Forced to leave four different church plants, a Tanzanian pastor remains committed to the calling he received 28 years ago.
After three days of prayer and fasting, Pastor Charles Madama woke up with a renewed sense of joy and peace, ready for another day of ministry. He was unaware that four men had been watching his front door around the clock from a taxi across the street, waiting for him to step outside.
The pastor sang his favourite hymn softly to himself as he headed out the door, and the men at first didn’t seem to notice him stroll past their taxi. Then Charles heard a man yell, “There he goes! Why aren’t you shooting him?”
As he turned to see the armed men climbing out of the taxi, a bus began to pull away from the curb next to him. He immediately hopped on the bus and ducked inside as it drove away, the words of his favourite hymn taking on special meaning.
Jesus, lover of my soul Let me to Thy bosom fly … Hide me, O my Saviour, hide, Till the storm of life is past.
An Unexpected Calling
Raised in a Christian household in mainland Tanzania, Charles placed his faith in Christ at a young age. In 1978, shortly after getting married, he and his wife moved to Zanzibar. Like many Tanzanians from the mainland, he hoped to find more job opportunities on the island, which is popular with international tourists.
Some years into their marriage, Charles and his wife discovered that they were unable to have children. But when his wife’s brother died suddenly, leaving four young children with no family, Charles and his wife took them in and raised them as their own. Then, in 1994, tragedy struck again: Charles’s wife died, leaving him a single father of four.
A year after his wife’s death, Charles began to have a recurring dream in which herds of sheep and goats followed him everywhere he went. No matter how hard he tried to escape the sheep and goats, they kept appearing, and Charles felt as if the herds wanted him to watch over them. When he shared the dream with the leaders of his church, they understood it the same way he did: God was calling him to full-time ministry.
Charles wrestled with the idea. He loved the Lord, but he could barely support his four children in his current work as a farmer, and he knew it would be even more difficult as a pastor. He also knew that being a pastor on Zanzibar comes with risks. It was not a decision to be taken lightly.
The Mirage of Paradise
To the outside world, Zanzibar is known for its sunny beaches, crystal-clear waters and unique cultural history. But for Christians, it’s more akin to an oppressive Middle Eastern nation, a reality rooted in its history.
The main island of the Zanzibar archipelago, also known as Unguja, was colonised by Arabs until the Portuguese established control of the islands in 1509. In 1698, they came under the rule of the Sultan of Oman, and in 1890, Zanzibar was placed under a British protectorate. During the Zanzibar revolution in 1964, the islands united with Tanganyika to create the United Republic of Tanzania, and both Zanzibar and Pemba retained semi-autonomous power per Tanzania’s constitution.
Because of its semi-autonomous status, Zanzibar’s religious landscape differs significantly from that of the mainland. While Tanzania is predominantly Christian, Zanzibar’s population of 1.4 million is 99% Muslim. In addition, government leaders in Zanzibar appoint Muslim religious officials and actively work to eradicate Christianity from the island.
Since Zanzibar is an international tourist destination, the local government is unable to completely eliminate Christianity from the island. Authorities therefore use a three-pronged strategy to silence any witness for Christ: promote Islamic education, prevent the establishment of new Christian churches and force pastors to leave.
Amid this clear opposition, Charles felt called by God to establish a church in a remote region of Zanzibar so it could send out workers to plant other churches. Embracing the risk, he made a commitment to fulfil the calling God had given him.
Three Churches in Three Years
For Charles, answering God’s call was an enormous sacrifice. Knowing he would be unable to support his four children financially in the rural areas where he would be ministering, he made the painful decision to send the children to the mainland to live with extended family. That decision still brings him to tears when he talks about it today, and it was only the beginning of his hardships as a pastor.
After graduating from Bible school, Charles planted his first church in a rural area about an hour away from the main city on Zanzibar. He approached his ministry work with extreme caution while getting to know the local Muslim community.
“When I first started in Zanzibar, I would have to hide the Bible under my shirt,” he said. “You couldn’t even carry a shop-bought bag because it would identify you as an outsider. You had to carry an indigenous coconut leaf bag to put your Bible in.”
After two years, the church grew to about eight members who gathered for worship in a simple building made from leaves and branches. But even eight Christians were too many for the Muslim community. As Charles was preaching one Sunday evening, he looked up to see a man enter the church with a gun in his hand.
When the intruder yelled for the pastor to show himself, the congregation fled in panic. Charles, however, remained motionless at the altar. The gunman continued to yell and search frantically, but it soon became clear that he couldn’t see Charles. Frustrated at his inability to find the pastor, the intruder eventually left.
Although Pastor Charles’s life had been spared, church members lost the courage to return after the attack. Still, Charles was undeterred in his determination to proclaim the gospel. “Fear did grow in my heart for a short while,” he said. “But [God’s protection] gave me the strength to keep going.”
After the incident with the armed intruder, Charles moved to another village to plant a new church. A local Muslim agreed to let Charles build a simple structure on his property, believing the pastor would either fail or die trying to establish a church in the area. But when the church eventually grew to seven baptised members, the Muslim landowner chased the congregation away and destroyed the building.
As at the previous church, the young believers refused to gather out of fear of further repercussions, and Charles was forced to start over again. This time he decided to move to an even more remote area with few houses. The government-owned land was guarded by a mzee, an older man responsible for tending livestock that grazed the land. Pastor Charles asked the mzee for permission to use an old goat house on the land for a church building, and the man agreed.
Charles prayed for the growth of his third church and, as the congregation increased, so did the opposition. First, the mzee began asking for rent. “I accepted the terms … in faith,” Charles said, “because I had absolutely no money.” He slept most nights in the goat house because of its distance from his home.
Then, a witch doctor started to put curses on Charles and the church building. While the church continued to grow, eventually gaining six new baptised believers, local Muslims pressured the mzee to evict the Christians. With little choice, the mzee told Charles he could no longer use the goat house, forcing him to move even farther away to start anew.
Twenty Years of Blessing
Unlike the previous congregations, the Christians who had worshipped in the goat house chose to follow Charles to the new location. The church soon grew to 13 members, and Charles decided to seek official government registration.
Then, as he prepared to leave his home and head to church one day in 2015, he felt overcome by fear. For the next three days, he prayed and fasted until finally feeling the peace to leave his house. That’s when he encountered four men waiting in a taxi to ambush him. After his narrow escape on a bus, the pastor hid in the bush for four days, discouraged and concerned that another church would succumb to the pressures of persecution.
After returning home, he was approached by a young Muslim man who had witnessed the attempted attack on the street outside his house. “I believe in your Jesus,” the man said. He explained that after seeing Charles’s escape, he had no choice but to believe.
The young man joined Charles’s church, which grew to nearly 100 members … until one day in 2018, when local government authorities bulldozed the church and everything in it. Though the church had documentation showing its right to the land, the government claimed the documents were forged.
A Steadfast Servant
After serving four churches for more than two decades, Charles could have retired and spent the rest of his days enjoying his grandchildren. He had fought the good fight.
But shortly after the government destroyed Charles’s fourth church building, a church member approached him with a new offer: “If the government is going to take this land from us,” she told him, “then I will give my land for the church to worship on.”
Inspired by the woman’s courage and sacrificial heart, Charles decided to press on. With help from front-line workers, he and the remaining members of his congregation built a simple wooden structure with a sheet metal roof. The church has persisted and even planted two new churches.
Charles said the most important passage of Scripture to him throughout his many years of ministry has been 1 Peter 5:8–11. “Be, be vigilant,” he quoted, thumping his chest and looking to heaven. “Your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in the faith, knowing that the same sufferings are experienced by your brotherhood in the world. But may the God of all grace, who has called us by Jesus Christ, after you have suffered a while, perfect, establish, strengthen and settle you. To Him be the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen.”
The pastor knows that persecution may visit him and his church again, but he refuses to let it prevent him from finishing the work to which God called him. “They might destroy the building, but they cannot destroy my heart or the heart of the flock,” he said.