Rachel Nyirabu

Dialogue with the wife of Tanzania’s Ambassador to the U.S.A.

Rachel Nyirabu is more than the spouse of Tanzania's ambassador to the United States. She is a world traveler, a successful career woman, a well-respected citizen of her country, a down-to-earth mom, a friendly hostess, and a humble Christian.

When I walked into her home on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., Mrs. Nyirabu, dressed in a kitenge cloth dress and turban, greeted me with a warm hug. She invited me to the sitting room where large plants and African paintings and carvings on ivory painted walls complemented brightly colored sofas and carpets.

Rachel is the first of three daughters born to an Adventist family in Tanzania. While attending college she met her future husband, Charles M. Nyirabu. They have one daughter, Rehema (21), and two sons, Philip (18) and Isaac (15).

At present the family attends the Takoma Park Seventh-day Adventist church in Maryland. Currently Mrs. Nyirabu serves as the president of the African Ambassadors' Wives Association in Washington, D.C.

What makes your country special for you?

Tanzania is my country. There I was born and there I grew up. It is my home. I raised my children there.

As a Tanzanian citizen, I know I am just a visitor in the U.S. and that one day I will return to my country. As a Christian, I also know that this world is a place of temporary sojourn, where I serve others and prepare to live with God in the new earth for all eternity.

While growing up, did you expect to become an ambassador's wife and live abroad?

No. During those years I had to stay close to my parents. My father was a businessman and farmer. But my mother suffered from asthma, and so we moved to a larger town where doctors could help her. The move led to a strain in our family finances. When I went to college, I prayed for a good husband who would accept me for what I am and who would value my family as well.

When Charles and I got married we had nothing, but we worked hard. While I served as a secretary and later as supervisor for a railroad company, my husband--who had graduated as an economist--worked in several senior positions for the national government. Later he became the governor of the Central Bank of Tanzania, which oversees all other banks in the country. This position is usually held for one term of five years. But he served for over three terms until he was appointed ambassador to the United States.

Tell us about the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Tanzania.

Tanzania has a population of 26 million. Of this more than a third is Christian; another third is Muslim; and the rest follow traditional beliefs.

Two German missionaries--W. Ehlers and A. C. Enns--introduced the Adventist message to Tanzania in 1903. They spent their entire lives in my country, and are buried there. Today the Adventist membership stands at about 150,000. In addition, there are 300,000 followers and friends of our church. Both figures together make a total of 450,000. That's less than 2 per cent of the total population. Although Adventism is growing in Tanzania, we face a challenging mission. Trained pastors are few and work under very difficult conditions. Fortunately, most members are devoted to spreading God's message of salvation and hope. Laity, Dorcas groups, Pathfinders, and choirs are very much involved in evangelistic activities. As a result of their work, many people are being baptized, few leave the church, and some who had left are coming back. But our church buildings are few and small in size. Children sit on the floor, and there are no books or teaching materials such as picture rolls for Sabbath school classes.

Who is Jesus to you?

Jesus died for my sins. He is my Saviour. He is the sole purpose of my existence. As the Son of God, He is the one and only door to heaven. Whoever has faith in Him will have everlasting life. I am thankful to my parents for leading me to discover Jesus while I was young, and I have followed Him ever since.

Is your husband an Adventist?

In his youth, my husband attended an Adventist church. Then he went to a boarding school where he was baptized into the Anglican Church. After completing school he returned to the Adventist Church, but has not yet been baptized. He comes to church with me every Sabbath and studies and reads a lot. All our children are baptized, and I believe that one of these days my husband too will join the Adventist Church.

I sense that prayer is very important for you.

I've been praying all my life. God will always help you if you depend on Him. Humble yourself before God and He will lift you up. When I went to college my mother was very sick, and I thought she might die anytime. I almost quit college because of it. I kept praying that God would keep her alive until I graduated; then, until my sisters graduated. Later I prayed she'd live until we all got married; then, until we all had kids. Then I prayed that when she died, at least one of us would be with her, because we were all living in different places. When my mother died, we were all there. God does answer prayers!

Has God helped you in other areas of your life?

I've prayed for personal strength, so that I may help and lead others. For 20 years I worked at a train station, supervising a group of rough young men. Some people thought that because I'm a quiet and soft-spoken person I could not handle such a difficult assignment. But God answered my prayers. I also had the opportunity of helping people in need. During that time, I sold Christian books to the passengers that came to the railway station and to the people who visited my house. With that money, our Dorcas Society bought food and clothes for the poor, and we were able to buy uniforms for the children's choir of my church.

Through prayer, God has also given me grace to relate to people. As I love and help them, they begin to sense God's presence in their lives. Recently, two Catholic friends came and asked me to pray for them. God has answered so many prayers. He can answer yours, too!

You had a confrontation with cancer.

When I found out that I had breast cancer, two doctors told me they couldn't operate because the cancer was so advanced. I began to pray earnestly. After a year's treatment with chemotherapy, my condition improved and I have continued in treatment for the past four years. Because of my faith in the Lord during the ordeal, my youngest sister has come back to the Adventist Church.

What activities keep you busy?

I like working with women's groups. Here I am a member of the Commonwealth Ambassadors' Wives Association, the Christian Embassy, and the African Ambassadors' Wives Association, for which at present I serve as president. I seek God's direction in whatever I do, so that I may be a good witness for Him among people that move in diplomatic circles. I'm also active in my church as a greeter, deaconess, and Sabbath school clerk. In addition, I try to spend quality time with my three children and two nephews for whom I am the guardian. We study the Bible, cook, work on the computer, and do chores together to ensure that our household runs smoothly. I'm also involved in a U.S.-based private voluntary organization that seeks to alleviate poverty, ignorance, and disease in Africa.

Is it hard to be an Adventist in the diplomatic life?

At first I thought it would be difficult to live my convictions. But I believe that whatever I receive after earnest prayer God wants me to have. So I've been able to maintain my Adventist life-style and also be a supportive ambassador's wife. People know my commitment to God and my religious convictions. Those who trust in the Lord should not hide their light but hold it out to guide others out of darkness. I encourage them to reflect on God's counsels found in Proverbs 3, Matthew 18:4, Luke 14:11, and 1 Peter 5:1-11.

How do the people you meet view Adventists?

Some believe we have too many restrictions--we can't wear this or eat that--without realizing the benefits of a truly Christian life-style. When I go to social functions, they ask, "Are you sure you won't drink?" They see me dressed plainly, with no jewelry, and many think that I must be dressing differently at other times. But when they get to know me as I really am, they understand my deep Christian commitment. Some of them become my friends, and we pray and encourage one another.

Do you have opportunities to share your faith?

I have made a decision to be kind to all people wherever I go. I pray that God will help me to represent Him in all my relationships--at home, at work, while shopping, at church, and in the social life. It encourages me to hear people say, "Rachel is nice. She cares for others."

Can a young Christian achieve success without compromising his or her beliefs?

To me, having an important position in this world means little. All persons, high and low, are equal before God. He is greater than anybody and anything. If young people trust Him in everything, He will grant them the abilities they need to be useful, to help others, and to represent Him well.

Interview by Celeste Ryan. Celeste Ryan is the editor of Adventist View, a publication for young adults.