When I first arrived on campus my freshman year, I was bombarded with a series of questions ranging from whether or not people wear clothes in Africa to whether there were lions hanging out in my backyard at home. Some people think that Africa is one big desert while others presume the whole place to be a rainforest. With all these misconceptions, Africa still remains one of the most stereotyped places in the world.
Many people in America have the idea that Africa is one massive country with no innovation or modern technology. That everyone is poor and disease ridden living in grass-thatched mud houses in the middle of nowhere. That there are wild animals everywhere and war is the norm – men carrying machine guns on the back of pickup trucks. While I will not take time to address all of them, these misconceptions seriously distort the understanding of African culture, and consequently skew our approach to discipleship (helping others follow Jesus) in this beautiful continent.
Africa is a continent of vastness and variety. The fifty-four internationally-recognized countries harbor at least 3,000 ethnic groups who speak an equivalent number of languages. Each country consists of many tribal groups whose different cultures are expressed in their language, music and dance, arts and crafts, clothing, folk tales, food, and religion. And although there are many similarities between the cultures in a given country and even across national borders, my attempt to examine the cultures of this vast region is still more or less a generalization. Because I was born and raised in Uganda, I will only speak with reference to the three main East African countries – Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania.
One of the biggest drawbacks for those who have had a desire to minister in East Africa is the notion that Africa is not safe. The assumption is the whole continent is full of radical Muslims and rebel groups killing anyone who happens to be present.
In actuality, however, approximately 80% of all Ugandans and Kenyans identify themselves as Christians and 9% as Muslims. “Christian” here is defined in the broadest sense. It’s only Tanzania where there is a significant measure of persecution that records 30% Christians and 30% Muslims. With the exception of a few radical Muslim groups in Tanzania, most of East Africa is safe and free of religious persecution. There are no active rebel groups or “hostile tribes.” Tropical diseases like malaria do exist but treatment is readily available for most people. East Africa may not be as safe as the United States, but safety is certainly not a valid excuse for refusing to minister there. For those who are already serving there, it’s good to be careful but you would be more effective approaching the people with love and confidence as opposed to fear and reservation.
“… perfect love casteth out fear …” (1 John. 4:18).
Another integral part of East African culture is hospitality. The African traditional society highly values relationships perhaps mainly because a person’s sense of identity resides more in the community than the individual. Whereas this trait is not unique to East Africans, effective discipleship recognizes relationships come before tasks in this part of the world. Elders are highly respected and the responsibility to take care of children belongs to everyone hence the saying “it takes a whole village to raise a child.” This means that when you approach the East African people with the Gospel, you might want to target entire families, and communities as a whole as opposed to individuals in isolation.
In addition, the East African people are very expressive, and this aspect of our culture is more apparent in the music and dance, art and crafts, clothing, and language. Because this is so, the vigor and energy is not absent in the local churches. And for one coming from an American fundamental Baptist church, it may be easy to assume that the entire church in East Africa has succumbed to the extremes of the charismatic movement along with its health and wealth gospel. This preconception may cause undue criticism and therefore hinder effective discipleship. It is true that the church in Africa has been heavily influenced by the charismatic movement, but I believe it’s more important for those incoming to focus on Scripture – teaching doctrine. Bible schools, for that matter, are a huge need.
“…Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you …” (Matthew 28:20).
In conclusion of this unofficial incomprehensive compendium, something must be said about the effect of foreign influence on the culture of East Africa. There is an Acholi saying that goes like this: “opuk ma bedo inget bye doko kwa,” which means “the tortoise that lingers around an anthill will inevitably become brown.”
Beginning from the time of colonialism, explorers and missionaries, all the way to the current era of entertainment and popular media through the internet and other means, no one society has remained the same. East Africa is not an exception. If you visit an average protestant church in any East African city today you’ll quickly find some of the songs sung are indeed English Western songs. Beyond that, people are always listening to music, watching movies, and reading books from the western side of the world.
Therefore, one seeking to share the Gospel among East Africans, especially the younger educated folks, must realize that some their thinking has been heavily shaped by what they’ve seen in movies from the western world. Many a time these youth are heavily misguided in their thinking because they end up believing that life for everyone in the West is exactly like what they see in the movies. These notions of greener pastures on the other side have to be dispelled for the Gospel to take precedence.
All in all, we are different but the same. The same sin struggles only manifest in different ways. We have the same enemy, and the same Savior – Jesus Christ, the Savior of all men.
“…and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen” (Matthew 28:20).