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Overcoming 'Dependency' in the African Church

The Role of African Languages

Summary Paper to be Presented at World Mission Associates (UK) conference in Stratford, London, 14th April 2007.


By Jim Harries

It is widely understood that Western mission and missionaries have attacked ATR (African Traditional Religion). There is an assumed antagonism between Christianity and African traditional ways.

But, missionaries going to Africa often struggle to learn and understand the language of the people they are reaching in any detail. African languages are deeply rooted in things that Western missionaries do not understand. What the missionary says can therefore easily be misconstrued. It can easily be confusing to the local people that s/he is reaching. So what many missionaries have done is to tell the people to get on with the vernacular work of the church, and retreat into English.

Therefore we find that African people were and are running the churches. But the churches have two tiers:

Two Tiered African Church

The way in which the people translated their Scriptures of course incorporated words from their language that link with deep traditions. The system that traditionally maintained these systems, such as birth, marriage, funerals and so on, meanwhile was threatened and was falling apart. So what happened, was that these rituals, ceremonies, social events and so on moved into the church. Far from the church being the means of undermining people's traditions, it became a haven for traditions! Matters of birth, marriage, death, dealing with disasters like famines and sickness etc. moved increasingly into the church, the preserver of culture.

Bishop Crowther once said that in the course of his studies of Yoruba, in looking into the meaning of particular words, he would find himself digging more and more deeply into Yoruba traditions. The only way to understand the words, was to look at those traditions. You don't have to chop off your roots in order to reach others, he said. That is, the use of vernacular can be a vehicle for Christian orthodoxy. It can even be essential for orthodoxy.

Sanneh noticed that when we have Christian revivals, we also have cultural revivals. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the two go together. He expresses amazement that more people do not see this. Both of these of course occur at the same time as a revival of the vernacular. This is very different from Islam, that uses Arabic. According to Sanneh, a thriving indigenous culture results in a thriving African church. The reverse presumably also applies.

Tshehla considered the use of English in Africa. He realised that as long as he used English, he was always going to be a few steps behind. If we can't rise up and take pride in our languages, said Tshehla, then we will always be receivers of revelations from others.

Living in England and reaching African people using the English we know is fine. I discovered a few years ago (1994) when I visited a lot of African churches in London, that it is more difficult for African churches to reach the natives. To do that requires not only the language, but also a profound understanding of the associated culture in England.

Unfortunately 'colonialists' set us a poor example in this respect. They have not done this in Africa, preferring usually to continue functioning in their own language / culture even when in Africa. The internet and international communications media make it easier and easier to do this. To reach a foreign people requires a moving out of one's own 'traditions'.

Biblicism, says Sanneh, has helped to produce an indigenous church in Africa! How? Because Protestants advocated the Bible more than church traditions, the foundation of the church came to be rooted in this document that was subsequently translated into the many African languages. It is then assumed (at least officially) that insights gained through people's vernacular readings are as legitimate as those acquired when reading in English. This is very different from the Roman Catholic church, that teaches traditions along with the Bible, and certainly different from Islam. African Protestant Christians therefore have a great opportunity to have genuine indigenous churches!

Tshehla advocates that African languages be in the 'academy'. That is, in schools and universities in Africa. But many people ask, which African languages? That, it seems to me, is the responsibility of the African people to work out. Adopting someone else's language because you can't agree on which of yours to use is far from ideal.

Remember that language can be a prison. Every language can express only a certain range of meanings. Using other people's language restricts what we can say, or at least what we can communicate clearly to them. This is why artificial languages have not worked. Like Esperanto was to have been the new international language. But it just wasn't flexible enough. It never took off.

I now want to make five additional points that further underline, in my view, the urgency of use of African rather than European languages in the African church:

1. When an African comes to Europe, his/her impression of Europe will clearly depend on his experience in Africa. S/he will be struck by the differences with what s/he left behind and not with things that are the same. (If asked what Europe was like on returning to Africa someone won't say 'the people have hair' or 'people sing in church', as these are not different from Africa.) So someone from Europe will have a different view of Africa than will an African. If an African says European people are not sociable the European will not fully understand this because s/he only knows European ways of interacting socially. So neither will an African person clearly understand how a European understands Africa.

Then the best person to explain to African people what Europe is like, are Africans. And the best people to explain to Europeans what Africa is like, are Europeans. For a European to understand what an African is explaining about Europe, s/he first has to know Africa. For an African to understand what a European is saying about Africa, they first have to know Europe. This is a big problem.

2. Everything in one culture is understood differently from the way it is understood in another. This applies even if the language is the same. A native to that culture will realise this, and behave accordingly. So a native European knows that if he meets his friend walking busily in London, it is enough just to say 'hi'. African people know that it is good to hold the hands of your male (male to male) friend as you walk out of appreciation for him, but Europeans assume very different things if someone does that. 'Let's meet at 7.00pm' can mean 7.15pm or 7.30pm or 8.00pm etc. People who have grown up in the same community usually know which of these is meant. But it can take a very long time for a newcomer to learn all of these things (not only related to time but also to everything else) so as to be able to function effectively in an otherwise foreign community.

When people live between two cultures but use only one language it can be hard to know what is intended with a certain word / sentence / phrase etc. For example, in using English in England does 7.30pm mean 7.45pm or 8.00pm? Then what about in Zimbabwe? In practice, I suggest, it is healthiest to have distinct languages where there are distinct (and vastly different) cultures, to avoid confusion and the problems that having one language brings.

3. Cultures are not Pristine. When we travel to a foreign area, the people we go to will already have a pretty good idea of who we are and what we are like, on account of our fellow countrymen who have gone before us. So then, Whites have a reputation in Africa, and Blacks have a reputation in Europe. I think that Whites in Africa have a reputation of knowing a lot, and not being very open to learn from Africans.

One problem here though is that, when British people go to Africa, they very often find their language being used. If not English, then another European language. This makes British people think that they understand what is going on, because what they hear is familiar. When Europeans who visit Africa have a lot of money, then people appreciate them a great deal, but it can become more and more difficult for them to learn African ways, as they are kept busy doing the things that they can do with their money. The only way to prevent this, it seems to me, is for those of us in Africa to refuse to be 'bought'. But, I think this is very difficult.

4. English does not bring development, but dependence. I say this because I believe that 'development' happens when people understand something, then build on it. But 'development' is these days brought by a lot of people who 'don't' understand Africa. How can African things be clearly explained using English? I don't think they can. Imagine that in reverse, and people in London had to use the Tonga language to do all their business. Could they really do that? Tonga (I think) does even have words for English things. Neither does English have words for many Tonga things.

Different tribes within Africa have more similar cultures, than between European and African cultures. So I think there is a lot more potential for unifying African languages than for the use of European languages in Africa.

The other problem with the use of English of course, is that when you use it in public, it has to be acceptable to British and American people. This severely restricts what African people can write.

5. In fact, I think that use of vernacular (African) languages is a necessity for African churches and countries to 'develop' without their being over troubled by dependency. Too much education in English in Africa is not assisting people to live better in their own countries, but preparing them for ongoing unhealthy dependence on others.

AICs in Africa arise from vernacular understandings of the Gospel. African churches are not going through a conscious process of 'enculturation'. Rather, they are putting the Gospel and the Bible to work in their lives; from their language. Work is needed in those languages in order to refine this. Theological education in Africa should not be in English, even if other types of education are.


The future prosperity of Africa, inside or outside of the church, depends on getting away from English. English can of course be taught as a second language, but it is helpful not to use it as first language or to run African churches. It ought not to be the language of instruction.

No country has ever developed using a foreign language. (Singapore? Hong Kong?) The renewal of the church in Europe was associated with the decline in Latin. Latin wasn't as problematic then as international English is now, because it was a dead language, and therefore could be adjusted to fit every people and culture. If the English being appropriated by African countries is the same one that is alive and well in native English speaking countries like UK, USA and so on, then it cannot belong to Africa, or be astute in assisting Africa to solve its problems, inside or outside of the church. In so far as it is not the same, there will be continue to be real difficulties in international communication.


    2006. Language in Education Mission and Development in Africa)

    1995 Translating the Message: the missionary impact on culture New York: Orbis Books

    1998, After Babel. Aspects of Language and Translation. Third Edition Oxford: Oxford University Press

    2002 'Can Anything Good come out of Africa?': Reflections of a South African Mosotho Reader of the Bible' 15-24 In: Journal of African Christian Thought Vol. 5, No. 1 June 2002