Archive for the ‘Africa’ Category

Onesimus Online

Thursday 21 January 2010

I have a new favourite blog to follow: Onesimus Online, written by William Black, a lecturer at Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology.

William is originally from North America, but is a strong critic of the arrogance of western theologians in assuming that Europe and North America has all the answers about God. Here’s a great explanation from a recent post about why a western perspective of the Bible isn’t sufficient for Africa

So thorough is the westernization of my African students that they don’t seem to notice that all of their education, all of their theology, all of their assumptions, can be traced to the efforts of well-meaning western missionaries. These missionaries came (and sometimes still come) with an assumed posture of superiority, namely that they are here to ‘help’ these Africans escape their darkness and get saved like us. Salvation too often means getting Africans to accept that our problems are their problems and that our solutions must be their solutions. For example, most Western missionaries assume that Christ has come to save us from our legal problem before a holy God; namely, that our sin makes us guilty before God and deserving of his condemnation and wrath. Christ resolves our problem by becoming our sin on the cross, bearing our punishment and thus freeing us from the penalty of the law. We are no longer under condemnation, but are accepted into fellowship with God, with the end result that we will go to heaven and not to hell.

This is standard fare for Western Evangelicals and their predecessors. And while a solid case may be made from the New Testament that this is indeed an aspect of our salvation, our polemical stance against the perceived ‘works righteousness’ of Roman Catholics has meant that this becomes increasingly, by over-emphasis, the only aspect of our salvation, or certainly the most important, and certainly what is preached from Sunday to Sunday.

The problem is that Africans on their own don’t perceive that their main problem before God is their compromised legal status. So in order to get them to understand ‘the gospel’ – or at least our Western understanding of the gospel – we missionaries must first teach them about God’s law and what sin is and what Christ has done to satisfy God’s law. Once they understand these things, then they are in a position to ‘accept Christ as their personal Savior’ and be forgiven. To this end, evangelists urge congregations to respond to the ‘free’ grace of God in Christ so that their sins may be forgiven and they be reconciled to God.

Again, this sounds so normal to our Western Evangelical ears that we may be immediately suspicious of anyone that seems to have a problem with it. But as mentioned above, most of my African friends don’t first and foremost worry about their legal standing before God. Rather, they are far more concerned about demons which seem to afflict every aspect of their lives, they are concerned about people who manipulate spiritual power for good and ill in other people’s lives, they are concerned about sicknesses and barrenness, for which there seems to be no cure, they are concerned about capricious weather that makes their crops fail and their cattle die and causes them to go hungry, and they are concerned about death. The tremendous irony that I observe is that our Western gospel has come full force into Kenya (and many other African countries) through the ministries of thousands of Western missionaries, resulting in the majority of people here and in a number of other countries professing faith in Christ and testifying to having been born again. And yet this gospel does not touch those aspects of their lives that reflect their deepest needs and most profound concerns. read more

I’m looking forward to keeping up with William’s posts as he critiques western theology and hints at alternative African perspectives.The church in Europe and North America can tend to be extremely mono-cultural in its judgement of what is and isn’t a correct reading of scripture, so it’s good to look outside of our little box occasionally to get a better perspective.


Google Translate: Swahili… bado kidogo

Thursday 27 August 2009

In the last couple of days Google has added Swahili to the list of languages supported by its Translate service. On one hand I’m very happy to see this addition as I think it has the potential to be a big step forward for development in east Africa. However, from first impressions the service still has a long way to go.

One of the main problems for Google is that Swahili is an agglutinative language – meaning that it puts morphemes (grammatical parts of words) together to form longer words. So it can be difficult for a machine to know where the morphemes (parts of the word carrying meaning) begin and end.

Here are some very simple examples that I tried putting into Google:

Swahili Morphemes English Google Translate
kupika ku-pika to cook cooking
ninapika ni-na-pika I am cooking I cooked
nilipika ni-li-pika I cooked I cooked
nitapika ni-ta-pika I will cook I cooked
sijapika si-ja-pika I have not cooked I cooked
apike a-pik-e let him cook apike
umepika u-me-pika you have cooked has cooked
tutapika tu-ta-pika we will cook we cooked
watakapopika wa-taka-po-pika when they will cook will kakopika
mlipokuwa mnapika m-li-po-kuwa m-na-pika when you (pl) were cooking as they were cooked
ikipikwa nasi i-ki-pik(w)a na-si if it is cooked by us it be boiled us
bado kidogo bado ki-dogo not quite yet still little

To be fair, from what I’ve seen the translations of single words isn’t bad at all. Where it falls down is in the grammar – translating Swahili past, present, future and negative-perfect tenses all to English past!

Going the other way, here a few English examples I tried:

English Swahili Google Translate English back-translation
many people watu wengi watu wengi many people
many trees miti mingi miti mingi many trees
many elephants tembo wengi wengi tembo many elephants
many cars magari mengi wengi magari many cars
I am cooking ninapika I am kupikia “I am” to cook with
I cooked nilipika mimi kupikwa I to be cooked
To be fair, from what I’ve seen the translations of single words isn’t bad at all. Kwa kweli, kutokana na yale ambayo nimeyaona, utafsiri wa maneno ya pekee siyo mbaya Kuwa na haki, kutokana na yale I’ve amemwona zote maneno ya wimbo sio mbaya wakati wote. In truth, coming from what “I’ve” he has seen all
words of song not bad all the time

At this point it looks to be a decent dictionary (although with nothing like the depth of the excellent Kamusi Project), and actually does ok with set phrases. However once you get past the set phrases that it knows it seems unable to understand the relatively simple grammar and come up with a meaningful translation.

This is obviously a work in progress, as the “Contribute a better translation” option shows. It would be interesting to know whether Google takes these user contributed translations and tries to work out how the grammars and structures of the languages compare, or whether it simply remembers the set translation in case anyone enters the exact same phrase again. The first would be fascinating to investigate, whereas I fear the second would be like trying to empty the ocean with a teaspoon.

Web 2.0 and Accountability

Saturday 18 April 2009

I was fascinated to read this perspective from Alanna at Blood and Milk of how the internet and Web 2.0 changes the way NGO’s relate to communities they work with.

In our interconnected world, you can’t hide from the communities you work with. That’s a good thing. It’s much easier to treat people with respect when you know that they’re watching you. Transparency is part of accountability, whether or not that transparency is voluntary. I think that’s part of development 2.0. We’re not just going somewhere and learning the local situation so we can do our work; they are looking right back at us, and they’ve got the tools to disseminate their views. read more

I think one of the reasons Web 2.0 is so important in an international development context is that it increases transparency. It is very difficult to talk condescendingly about “going to help the poor people” when you know that they are able to hear every word you’re saying.

For a long time development work has been presented from the perspective of the rich man generously giving of his time and money to help the poor man. This fits nicely with the ethnocentric worldview of the west, and so is a profitable marketing strategy to raise funds and recruits.

But it’s not the truth. True development is certainly not about rich people going and doing favours for poor people. It’s about rich and poor humbly working together in partnership – both genuinely accountable to each other, with the local community taking ultimate responsibility.

Thanks to increasing internet access through computers and mobile phones, information coming from NGO’s in the 21st Century has the potential to be read by anyone in the world. If an NGO wants to continue partnering with a local community, they must make sure that their communications reflect the reality of the situation rather than merely playing along to the narrative that the donors want to hear.

There has long been accountability between NGO’s and major donors. Now the open flow of information made possible by the internet brings all partners to the same table, and ensures the NGO is accountable not just to those with money, but much more importantly to the communities they are serving.

Stealth wars: It’s time we opened our eyes

Tuesday 10 February 2009

Gaza, Iraq, Afghanistan… almost every day we hear about conflict somewhere. But how much do we really know about the wars happening in the world? We may be well aware of the violence that happens in Gaza City, Baghdad and Helmand Province, but do we know about the conflict that takes place every day in the DRC, or the continuing tensions in southern Sudan or northern Nigeria?

Virgil Hawkins at Stealth Conflicts makes some startling observations:

There is a newsroom truism in the USA that “one dead fireman in Brooklyn is worth five English bobbies, who are worth 50 Arabs, who are worth 500 Africans”. Sounds pretty bad. But the reality is much much worse. For a start, from the perspective of the news media in the West, 500 Africans have nowhere near that kind of value. The death toll from conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is literally one thousand times greater than that in Israel-Palestine, yet it is the latter that is the object of far greater media coverage, if that is any indication of the news value of the two conflicts. The numbers of victims from conflict in Israel-Palestine are counted down to the last digit, and the intricacies and nuances of the conflict, political situation and peace process are almost obsessively analysed and presented. Death tolls from most African conflicts (if anyone bothers to count) are usually rounded off to the nearest one hundred thousand (at times the nearest million), and the conflicts are frequently brushed off and dismissed as being chaotic, or worthy of some vague pity or humanitarian concern, but rarely of any in-depth political analysis.

The reality is that the scale of a conflict has very little at all to do with whether a conflict gets the attention of the media or not. Other factors (like the political interest of key policymakers at home, skin colour, simplicity and sensationalism) appear to be the key determinants. Once a conflict is ‘chosen’, it becomes the centre of attention, at the expense of all other conflicts – however destructive they may be. read more

I would add another factor, that the western media is driven largely by fear. In the UK we only care about armed conflict when it makes us feel vulnerable. If it is geographically close to us (Kosovo), or if we feel the conflict has the potential to spill over into our region (the Middle East), or if those suffering are people we perceive to be similar to ourselves (New York Twin Towers). When the conflict is in a far off land, in countries so poor that there is no threat of the conflict spreading outside of the region, between peoples of a different skin colour to us, we are able to give our sympathy but then turn off the TV and simply forget.

5.4 million people have died in the DRC in the last 10 years. It’s time we lifted our eyes up from our own preoccupations and saw the reality of the world we live in:

Tanzanian Pastor faces 6 months in prison after refusing to swear on Bible

Saturday 7 February 2009

I’d always wondered how Jesus’ instructions to his followers not to swear on any thing, but to let their “yes be yes, and no be no” applied to swearing on the Bible in court. So I was fascinated to hear this tale of a Tanzanian pastor. It’s told by Kenneth Mwazembe, and is in Swahili, so the quoted text below is my translation:

Pastor of the EAGT [Evangelical Assemblies of God in Tanzania – a large Pentecostal denomination] church on Ichenjezya street in the town of Vwawa, Mbozi District of Mbeya Region, Simon Kitwike (48), yesterday found himself with a 6 month jail sentence for contempt of court after refusing to swear the witness oath because of his religious faith.

The Pastor who had had his house broken into at the end of last year and had some things stolen, arrived at Mbozi District court to give his witness but refused to swear, claiming that it would be wrong.

The District Judge Kajanja Nyasige commanded him to read the section of the Bible which tells him not to swear in court, so the Pastor opened the Bible and read Matthew 5:35, which is where his view comes from.

… Judge Nyasige continued to be patient with the Pastor in order that he have the chance to change his stance, by commanding him to read from the Bible again – from the letter of Paul to the Romans 13:1-5. The witness read this section in front of the court, but when he was asked if he had changed his stance, he replied that he was unable to change his stance from this verse, and insisted that his position was still the same.

Judge Nyasige was compelled to read him the judgement that he was guilty of contempt of court and so was sentenced to go to jail for 6 months, and also that he would be expected to give his testimony in the original case on March 2nd this year. read more

What would you have done were you the judge? The judge was quite right in saying that Paul tells the church in Romans 13:1-5 that they should submit to the government and those in authority, but what happens when the law of the country directly contradicts an instruction of Jesus?

It’s an interesting dilemma that could equally have happened in the UK (and maybe has done in the past?) and highlights the irony of laws that require witnesses to swear on a book which instructs people not to swear on anything but simply let their yes be yes and their no be no.

Poverty and our growing affluenza

Wednesday 1 October 2008

This is a brilliantly ironic video, mocking some of the “hardships” many of us in the developed world face in comparison to millions of people in the majority world…

Marriage: A Rural African Perspective

Sunday 17 August 2008

One of the biggest cultural differences between Africa and Europe/North America is the way that the family in general, and marriage in particular is viewed.

Ben Byerly has just been involved in a leadership conference for Pastors in western Kenya. One of the sessions was on marriage, which he has blogged about, giving a fascinating insight into some of the issues facing Kenyan Christian couples.

From last week’s leadership conference for pastors in rural Western Kenya. For the the session on marriage, we divided the twelve women from the the about thirty-six men and had them discuss these questions:

  1. What problems or challenges do you face in marriage?
  2. How can a husband demonstrate love to his wife (Eph. 5:25; Col. 3:19)? read more

Maisha ni Vita

Monday 2 June 2008

Via a comment left on this blog, we recently discovered the blog of Kenneth Mwazembe from the town of Vwawa, Mbozi District of Mbeya Region, Tanzania. Kenneth is a journalist who has been blogging for a few months about various things happening in and around Mbozi District.

I was excited to see this blog, because Mbozi District of Mbeya Region was the first area that we surveyed when I was doing Language Survey in Tanzania back in August 2004. The District is home to many people groups and languages, but the main group in the District are the Nyiha, whose language we surveyed. (Other groups present include the Wanda and Sichela, and also Ndali, Nyakyusa, Safwa, Lambya and Nyamwanga (known as Namwanga in Zambia) and others whose main areas are in other Districts of Mbeya Region).

When we were in Mbozi District in 2004, there wasn’t a single internet cafe in the whole district, so it was a nice surprise for me to see Kenneth’s blog and to hear news from the area!

Kenneth’s blog is in Swahili, so those of you unfortunate enough not to know this wonderful language will have to make do with looking at the beautiful pictures! The title – Maisha ni Vita – is a Swahili saying meaning “life is war”.

(Special mention to my friend Richard who is also from Mbozi District – originally from the village of Nyimbili (I think… am I right Richard?) but more recently from the district capital of Vwawa).

Teaching the Bible in Africa

Monday 12 May 2008

Next month I’ve been asked to lead a session for a church group preparing to go to Malawi for 2 weeks on a mission trip. Part of their time will be spent teaching the Bible, so I’ve been asked to give them some cultural pointers.

I certainly don’t know all the answers, so I’m planning to have an interactive session, where we first of all identify as many cultural differences as we can between “Africa” and “the West”, and then explore what these differences mean for the way that Africans see Christianity and the Bible differently from people in the West.

I’m not sure in what direction the discussion is going to go, but I’ve written down some of my thoughts so that at least I have some idea of what I think before we start. But I’d appreciate any feedback you might have.

What other broad cultural differences would you say there are between Africa and the West? What do you agree with below, and what would you disagree with? What else is important for a British group of mainly young people to be aware of before they go to Africa to teach the Bible?

Difference (Africa / the West)

How does this affect the way Africans view Christianity?

How does this affect the way Africans view the Bible?

Community outlook / Individual outlook

Christianity is a community thing, rather than individual. Conversion to Christ is much more likely for people when respected individuals within the community have committed to Christ.

Passages are read for their application to the community, rather than on an individual level. Interestingly, many of the books of the Bible were originally written to or for a community.

Respect for elders, conventional wisdom / Respect for youth, new ideas

Look to older members of family, community for guidance about life, more than to peers and new ideas brought from outside.

Respect stories of long ago. Take notice of genealogies – these make the stories real. The fact that the Bible is 2000+ years old makes it very important.

Low life expectancy / High life expectancy

Life expectancy in many parts of Africa is about 40. This means death is a constant part of life. If the gospel is accepted as a life and death matter, it becomes very urgent, as many adults can only expect to live for another 5-10 years, maybe less if they have AIDS. You don’t have to tell an African that he is mortal – people know only too well the reality of death.

In many parts of Africa half of the population is age 15 or under. These things make what the Bible has to say about children very relevant. Issues with widows and orphans are not just interesting, but are a matter of life and death for those involved.

Spiritual aspect of life very real / More focused on physical

In general, Africans know that there is a spiritual side to life – they’ve lived with witch doctors and traditional religion for centuries, and know that these things have power. In Africa, the question is not “Is there any kind of God?”, but “Who is this God and how powerful is he?”

Passages about evil spirits and witchcraft are very relevant and are not just symbolic, but speak about literal realities in people’s lives.

Poor / Rich

People are poor, and are looking for anything that can make their life less difficult. In these situations, the prosperity gospel can be very attractive.

The Bible says a huge amount about the poor being lifted up and the rich being humbled. These passages are often overlooked in the west, but are key to the way Africans read the Bible. It gives them hope for the present – that God will sustain and bless them – and for the future – that they will be rich in the Kingdom of God.

Fear of drought, famine / Abundance of food

Rain to water crops is a necessity for survival. Christianity will be seen to be true if it can help meet everyday needs for survival.

Passages about God blessing the land with rain if the people obey him resonate with Africans – they know how much they depend on God for survival. They can identify with Israel in the OT – depending on God to send rain.

Close to the land, agriculture / Most people work in towns, offices

People are aware of creation, of their dependence on an unseen creator God / gods who makes crops grow and sustains the earth.

People understand many of Jesus’ parables, as they live in similar situations. Many of the illustrations in both the Old and New Testament are to do with the land and agriculture, and these are directly relevant to everyday life.

Death is part of everyday life / Death is a taboo

Death and what happens afterwards are not philosophical questions to Africans, but real everyday concerns. What Christianity has to say about these issues is an important issue for today.

People can particularly empathise with people in the Bible who lose family members – eg the widow whose son died, Ruth and Naomi.

Low education / High education

People are not concerned with understanding deep theological matters. They simply want to know how Christianity affects them in their daily life. Anything that depends on high education (even basic literacy) may put them off.

People identify with the poor common people of the Bible, rather than the scholars. Whereas people in the West would identify with Paul as a well educated Jew, Africans would be more likely to feel at home studying the disciples – many of whom were Galilean fisherman.

Oral society / Literate society

Christianity is most attractive when presented in the form of stories. People are used to having traditional wisdom passed on orally through the generations. Christianity can take the same status, if passed orally from elders to the rest of the community (in the same way that books pass on wisdom in a literate society). Even oral recordings can perform this function, in many cases better than written scriptures.

Parts of the Bible when the community comes together to hear God’s word (in Ezra, at the temple etc) resonate with Africans. They are used to wisdom being passed on orally and collectively, rather than individually through reading.

Functional way of thinking / Analytical way of thinking

For Africans, the key question about Christianity is not “is it true?”, but “does it work?”. Whether something is functional is much more important to Africans than abstract concepts like absolute truth. Africans are more likely to judge Christianity on whether it is more powerful than evil spirits than whether it is true (in the abstract, western sense of truth).

Africans identify much more with the gospels where Jesus is healing the sick and meeting people’s needs, than with Paul’s more abstract approach to proclaiming the truth in parts of the book of Romans.

Proverbs, wisdom, stories valued / Science, analytical thinking valued

The things that resonate with people, are wisdom and proverbs. These are what have always been passed on through the generations, so it is only a small jump to replace traditional wisdom and proverbs from ancestors with (even more ancient) wisdom and proverbs from the Bible.

Proverbs, Ecclesiastes etc are highly revered by African Christians, and resonate with their culture. The important thing is not “What exactly is the truth?”, but “How should we live?”

Idols part of life / No physical idols

Christianity must be seen to offer more than the traditional worship of idols – it must be seen to have more power.

Parts where God tells Israel to get rid of idols, and even ridicules idols can be very real to Africans. Idols in the Bible are not taken as metaphors as they are in the West, but are seen as genuine alternatives to Christianity.

Blood sacrifices understood / No sacrificial system

People understand the power of blood sacrificed, normally to appease spirits, whether it’s for wrong they’ve done or because the spirits are upset. People completely understand that a just God would demand a blood sacrifice for sins committed.

People understand blood sacrifices made in the Old Testament, and the New Testament explanations (eg Hebrews) that Jesus was the ultimate blood sacrifice to atone for sins.

New nations – recent colonial history / Old nations

People are aware that the nations are a drop in the bucket (Isaiah 40:15). Collectively, as well as individually, they are aware that they rely on God and his mercy to survive. The West (particularly Europe) can find it difficult to identify with God’s warnings to the Israelites that the nation would be humbled. Africans, with a recent memory of colonialisation and often difficult struggles for and since independence know that the entire nation is at God’s mercy.

Prophecies to the nation of Israel are read as a prophecy to the whole nation, whereas in the West they are often interpreted on an individual level. Can also find it difficult to read about Joshua’s conquest of Canaan, where their memories of colonial powers mean that they may identify more with the conquered Canaanites than the victorious Israelites.

Few generations of Christianity / Hundreds of years of Christianity

The African church doesn’t have generations of traditions to form its view of Christianity. Most traditions have been taken on from Western missionaries. The church is much more free to read the Bible and interpret it in the way it sees fit.

Whereas in the West there is much interest in supposed “new revelations” (gospel of Thomas, Da Vinci code etc), in Africa the whole Bible is new and exciting in its revelations.

Business between friends, acquaintances / Business with anonymous companies

The analogies of debt in the Bible are much more personal than for Christians in the West. If a Western Christian goes into debt, he may go bankrupt and lose his possessions. If an African can’t pay a debt his life could be in danger. Africans can identify much more with the serious concept of debt and payment (and redemption) in the Bible than Western Christians who are used to debt as a normal part of life.

Little healthcare / Good healthcare

An important issue is whether Christianity is able to provide healing. When people have little or no access to conventional healthcare, the promise of a healing God is much more immediate and real.

Accounts of Jesus healing people are very powerful, as they give hope where there is little or no hope from conventional healthcare.

words to inspire

Friday 4 April 2008

Alexander McCall Smith‘s The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency has captured my fancy – and routed my thoughts toward Africa, most delightfully, once again. I have laughed aloud at Smith’s permeable wit and authentic characters in this story set in the African country of Botswana. One line brought very welcome feelings of home, liberty and peace, as it reads,

I am just a tiny person in Africa, but there is a place for me, and for everybody, to sit down on this earth and touch it and call it their own.

It spoke to me also of freedom and space. No constraint, nor barriers. The words inspired my imagination and my creativity – and below resides the byproduct. Because I am not a trained artist, it may not be so pleasing to your eyes as the process of bringing the colours and shapes alive with my fingers was to me. But alas, here it is…

Botswana mama in open bush, in Oil Pastels