As we were leaving New York City, the Baha’i community there was in the midst of preparing for the landmark 200 year anniversary of the birth of Baha’u’llah, the Prophet founder of the Faith. In fact, the entire Baha’i world was looking forward with eager anticipation to this date, working hard to plan commemorations across the globe that would fittingly celebrate this important occasion. Although we could not participate in New York City’s celebrations, only a short ferry ride away the Baha’is of Dar Es Salam were planning their own celebrations, and we were invited!
We took the Kilimanjaro V, one of Zanzibar’s newer catamaran ferries, on a thankfully-smooth two hour trip to Dar Es Salam, Tanzania’s largest city and economic capital. We had been invited to stay in the home of a local Baha’i woman and when we arrived, it seemed that the celebration had already started! Her home was filled with what turned out to be the local Baha’i choir practicing their songs about love, unity and celebration for the commemorations the following day. They sang for two more hours after we arrived (enough that by the end knew the songs too!) before leaving us all to rest.
The next day about 35 children, youth and adults packed into an aging bus that was probably made to seat 25 people and could only go forward or reverse by shutting down completely and then starting up again. As we made our way towards the first celebration, we proceeded to pick up even more people! It seems that the laws of physics, and occupant capacity, did not apply to this bus as we must have had at least 45 people mashed together whether seated, standing or, in the case of children, on the lap of another person.
The first day of celebrations commemorated the life of the Bab, the forerunner to Baha’u’llah. We were able to attend two different celebrations that day in different neighborhoods. Each one was held in a hall filled with hundreds of beautifully dressed people from different parts of the city, including one of the government ministers, invited as an honored guest. The programs were beautiful and included prayers, song, talks about the significance of the day in Swahili and English and video clips about the life and imprisonment of Baha’u’llah and the Bab. A few highlights: the politician got up and started dancing with the choir, a youth band formed from Baha’i activities sang the song “We are drops” which is taught around the world in Baha’i children’s virtues classes and seems to have the same tune no matter which country you visit, and an interesting skit by a group of youth about the importance of family unity, but also respecting justice.
We were also fortunate enough that Caity was able to sing two songs with a friend in Swahili and English, using her ukulele. They had been practicing for the last few days and the songs went well, helping to demonstrate the diverse and international nature of the Faith. Also the ukulele was a hit as many people had never seen one before! The children and fellow musicians were fascinated by this tiny “child’s guitar”. :)
The next day we traveled up to the new Baha’i center for the city-wide celebration for the birth of Baha’u’llah. For this event the community had turned the Baha’i center itself into an exhibition on Baha’u’llah’s life, where guests were guided through each of the different stages of his life, from its start in Iran to exile in Baghdad and Adrianople and his eventual banishment to the prison city of Akka. One of the most moving rooms told the story of Baha’u’llah’s imprisonment in the “Black Pit” for many months where he was forced to wear chains that were so infamous they had their own names and weighed over 100 pounds! With the lights off and the floor covered in rusted chains, it was possible to glimpse what this terrible prison might have been like, at once one the the darkest times in Baha’u’llah’s life but also the place where he received the revelation that he was a prophet of God.
During the final program I was struck by how incredible and unlikely it was that this celebration was even happening at all. It was only 150 years ago that the Baha’i faith was only made up of a small band of adherents heavily persecuted in their native land of Persia. Their first Prophet, the Bab, had been martyred at the hands and the government and clergy and their current leader, Baha’u’llah, was living in exile, never to return to his homeland. Yet in the years since, the community has expanded to every country on the globe inspired by Baha’u’llah’s message that “the earth is but one country and mankind its citizens” and “So powerful is the light of unity that it can illuminate the whole earth.”
I might not have been able to celebrate in New York City, but sitting in the audience at the Dar Es Salam Baha’i center surrounded by people of a diversity of nationalities, religions and backgrounds and knowing that similar celebrations like this were happening all over the world was a wonderful feeling. I am sure that I won’t have to wait for another 200 year anniversary to experience it again!