The image of African mission work is that of walking dusty, impassable roads to get to villages with a dozen mud or thatch huts, no electricity, no running water, sometimes no well, working with illiterate people whose religion is animistic , pagan, and highly superstitious. And, in fact, much–maybe most–of the mission work done by American churches of Christ probably fits generally into this framework, even though specific works might not.
Read this paragraph from Wikipedia, which documents a major upheaval in African demographics since 1950. It is this extraordinary shift that causes me to wonder if our paradigm for African missions has shifted along with it:
“It is estimated that in 1900 about 95% of Africa’s inhabitants south of Sahara lived from the primary occupations of farming, hunting & gathering, cattle nomadism, and fishing (Aase, 2003:1) meaning that less than 5% were urban. In 1950 (the start of the independence period) 14.7% of Africa’s inhabitants were urban, in 2000 it had risen to 37.2% and it is expected to rise to 45.3% in 2015, in effect 3.76% –3.35% per year (UN, 2002). The Nigerian city of Lagos that in 1963 had 665 000 inhabitants (Rakodi, 1997) and 8.7 million in 2000 is expected to become the worlds 11th biggest city by 2015 with 16 million inhabitants (UN, 2002). The urbanization of most of Africa is moving fast forward, especially south of the Sahara.”
My questions revolve around this growing urbanization of Africans and whether we Christians might be stuck in a strategy for missions in Africa based on the pre-1950 realities.
1. Are we training new workers for urban settings or is working in the “bush” still the primary assumption for preparations ? At a recent mission workshop, African missions was simulated so that students discovered experientially how missions were done and/or perhaps their own affinity for working in Africa. Nowhere, though, was there an opportunity for talking about working with professional Africans in urban settings. The entire experience was rural, fairly primitive Africa.
2. Do potential workers even want to go to cities, or is the African bush image that which draws them? We mission types don’t often admit that the exotic nature of our work is attractive to us—but it usually is. If a potential missionary is thinking about Africa, are they attracted more to a picture of themselves holding Bible studies for office workers in a downtown Nairobi high-rise , or would they rather see themselves preaching under African acacia trees to goat herders?
3. Are we defaulting to bush missions because it is perceived as easier or more receptive? Is the assumption that urbanized Africans might be more educated, more sophisticated, wealthier, and less superstitious a reason to head for the bush? We mission-types often consider all of the above to be barriers to reception of the gospel message.
Even these assumptions about urbanized Africans are only true for a very limited part of the population, since so many of the Africans in cities are very poor refugees from the rural environs.
4. We know what to do for rural poverty. We drill wells and teach them to fish. We introduce drip irrigation and provide basic education. Do we, however, have a theology to share for urban missions in Africa that will address the wealth/poverty issues in urban settings where the two are in much closer proximity to each other? What is the word of the Lord for affluent and/or educated Africans? And can a foreigner speak this word to them or should it preferably come from their own prophets?
I will be the first to admit that I know very little about African missions, so please forgive me if my questions are somehow offensive. These are, however, my questions.
I would love to hear your response.