Jim's Journal - July 2009
1. Early days back in Africa
2. Bugging me
3. Oppressive rule by foreign language
4. Explanation - a cultural time bomb?
5. Report on conferences and AVM
6. Report on children in my home
7. Field ministry in Western Kenya
8. Ministry with indigenous churches
Early days of a return to Africa, are always unique because recent experiences back in UK still loom large in the mind. Just a week ago [as I wrote this piece . . .] I was in UK with so and so doing x, y and z. Now in a new context, I can still mentally juxtapose one life with another, and imagine someone from 'there' (the West) being here, or from 'here' being there
Struggles in my heart bring the closeness in time of my return to Africa back to mind. Especially those concerning the clash-with-poverty. I am aware that I do not meet all expectations of what a white-Christian-man 'ought to be' according to the West. I opened the Scriptures in church today, and taught people about Jesus' great welcome in his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, that days later turned into shouts of 'crucify him, crucify him' . . . citizens of Jerusalem were disappointed with Jesus then for not 'helping' them. Is that the same as folk being disappointed with me here in Kenya or not?
"It would be impossible for me to ignore children like that" a colleague responded to me in UK one day, when I told him of the plight of some African children. "No it wouldn't" I responded "because you are ignoring them"! There we were supping coffee in a restaurant in a plush part of town, having driven there with his shining new car. Was he either "feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, inviting the stranger, clothing the naked, treating the sick or visiting those in prison" (Matthew 25:35-36)? Those people, who might have been so helped, were all far away
Some of my friends and colleagues were amazed when I described my response to 'poverty' in Africa. Now they are all far away. Yes, they had put £10.00 in the offering plate marked 'for Africa' - but they didn't have to look into the pleading eyes that have already stared at me innumerable times, even today; "give me . . . I am hungry . . . we need the money . . . that person is so sick . . . help . . . we are desperate . . . she is dying (and in a terrible hospital) . . . give me some sugar . . ."
I had £30.00 in my pocket. Any one of these people would have smiled and laughed and blessed me and beamed all over their faces had I handed over just £10.00. The people, in the church would have applauded, in the hospital would have smiled all over their faces, on the path would have laughed and jumped, the drunk on the road would have shaken my hand with glee, the old lady would have told me that I am wonderful.
But the other people, those I just left in the UK, Germany and USA, are not here. None of them are here. This community is entirely Black. Why? That's what my colleagues don't seem to realise. I am in an area being targeted by the Millennium Project. That means that massive amounts of money are already 'coming in'. It is not working. It cannot work (the way I think it is supposed to work). I have seen Whites from the West come and apply their idealism to Africa. It doesn't work for them. It didn't work for me. It won't work for me. It can't work. Money, in the end, doesn't solve these problems.
Idealists are like judges; sometimes. I have nothing against idealism. In some ways I am an idealist. I met many 'idealists' while in the West. They had clear ideas of how things should be done in Africa. I love those people. If you (the reader) are one of them - then I love you too! But . . .
Sometimes I feel judged. If someone from . . .the West saw me now . . . would they say "you are wrong . . ." because I don't fulfill their ideal of what I should be doing? I don't do things the way 'they' (in the West) want. But, their way doesn't work! Neither do I live the way people here would want me too - because I couldn't survive! (It is hard, if not impossible, to constantly hand out money, and also stay near to the people. Or to constantly hand out money and not to take a powerful position in this community, that local Africans do not want Whites to have.) Then what to do?
I am aware that I am an ambassador of the churches in the UK and Germany that send me. I am answerable to them, as they are answerable to God. I am answerable to God. But I am sorry - I cannot do just the things everyone wants and just the way they want them done. I also have my own failings and weaknesses. I ask your forgiveness in advance, as I have to adjust my Christian living to African Christian standards, although I cannot meet those either, and they are sometimes abhorrent to the West!
"Jim, be specific. Don't speak in riddles" I can hear someone saying. I wish it was so easy! Let's try: people in the West make assumptions arising from their own life experiences. That's hardly surprising - and surely not 'wrong'? But from there, they can't see what is here. Especially they don't see the witchcraft; the mysterious powers that shape and direct our lives here. The fears that these give to people. The way these affect the working out of relationships. The ways in which this causes poverty, and causes poverty to continue. The distrust and deception that this engenders . . .
Two tentative conclusions: 1. Please be slow to judge. 2. People do mission, but a lot of money not connected to people can cause many problems.
Unfortunately, I observe that it is not only me who can feel 'judged' by well-meaning donors. So can those of my African colleagues who become aware of the standards set for them; and how hard they are to keep. "Not to ask someone else to do what you haven't done yourself", is not a bad rule of thumb, I think? I love idealists. But it doesn't always look the same for those of us 'living here'. Is it time for Westerners to add realism to its idealism in relation to Africa?
Something has been bugging me for a time. I have not been sure how to say it. But here is an attempt.
The word deceive wuondo (Dholuo) danganya (Kiswahili)) is much used by people here. There is widespread acknowledgement that there is a lot of mutual deception going on between people. Deceiving someone else for your own advantage seems to be very normal behaviour. If people are not constantly deceiving each other, then at least they often talk as if they are!
People here are often trying to deceive me. I don't think that it is only me, but also other missionaries. This to the extent that it is impossible to believe a lot of things that people say until you see the outcome with your own eyes.
Included in the 'stories' I hear are accounts that include witchcraft. People turning into animals. Peoples' souls leaving their bodies and flying around at night. People killing each other using spells when they are jealous of each other, and so on.
Part of the basis of 'deceit', is the intention to please at all costs. People don't like saying 'no'. Instead they'll say 'yes', but then can be embarrassed, defeated, overstretched or misunderstood in their failure to keep their promise.
Some years ago, I read something of the history of Western philosophy. One pivotal philosopher was Emmanuel Kant from Germany. He reckoned that it was in people's interests to tell the truth. That is widely assumed today in the West, but because he said it then, maybe it wasn't assumed before that? (Some of the patriarchs in the Old Testament seemed to be quite good at 'deception'!)
African people did not have the benefit of Kant's tutelage in those days. He never went to Africa. He did of course make much use of the Bible!
'Cultures of deception' are very hard to break out of. If you are honest, well no one will believe you anyway! If you don't deceive to your own advantage - well then you don't get the advantage.
When I read things that African people write about themselves, they often concede that trying to deceive one another is an important and normal part of life. Some claim that this stops when people become Christians. I doubt if it can just 'stop'; especially as these days more and more people become Christians because they want money. (Pentecostal churches claim to be growing the fastest in Africa and they make no bones of the fact that they promise people they'll become wealthy. Westerners say the prosperity gospel is a deception!)
Deception and self-interest of course go together. Many people are very wise with their 'deception'. 'You don't bite the hand that feeds you, kind of thing. But deception also gets extremely complex. Whoever said lifestyles in Africa are 'simple'!?
This is one reason I say that translation between African and European discourse is impossible. How do you translate between a people who frequently and openly deceive, and those who try not to?
Constant deception is what makes life interesting in Africa when it is really relatively mundane in 'the West'. In this part of Africa, because one often doesn't know what is true and what is not, life is exciting!
The West seems to have been convinced that our problem in Africa is shortage of money. Or perhaps is it - the West feels guilty about having so much money, so wants to give some away? The West transfers its guilt onto us in Africa, and we agree because we want the money. Many acknowledge that the ability to trust what someone says is the basis of prosperous economies. Then why indeed is Africa known for its poverty?
Kant observed that if lies are acceptable then one can never make progress, as distinguishing lies from truth becomes impossible. There is no foolproof linguistic test for distinguishing a lie from truth here in the Africa that I know. Saying "it is really true" doesn't mean that "it really is true"! The truth of words can traditionally be confirmed somewhat by the slaughter of animals. But these days animal sacrifice is discouraged. One's relationship with the speaker is of course important.
It has proven extremely difficult to get an educational system off the ground in an African language. Where progress has been made it is usually by imitating European languages. Perhaps that is because one cannot distinguish truth from deception in African languages? "Use of African languages is full of roguery and deceit" a local school teacher told me recently.
I have heard many African people tell Westerners that deception is for them the order of the day. But it seems that Westerners don't want to listen, and keep on believing what they are told. Hey?? Who is being deceptive now?
'Hearts' are it seems what are important in life for African people. Truthfulness in relation to the material world is much more secondary to keeping one's heart in harmony with that of others. If one doesn't 'upset' someone's heart then actually one has done nothing wrong!
Therefore, people always have excellent intentions (heart orientations) but have difficulty matching those intentions with the 'real world' and all its problems and unpredictabilities. Hence the tendency to 'deceive' - to say one will do what one can't, and then to try to cover one's tracks by making out something is happening when in reality it isn't. Of course, such is really only a part of witchcraft beliefs - that are these days known to be wide-spread in Africa.
There is a sense, of course, in which people in Africa may deny the appropriateness of the description of 'deceitful' to them in English. Deceitfulness is no longer deceitful once it has become the 'norm'. Something that means one thing if said in Europe has a different meaning and impact if the same words are used in Africa.
Why do I share about this 'deceitfulness' in Jim's Journal? Because, I believe, that Westerners who are either unaware of it or ignore it in their relationships with Africa can cause a lot of harm. I am trying to save honest African people the embarrassment of having someone believe them, when it should be clear that what they are saying is not 'true' in the Western sense of 'true', at all.
Africa (well, at least Kenya) faces an enormous challenge in trying to rule itself using a foreign language. That is becoming clearer and clearer to me, and here are just a few of the reasons why:
Every people group or nation has things in common with other people groups or nations. But invariably they also have differences. So Germans have a variety of breads that England doesn't have. Finland has weather conditions that Greece does not have. India has customs that Japan does not have, and so on. Such differences are reflected in language-differences. German has words for bread that English doesn't have. Finnish has descriptions for snow that Greek doesn't have. India has terms to describe castes that the Japanese don't have, and so on.
What happens if a language is moved from one country to another? Clearly that language will have gaps related to differences between the lives of the different people. So if Finnish people had to use Greek they would not have words for favourite Finnish foods, the northern lights, icy roads, dark winters and so on. At least, even if the language is somewhere there in Greek; it won't be much used.
If a people or nation is forced to adopt a language that is not its own, the question arises over what to do with the 'gap' areas in the language? This includes - what to do with areas of the language that talk of what one does not have? Plus what to do about what one has that the language does not talk about? If left to take over a language, in reality a people will adapt the language to fit them! How they adapt it - just what terms are used and how, will have a profound effect on their people's understanding of important parts of their lives.
Coming back to Africa - if African country X were using English and if Xians were free to adapt English to their own uses, then clearly it would be twisted and mixed and bent to an Xian shape. But - and here is the problem - English is not controlled in X or by Xians. Xians are aware that if they Xise English, then it will no longer be useful for international communication with countries on whom they are dependent! Therefore they must keep their English as pure as possible, like that in UK or America. They must not mix in their own words or discuss their own peculiar issues! And here is the problem - if the same international language is then the one that is to be used to govern people to whom it does not 'fit'!
The more that Xians use such sanitized international English, the more they become incompetent in running their own affairs. So why do they use it? The answer is simple - subsidy. Western countries who 'own' English by various means provide lots of money when X uses English, which they wouldn't if it didn't. Hence international aid of all sorts subsidises incompetence. No way would X, or any other African country, be ruled by a European language - if it wasn't for such 'subsidy'!
This short piece does not pretend to cover all the ground that could be covered on this topic. It gives only one simple reason why it is disadvantageous for a country to use someone else's language, especially in a globalising world. There are many other reasons. Encouraging a country to rule its own affairs using someone else's language can be immoral.
Is there a veritable time-bomb ticking away under the surface of much of Africa today? Allow me to explain:
- African people have a way of life, often known as 'traditional', which guides what they do and how for much of the time - especially critical decisions.
- A way of life really needs some attention to enable it to adjust and move with the times.
- Much that is in the African way of life is necessarily ignored by discussion conducted in English, as English - discussion increasingly has to be the same as that in the UK (and USA) so as to be acceptable.
- Traditions that are different from those of Western people, instead of being intelligently allowed for, changed and adjusted for, are ignored.
- The traditions are ignored, but tick away under the surface like a time-bomb, that will frustrate ideals designed for Africa by people from ivory-towers in the West.
The final AVM conference was on 10th March at Cliff College in Derbyshire. It was a very valuable time. We very much appreciated the hospitality of the college. It was the only conference at which we had Africans (students at Cliff College) present. They seemed very appreciative of what we are doing in promoting vulnerable mission.
We are taking our theme forward in various ways. I am continuing to gather insights - especially articles, so as to send out links to them to a mailing list on a monthly basis. We are calling this the AVM Bulletin. Let me know if you want to subscribe, for free. We are considering ways to be involved in conferences that have been planned for 2010 to commemorate the centennial anniversary of the 1910 Edinburgh conference. I am writing articles and submitting them for publication. We are planning also to survey mission sending bodies, so as to find out which ones are most amenable to vulnerable mission, so that we can then advise potential missionaries who to go with in order to practice vulnerable mission. A number of people in Germany are engaged in the translation of vulnerable mission articles into German. I continue to look for a suitable publisher for my thesis, having been disappointed by Brill. We are also looking at the practicalities of publishing a collection of articles, many already in journals, in a compiled form in a book.
- Samson, aged 27, teaches locally, and is looking for his own accommodation.
- Christine, aged 11, is beginning to grow into a young woman.
- Okoth, aged 20, is a very mature lad, knuckling down to the hard job of study.
- Zachary, aged 13, is at the stage of wanting to be taller than he is . . .
- Okello, aged 20, completed secondary school and has left. His grade wasn't excellent.*
- Saul, aged 16, is still very lively in temperament, not always a positive feature . . .!
- Michael, aged 7, is rising fast in his reading prowess!
- Doreen, aged 19, is progressing through school but not always with her mind on it.
- Ouso, aged 10, really ought to learn to read and write . . .
- Michelle, aged 13 is maturing fast.
- Laura, aged 6, continues to be cheerful, but has quietened down a bit.
- Stella, aged 15, came in November. She is a determined girl, now enrolled in secondary.
- Esther, aged 25, has come to stay back following difficulties with her husband.
- Karen, aged 0.5, has come with her mother Esther.
* no longer living with me permanently. False names used throughout.
After many months of getting little news, it was excellent to have got back to Kenya on 22nd April and to find out what has been happening. At home I found that all are well. One lad died, who had stayed with me around 9 years ago and by now had his own family. I discovered that this was because he voluntarily discontinued taking drugs for TB - that he should have taken daily without fail for 6-12 months. It appears that an amount of £200.00 or so that I had paid as advance school fees for four of my children in secondary school was misappropriated in the system. I have taken this case to the District level. I am having to pay the money again.
The Bible teaching ministry in Siaya and Yala on the whole did not go very well. Very few classes were running in my absence. We have now started up again.
Thinking about the lack of progress in this rural Bible teaching, inspires me to do more and more to promote vulnerable mission! There are very real reasons for this slow progress - even after 16 years of running the programme. The 'reasons' are getting in many ways stronger as time goes by - with the rise of globalisation, perhaps especially the Millennium Project, the rise in formal tertiary education that we seem to be seeing and so on. All this is resulting in less and less room for initiative by Kenyans themselves, in addition to what seems to be a general rise in corruption, as foreign thinking becomes increasingly hegemonic, funded as it is by foreign subsidy.
The picture of Kima International School of Theology is affected by the above, in perhaps more complex ways. KIST students, it seems to me, are being drawn into seeing their education as a means of access to the West, instead of a preparation for pastoral ministry in the African context. Economically speaking, they may well be reading the signs correctly, as the African church becomes more and more intimately dependent on the West - even for basic matters. Major staffing changes are in prospect for KIST. All five Americans who are currently at KIST including the Principal, vice-Principal and school nurse, officially announced their resignation on Thursday 28th May. Four will leave in August, and the remaining one in December. We are looking for replacements.
One can hardly blame many African church leaders for turning their churches into so called 'modernising bodies'. It can seem as if indigenous structures creak and groan more and more, giving over more and more to alternatives that are controlled by foreigners. A Zimbabwe-style reaction to foreign hegemonies seems to be one future option. It can be hard to see how else the population could be released from the current dilemma. Indigenous institutions fall apart, and foreign ones continue because they are controlled and subsidised from the outside.
A couple of examples may illustrate the sometimes destructive hegemony of foreign institutions. Phones that operated using wires were largely under Kenyan control. This being corrupt, has helped foreign-controlled mobile phone systems to acquire a lion's share of the telecommunications market. What we are observing in my home area, now, are gangs of people illegally dismantling the remains of wire-based telephone systems so as to burn the cables, apparently so as to sell the copper!
The second example relates to AIDS. When African people were in control of their own community they had the power to prevent a lot of gross sexual abuse. The coming of the modern world has in various ways torn this control from their hands. Uncontrolled sexual promiscuity has resulted in burgeoning AIDS and other STDs. The response of outsiders is to subsidize the sale of condoms - that further promotes sexual freedom! The 'cure' is ARVs (Anti-Retro Viral drugs), provided free using enormous foreign subsidy. Such dependency on vile tasting (no doubt) drugs by people otherwise suffering from hunger (quite often), who anyway have little understanding of biological causation of disease, is difficult. Untold numbers are suffering the most miserable of deaths when they decide to discontinue drug use.
'So what is the solution' some may be asking in exasperation? Well- how about starting with some empathy and understanding. This can't be achieved by foreign-speakers bristling with outside money as fighter jets these days bristle with guided missiles! Is anyone prepared to see what this side looks like from the inside before being the 'expert' who provides the solutions from 'over there'?
That is - are any Westerners prepared to operate in Africa on African terms - using African resources and African languages to see how, if at all, anything could work? This is what we call 'vulnerable mission'.
Ministry with AICs (Indigenous Churches) in Africa, I find to be a great joy and a great frustration! A joy, because AICs are relatively little-inclined to seeing a white man as only a pot of money. A great frustration, because some of their practices seem to be so contrary to 'good Christian teaching'!
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of churches in Siaya. Yet the one at which I spend the night on most Mondays, is one that most missionaries wouldn't touch with a barge-pole! Why the barge-pole - because they have wrong teaching about Jesus. Why do I stay with them - because they seem to be the only church I can stay at without being pulled into traps to get money out of me. Or at which I can stay without causing jealous infighting by those who could be convinced that I am splashing out money and privileges.
Amongst the difficulties with AICs is that they seem to be able to take the 'spirit of witchcraft' and (at times) rename it the 'Holy Spirit'. Thus their basically Christian practice can be interspersed with things that make your blood run cold! My response is to say - let's try and draw near and share from the Scripture. Just how to do that effectively without foreign money and resources that themselves generally render teaching ineffective - remains a challenge.