8th assembly/50th anniversary

Together on the Way
6.3. From Cover to Core: A Letter to my Ancestors
by Mercy Amba Oduyoye

Dear Ancestors,

Once again the World Council of Churches is in Africa, and we the children of this soil are trying to show them round our home, the heritage from God which you preserved for us. Last time this council was here we dramatized our history and our humanness in the play "Muntu", indeed some of you were then in the flesh. Today, as I pour these words to you like a libation, my heart and soul are full of grief and hope, quite conflicting, but that is the truth. You see, I have just heard the hurt of your children. I am re-living in my bones and hearing in my ears the voices of the pain of the "family-ghosts of the Middle Passage".(1) No wonder that Ali Mazrui says that you are angry with us.(2) True, often we find that we are angry at ourselves and continue to vow "Never Again". But even as we say "never again" and defeat apartheid, we find ourselves reaping the whirlwind of racism at every turn. We yearn to be authentic, we yearn to discover the strength with which you resisted total obliteration of what you had received from your forebears and indeed of the total annihilation of our kind from this soil. We yearn to rediscover your wisdom, for who knows but that we may glean insights and inspiration for our contemporary struggles and dilemmas for we too resist total absorption into an euro-centered global culture we have not helped to shape. We know you have something to say to us.

I remember you Anowa, you had taught us how to live in harmony with ourselves and with the rest of creation.

I remember you Creator, that moving away from the smoke and fire created by man, you charged woman to teach her sons to honor God and to apologize when they have wronged others.

I remember you, God of Many Names, you taught us to seek reconciliation when we fall into strife, you gave us padare where we can have our palavers.

Honorable ancestors, our land knows a lot of strife and I have just seen and heard more. We grieve for you as we grieve for ourselves. But it seems in the very turmoil and decay, that is Africa, is the seed of the New Africa determined to sprout so that Africa might make her own unique contribution to the global community.

Dear ancestors, you had a religion, you were led by the Creator. Some of you like Nehanda, held on to it even with your dying breath. Some of you enhanced it with tenets from Islam, others of you enriched it with Christianity and many of you struggled to abandon it totally and taught that we too should abandon that African Religion outright. But you preserved the essentials of the religion ingrained in the culture you passed those on to us. I am not complaining. We too are creative beings, so we have taken the challenge to craft a Christianity that does not obliterate our Africanness, but rather contributes to its enrichment globally. We make bold to seek the new, for if we are afraid of positive change we shall be over taken by decay and simply perish from the face of the earth as a distinct people.

Did you not say that the one who is blazing a trail does not know that the path behind is crooked? We too have to take the responsibility for the choices we make. Nevertheless I have an urgent need to tell those of you who opted for Christ that, we who followed your foot steps continue to grieve the Holy Spirit. You remember how Jesus , our spiritual ancestor prayed that we may have peace, and how he wished us fullness of life. This was nearly 2,000 years ago. The world has known very little peace. For us in Africa, the only peace we have known in the past 500 years is that which comes from acquiescing in our own dehumanization. I am not unmindful that some of you resisted the imposition and paid with your earthly lives.

I can hear Anowa say "enough is enough". I see Jesus weep to see our inability to identify and adhere to that which makes for our peace. Our refusal to stay under his motherly wings gives him grave sorrow for the hawkers hovering around us are ready to sell us any and all ideologies and world views as long as they line their pockets and feed their racism. It was not too long ago the Western media was telling us that Africa has been "abandoned". We did our own analysis and steeled ourselves up, for we came to know the reality of the siphoning of Africa's resources by Trans-national corporations and the newly named fad "globalization". We know the economic exploitation which promotes the misery of Africa, as Africans enrich the West and increasingly the East too. We seek a way out and a way forward and we count on you our ancestors to accompany us through out. Today, we are reminded that:

" It is not the material poverty that constitutes the biggest problem of Africa in the bid for social transformation. It is the lack of a vital inner force, a moral will and a capacity for sustained initiatives in the struggle for positive change" (3)
We have been through liberation struggles that you know so well. Today we continue where you left off...retrieving our lost humanity. Today, it is our very humanity that is being belittled and overlooked by the powerful ones, both internal and external. Today we aspire to a cultural liberation by distilling and incorporating the valuable norms you tried to preserve.

This is why I make bold to pour these words to you, my ancestors. I am convinced that both our African and our Christian heritages as well as the Islamic, have something to say to us. Even the Western heritage may be gleaned for a positive contribution. Was it not you who said "Tete wo bi ka, tete wo bi kyere? [the past has something to say: the past has something to teach"]. But the past has nothing to impose.

Do hear me out a little my ancestors in Jesus. What has the Christian past to teach us as we struggle with our contemporary realities? Can we find a healthy and healthy-giving Christianity in Africa? Well, say something. OK! You too have questions to ask. You ask: What are we doing in our community based organizations? Are we carefully examining the concepts of structural adjustment, of liberalization, of privatization, or do we contain our efforts within "rescuing the perishing and caring for the dying"? I hear you urging us on "Go beyond changing, transforming, reconstructing so you might continuously nurture, enhance, build and sustain beautiful lives in beautiful environments. That is the way to claim our descent.

You call us to the need to face the impunity with which we violate the humanity of others. How right you are. We are promising ourselves a new day. We have begun with gender-sensitivity and gender equity. If only the churches will develop awareness of women's perspectives, involvements and contribution we would not lose so much potential. Whatever the context and agenda, you call us to pay particular attention to those whom the world consider "marginal". New voices will help shape the new Africa. We have vowed to help bring an end to social exclusions in our communities; so why not begin in the Church? Jesus you specifically prayed that we be one , just see what we have made of unity on this continent. We have promised ourselves to develop ecumenically-minded leadership, to replace our confessional fundamentalism with the zeal for joint-work in mission. We shall not be partners only, but companions, a people walking the Emmaus road with you.

My esteemed forebears, in 1970 David Barrett made a statement that till today fills me with fear and trembling. He wrote under a title "AD 2,000, 350 Million Christians in Africa" I can see you smile because you told us that "If might were right, the elephant would be king of the forest".(4) What does this numerical strength represent? What sort of Christianity? I thought of the onion that once disappointed me to the core of my being; it held a theological message. This big perfectly shaped glossy-skinned fruit of the earth, had a hollow center. The life sustaining growth point had dried up. So I ask , What is the theology and spirituality at the core of African Christianity, dried, rotten or alive? Our claim to relevance depends on the answer.

Today what fills me with fear and trembling is that Africa is perceived and treated as marginal in all spheres of world concerns except as a source of wealth for others and in matters of faith. Both Islam and Christianity run high on the crest of visibility as people grope for shalom. So the concerned observer is bound to ask: What faith? What practice? What theology ? What Church? Now ancestor Blyden, I do not know if you remember, but you once prophesied concerning Africa that will become the spring of spirituality for the whole world.(5) I do not know whether we are entering into the heritage of this prophesy. What I do know is my own question on which you may perhaps enlighten me. "How can Christianity in spite of its 19th century legacy of Western impact become a frame of reference for the expression of African ideals of life?"

Living with our history we declare the 20th century as Africa's Christian century. You will bear us out that even though the churches of the first Christian centuries were concentrated on the shores of this continent, this century that is closing, has seen more dramatic presence of Christianity. The Church has grown, yes, but it seems little has changed from 1951 when it was said that

"the Church has grown evangelically without corresponding theological, liturgical and economic maturity." This "lamentable" situation needs to be addressed with all intentionality." There is an understandable concern that under the stress of political and social change, organized Christianity may start to disintegrate at the center while it is still expanding at the circumference.(6)
Well, honorable forebears, you know that we are expanding, there are many more churches, many more expatriate missionaries, many more charismatic movements and many more people who confess Christ as their personal savior. There are many who leave it to The Christ to deal with their enemy, The Devil, and to dispel the fear of some of you whom they had demonized or are beginning to do so. We too want to leave behind a path of faith and on that we shall faithfully work.

We do not deceive ourselves. When we protest the dismal image of Africa projected in the Western media, we do so fully aware of our own complicity and domestic exploitation. Bessie Head has observed that " the roots of cheating and stealing" is that of "despising the people". People at the helm of affairs in Africa or related to Africa say the people "know nothing simply because they do not read and write".(7) We despise ourselves as others despise us, while we proclaim that wisdom does not come from reading and writing many books. We are aware of our "social defects". We experience or inflict

"a form of cruelty, really spite, that seems to have its origins in witchcraft practices. It is a sustained pressure of mental torture that reduces its victims to a state of permanent terror. And once they start on you they don't know where to stop, until you become stark, raving mad. Then they grin."(8)
In the second half of this century, as in the first, we have seen politicians, colonial, civilian and military do this to those who challenge them. In another context this is a picture of the economic strangulation of Africa by global monetary powers which makes Mazrui ask "Is there life after debt?"(9)

If we cannot live through victorious, then we are not your children. It is in the midst of all this monetary witchcraft that Mazrui assures us that Africa does have a leverage for we possess what he calls "counter power". Counter power is defined as "power exercised by those who in absolute terms, are weaker, upon those who are by absolute measurements are stronger" For he says there is power even in being a debtor; for "the threat of default makes the creditor vulnerable."(10) There is a mutual indebtedness which the Christian lobby says can only be resolved by forgiveness of debts. What else does the Church of Africa say or do with regard to this economic situation which seems to be at the core of the denigration of our humanity.(11) In 1995, the AACC called a consultation on "Democracy and Development in Africa: The Role of the Churches". The proceedings were subsequently edited and published by J.N.K. Mugabi. In this volume we find some hints for our quest.

Nananom, you are around us and so you are witness to the fact that political sagesse on the part of religious bodies is at a very low ebb in Africa. The dramatic discontinuation of the structures that served you has not served us well and where they continue, they are often in conflict with the imposed Westernization. We still have the Churches and the mosques. They have the opportunity to touch the lives of people at the least on a weekly basis not to talk of the daily and the one on one encounters with these living roots of our nations. But one still asks " How is this availability of the people utilized?"

Political parties use their opportunities to cultivate people to rally around the interests of the party said also to be the best interest of the nation. But the results are ambiguous, for while mouthing the needs of the people, our political leaders are forced to implement "externally induced projects of democratization and population control"; economic structural adjustments that pass on the responsibility to stay alive on the people themselves and their community efforts named "Civil Society" are the demands of globalization. My ancestors, I am puzzled. "To what purposes are our taxes beyond the maintenance of armies and an ill-equipped police force?" The complex political and economic challenges overwhelmed us and have resulted in social decay that send people scrambling for the spiritual support. "What is the Churches response?"

The consultation just mentioned, warns clearly that "It is deceptive and dangerous to preach a Gospel of Prosperity in the midst of massive poverty." It is deceptive because we do not bring the people to an analysis of the "socio-structural constraints that prevent many African communities from enjoying descent living by any standards".(12) It is dangerous because we claim that religion is "an agent of welfare" but do not empower the people to seek this welfare. And above all it is deceptive to continue to teach that religion and politics do not mix, when both claim to cater for the welfare of the people. It is deceptive because while on this side of the grave, we dare not separate body and soul hence we have to see to it that religion serves our humanity.

Beloved ancestors, you gave up your people for labor, then you gave up the land to be colonized. You were the first to experience the globalization of our economy. You moved from maize to coffee to satisfy the trade terms. You were forced out of traditional statecraft and made your way into modern statehood and "the blackening" of the UNO in the 1960s.(13) In the process, we, your children have been incorporated into an Euro-centered world culture. I am not saying all is unambiguously bad. By the imperial languages some of us your children can communicate beyond our mother tongue. But whether we speak these tongues or not we find ourselves bound by Euro-centric "international" laws we did not help to craft. I knew you would say, "But you can change some of these". We have to shed the carefully groomed inferiority we experience when faced with Western science and technology. I know you will point out that technology has no race and that several have entered its ambit who are not of European descent and who knew no colonization. Yes I agree and would even add, "so have some erstwhile colonial peoples". Nothing prevents us from joining the latter.

You, our ancestors have asserted your continued presence to make us work, so you too can feel at home in global Christianity. No longer shall we join in demonizing you in translations and in theologising. We realize today, that cultural and religious pluralism is a global reality. We affirm therefore that taking this factor seriously demands that we take African Religion seriously. Those of us who are Christians shall learn to be both authentically African and authentically Christian. The challenge is to strife to contribute to World Christianity and a Christian Ecumenism.

We crave dissent so while we take a critical distance from local cultures, which find dehumanizing, we shall remain true to our African heritage. This means all externally stimulated change has to be minutely examined, for we too have a responsibility to contribute to the changing and the shaping of world history and culture.

You heard the life stories that I heard today. We are faced with how to reduce the West's stranglehold over Africa. The marked Euro-centrism of the past five hundred years has meant that world-culture too bears its marks. We need to strive more intentionally to build on the values you crafted from your experience. We need a totally new vision of ourselves and a positive outlook that will generate innovative perspectives. Both Idowu and Mazrui describe Africa as a woman. I forgive their sexism. Mazrui describes Africa as a woman with the expression "the female continent" - passive, patient and penetrable".(14) In his African Traditional Religion: a Definition, Idowu compares what the powerful nations expect of Africa with what most societies expect of women:

"Where she behaves herself according to prescription and accepts an inferior position, benevolence which her poverty' demands is assured, and for this she shows herself deeply and humbly grateful. If for some reason she takes it into her head to be assertive and claim a footing of equality, then she brings upon herself a frown; she is called names; she is persecuted openly or by indirect means; she is helped to be divided against herself..."(15)
As women resent these stereotypes so Africa must refuse this female typology. We have participated in changing the world. We took part in evangelizing Africa, right from the inception of Christianity as well as during later centuries. It is our duty to identify our contribution to help posterity build up their self-esteem.

At the moment we continue bound under the western sphere of influence and seem unable to highlight our interdependence so as to build up the self-esteem of our children. The West continues involvement in how we run our economies and prosecute our politics because they need us for a market and for investment space. Our resources helped to develop their world so we can make them strengthen our regional structures. We can and must think Pan-African. We can and must think and work for change. We've done it in South Africa where we rescued our humanness from the jaws of racism. How will South Africa use this new-born dignity in Africa and globally?

The world extracts minerals from Africa and we have a numerical power in the UNO. Should we not use this to make the Trans-National Corporations more responsible? It seems to me that through the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the world community has sacralized money and put it even higher than the political state. Could we in Africa keep our diamonds, gold and oil in the bowels of the earth, if we cannot make them speak for the good of Africa? We have become heavily Christianized, could we engage in influencing the shape of global Christianity or at least develop our own distinctive African practice and articulation of the faith? Who knows but that others may find our's speaking to them or at least we shall enhance and enrich the diversity and the variety of ways of living out the faith. We would be contributing to shaping the history of Christianity and demonstrate the universal import of the coming of Jesus the Christ. Western Christianity has in the main been a de-Africanising power, but that does not need to continue. You our ancestors expect us to do better than that. So with you among the great cloud of witnesses I call upon my sisters and brothers of African descent to conversion and commitment we cannot afford to do less.

A call to conversion and commitment

Return to ourselves as we Turn to God so we can move forward with integrity.
Never again shall we walk on tiptoe.
Never again shall we suffer humiliation.
Re-assert indigenous African ways that have seeds of humanization for all humanity.
Refuse laws that serve the interest of lawmakers to the woe of the people
Never again shall we be plagued with coups and religious strife.
Never again shall we condone the cultural de-Africanization from outside.
Refuse westernization that comes in the guise of Christianization.
Never again shall we be silent in the face of opportunistic foreign policies as in open markets and liberalization that sell our heritage to all bidders for a pot of porridge.
Never again shall we buy into the transplantation of foreign life styles without the appropriate soil in which they can make us prosper.
Recoil from inefficiency, mismanagement corruption and our narrow definitions of who belongs and who is our community.
Never again shall we be satisfied with living as hunters and gatherers with no maintenance and creative culture and a resignation to death and decay of infra-structure.
We vow to you and to ourselves before this great cloud of global witnesses seen and unseen.
Never again shall we walk on tip-toe around the globe which is God's world and our common heritage.

1. From Howardena Pindell Auto-biography Water/Ancestors/Middle Passage/Family Ghosts 1988 a painting used in The Black Aesthetics African American Arts at the Wadsworths Atheneum. 1998 Calendar, for the month of October.
2. I have had the probes of Ali A Mazrui into African culture in mind as I do this analysis of the meaning of our contemporary experiences in Africa believing, like him, that Africa is at a critical phase in which culture must take the center stage. See his book and video The Africans: a triple heritage, Little, Brown and Company, Boston & Toronto, 1986.
3. From the WCC staff paper on the "Africa Plenary" for the 8th Assembly of the WCC, Harare 1998.
4. David Barrett, IRM, vol.159, No. 233, London, 1970, pp. 39-54.
5. Blyden, Edward Wilmot, "Ethiopia Stretching Out Her Hands to God or Africa's Service to the World" in Christianity, Islam and the Negro Race, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 1967, p. 124; see Kwame Bediako, Christianity in Africa, Edinburgh University Press, & Orbis Books, 1995, p. 6-14.
6. The Missionary Factor in East Africa, 2nd edition, Longmans, 1951.
7. Bessie Head, A Question of Power, Heinemann, Oxford, 1974, p. 133.
8. Bessie Head, op. cit., p. 137.
9. Mazrui, p. 314.
10. Mazrui p. 314-5
11. I understand a denigration as de-nigration, an attempt to "whiten" our humanity, obliterate our Africanness, to make us the shadow of others.
12. Mugambi, p. 33.
13. Ruth Engo speaking on "The UNO and Africa" at a conference on Africa held at Stony Point, USA in 1998.
14. Mazrui, p.303.
15. E. B. Idowu, African Traditional Religion : A Definition, p. 77.

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