How Mother Maria Stieren Converted Tanzania’s Ferocious Barabaig Tribe

The fearless missionary Sister died in 2008 after a remarkable life in the service of the Lord.

(Clockwise from Left) Orphans gather outside a school. Catholics attend Mass at a chapel.  A hospital with 15 beds in Gehandu. A woman of the Barabaig tribe. The high mortality rate of AIDS in Tanzania makes many children orphans.
(Clockwise from Left) Orphans gather outside a school. Catholics attend Mass at a chapel. A hospital with 15 beds in Gehandu. A woman of the Barabaig tribe. The high mortality rate of AIDS in Tanzania makes many children orphans. (photo: Courtesy photos/Flickr / Mothers and Missionaries of the Holy Cross)

GEHANDU, Tanzania — In 1987, a doughty religious sister from Bavaria called Mother Maria Stieren was driving with a group of religious sisters from her newly founded order through a small but notoriously dangerous part of the East African country on her way to one of her mission houses.

All was going as planned until Mother Maria, who founded the Mothers of the Holy Cross and Missionaries of the Holy Cross 10 years earlier, felt chest pains and needed to stop the car to get some air. Her fellow sisters warned her not to, as it wasn’t uncommon for members of the fierce Barabaig tribe, who inhabited that area, to attack passersby.

Known for its barbarism and waging war as a means of defense, for decades the Barabaig tribesmen had often killed members of a rival tribe, the Nyaturu, and thrown them into a valley below. They were also known for ambushing vehicles in order to steal the rubber tires to make shoes.

The Barabaig, similar to the nearby, more well-known Maasai warrior tribe that straddles the Kenya-Tanzania border, are animist herdsmen with a culture of using sharp spears to hunt (their name means “men who beat with a stick”). Indeed, so ferocious were the Barabaig at that time (they skillfully used highly poisonous arrows) that the local Tanzanian police were often too scared to confront them.

Despite this, Mother Maria was unfazed. She got out of the car and went to sit by a tree to let her heart pains subside, during which time 50-60 tribesmen from the bushes gathered around her. Local police arrived soon afterwards, as they saw a car stranded in such a dangerous place. They asked her what she was doing there, and pledged to defend her should she be attacked. But Mother Maria declined their offer of help, insisting the situation wasn’t dangerous and adding that the people were her “friends.”

Her instincts and trust in God were rewarded: The tribes people left Mother Maria and her sisters alone. In the days that followed, Mother returned to the area as she had promised, as it was located between two missions she had established. 

When she passed through again and again, the tribespeople were waiting for her in anticipation she would bring them help, which she did in the form of clothing, blankets, medicine, tobacco for the elders and other supplies.


‘Messenger from God’

Members of her community, who were with Mother Maria at the time, then recalled to the Register what happened next.

After several charitable visits, a chief of the tribe (the Barabaig have no central leader, as they are nomads and so always on the move) asked Mother Maria: “Other people don’t love us. Why do you love us?” She replied, “Because I’m a messenger from God for you.” This immediately made some of the tribesmen recall something their ancestors had told them: That at some time in the future, “Someone will come who will teach you about God.

The elder asked Mother Maria, “Are you the one?” to which she replied without hesitation, “Yes, I believe so.” 

As Mother Maria’s words were being translated into the tribal language, a tribesman asked, “Okay, but you are coming to visit us occasionally while, in the meantime, we are dying with our cattle without ever knowing the Truth. Will you therefore come and teach us the Truth?”

Mother Maria replied that if they were to give her a piece of land, she would “come and live with you, together with my brothers and sisters, and teach you about the true God.” The local chieftain agreed and later showed her the area of land where Mother could build the mission — at that time essentially in the bush, but now a small town called Gehandu which is quickly growing and is located some 50 miles from the central Tanzanian city of Singida.

Much work was to be done. When the religious sisters arrived, the local tribespeople had to walk 30 miles to obtain medical treatment. They had neither clean water nor electricity and food was scarce. So Mother Maria and her sisters quickly set about providing what they could, beginning with food and clothing. 

Since the 1990s the community has been striving to discover running water for the impoverished tribe, their children and cattle, and have drilled five boreholes but not succeeded in striking water.

But for 16 years, from November to May, they would regularly bring food for 8,000 people, and built a 180-acre farm, which to this day feeds up to 200 people. They also set about building a small clinic with 15 beds and a pharmacy, currently run by an able young medic called Godlove Gadiel Kiromari. 


The Situation Today

Mother Maria Stieren, who first came to Tanzania in 1959 as a Benedictine Missionary sister, died in 2008 at the age of 85 after a remarkable life in the service of the Lord.

Tanzanian Mothers of the Holy Cross Sister Maria Walburga, who was with Mother Maria at the beginning and now heads the Gehandu mission, told the Register that nearly half of the tribe (said to number around 20,000) are now baptized. The Gehandu area is now a peaceful place to live, and the people relatively polite and welcoming.

“When their children start going to the school and hearing the Gospel, it changes the culture but it’s slow,” she told the Register. “This is because all the paganism is still very close to them, so it is very difficult to convert them, they need time.” Some Protestants and evangelicals have also moved in and converted some of the tribe.

Sister Maria Walburga said food and clothing — their practical needs — were the first to be given and then Mother Maria “gently started to tell them about the Lord and slowly they came around.” She used to say humorously, “Friendship starts in the stomach” and “The mind and soul will keep the faith true when the stomach is at peace!” But the catechesis couldn’t be rushed, she said, because although some of them, including the chief, believed their ancestors’ prophecy, “others said, ‘No, this new teaching is against us.’”

The mission’s gatekeeper, Pascali Vitalis, is a member of Barabaig tribe and is now a Catholic. He told the Register that Mother Maria “really helped us to change from our paganist ways and become Christian.” She did this, he said, by first “helping me and my people by giving us beans and maize, and then she helped to build a school here.”

Vitalis said, “We live to remember her.”

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