number 7, december 11, 1998

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Africa's gift of Ubuntu

By Noel Bruyns

After a wet and muddy start to the assembly, participants are beginning to enjoy the real Africa, as one imagines it from travelogues.

The marimba and drum music, traditional dance and infectious happiness of the locals are still fresh in our minds after last night’s cultural evening.

There are occasional patches of blue African skies during the current rainy season. The friendliness of the security guards is memorable.

The Africa plenary yesterday afternoon gives another, deeper dimension to the image of Africa.

Listening to the Rev. Barney Pityana and Dr Mercy Oduyoye, one is struck by an "other-ness" in African spirituality.

Oduyoye spoke out aloud with no self consciousness to her ancestors, defying those Christians who shake their head disapprovingly of the ancestor cult they incorrectly call "pagan ancestor worship".

She spoke of Creator God of Many Names, who her ancestors knew long before the missionaries came.

This simple spirituality, talking to God and the ancestors accompanying them in their most down-to-earth human condition, is typically African.

Pityana addressed the misconception by the first European settlers that Africans had no religion because there were no outward signs of religiosity — no buildings, no holy places, no postures pointing to the divine, no sacred dress.

For the true African, even the Christian African, Pityana tried to say, these outward signs are not necessary.

"We have only known God in the people of our everyday experience. ... The entire activity of the people, their very being was a devotion to the deity who is the creator. To understand the people of Africa, therefore, requires a paradigm shift about God and religious life."

The traditional soul of Africa reflects an innate spirituality and holiness. In part its soul has been pierced by colonialism and missionary connivance, in part by the sinfulness and complicity of its own people.

Echoing the sentiments of both Oduyoye and Pityana, Canon Clement Janda, general secretary of the All African Council of Churches, earlier during the assembly warned of glorifying the growing church in Africa: "Where is the depth of the church? Why is it that in Rwanda, where 70 per cent or more of the people claim to be Christian, they can’t see in each other the face of the Christ but only an ethnicity?"

Christians — and others — in Africa need the solidarity of the rest of the world in "eradicating poverty, establishing democracy, human rights and good systems of governance and, finally, setting standards for a moral universe".

But Christians in Africa themselves need to recapture and reincarnate the spirit and faith of the ancestors to give new meaning to their faith in Jesus Christ.

A good starting point — or a point to continue from with greater commitment for those who have already worked on it — is to develop a theology of "ubuntu".

Ubuntu, as Pityana described it, is "the creed that has held many Africans to the ideal that affirms one’s humanity as being tied up with the humanity of others."

Or, popularly phrased: I am human because of and through other humans.

Living a theology of ubuntu will help recapture the true spirit of Africa in Africa. It will also be a precious gift which the church in Africa can offer other churches.

Related documents and articles:

African Padares Coverage

Read other articles in this issue:

Union wants WCC to tackle Mugabe on banning strikes
Padare: the good and the bad story
Africans put their case to the West
Take Black Theology seriously, WCC told
Polygamy issue resolved
African 'gentility, humility' model for next millennium
Africa's gift of Ubuntu
Don't turn other cheek, women victims told
Churches want state to re-regulate markets
Malawi president won't sign death penalty
Chaz is all over the campus

8th Assembly and 50th Anniversary

copyright 1998 World Council of Churches. Remarks to webeditor