ZANZIBAR, Tanzania - Building bridges in not only work done by engineers. For the bilateral, multinational Natural Fire 11 exercise in Zanzibar, Tanzania, Ambassador Alfonso Lenhart, U.S. Ambassador to Tanzania, knows the importance of religious leaders in this region of Africa, so as part of the State Department's effort to reach out to the local community and establish contacts, the U.S. Embassy requested the commanding general of U.S. Army Africa employ a U.S. Army Imam, an Islamic religious leader, to be part of the Natural Fire exercise.

Enter Chaplain (Maj.) Dawud Agbere of the U.S. Army Central, with the mission to come to the island to build a bridge of a different kind. As a commissioned officer in the U.S. Army as well as a Muslim Imam, Agbere has a unique perspective on the world. A native of the Republic of Ghana, Agbere immigrated to the United States in 1995 and after a short stint in the U.S. Navy, received his commission in the U.S. Army in 1997. He is dedicated to closing the gap that separates Christian and Muslim faiths and wishes to put an end to the intolerance between the two.

Approximately 95 percent of Zanzibar's population follows the laws of Islam, while less than 5 percent are Christian. That being said, a substantial set of challenges comes along with trying to bring understanding and tolerance to the two faiths.

A Christian minister speaking of these ideals to an audience that is primarily Muslim may have difficult hurdles to overcome in order to actually reach the listeners and his remarks may be commonly viewed as Christian rhetoric. However, Agbere's heritage may serve as a conduit to connect the faiths on a level that most could not achieve.

"If you see a man lying on the street in pain," Agbere said, "your first question is not, 'Are you Muslim?' No. You help him."

Agbere's primary message is to treat others as you wish to be treated, regardless of religion, race or social status and this is what he focused on in an interview at TV Zanzibar during the Natural Fire exercise. The invitation to be featured on TV Zanzibar came as a result of his moving and well received speech at a local mosque a few days earlier.

The Zanzibar television journalist, Suleiman Abdalla Salum nodded enthusiastically at many of Agbere's responses, being very receptive to his answers.

After the interview, Agbere exited the television station and was met at the door by a bright-eyed local woman who had walked many blocks to the station to come meet the Chaplain and thank Agbere for the inspirational words he spoke at the mosque.

"Communication…," said Agbere, "as you communicate and begin to share ideas and you begin to find common ground, you begin to know each other. When I know you, I'm not going to have misconceptions about you, but when I don't know you, and I see you from a distance and all of the things around you, I begin to make up my own ideas about you. Sometimes that can be very tragic," he said.

Agbere said that he has observed a significant difference in America in contrast to parts of Africa. According to Agbere, American society tends to provide it's citizens with the opportunity to excel if they're willing to work hard. However, in some parts of Africa, many people are not exposed to such opportunities.

"It's a part of the human condition, if you will, where we always see ourselves in competition with others. When, in an actual sense, we are all human beings who experience the same joy and same suffering regardless of our backgrounds, skin pigmentation and what have you. As long as people are willing to work with each other, we will build bridges and solve problems."

That is specifically what Agbere's mission is all about. Building bridges to close the gap between faiths and just communicate openly and interact with each other on a human level.

He said he believes that officials have been unable to reach people to a certain extent due to the fact that the Muslim society is very much influenced by their religious leaders as well as their political leaders.

"I ask myself, how do I want to be treated? If I know how I want to be treated, the next question is, do I treat others the same?" Agbere continues, "Often if you are the majority, you tend to not see that you treat others different from yourselves. The majority tends to be very open, and I think that is something that Africa can learn from America and the world can learn from America," he said. "However, as Americans also have to learn to listen to other people. We're a very developed society but sometimes that comes off as if we think we know everything," he said.

"So, if we are open to learn and listen, sometimes we can learn very simple things that because we have become so complex, we fail to see … very, very simple stuff that can solve a lot of problems and with cooperation and teamwork can make the bridge easier to build," said Agbere.

Page last updated Thu September 22nd, 2011 at 00:00