Posted in missions & evangelism

Looking at life through Congolese glasses

I’ve been in Goma (Democratic Republic of the Congo) teaching a course to 23 students, both pastors and lay persons. What a city this is! They say that 150 non-governmental organizations (charities) have set-up shop in this dusty town that lies in the shadow of active volcanoes. As my driver has shuttled me back-and-forth to class over the bumpy roads, I’ve often wondered how my life would have been different if I was born here instead of the United States.

Though I’ve lived in Africa at various times – cumulatively for 12 years – I don’t pretend to know everything there is to know about this amazing continent. First of all, there is no such thing as “African culture.” Africa is a big place, and sub-Saharan Africa has many cultures.

In Paul Hiebert’s book, Anthropological Insights for Missionaries, he outlines 14 characteristics of a Western missionary’s worldview. These formed the basis for one of my class lectures. Since turn-about is fair play – and effective adult education – I gave my Congolese students a homework assignment. “Imagine” I said “that you were sent as a missionary to Brooklyn, New York. Make a list of five characteristics about Congolese culture where you live that these Americans would need to know about you.

Today, they brought in their responses. I divided them into groups of three or 4 and they chose their best responses. Here are some of them.

Note: Sometimes, the groups used the word “Africans” as a generalization. Just like when I had given Hiebert’s sweeping description of “Western missionaries,” they realized that they , too, were painting with a broad brush, that there are always exceptions for some of the points.

1. Africans love living together in families.

2. If you’re married, people expect you to have children within the first year of your marriage. After that, the family of the couple may ask the pastor to pray for your fertility. Childlessness is almost always considered the wife’s fault, not the husband’s.

3. Solidarity is considered important. Living together and sharing what you have – especially food – is essential. Hospitality toward strangers is encouraged. Funerals are times of showing solidarity with those who are grieving. One might bring a goat to the funeral to contribute so that there will be more food for everyone to eat.

4. A person who keeps to himself or herself may be accused of practicing witchcraft.

5. Africans love to sing and dance.

6. The Congolese consider what comes from the outside as better than what is homegrown. This can apply to missionaries and how they do things in church. If a missionary models a certain way of preaching or celebrating communion, it will likely be copied. It also applies to everyday items like rice. Rice coming from Tanzania or even Pakistan is preferred over rice grown locally.

7. Several noted the discrimination that exists against women and youth. “Neither have a word to say,” one noted, meaning that their opinions are rarely considered by older men when making decisions.

8. Age is respected. A local proverb admonishes: “If you get a new casserole, that doesn’t mean you throw the old one away.”

9. Africans solve problems through mediation. A serious problem is handled by a messenger who explains the situation to the other party, seeking resolution. (After this part of the lesson, a student came to me and explained why another student had been late. I had criticized the student’s lateness in front of the class. Rather than directly explaining the reason for his tardiness, he chose to explain that to someone else who then interceded with me).

10. The negative side of solidarity (said one group) is that it can encourage laziness. It’s too easy to become dependent upon someone else.

11. When a politician succeeds and becomes rich, many believe he has used witchcraft to seek the blessing of a benevolent spirit. Likewise, when terrible things happen, people typically think it’s the result of a curse sent one’s way by another.

There have been times when I’ve felt culture shock when living in various African nations. However, as time goes on, I find myself appreciating the good points of the African way of living. While work is important, it must take second place compared to relationships. There is always time to shake hands (often more than once), to ask about one’s family, to laugh together. People don’t have much, but they have each other. That’s a richness of its own.


Photo credit: Compassion Congo


Greg is interested in many topics, including theology, philosophy, and science.

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