By Katlyn Stephens
Our alarm went off at 4:45 a.m., Africa time, and we needed to catch a ferry. This is not a story of wild travels or harrowing escapes, or even the reminiscing of an enjoyable vacation. It is a story about a life-changing trip to Tanzania that I shared with a team of 15 diverse people who have one thing in common—a passion for serving God and loving others. We were complete strangers to one another just 10 days earlier, but now we were sharing laughs, memories and food as we landed on an island off the east coast of Africa known as Zanzibar. We met through a mission program at Liberty University for high school students and have since been on a thrilling adventure involving learning bits of Swahili, experiencing the rollercoaster of African roads (I will never again complain about roads in the United States), and setting our hearts on seeing the Tanzanian people as God sees them.
Although Zanzibar is still a part of Tanzania, it has its own government, so we have to go through international check-in before walking through the white gates emblazoned with “Karibu Zanzibar.” We enter Stone Town, an old city with tall buildings, and it is teeming with people and cars. One of the first things we pass is the clear blue water of the Indian Ocean and the clean sand that is home to numerous wooden motorboats, each creatively named. Heading towards our hotel, we must walk up a narrow alley, which people and cars share. We have become accustomed to Tanzanians selling their merchandise in stopped traffic, so I am not surprised when my team is bombarded with men walking up to us, selling CDs, sunglasses and t-shirts. I can only reply “hapana asante” and “sihi taji” (“no thank you” and “I don’t need that”), but these men are relentless!
Our first day in Zanzibar is spent in leisure, recuperating from the past few days, building a church roof and loving on the village children in the inexorable heat of the Tanzanian mainland. We take a boat, christened “Jambo” to the tiny island of Changuu, or Prison Island. It is a perfectly secluded home to 180-year-old tortoises, free-roaming peacocks and a long boardwalk splattered with evidence of birds. Zanzibar is so different from other places in Africa, but they all are so uniquely beautiful. God has created such a diverse world, and it would be hard not to see the handprints of God in all that I have seen so far on this journey.
Shortly before sundown, my team departs on our little boat, which tackles the Indian Ocean fabulously, creating a beautiful picture as we skid over waves. Dinner is a unique experience—an open-air market, down a dark alley, containing the most diverse food. There was the usual beef, chicken and fries, but also octopus (tentacles still attached), live, and fish heads lined up for the buyer’s delight. Decisions, decisions! Evidently, our team sticks out just a tad, because the men in charge of their stands are calling out and dragging us towards their food. In front of this fish market are canvases on the ground, laden with the beautiful, handmade jewelry of the Maasai. I only have 1,000 shillings in my pocket (the equivalent of $US1), but it doesn’t hurt to look, right?
The next morning, my team congregates on the roof of the hotel to discuss our plans for the day. The view is breathtaking, with the ocean in the distance, just over the mottled buildings and artists below painting vibrant pictures to sell. My team leader explains about the religion of Islam and how women are viewed in their society. Just like the images we see in the news from places like Iraq and Afghanistan, Muslim women here cover their entire bodies, their hair and sometimes their faces . I had once believed that women don such garments because they are forced to do so, but in the majority of cases, it is the woman’s choosing. If a woman was taken advantage of, the man is not blamed for his actions, but the woman is for appearing too seductive by showing her body. Women as young as 12 years old are thrown into jail for “causing a man to misplace his civility.” While in the comfort of their homes, women wear beautiful clothing, yet they practice extreme modestly whenever they go out. My heart breaks to hear of such control and legalism when I am so blessed to be set free of that bondage through the ultimate sacrifice Jesus Christ made for me—the greatest act of love for an undeserving people. The God whom I serve is loving and He cares about every aspect of my life. He knows my future plans.
The island of Zanzibar is full of lost people who need Jesus. It is against the law to openly evangelize, hand out tracts, or hold “group revival” here. If caught, we would be thrown off of the island. However, the law cannot prohibit our most powerful spiritual resource, one that occurs in the heart and mind: prayer. Nothing of significance can ever be accomplished apart from prayer. So our plan is to walk through the streets of Stone Town and pray. We begin the afternoon by breaking into groups of four, with a man in each group, to go on a prayer walk. We open in group prayer, but with our eyes open so that it appears like we are having a conversation. Our group leader warns us before we go our separate ways that Satan will try everything in his power to distract us from praying—the last thing he wants is more believers in Jesus as a result of our simple prayers. It is empowering to know that Satan, the prince of this world, is scared of me and what I can do with the power of Christ giving me strength.
Without cameras or money, we walk through the streets, saying both silent prayers and voicing some to the one standing next to us. I pray for the random people we pass, the rundown buildings, for anything that draws my attention. I see a group of children in what I determine to be a school, and I send up prayers to God that He would guard their hearts and that they would come to know Christ as their Savior.
It is difficult at first to focus on my prayers for the people of Zanzibar while appearing to converse with my friends. After awhile it gets easier, and I see so many people to pray for. I do not know anything about them: what struggles they are facing, if they believe in God, if they have personal relationships in need of repair. But I take comfort in the fact that God knows them, He has numbered every hair on their heads and knows every thought in their hearts. Some people greet us as a friendly Tanzanian would, but we try not to enter into conversation so as to not become distracted. How amazing would it be if some, even just one person, heard us praying aloud for them and noticed the difference in us!
We walk in no clear direction, but I know that God is guiding our steps the entire time. An hour and a half has gone by when it is time for us to head back to the hotel. The only problem is that we have not an inkling of where we are. We ask a female police officer for directions, then head in the direction she points. After stopping one more time for help, the four of us gather together in a clearing to close in prayer, still not quite sure where we are. We set off again, turn the corner, and we are literally 30 seconds from our hotel, with only a minute to spare before we are supposed to regroup! We walked in a big circle, with God leading us where He wanted so that we could pray for the exact people that we came in contact with. An even more amazing thing is that all of the separate groups arrived back exactly on time—our leader was fully expecting to have to go on a search through Stone Town for at least one group.
This, my first prayer walk – in Zanzibar, no less – blew me away. I became acutely aware of the power of God to hear every little whisper, every miniscule thought, whether pleasing to Him or not. While I did not witness any immediate results, I know that certain seeds were planted on that day last July. Jesus said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how.” (Mark 4:26-27).
Katlyn Stephens is a student at Liberty University, majoring in Children’s Ministries, with a minor in Intercultural Studies. She enjoys spending time with her family and friends, playing with kids and delving into a new novel. She is looking forward to the future that God has for her, and hopes to travel to see more of His creation around the world.