African communities are a tapestry knitted by a string of storytellers passionate about their craft and purpose. To a young girl tired from fetching water from a distant borehole, or a boy nursing wounds from an unfortunate hunting escapade, stories are more than the Balm of Gilead for soothing pain; they are an unassuming window to the hidden mysteries of the past, the people, and the places. Using allegory, riddles, rhymes, and proverbs a skillful storyteller hew a fermenting pot of ethics and morality.
I was born in Zimbabwe to a Zimbabwean mother and a Mozambican father. My grandfather migrated from Mozambique probably 70 years ago. He never told us why he left Mozambique, but word has it that he was running away from Grandma. Who can blame him, doesn’t the Bible say it is better to live on the edge of a roof than with a contentious woman in a large house? One day, his luck ran out, and he bumped into Grandma in Salisbury, now Harare. However, Grandpa was a crafty storyteller; I am sure he spoke his way out of trouble as Grandma fumed.
Grandpa’s mouth was not only his gate-out-of-jail-free card, sometimes it got him into trouble. While working at a military camp as a landscape technician, he wants saw two soldiers quarreling. However, Grandpa was not the type of guy who encourages people to talk out their differences. “Ugly Jersey, do you think Skinny John can beat you?” He was not done. “Skinny John, why are you afraid of Ugly Jersey? Show him you are stronger than him.” Their names were not Ugly Jersey and Skinny John; Grandpa wanted to rile them – his tongue was more venomous than an angry puff adder in a drought-stricken veld. Old age crept in, by the time he passed away, Grandpa spent much of his time telling us about life in Mozambique. Sometimes, he shared fascinating folklore, of course, we all knew he made them up.
Using allegory, riddles, rhymes, and proverbs a skillful storyteller hewed a fermenting pot of ethics and morality.
Here’s a story for you to consider.
Many years ago, cattle in a small village in Tete Province, Mozambique died in droves. The villagers were puzzled, back then there were no veterinary doctors or antibiotics. As the sun set, villagers gathered the carcasses of the dead cattle by an anthill and burned them. Watching flames dancing conspicuous of the lost wealth sent the women and children in a painful travail. “Creator of heaven and earth, what have we done to deserve this painful stroke from your wrathful hand? Is it the thieves we carried unknowingly in our wombs? Alternatively, the blood of the strangers we failed to feed or cloth? Tell us what we can do for you to lift your hand on our bleeding backs.”
The men added more firewood, they cut more firewood and wrote unintelligently on the ground hiding tears welling up in their eyes. How they wish the fire would burn their fear purifying them with courage and wisdom. One young man got tired of counting the number of cattle that died, Gopani. “Until when shall we gather each day to burn our wealth? Until when?” No one answered the village head looked at him pensively, “What should we do, Gopani?” He did not answer. Huffing and kicking the mounting ashes by the anthill, Gopani stormed away. However, he could not run away from the problem. In his anger, Gopani remembered the village across Tete River. Cattle in that village were healthy; they were not affected by the plague. “I am going across the river and see why their cattle are not dying. Maybe they found a secret medicine for the cattle.”
Gopani sold his remaining cattle for gold and set out for the village across Tete River. Women and children wept as they saw him carrying his few belongings as he left. “Gopani, go in peace. If you fail to find peace where the grass is always green, remember we are your kinsmen, come back.” Gopani walked for eight weeks, sleeping in caves and trees, running from lions, jumping snakes and selling some of his gold for food and clothes. At last, Gopani arrived at the village. Indeed, the village was as he had dreamed, the cattle were strong and healthy, the people lived in beautiful homes and the women were even more beautiful. How he wished he belong to their tribe, probably he could have married there, and they would give him a piece of land too. Sadly, intermarrying between their tribes was taboo.
“Our cattle are not dying, they are multiplying very fast, and our land cannot carry lots of cattle. We are sorry, we cannot help you.”
“We heard your story Gopani,” one of the elders later told him. “Our cattle are not dying, they are multiplying very fast, and our land cannot carry lots of cattle. We are sorry, we cannot help you.” After staying in the village for three months, the next two months were much more painful; Gopani trekked home without hope or medicine. Staggering down the road, clothes torn and unkempt, kids from his village saw him and ran to tell the elders. His mother ran to him while his father gathered the elders. As he broke into tears, ululations and whistles suffocated the village – a cry of pain and shouts of joy, Gopani was confused. “Elders of the village, I failed you. I promised to bring medicine to heal our land but I couldn’t find any. Our brothers from across the river have their own problems.”
It happened that while Gopani left the village in pursuit of a medicine, the shepherds spent time watching the feeding habits of the cattle. “Do you remember that flower we planted three seasons ago?” Gopani remembered the herb; after all, he was the one who shared his bedroom with the stranger who brought the herb. The herb could treat a running stomach. Ever since they planted the herb, none of the children in the village had continued problems with the tummy. “That herb is the problem, cattle that ate the herb are the ones that are dying. The herb spread into the fields and the grazing land, so after you left we spent weeks removing it. We now keep the herb in the garden.” Although the people from the two villages all kept cattle, their problems were different. One village was concerned about vanishing grazing land while the other had a poisoning problem.
After living as a follower of Christ for more than 15 years little did I know I had zero understanding of sin, repentance, and forgiveness. As a voracious reader, I had read several theology books on sin and the total depravity of men by Western Christian theologians. I knew how to navigate through a Tim Keller, J.I Parker or an NT Wright. In an average year, I read at least 200 books. But reading a book by an African theologian changed all that. In Trinity of Sin, Yusufu Turaki showed how the concept of sin and repentance is difficult for Africans to understand. He was right, I think.
There was a time that a struggled with a sinful habit, and my sin-repentance cycle would go like this: commit sin, get filled with remorse, cast out demons that made me sin, plead the blood of Jesus, and silently hope I will never fall into the same trap again. I was born again in the Pentecostal tradition; we bound spirits that caused illnesses, we cast out demonic spirits that caused poverty and rebuked devils that caused the righteous to fall into temptation. It is not surprising that such a way of fighting temptation appealed to me. My uncle’s brother in law had a spirit of stealing, another relative had a spirit of promiscuity, my mother’s family was said to be haunted by an avenging spirit, and I saw some single people had spirits of an unmarried ancestor. In my world sin was caused by demonic and familial spirits; I did not understand James 1:14-15:
But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin, when it is fully grown, brings forth death.
I have been studying climate change recently, and I have been baffled by how Western climate experts are quick to claim that humans cannot understand the implications of climate change regarding justice and ethics. Why? “Our brains,” wrote Susie Nielson, “[A]ccording to Gottlieb, gauge distance on four distinct planes: spatial, temporal, social, and hypothetical. The more distant something is on each plane, the more abstractly we think about it. Climate change happens to be abstract on all four.” However, several studies on climate change risk perception have found African communities easily grasp the problem of climate change. In the US, a study focusing on climate change adaptation and mitigation found a similar result among, Mexican Americans. Thus, they are communities that do not reduce intergenerational problems into abstract. It does not surprise the saying God promised would not be repeated in all the earth is the bedrock of African ethics (Jeremiah 31:29), “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” Growing up, I was told if my grandfather did something taboo, me, my children and their grandchildren will pay for it – the spirit of sin would rule our lives.
I am convinced I am not the only person who had a warped view of sin. The current proliferation of churches advertising “The Night of Deliverance,” “Breaking through the Spirit of Poverty and Sickness” or “Set Free from Clutches of Sin through Deliverance” is a testament of the prevalence of the problem. Many Christians are like Gopani – they see the glittering façade of the Western Christianity displayed in well-written, well-promoted, and well-designed books, blogs and conferences and are convinced the medicine for Africa is found in their forests. Yes, we are all Christians, we belong to the same body, we have the same Bible, and we have one God, one Baptism, and one faith. However, we have different problems because of our differences in place, people, and past. For that reason, Christian leaders in Africa should try ‘to relate Christianity to the diverse social, cultural and political situations in… Africa’, as noted by E. W. Fashole-Luke, The Quest for an African Christian Theology.
Christian theology must engage, or be in dialogue with the African traditions as a prerequisite to transforming Africa. The major flaw of Western Missionary Christianization of Africa was its serious failure to engage or dialogue with African traditions.
Yusufu Turaki, Foreword in Christian Theology and African Traditions
Writing a Foreword for Matthew Michael’s seminal work, Christian Theology and African Traditions, Yusufu Turaki made an interesting observation, “Christian theology must engage, or be in dialogue with the African traditions as a prerequisite to transforming Africa.” Prof. Yusufu Turaki has taught at several universities and seminaries across Africa and has written several academic books on the impact of African worldviews on Christian living. Despite the rampant urbanization, Africans are in contact with different traditions and practices. These traditional beliefs perpetuate even after coming to Christ. “The major flaw of Western Missionary Christianization of Africa was its serious failure to engage or dialogue with African traditions.” A Christian theology that is useful in Africa is a theology that engages the African traditional worldview.
Christians should be wise when engaging the culture. I will forever cherish a timeless advice I once received from Reverend Chimusoro, then an 80-year-old Assemblies of God pastor. “Books, sermons, or anything you hear is like eating fish. Eat the flesh and remove the bones.” It is true; wisdom comes with gray hair. Any culture is like fish; they are some values, beliefs, and practices that are dangerous and could choke your spiritual growth. A careful study of the Bible can help us remove the bones in our lives. The problem the Western Christian leaders have is they assume their fish has no bones. Like the herb that caused the death of cattle in Gopani’s village, the fish from the Western plate is choking many Africans. For example, courtesy of televangelists, prosperity gospel is destroying the lives of many people across Africa.
Where are the young shepherds who are going to follow the cattle, watch what they are eating and help deal with the problem affecting Christians in Africa? First, we need to learn to tell our own stories, let the women and children write about their lament, the young men about their discoveries and the men about the herb. Our stories matter.