When Christianity first came to Africa, it was often opposed.
The widespread acceptance of Christianity we find in Africa today can hide the fact that early on there was lots of hostility and resistance toward Christianity. One source of opposition was traditional authorities – chiefs and kings. Chiefs and kings are usually closely associated with traditional religion, so some conflict between them and missionaries was inevitable.
Over time, many chiefs and kings in Africa became more open to Christianity. But they were often attracted to translations of the Bible in their languages even before they were interested in Christianity. There are several reasons for this:
– Virtually all of the languages were unwritten and missionaries were the first to write them. Because this elevated the status of the language, Chiefs – custodians of the culture and language – found it interesting. They found themselves promoting this aspect of missionary endeavor.
– When missionaries engaged in literacy, it gave people a practical skill that elevated them. Many Chiefs promoted and gave their blessing.
– Chiefs often see the development of an alphabet and literacy as valuable development efforts that help their people cope with “modern” life.
In my experience, nowadays chiefs are almost always supportive of translation. With a little effort, many will even raise money for translation and literacy including giving from their own pockets, or they will encourage their people to read the translation.
One of the laudable aspects of modern missions has been to take the Gospel to remote places and peoples. Such peoples were often considered undeveloped or even “primitive”. We’ve mostly abandoned that conception, replacing it with the idea that such peoples are authentic or that they represent an ideal way of living. Under that conception, anything that changes their traditional way of life is inauthentic – a kind of degredation or cultural pollution.
Even missionaries get caught up in this idea. I saw it in Africa when missionaries loved the people and culture in the remote place where they lived and ministered, but they disliked the cities, sometimes considering them to be less than truly African. The real Africa, for them, was rural Africa supposedly little changed through time and contact with the outside world.
Some missionaries even considered educated Africans to be less than fully African. I even heard one once say directly to a highly educated African that he was not really African when he showed that he no longer believed the local traditions about camelions.
It is certainly true that not all outside influences bring helpful change to rural peoples. Some are very destructive. But we are called to minister to the people in front of us, not some idealized version of them.
When I lived in Kenya I once went to a missionary dentist who had a clinic. The dentist I saw was an American who was visiting on a short term missions trip. He had trouble with the glue used by the clinic because he had not used it before. He had to work hard to lean it off and then start over.
He was assisted by a Kenyan dental assistant who saw his struggles and said “Sorry.” The American dentist responded “It’s okay, it’s not your fault”. The Kenyan assistant was taken aback.
It was a classic case of misunderstanding. When Kenyans say sorry they mean it only as an expression of empathy, not as an admission of responsibility or guilt. The American dentist took it as an admission of responsibility. Furthermore, Kenyans say it all the time, even to mean “excuse me” if they have to squeeze by someone in a tight hallway, for instance. So the Kenyan assistant empathize with the dentist’s difficulty and wanted to express sympathy. Unfortunately, the miscommunication meant that the sympathy wasn’t acknowledged.
When I arrived in Burkina Faso in 1978 there was an ongoing effort to eradicate river blindness, a desease that left some villages with 30 percent of the adults blind and which affects the sight of 800,000 people worldwide. It infected the most fertile areas of that arid country which suffers from famines, causing people to move away from desperately needed farmland. It drove people away from rivers and the nessecary water they provide. The decades of effort and tens of millions of dollars spent fighting River Blindness had only modest success. River blindness persisted.
But William C. Campbell and Satoshi Ōmura discovered a drug for which they were awarded the 2015 Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine. This new drug radically lowered the incidence of River Blindness. Better, it also treated many other debilitating parasitic deseases which cause suffering in some of the world’s poorest communities. For a very small fraction of the cost of previous eradication efforts and a much higher success rate people could take this drug only once a year with few side effets and they would never go blind. It’s been rightly called a miracle drug.
People no longer feared living in areas with adequate water and where the ground could produce enough food. Better yet, people can use this drug to get rid of worms and other parasites in their farm animals, such as the donkeys which pull carts for those farmers too poor to own a truck which is almost all of them. The Nobel committee said that the drug “provided humankind with powerful new means to combat these debilitating diseases that affect hundreds of millions of people annually. The consequences in terms of improved human health and reduced suffering are immeasurable.”
It has been called one of the most important drugs ever discovered, along with penicillin and aspirin. It is estimated that humans have taken between 3 and 4 billions doses of it.
The wonder drug Campbell and Omura discovered, in a slightly different form, is Ivermectin – the drug being derogatorily called a “horse dewormer” in the US press because, on top of its many marvelous properties, it deworms horses too.
I have written several times that translation committees are key to the success of translation in Africa. Have good translators is also important, of course. A translation committee is a group of carefully selected volunteers from the language community who oversee the work of the translators including setting goals, raising funds, creating awareness and organizing the sale and distribution of the translation. How well the committee does its job can affect how well the translation is accepted and how widely it is distributed and read. If it does not work well, some churches might just refuse to use translation, sticking with English or a regional language.
Siwu committee with regional translation coordinator
The translation into the Siwu language in Ghana’s Volta Region had a very dynamic and well-known translator who raised a lot of awareness for the translation and promoted it. When he fell ill and passed away, the translation committee knew that it would have to pick up the slack. Michael Serchie, the regional translation coordinator (center front) helped the community update the committee and revitalize it.
Michael is serving translation programs in more than a dozen languages. But even his wise and dynamic leadership is not enough if the language communities themselves are not interested enough to get involved. Sometimes, it takes a dramatic turn of events to get things moving. Michael saw that was happening and jumped in.
Pray for the translation in Siwu, and for the committee that they would work hard to see it widely used and distributed.
The big religious question in the West is whether God exists. But that is not the issue in Africa. Everyone knows that God exists. An Akan proverb says that you do not need to show God to a child. By this proverb, the Akan people mean:
God is everywhere and we can know him through his creation which even children can see. Hence, even children don’t need anybody to point out that there is a creator (obooadee) who is the Supreme Being. This is a pervasive Akan world view that is so strongly held that it is the rare Akan who does not believe in God. Saying that even children do not need anybody to tell them that God exists suggests that it is foolish for an adult to claim He doesn’t.
But the belief in an almighty Supreme Being who created all we see is not the end of theological questions. Quite the contrary. Many African cultures believe that God has withdrawn. He is no longer directly involved with the world but is instead like an absentee landlord. The theological question of importance, then, is not whether God exists but rather whether he is to be invoked directly (the Christian teaching) or instead contacted through his agents who act on his behalf (traditional African teaching). God’s agents include various spirits and ancestors who are actually running things in God’s place, according to traditional beliefs.
The traditional teaching has a strong foothold. A Ghanaian friend told me that his uncle was an upstanding member of a prominent church, yet he also did traditional religious sacrifices. His uncle explained that he was covering all the bases just in case. His case is hardly unique.
Unintentionally, the missionaries who first translated the Bible into Akan reinforced the traditional view. Finding no plural for God, they invented one. The history of translation is littered with disasters where translators invented words where one supposedly did not exist. The invented plural “gods” in Akan is one such disaster. Had the translators used the plural for lesser divinities (abosom) Christians would probably have learned not to go to these lesser divinities instead of going directly to God.
In any case, defending the existence of God is useless in most of Africa because it is answering a question people don’t ask; wouldn’t even think to ask. It would be more faithful to the Bible to talk about the role, or lack of role, for God’s agents, a question we in the West don’t ask much.
Working in Abidjan in 2016
Back in June 2016 when we were living in Abidjan, there was a baby dedication at the church we were attending. The pastor announced the husband’s name and he came forward quickly followed by his wife and a nanny (or perhaps friend) with the baby. Without being called, a group of family members and friends also came to the front. There were about 20. They had dressed to the nines for the occasion. Some of the women had dresses made out of the same cloth. The mother was all decked out in a stunning African dress, large jewelry and a decoration in her hair (not really a hat, but something small). Her hair was all done up. It was obvious that this was a big event for the couple and for the whole family. Some had traveled to be at the dedication. The baby had been born on March 12, so it was three months old.
The pastor announced the name of the child and everyone applauded loudly and for quite a while. There were also cries of joy. Evidently, this was when the name of the baby was first announced.
Many West African cultures have formal events / ceremonies where new babies are presented to the family and community. In Ghana they are called “outdoorings” because the mother and baby stay inside without visitors until the outdooring. So it’s the first time the baby is brought outdoors where everyone lives. (In traditional society people don’t live in their houses, but rather outside.) So going outdoors is to become part of the community.
The baby dedication had many of the same elements as a traditional outdooring – a family event attracting family members from afar, a community event involving the families’ neighbors, announcing the name of the baby, a celebration worthy of dressing up, etc. My guess is that no one sat down and thought about how to incorporate elements of an outdooring into baby dedications. Instead, it just happened. I probably witnessed the result of spontaneous contextualization.
Contextualization gets a bad rap and sometimes it deserves it. But often it involves adapting outward forms into Christian practice without changing or undermining Christian belief. Sometimes it even helps. The fact that many family members come to baby dedications, probably makes them a good opportunity to share the gospel, for example.