Family teachs Africans to farm — with fish!
The Murnyaks, with Twin Cities roots, live and work in Tanzania
Meredith Murnyak and her missionary family have returned to Tanzania. She and her husband, Dennis, have worked for 16 years in the East African nation under the auspices of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Last year the Murn-yak family lived at their home in Maple Lake, Minnesota. Sons Chris and Jesse went to school in Buffalo, Minnesota. The family’s church membership is at Zion Lutheran Church there.
It was a kind of homecoming when Meredith came back to Minnesota in July 1999 for a study leave. She grew up in Bloomington, where her family attended Portland Avenue United Methodist Church.
The Murnyaks came back “to reconnect with our U.S. family during a transition period, to give our two children the chance to experience a bit of American life and school, and to take advantage of some study opportunities,” Marilyn said.
Before that study could get underway during Meredith’s first week in Minnesota, cancer was discovered on a routine mammogram. She underwent chemotherapy and radiation for six months, and said recently, “I am feeling almost like my old self again. I just had my first post-treatment checkups, and things look good.”
The Murnyaks arrived in Tanzania in 1983 with the goal of developing aquaculture, fish farming, under the auspices of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania’s Arusha Diocese and the ELCA’s Division for Global Mission.
Meredith said, “At first only a few farmers were willing to take some of their valuable farm land out of production and convert it into a pond, and attempt to raise an unproved new crop — fish! Yet those who did were successful, and gradually other farmers got interested and the idea began to spread.”
Today, 18 years later, more than 4,000 new fish ponds have been built by farmers throughout the country, and about 400 volunteer “motivators” have been trained to teach and promote fish farming in their communities and villages.
Meredith’s sense of vocation was shaped by her time at St. Olaf College, where she earned a Bachelor of Science degree in biology and Asian studies. The semesters she spent in Thailand and Costa Rica “sparked an interest in working overseas,” she said.
And, she was influenced by Professor John Maakestad, who prompted her to think about spending some time at Holden Village, and to make her spiritual life a priority. She began to consider her Christian calling in the context of food production and an imperative to help feed the world.
Meredith completed a graduate degree in marine biology at the University of Puerto Rico and honed her specialization, aquaculture, at the New Alchemy Institute in Woods Hold, Massachusetts. She spent a year at Holden Village constructing a demonstration project to show how trout could be effectively grown in a small pond there.
For three years Meredith coordinated an aquaculture project for Wright County Community Action, based in Waverly, Minnesota. The project was designed to develop food-fish production techniques in Minnesota farm ponds. She guided the design and construction of fish ponds, did the economic analysis and market research, and helped farmers stock, raise and harvest catfish, sunfish and trout.
Meredith married the man who came to Waverly from graduate study at New Jersey’s Rutgers University to work as a summer intern. Together, Dennis and Meredith made decisions about their future work and their calling, ultimately, to serve as ELCA missionaries specializing in aquaculture.
Of her work in Africa, Marilyn explained, “When traditional methods of fishing are not working, sometimes it pays to try a new approach. This was true for the disciples in the familiar story when, after fishing all night with no luck, they netted a large catch of fish by casting their net ‘on the other side of the boat.’
“Today, farmers in Tanzania have also been willing to try a new approach, and have been filling their nets with these same St. Peter’s fish, also known as tilapia. However, they are not casting their nets into lakes, but into small fish ponds they have built on their own farmland.”
Originally the Murnyaks did much of their work on foot, traveling to a few villages around the area where they were based. They explained fish farming to people and encouraged their attempts. The couple advised the villagers in each new step: how to build a pond, plant fingerlings (starter stock), feed and care for the fish, and harvest them.
The project, funded by the ELCA Hunger Program, fo-cused on using extension techniques to introduce the idea of fish farming to people within a rather small area, the Babati District in northern Tanzania.
The objectives were to improve year-round the nutrition of families, increase income by raising small-farm profitability through fish farming, provide families with greater food security with a reserve food crop of fish in times of drought or crop failure, and promote sustainable and ecologically-sound integrated aqua/agricultural practices.
Beginning in 1993, the new Integrated Training Center of the Arusha Diocese greatly enhanced the training component of the Fish Farming Project, Meredith said. Late in 1998, the center was formally opened by Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa. The center promotes good stewardship of the land, water and soil resources within Tanzania. In addition to fish farming, the center emphasizes sustainable agriculture practices in small animal husbandry, dairy cattle production, horticulture and agri-forestry.
In recent years, while raising two young boys, the missionary couple’s duties have diverged somewhat. Meredith has worked steadily in the programmatic areas of several projects within the Arusha Diocese. She assumed the burden of writing that accompanies every scientific project, prepared extension booklets and a project newsletter, organized reference and resource materials, and assisted with arrangements and orientation for volunteers and project visitors.
The return visit to Minnesota brought some changes and challenges into the Murnyaks’ lives. Meredith said, “Wehad a good year in the U.S.A. and had many wonderful opportunities. We spent lots more time with family and friends here than we have been able to in years. We experienced the awesome beauty of the four seasons and reconnected with our home congregation in a meaningful way. Our boys were able to see what it’s like to be in American schools and society, and I was able to take several workshops and courses this spring. And of course, I had time for the treatments and healing from cancer.”
Returning to Tanzania last June, the Murnyaks took up new responsibilities in the country’s capital and largest city, Dar es Salaam. Dennis works with Heifer Project International, setting up a fish farming component for that organization’s programs in Tanzania. He also works with integrated agriculture and farmer training and evaluation on a national level.
The Murnyaks continue in official missionary service to the ELCA through Heifer Project.
Hafften is communication director for the Minneapolis Area Synod, ELCA. She lives in Chisago City, Minnesota.