THE CHRISTIAN REFORMATION OF AFRICAN CULTURE: RESPONDING TO
A CONTINENT CRYING OUT FOR HEALING
Gideon Strauss Dept. of Philosophy, University of the Orange Free State, Bloemfontein
THE AFRICAN WASTELAND
I want to begin this talk by quoting David Lamb (THE AFRICANS: ENCOUNTERS FROM THE SUDAN TO THE CAPE. London: The Bodley Head, 1985. p.5). He writes:
(Africa is) a continent where events have conspired against progress, where the future remains a hostage of the past... As setback followed setback and each modest step forward was no more effective than running in place, black Africa became uncertain of its own identity and purpose, divided by ideology and self—interests, perplexed by the demands of nationhood - and as dependent militarily and economically on foreign powers as it was during the colonial era …a continent in crisis, explosive and vulnerable, a continent where the romance of a revolution cannot hide the frustration and despair that tears at the fibre of African society.
Since the revolution of 1989 in Eastern Europe, easing the way as it did for wholesale international disillusionment with socialism, and focusing the economic aid efforts of the West away from Africa, an international mood of "afropessimisrn" has set in. The general failure of modern development efforts in the continent, and the increasingly obvious malignant nature of her governing élites has led to formerly enthusiastic aid suppliers in Europe and North America to give up in despair. Today Africa is facing a crossroads: she can either continue on the path of decay, or she can turn around to different routes of development from those tried until now.
Africa possesses almost awesome potential prosperity in terms of material resources. "Like a closet millionaire, it hides the riches that future generations on distant continents will need to prosper, produce, even survive". The African continent contains 40 percent of the world’s potential hydroelectric power supply, the greater part of the world’s diamonds and chromium, 30 percent of the uranium outside the ex-Communist bloc; 50 percent of the world’s gold, 90 percent of its cobalt, 50 percent of its phosphates - relevant for fertilizer manufacture - 40 percent of its platinum, 7.5 percent of its coal, 8 percent of its known petroleum reserves, 12 percent of its natural gas, 3 percent of its iron ores and millions of acres of unused farmland (Lamb, 1987: 20).
"Africa could grow enough food for two or three times its population. It could have more wild protein, fish and livestock than it can eat or sell. And its people could be flourishing. Africa… was never a lush garden of food for the taking. Soils were mostly poor, and life was fraught with disease and danger. But there was great wealth and potential. In less than a century, at a steadily increasing pace, Eden has been squandered recklessly. Today, much of it teeters at the edge". (Mort Rosenblum and Doug Williamson, SQUANDERING EDEN: AFRICA AT THE EDGE. London: The Bodley Head, 1987. p.5-6).
Despite the riches enumerated, Africa is caught, for the greater part, in the grip of considerable poverty and tyranny. The average per capita income for the whole of Africa was US$365 a year in 1987. This was the lowest on the planet and has not fundamentally improved since - rather the opposite. In real terms that income - and the standard of living in Africa - is falling (Lamb, 1987: 21). Some of the blame for African poverty and famine can be laid at nature’s door, but for the greater part the deteriorating situation can be ascribed to human folly, ignorance, greed and malice.
A number of factors are customarily blamed for Africa’s problems. These include the alleged inferiority of the African races, a lack of natural resources, "overpopulation", and the consequences of colonialism. I reject all these as insubstantial and factually untenable.
Africa is faced nonetheless with demotivating statistics:
Africa’s current destitution is aggravated by the consequences of irresponsible international aid. Africa has become an international welfare recipient. Even a cursory examination of the state of affairs in Africa makes it obvious that the bulk of international aid ends up in the avaricious paws of civilian and military kleptocrats, rather than in the starved bellies of the truly poor.
There is an enduring myth that Africans lack the ability or the will to improve their lot themselves. This is not true. The continent teems with economists and agronomists, entrepreneurs and investors, peasant farmers and laborers, brimming with eagerness to build prosperous economies. But most are blocked - by tyrants from above and by pagan jealousy from below - and their frustration is yet another African tragedy.
Despite the frightening problems facing Africa, its rulers spend little time facing their own poor conduct and unjust government, and a great deal looking for scapegoats. The emergence of post-colonial modern élites has greatly retarded the opening up of African societies. The former vice chancellor of Nairobi University, J.N. Karanja, has observed (in Lamb, 1987: 56):
If Africa is to develop, the elite must re-examine their consciences and understand and accept the unique history and circumstances of the African people. They must be honest and should realize that the African people did not fight for their independence so that they could become less free instead of freer, poorer instead of better off. It’s time that the African people had the right to choose.
As David Lamb, (1987: 58) pointed out, "The pity of contemporary Africa is that few presidents are secure enough to pursue policies or experiment with systems that might diminish their own power. And fewer still have displayed benevolence or wisdom in carrying out the affairs of state. The result is that many countries are run by men who are little more than clerks with guns."
In his Nobel speech, the writer Wole Soyinka denounced the Organization of African Unit as a private clubset up by leaders for their mutual protection (Rosenblum and Williamson 1987: 26).
Hilary Ng’weno wrote (quoted in Rosenblum and Williamson 1987: 289):
Many ‘(leaders) mismanaged economies, squandered national wealth and literally threw away the future of their people as they jostled with one another for personal power and gain. When it was not greed that moved them, it was folly and gullibility.
African leaders and outside experts have ignored Africa’s greatest asset: its people. Fantu Cheru (quoted in Rosenblum and Williamson 1987: 23, 25) grew up in Ethiopia, and teaches developmental economicsat American University, in Washington, D.C. He maintains that outsiders speak to the wrong Africans, or to none at all:
There is a silent revolution in Africa, a mass defection of peasants who are dropping out of the system. They are holding states as hostages by depriving governments of resources. All the talk of new government attitudes is because of this... The wrong sort of aid simply helps leaders hold out. Western governments are sanctioning some of the worst gangsters of the century, one—man rule, kleptocracy and military dictatorship.
African leaders blame international economics, but poor countries elsewhere do far better. They demand drastic redistribution of global resources but do not share the wealth within their own national systems.
Africans will take care of themselves if they can get their leaders to listen to them. Governments must apply their own resources to agriculture and the forgotten peasantry — or collapse. I would make a case for no aid at all.
Despite the wasteland that the leaders of Africa have created, the courage and character of the African people still leaves room for hope. Djibril Diallo, a U.N. press officer born in southern Senegal says (Rosenblum and Williamson 1987: 22):
This could only happen in Africa. I am a first-generation literate. And I am a living embodiment of the fact that you don’t need generations... .You can’t sit in a cabinet meeting and give orders downwards. You have to go to the farmers, find out what they want. African leaders are realizing now that nobody can come and give them development. It is not something that comes from the outside. African governments know that they will not stay in power if large numbers of people are starving.
When you tie a bird to a palm tree, it will fly only as far as the rope, and then it stops. .Africa is in a situation of eternal beginning. We must cut that rope.
Africa has all the potential to experience a rapid improvement in all cultural fields, including the political
and economic. It has the natural resources, the people, and a growing Christian faith. It is currently in a state of flux and fervour for change. If these are mobilised, and overcome the forces of poverty and tyranny, Africa can be the envy of the Earth.
THE MODERN INTERRUPTION
The attempt to modernize Africa has failed abysmally. The interruption of Africa’s cultural opening up by Modernity - that is the anti-Christian worldview emanating from the West in recent centuries - has proven to be a tragic subversion of the inherent potential of African culture. The ravaged state of African societies - politically, economically, socially - can be traced directly to the destructive impact of the pagan and modern worldviews. Underdevelopment, at root, is the result of fundamental beliefs: faith and worldview. The way in which people understand reality directs their actions within it. If this understanding does not correlate with the actual states of affairs, it is unlikely that such activity will bear much beneficial fruit in any realm.
Africa suffers from worldviews untrue to reality, both of pagan and modern origin. These worldviews have lead, in the first case, to closed, undeveloped societies, in the latter case to grossly warped development, ultimately of little real value, especially to the poor, and especially to those still captive in a pagan way of believing. These are the ultimate causes of underdevelopment, and these must first be overcome before any real development, any real opening up of African cultures and societies can take place. No structural model, no economic or political technique or system can bring about any lasting and real change if it is not part of, or preceded by, a change in worldview. This is the foundation of the case for Christian reformation: neither African paganism nor any imported modernism can provide in the cultural and societal needs of Africa.
The further opening up of African culture requires a rejection of Modernity, and substantial healing of African society to counteract the consequences of this interruption. This does not imply a return to premodern paganism, but an invigorating turn to the Christian faith as the foundation of cultural activity.
Modernisation includes a restriction of traditional faith to those areas of life where it makes little public difference whether it is practised or not. It affects ideas, institutions and individuals, destroys community, offering in its place only the extremes of statism and individualism and attempts to engineer societal development in reductionistically technocratic and economic ways. Ultimately, it leads to a loss of the experience of meaning. This is the experience, not only of generations of Europeans and Americans, but increasingly, of urbanized Africans.
Recent events in Eastern Europe, and its consistent failure to bring justice, peace or prosperity to the people of Africa, has widely discredited Marxism as a vehicle for societal reformation and the idealism of youth. At the same time, an opening up of political culture is taking place in some parts of Africa. A wide range of programmes for the change of African society are being openly espoused and advocated.
It is an unfortunate fact that people still subject to antiquated ideologies are capturing the ultimate commitment of many young Africans. These include both people openly and actively opposed to the Christian faith and others who attempt, with honest if misguided intentions, to forge a synthesis of Christianity and anti-Christian dogmas.
By the grace of God, the African Christian church is experiencing phenomenal growth. Whether this growing church will have any real effect on Africa, however, depends on the degree to which it can overcome paganism, combat modernity and transform African culture and society. There is at present no substantialmovement of African Christians who proclaim the Lordship of Christ over every sphere of life - including the political. It is not enough to present young people with a reduced gospel which provides inspiration only for what happens within the walls of church buildings, and seven quick minutes of Instant Quiet Time every day. Such a gospel would not only be too insipid to deserve acceptance, but would also defraud those few who do accept it, of their true heritage in Christ. Christianity presents the only cogent explanation of reality. ALL of reality: Creation, Fall, and Redemption. The full-blooded Gospel can, and will, bring about the redemption of multitudes, and the reformation of African society. Every revival has brought in its wake a societal reformation - the salvation of hearts and the renewing of minds in Christ cannot but overflow into the outpouring of his grace and dominion over the community of men.
It is vitally necessary to encourage and equip the current generation of young Christians with the spiritual and intellectual tools necessary for wide-ranging cultural activity from the foundation of a certain, comprehensive and compelling Christian faith. This contemporary educational mission is a responsibility of paramount importance for Christian institutions of learning in Africa.
The Christian mission, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is exciting and hopeful. Knowing that, while no earthly paradise is possible before the Return of Christ, substantial healing in obedience to God’s principles can be brought about. It is possible to work towards this reformation with vigour and wisdom. A good place to start would be to guide to its destination the African quest for identity, significance, dignity and distinctiveness.
K. Ejiwunmi ("SYNCRETISM - ITS CAUSE AND CURE", in the Pan African Christian Leadership Assembly’s FACING THE NEW CHALLENGES: THE MESSAGE OF PACLA, December 9-19, 1976 nairobi. Kisumu: Evangel Publishing House, 1978) has commented insightfully that
The basic ‘search in Africa today is for identity, significance, dignity and distinctiveness ... In a typically African fashion, the search is not individualistic or personal; it is communal.
African identity requires a secure foundation in a high view of man that can ensure human dignity. It requires a theory of culture that will allow for an understanding of the significance and distinctiveness of being African, while providing impetus for the project of cultural opening up.
Humanity in Africa has suffered from two distinct affronts to dignity, both of which enslaved Africans intellectually, even more, spiritually, to a low understanding of themselves: indigenous paganism and Western Modernity. The indigenous pagan views of man portray humanity as utterly under the sway of external, primarily natural powers, unable to overcome Fate. This has led to a discouraging fatalism and cultural lethargy. Modernity initially encompassed a high view of man. It would seem however that Africans were at an early stage implicitly or explicitly excluded from the human category by Modern Western thinkers, leading to the indignities - the atrocities - of slavery and colonialism. By the time Modernity became accessible to Africans in post-colonial times, it had suffered a profound reversal in its view of man, portraying humanity, again, as subject primarily to uncontrollable forces, whether of the psyche or of history. This low view of man is evident in the thought and life of contemporary Western civilization to an alarming degree. Witness, for instance, the Holocaust, the rule of terror by dictatorships of the right and left, and the current abomination of abortion on demand. There has been no base in Modernity for Africans from which to experience their genuine human dignity, or to understand the responsibilities and opportunities for cultural opening up.
As a result of the dehumanizing effect of paganism and Modernity, and the consequent retardation and warping of cultural opening up in Africa, a continental situation exists today where the environment is devastated, without any real benefit to the majority of even its human inhabitants, where politics is limited to tyranny and coups d’état, where public discourse is marked by the "culture of silence", where communication between and even within nations has virtually broken down, and where public service excels only in corruption and inefficiency. African societies are still closed to a greater degree than most others, with the possible exclusion of countries like Albania and Iran, where Stalinism and Islam have brought about an abrupt arrest of positive cultural opening up. The closed state of African societies is the direct result of the restrictive character of the worldviews held by the leaders and people of these countries. Only once the widely held Christianity of Africa has a guiding cultural impact, can African culture open up.
In order to envisage an open society it is first necessary to understand the nature of man as essentially responsible, and responsive to divine principle and providence. Our common human identity is to be found in the image of God, which is
"the creaturely manner of existence of the human person as a child of God in the dynamic religious relationship of dependence upon God (, and) in obedience to the central religious commandment of love in Christ" (my translation from J.H. Smit, ETOS EN ETIEK. Bloemfontein: Patmos, 1985. p.16).
This divinely founded identity must be set against the problems of identity which confront us in the particular context of Africa.
Christians must be encouraged and enabled to bring about cultural reformation. The cultural responsibility of Christians requires of us to extend God’s Kingdom over African culture in every sphere of human enterprise.
OPEN BUT NOT MODERN -
THE PATH FORWARD FOR AFRICAN SOCIETIES
Taking into account the states of affairs in underdeveloped countries, it is clear that Marxist analysis and socialist redistribution cannot provide true development. Instead they bring about tyranny and poverty. A prudent economy and just government restricted to their distinct normative realms are necessary if Africa is to advance. At the same time, a prudent economy and just government are not enough. If these tools of political economy are understood and implemented as mere and isolated parts of a process of capitalist modernization, or in the service of the modern worldview, they cannot eventually lead to cultural openness. They did not appear in the West as a part of modernity, and are not being well sustained by Western modernity in its contemporary (late) expression.
It is necessary in the struggle towards Christian reformation in Africa, to reject modernity as an anti- Christian faith. This does not mean that Africa cannot learn from the West, as modernity has been an aberration in the cultural history of the West. Western civilization has for the greater part of its existence been directed, and is likely in future again to be directed by the Classical and Judeo-Christian traditions. Whatever good has emerged in modern times - and good has indeed arisen - has been the result of the residual impact of these traditions, and of the understanding of reality they represent. Much evil, on the other hand, has been the consequence of modernity - a dearth of art and literature, poverty and tyranny as a result of the totalitarian ideologies of Right and Left, anarchist terror, and ultimately, a profound loss of any sense of meaning.
Africa must avoid these excesses, and can do so only if, in transcending paganism, it does not continue to fall for the modern temptation, but follows instead a path of Christian reformation, a path to a culture that is open, but not modern.
To conclude I want to point out a handful of books of which I believe we all should take note. I have used most of them in my studies into Africa over the past years, to gain an initial understanding of the actual state of affairs in our continent. Bear in mind their lack of Christian perspective, and read them critically:
Pieter Esterhuysen, AFRICA AT A GLANCE: 1992. Pretoria: Africa Institute of South Africa, 1992.
Byang H. Kato, BIBLICAL CHRISTIANITY IN AFRICA: A COLLECTION
OF PAPERS AND ADDRESSES. (Theological Perspectives in Africa, no.2). Achimoto: Africa Christian Press, 1985.
David Lamb, THE AFRICANS: ENCOUNTERS FROM THE SUDAN TO THE CAPE. London: The Bodley Head, 1985.
Mort Rosenblum and Doug Williamson, SQUANDERING EDEN: AFRICA AT THE EDGE. London: The Bodley Head, 1987.
A book which I haven’t yet been able to read, but which looks valuable from the reviews I have seen, is:
Laurence Cockroft, AFRICA’S WAY: A JOURNEY FROM THE PAST. I.B. Taurus.
M2M Issue 2 October 1992 p.55