buhaya. He remained an outstanding, undisputed, powerful, and creative leader in this role for more than twenty years.
Kibira excelled both in leading the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania, Northwestern Diocese and in initiatives in the international community. Sundkler states that a bishop’s task is first to serve the local church and secondly the universal church.
Kibira’s involvement with the international community of believers can be traced back to the 1961 World Council of Churches (WCC) General Assembly held at New Delhi, when the Evangelical Church of Buhaya became a new member of the WCC. At this meeting Sundkler proposed that Josiah Kibira be a member of the Faith and Order Commission.
In October 1965, Kibira was invited to be the keynote speaker at the All Africa Conference of Churches General Assembly held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The title of his keynote address was “A Living Church in a Changing Society.” His Addis Ababa speech made him so famous that at the WCC General Assembly in Uppsala, Sweden in 1968 he was asked to lead the opening worship at the Uppsala cathedral on July 4. Kibira received a lot of attention and was soon considered one of the outstanding personalities in the shaping of the assembly. In 1970, the Lutheran World Federation General Assembly held in Evian, France elected Kibira in absentia chairman of the Commission on Church Cooperation.
In 1977 at the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) General Assembly held at the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, Kibira was the first African to be elected president of the Lutheran World Federation, a position he held up to 1984. His election was a great honor for Tanzania, the host country, and for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania. In honor of this special occasion, Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere hosted a banquet at the State House and invited the new LWF president and many international guests.
Kibira’s legacy to the international church can be summarized in the words of Friedrich Koenig, the German editor of the Lutheran World Information who had closely followed Kibira’s initiatives and contribution to the LWF throughout the years. Koenig wrote these words in 1985 when Kibira resigned as bishop of Bukoba:
“It would be worthwhile to list and in the future to take up many of the recommendations that undaunted African man of the church made in life about basic foundations for peace and about the right understanding of the Reformation church’s task of mission. Then no one will be able to overlook the words of Josiah Kibira. Lutheranism owes its first senior representative from Africa many thanks for his unswerving veracity, his pious witness to his faith and above all his encouraging example for the youth to whom he was especially committed.”
Kibira died on July 18, 1988. In remembrance of his commitment to the cause of the ecumenical movement, the main building at the headquarters of the All Africa Conference of Churches in Nairobi, Kenya was named after Kibira.
Kibira can be described as a very gifted leader who excelled in his leadership roles as local parish pastor and on the international scene as president of the Lutheran World Federation (1977-1984). We can underline several key areas which summarize Kibira’s life work. He was committed to the quest for justice–especially for Africa. He was very much devoted to discipleship and to the cross. He was a strong advocate for the ecumenical movement and for his church but he was also committed to the universal church.
Editor’s note: Bishop Josiah Kibira is one of Boston University School of Theology’s most important African graduates. He graduated with an S.T.M. from the School of Theology in 1964. May 2014 marks the 40th anniversary of his graduation. The memory of Bishop Kibira’s pioneering leadership is also marked by the establishment in 2010 of an institution of higher education in his name, the Josiah Kibira University College of Tumani University Makumira in Bukoba, Tanzania. His son, Josiah Mwesigwa Kibira, is an established director and screenwriter, who in 2010 released a documentary about his father, Bishop Kibira of Bukoba: An African Lutheran.
About the Author: This article, received by the DACB in 2007, was researched and written by Rev. Angolowisye Isakwisa Malambugi, former chairman of the Moravian Church in Tanzania, Southwest Province, lecturer at Teofilo Kisanji University (formerly Moravian Theological College) in Mbeya from July 1995 to December 2006, and part-time lecturer at Open University of Tanzania from 1999 to the present. He was also Project Luke fellow in Spring 2007.
Author’s Note: I first heard Kibira preach in 1972 when he visited Makumira Theological College (now Tumaini University). When I was a member (1992-2003) of the General Committee of the All Africa Conference of Churches (AACC) representing all Protestant member churches in Tanzania, one of the General Committee meetings held in Doula, Cameroun, September 10-14, 1996, had on its agenda the task of naming the buildings at the headquarters of AACC in Nairobi. Kibira’s name was one of many names proposed for this honor. I stood up and spoke in favor of Kibira’s name for the main building. I was then assigned to collect more information on Kibira. After my return to Tanzania, I sent the necessary information to the General Secretary of the AACC, José Chipenda.
Kibira, Josiah. Son of Kibira, 47 years old, telephone interview by author, May 10, 2007.
Larsson, Per. Bishop Josiah Kibira of Bukoba: In an International Perspective. Dodoma, Tanzania: Central Tanganyika Press, 1992.
Mushemba, Samson. President of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania and successor of Josiah Kibira as bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania, telephone interview by author, May 10, 2007.
Nsangila, Josiah. 51 years old, from Nshamba/Muleba, Tanzania, interview by the author at Mbeya city on August 24, 2006.
Tibanenason, Philemon. 63 years old, from Bukoba, interview by the author at Dar es Salaam city on December 25, 2006.
Kibira, Josiah Mutabuzi. “A Study of Christianity Among the Bahaya Tribe: West-Lake Region, Tanganyika.” Thesis (S.T.M.). Boston University School of Theology, 1964.
____. “Africa. Hat Luther Africa ‘erreicht’? Zeugnis eines verwirrten Lutheraners.” In Hans Christian Knuth and Christian Krause, eds. Hat Luther uns erreicht?: Antworten aus fünf Kontinenten. Hannover: Lutherisches Verlagshaus, 1983.
____. Aus einer afrikanischen Kirche. Bethel bei Bielefeld: Velagshandlung der Anstalt Bethel, 1960 (German). Fra en afrikansk kirke. Kbh: Det Danske Missionsselskab. I hovedkommision hos Lohse, 1961 (Danish translation).
____. Church, Clan, and the World. Lund: Gleerup, 1974.
____. “Church in Buhaya: Crossing Frontiers, 1969.” Study Centre for New Religious Movements, and Selly Oak Colleges. Turner Collection on Religious Movements. 5-05-007 FICHE 211, 5-05-007 FICHE 211. Wolverhampton, England: Advance Micrographics, 1983.
____. “The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania: North-Western Diocese (ELCT-NWD).” In Martin Pörksen, Otto Waack, Justus Freytag, and Gerhard Hoffmann, eds. So sende ich euch; Festschrift für D. Dr. Martin Pörksen zum 70. Geburtstag. Stuttgart: Evang. Missionsverlag, 1973.
____. “Law and Grace in Pastoral Practice.” In Paul E Hoffman, ed. Theological Education in Today’s Africa; The Theological Faculty Conference for Africa Sponsored by the Dept. of Theology of the Lutheran World Federation at Lutheran Theological College Makumira, Tanzania, July 15-22, 1969. Geneva: Lutheran World Federation, 1969.
Kibira, Josiah, Carl Mau, and George Lindbeck. Zwischen zwei Vollversammlungen. Stuttgart: Kreuz-Verlag, 1980.
Wümpelmann, Knud, Poul Verner Hansen, and Josiah Kibira. Seks bibelstudier, Mission over alle graenser. Koebenhavn: Dansk Missionsraad, 1968.
Josiah Mutabuuzi Kibira: President, the Lutheran World Federation. [S.l.]: Lutheran World Ministries, the USA National Committee of the Lutheran World Federation, 1978.
Larsson, Per. Bishop Josiah Kibira of Bukoba: In an International Perspective. Dodoma, Tanzania: Central Tanganyika Press, 1992.
Thomas, Louis-Vincent. “Book Review: Church, Clan and the World”. Archives De Sciences Sociales Des Religions. 20, no. 40 (1975): 240-241.
Links and Media
“American-educated Tanzanian, Bishop Josiah M. Kibira, is elected president of Lutheran World Federation, highest position in Lutheran Church,” news report by John Chancellor. NBC Evening News for Friday, June 24, 1977, Vanderbilt Television News Archive.
Bishop Kibira of Bukoba: An African Lutheran, a Documentary Film by Josiah Mwesigwa Kibira. Kibira Films International, 2010.
Bishop Kibira of Bukoba: An African Lutheran, Official Documentary Film Trailer. Kibira Films International, 2010.
Josiah Kibira University College Cornerstone Dedication Service, July 19, 2010, Mugisha Video Production. Posted by Kibira Films, September 24, 2010.
“Josiah Kibira University College Officially Launched in Bukoba,” ELCT Press Release, January 16, 2013.
“Josiah Mutabuzi Isaya Kibira is the first African to be elected president of the LWF,” This Day in History, South African History Online.
Photo Gallery of Bishop Kibira, Kibira Films International.
“Who was Bishop Josiah Mutabuzi Kibira?”, Kibira Films International.
Portrait and Photo
Courtesy of Josiah Mwesigwa Kibira, Kibira Films International.