Jim's Journal. November 2009
Byte Sized Observations on Mission in Africa
Can I be one of the first - and wish you a happy Christmas and blessed new year!
This journal is divided into two. Most of it is taken up with 'byte sized' observations to encourage thinking and change in mission practice from the West to Africa. There are some news items at the end.
I hope you enjoy your read.
I have discovered that many (most? all?) African women like having children and raising families. This seems to be unlike some Western women? Do we really have to cover our shame in the West by telling African women that they shouldn't be so selfless?
There is an issue of single women still to be resolved. How many single women around the world are very content in their position, I sometimes ask myself? African men are allowed to have more than one wife, to ensure that women don't remain single. Western singles are told to get careers. Neither solution is perfect.
2. Learn from them
Western scholars want to learn from the Third World. They don't understand the Third World very well. They want to read things that make sense to them. There seems to be a little internal inconsistency in this somewhere!
May be Western scholars need to take the time to learn to understand what doesn't make sense to them? Or they should stop pretending that they want to 'learn from them'? I can't see how Westerners can understand what is said here in East Africa - as they are unfamiliar with the context needed to understand it.
Some people from the West consider it appropriate to live and work in Africa, without mentioning, or certainly without advocating, faith in Jesus Christ.
Surely this is deceptive? Biblical faith/Christianity has had an enormously deep and profound impact on who the West is. Not to share Jesus with people is like teaching people to cook without telling them to light the stove. It is unjust. Secularists coming to Africa should preach the name of Jesus, if they are going to be honest, as it is he who has made them who they are today.
4. Helping Servants
Jesus gave an example as a servant. Missionaries from the West go to Africa to be servants.
This isn't always easy:
(1) When you have control of money, it isn't easy to be a servant. It is much easier to acquire servants.
(2) Whites and Westerners can be perceived as akin to gods. The last thing many Africans expect them to carryout, are any menial tasks.
(3) If you have money it is very tempting to buy better machines etc. to work with. Why waste time working all day with an old worn out-of-date tool, when with a new or better tool one can be finished in an hour!
But perhaps the biggest issue is number 4 below:
(4) Western society has made major efforts and major advances at knowing how to do work efficiently ... so 'we' do many things on the basis of 'efficiency' without even thinking about it. This doesn't apply in much of Africa. If a Westerner is asked to 'serve', then either they get crazily frustrated by having to do things the difficult way, or (more likely) they take over the programme, and want to do, and want everyone else to do, things their way.
It is, it seems to me, simply not easy to be a 'servant' as a Westerner in Africa.
P.S. I am not sharing all these issues as a way of griping. Rather - to emphasise the complexity of the task, so as to indicate the importance of Vulnerable Mission!
I asked a school boy what 'taboos' were. "They are things that our forefathers used to believe in long ago" he said. "They are irrelevant today" he implied.
"If you die suddenly, where will you be buried" I asked him. He knew where. "When you go to build your last house, where will you build it?" I asked him. He knew just where. "When you want to marry, will you pay dowry?" I asked him. "Yes, of course", he responded. "Well, then - aren't you going to follow the taboos?" I asked. "Well, yes" he said!
Young men tend to think they are not subject to taboos. It is only when they get older that they realise how hemmed in they are by numerous customary laws. The same young men often talk to Westerners, telling the latter that there aren't any taboos these days.
Things that old men do aren't always things that are 'dying out'. They may well be things that the younger men will start doing when they get older.
6. They are all Devils!
How would you feel told that: "Shakespeare is a demon . . ." "Queen Victoria is a devil . . ." "King Alfred is an evil spirit . . ." "The Venerable Bede is Satan . . ." "Your late grandfather is a demon . . ." "Isaac Newton is the devil . . ." "Einstein is a ghost who haunts people . . ." "The Queen Mother is an evil spirit . . ."
That gives some idea of the cosmology of parts of modern-day Africa. African people used to appreciate some ancestors, and live in dread of others. Christians have come along, and told them that they are all demons! Many today believe that.
The story is actually a bit more complex than that. Western Christians don't say that African ancestors are demons so much, but they say that the spirits that are around are not actually ancestors come back, but they are demons. Africans who listen perceive that their ancestors are understood as being demons. A few resist this conclusion, but most seem to accept it.
Thus not only do Africans not have a history since before the coming of the white man there was no writing. But also - those who took part in oral history as known are considered to be devils. Hence, as I have suggested before, in this sense no one in Africa is good or does good. The only good people are Whites?! Mind you, do Whites hold out respect for their pre-Christian ancestors?
7. Funds going for Free!
Years ago when I was in Zambia, missionaries used to be the channel for funds for their various projects. Local people wanted funds to continue when they left. The missionaries would tell them that was impossible. When the missionary left, the funds dried up.
I guess they were wrong! International bodies nowadays provide funds to Africa even with no Western personnel on the ground. This sets up a very complex dynamic, in which African people strive and stretch themselves to give the appearance of being 'Western' to the outside in values, language and behaviour, because this is the best way to keep the funds flowing. Once set up, projects and programmes can continue regardless of whether they are 'working' or 'helpful' or not, because it is in no one's interests to negatively evaluate a project. Everyone tries their very best to make out a project is a 'success', despite all its creaks, crashes and groans.
I suggest that this is irresponsible use of money. People and organisations who indiscriminately send money to the Third World should be held accountable. That means, having a Westerner on the ground. That requires the Westerner to learn local languages and contexts. The latter is almost impossible if a Westerner is known to be the controller of purse-strings. So if you can't be sensible in interfering in someone else's business through your purse-strings, maybe it is better to stop donoring.
The secular bodies aren't about to 'leave, because they are playing political games on the international level. Christian organisations however should not be. If they do, then they will weaken the church, as the above antics are weakening Third World governments and people. As a rule of thumb - please don't send money, except to someone from the West who is on the ground in Africa. Even better - let's do God's work as it used to be done, through vulnerable people with a message of eternal life, and not through money.
The current spread of Western education in Africa, at least Kenya, is worrying. What the universities are dishing out, is not local Kenyan wisdom, but second-hand ideas from the UK and USA that really 'don't work here', unless someone is being paid from overseas to work for an international organisation. This means dependency and corruption big time.
Anyone these days who is trying to provide a 'contextualised education' in Africa, can be laughed out of town. Life is so heavily loaded in favour of living off the international sector, that fewer and fewer people with any sense or money are interested professionally in 'helping their own people', except in ways advocated and paid for by foreign experts!
I appreciate that this may be hard for some of my readers to follow. We are used to thinking that 'education must be good'. But, is it always 'good' if someone spends years learning to ignore their context and act as if they are in America? There is certainly some truth in saying that - the West is responsible for corruption, dependence, and poverty in Africa. Will donors be called to account?
9. Race and Ethnicity
Powerful people's insisting on their own ways of life can be problematic for the less-powerful. Perhaps this includes even race issues?
Western people are uncomfortable with notions of their own superiority. They want to know that immigrants into their own lands are 'equal' to them. Many types of practices and legislation are oriented to achieving this. "Yes they can be like us" is the success cry of the anti-race movement in the UK, and elsewhere, often failing to see how biased such a cry actually is. Success for Africa immigrants is defined as being - to become like native Westerners.
In order to achieve such appearance of 'equality', major expenditures are made on concealing differences. Sometimes this can take the form of positive discrimination, different coloured faces appearing in illustrations to books and magazines, and so on. The Western person is taken as 'normal', and efforts are made to prove that others aren't different.
This could be great if the whole world was the West. There is a problem though. Those of us not in the West are still receiving the media and promotion from the West. Africans are being told "you are not different, you are like this, you are like that, etc.", even if this is untrue. Because they "are" like that, there is not even any need for them to change to "become like that". There is little room for manoeuvre; little prospect for advance; much pretence.
The above paragraphs represent a small incursion into a large and sensitive area. I am concerned because the West's looking after its own can, in the globalised world, be creating havoc 'out here' in Africa.
10. What Happens
African people have a way in which they do things. They also have a language(s) in which they explain what they do.
When African children go to school, they are taught to use English as English people use it. This is not the way that they would use English. It is not the way they use their own languages. But it is a way that they have been told that English should be used.
Having learned this for 12 years (full-time!) in formal schooling, someone comes and asks them "how do you do this"? Suddenly they have a dilemma. Forget what they've learned for all those years and tell the truth, or tell what they spent those years having drummed into them? Perhaps in reality - they are bound to express a mixture of both.
This is a source of considerable confusion in Africa. It makes it very hard to know what someone is meaning by what they say.
11. The Puzzle
At times I seem to be tearing my hair out (figuratively speaking), over one mega issue! I find it a big and important issue. Some other missionaries and mission leaders are ignoring it; it seems, while chuckling under their breath at my efforts!
It is to do with language. More and more Westerners are enjoying the communication channels opened by the internet and other new media that, coupled with the wide-spread of English in Africa, now enables them to communicate directly with Africans.
For these people, there is no need to have a missionary 'on the ground' anymore. By transferring funds through the international banking network, using the internet and perhaps phone - present day followers of the Apostle Paul do it all from their office in the West! Those who do travel use the same language and can be carefully received to make sure they don't get upset by the truth.
Please pray for effective communication of the major problems the above approach is causing for the church, and African communities at large. Please pray that there will be those who listen.
12. The Power of Jealousy and Witchcraft
KIST students observed years ago that whenever I preached the topic was always witchcraft. They may be right. When I think through the issues we face here in Africa .... I come up against witchcraft as being our underlying problem. So when I want to present a relevant message to African scholars at KIST, it is witchcraft that I often end up tackling.
The way out of witchcraft, is knowledge of and faith in God. That is - the God of the Jesus who we see in the Old Testament, and Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. Oh for people to know God and his character! One of the issues in language today, is the collapsing of the gap between the character of the Biblical god and God (god) in Africa. People seem to think that just because Africans can say 'god' in English, they understand God as the English do!
Many people may not realise, that the root of witchcraft (at least one very big root) is jealousy (envy). Jealousy for worldly things is of course to do with godlessness - as deep faith in God takes away worldly lusts. But the West, including Western missionaries, have a problem here. Instead of encouraging them to be content with what they have, we are always saying "you need this, and that, and that, and you must have the other" i.e. education, medicines, computers, vehicles, houses, clothes, deodorant, and you name it!
How is jealousy the root of witchcraft? The witch who one fears is the one who is jealous of what one has! So witchcraft arises from by-passing of the 10th commandment - "covet not". Missionaries advocating this and that and the other, that people need can add to witchcraft. It is time we had some missionaries who will counter it.
13. An Open Letter
Dear Prospective Missionary,
You are about to launch into ministry in Africa. You have a good case to make to your supporters and would-be supporters in the West.
It could be that you will provide a service that people desperately need, and you can show how much less of that service is available in Africa as against in the West.
Or perhaps you are going to fulfil some appeal by a Bishop, community or other African leader - and the fact that an African leader has asked for it shows that it is important.
Maybe you can do both of the above, and you have a faultless argument - like that the African church needs education for its pastors.
I would like to ask you to question: will people still want what you have to offer if they do not get money as part of the service? If the answer is yes, then I suggest that you facilitate whatever it is without investing foreign money in it as well. Foreign money after all leads to dependency. If the answer is no, then do they really want it in the first place?
How to find out? You have to try it out. People will not stare a gift horse in the mouth. Money is hard (or even impossible) to refuse. The way to find out if people really want what you have to offer is to offer it without hidden (or unhidden) subsidies going with it. If you do this, then of course you are promoting something people will be able to understand, and do for themselves - which is anyway better than promoting dependency.
Greetings to the Saints,
14. The Question of Corruption
Few deny that African countries are corrupt. But no one's African friend is a corrupt person.
It sometimes seems that way. That is remarkable. Perhaps some think that the church is exempt from corruption? I wish it was! I find it isn't. I agree that God is not corrupt, but people in churches are strongly affected by the society around them.
Yes, some church members and some church leaders in Africa are corrupt. Although as I said above - most Westerners are sure that their particular African friend isn't one of them.
Then there are also 'corrupt systems'. To operate in a corrupt system, or even to survive in a corrupt system, or certainly to get on in a corrupt system - one has to be corrupt! In this sense, all African Christians and church leaders are 'corrupt'.
What can help? I can't explain it all here. Of course it is - having an overriding faith in God. Also it is seeing an example of people who trust and genuinely care for each other - there is a challenge for missionaries!
Some people like to try to work in Africa as if there is no corruption. Then when they hit the corruption they either shout or complain, run away, stop what they are doing - or try to ignore it. Those can't be the best ways to work. People interacting with Africa need to have worked out how to work helpfully with those who are in corrupt communities.
I have intentionally not defined corruption. Sometimes what we perceive as corruption - is what others do that is different from 'us'.
15. Non-Western Mission
The Evangelical Missiological Society in the USA last year looked at Third World mission agencies in its conferences. I did not dare to submit a paper!
There seems to be a large body of well-meaning Western Christians who are very keen for there to be mission happening from new churches in the global south. As a result, they are very keen on funding any indigenous mission initiatives they find.
Ah, but there is a problem. If it is true that if or when a person from the poor south sets up an indigenous mission agency, they can easily get funding from the West; especially if they put it onto the web. So then - why not set up mission agencies (on paper at least), and put them onto the web? That can make some money!
Indigenous 'mission' in my home area, would be different from that of Westerners. It would be (simplifying I guess) - sharing that one had (that Jesus has) power to remove demons. Mission agencies would be family affairs, seeking to benefit ones extended family or tribe. The kind of mission we do here isn't easily compatible with the Western style of mission agencies or initiatives.
Funding 'indigenous' mission efforts of course has the added problem - of making them not really truly indigenous ...! Mission agencies can be a bit like some orphanages have been in Africa - set up as money making ventures. There may not be any orphans, or many missionaries. But please - fellow Westerner - don't try to go and 'prove it'. That only shows you don't trust someone, and how can you work with them anyway in Christian ministry if you don't trust them?
Perhaps the best thing Westerners can do with non-Western mission initiatives is not interfere. Meanwhile though - we do need to get our own act together!
Rev. Clive Burnard (Minister of Andover Baptist Church) and Ian Burnham (Church staff-worker) visited me here in Kenya from 1st to 7th September 2009. Thank you to all who sent them and allowed them to come. Thanks to Clive and Ian for being an encouragement and much of a listening ear.
After 2 days at a retreat centre, I gave Clive and Ian a tour of Kima International School of Theology(KIST). They weren't sure whether to believe me when I showed them my office. It had 'Jacob Otieno' written on the door. They hadn't known that was my African name!
Spending 4 nights at my home and in Siaya was perhaps the biggest eye-opener for them. It was very helpful for me to hear their comments on things. I have been here so long, I often no long perceive things as they did. They left me with a lot of helpful challenges to think about. Especially challenging - was ways of considering more spiritual ministry.
See a preliminary report on their visit.
Yala Theological Centre/Siaya Theological Centre
One YTC teacher resigned in June. The reason for his resignation was good - he had been offered a position training for the Anglican ministry. At the moment we have only four classes running in Yala - of which I teach one. Our clerk has resigned. She is to do teacher training. We seem to be hobbling a bit - but are carrying on! We anticipate the help of an internship student in January/February 2010.
I remain the only teacher at two classes in STC, both about four miles from Siaya itself. One of these in a very strong class - often with 5 or more students, all of whom are active in church leadership.
The last member of the American 'team' we have had at KIST for a number of years is to leave in March. An older couple are holding the reigns as interim Principal until July 2010. We are hoping to have three or four new couples arrive over the next 6 - 8 months, the first may come as early as February 2010. Although student numbers are down again on previous years; we have opened and are running! I am planning to have no less than seven outside speakers on the course that I am teaching on Bible and Missions. Hopefully that'll help us get a grasp of what is an African approach to mission.
UK/USA Tour Planned
An opportunity to advocate the benefits of Vulnerable Mission, using the languages and resources of the people being reached, should arise in late 2010. I have invitations to spend up to a week at various Bible/Missionary training institutions in the USA and UK. Please begin praying for those times, and my and their preparation for them. Final decision on whether to do the trip to be made shortly.