by Bradley Hill
What is the church’s answer to a marijuana-based (or, in other countries a coca-based) economy?
Marijuana is both a major cash crop for a cluster of Ngombe villages in northwest Zaire, as well as an essential element in their culture. The young church there is necessarily implicated and uneasy about it. Can a Christian grow the hemp plant? What is the church’s answer to a marijuana-based (or, in other countries a coca-based) economy?
BACKGROUND AND IDENTIFICATION OF THE PROBLEM
The Ngombe people live in three groups: one in the Lisala area of the Equator province of Zaire, a second in the Bosobolo area about 150 miles north of Lisala, and a third, the smallest group strung out along the Dua River. This article focuses on the third group. They number about 5,000 (the largest village, Edungu, has about 1,200 people) and live in a dozen or so villages, plying the rivers and forests for fish game. Their language is most like the Ngombe spoken near Lisala, but those from Bosobolo (including myself) can communicate well with them.
The Ngombe people are Bantu. According to folklore told me while I was staying at Edungu, they migrated until they came to the Dua-Mongala River. At this point the tribe broke up, some going inland to Bosobolo, others south to Lisala, and some electing to stay along the river. Their language resembles Lingala in structure. Lingala is a trade language that has developed along the course of trade, particularly along the major rivers and their tributaries.
Though isolated, the Ngombes have had an amazing amount of contact with the outside world because of river trade. They are two days upriver by canoe from a major port where they sell their game and fish and buy finished products, gunpowder, machetes, and clothes. They are proud of being river people and do not readily admit to being Ngombe at all.
Both men and women may fish, but only the men may hunt. Sex role divisions are surprisingly fluid, compared to other tribes of the area. Both men and women work hard in the gardens, although only the men clear the forests. One could say that their economy is subsistence agriculture, but their diet of fish and game has made them strong and relatively healthy (river-blindness is an increasing problem). They get unusually high prices for their fish and game in a meat-starved urban center. Edungu is a wealthy village for this reason, and for another: marijuana. Nearly all of the river Ngombes plant and cultivate large marijuana fields quite openly.
The Ngombes are animists. By animism we mean the belief that man is an integral part of all nature, plus belief in spiritual beings. Supernatural powers exist as benevolent, malevolent, and ancestral spirits that can be either favorably or unfavorably disposed according to whim and of propitiation.
A spirit in the Ngombe language is "mwembo." A mwembo may be attached to inanimate objects, or be part of its substance. For instance, being river dwellers, they have an elaborate concept of water spirits, the chief of whom is Mamiwata. When a child is lost in the river for any reason, whether the giant python has dragged him or he has drowned, the responsibility (not blame) is put on the mwembo. Needless to say, they have a healthy respect for the river, if not actual fear, even though they gain their livelihood from it. Similar spirits infuse trees. When a tree is felled in the garden, an apology is offered and often a simple offering is made, lest the mwembo be offended.
There is a hierarchy in the spirit world: first, the gods, then the mwembos, and then the ancestral spirits. However, in daily life the Ngombes pay scant attention to the deities. Occasionally, they interfere and when that happens the shaman is called in to explain it. To understand the dynamics of marijuana selling, we must also understand the role of ancestral spirits.
Ancestral sprits may inhabit animals, like the leopard, which is a taboo animal. From my observations, it seems that the most recently deceased are the most active and the most liable to exact vengeance for their death, and to interfere in the lives of their descendants.
The Ngombes appease the ancestral spirits by successive anniversary celebrations. When these are not done properly, or are neglected, one can expect misfortune. Often the dead are buried right in their huts, or just outside the front door. Therefore, moving is hazardous because of the grief it will bring to the ancestor left behind.
Edungu is a very old village. One old man showed me the hut he was born in and added, "My mother was also born there." Although the soil has eroded and gardens are far away, they will not move.
One of the most important contributions of the ancestors was the cultivation of "bangi," a variety of marijuana. The Ngombes seem to feel that the plant has always been with them. This may not be accurate historically, but that is their perception.
Their ancestors used this crop for many purposes. They used it for magic rites to control the spirit world, either in potions or by intoxication. They used it for cooking. They smoked it before hunting trips to bolster their courage. Finally, they used it to get rich.
Having money meant being able to buy clothes and cooking utensils, but most of all, brides. In more recent decades, they have used the cash to send their children to school, to buy radios and shotguns, to pay hospital bills, and even to send one of their own people to Bible school.
So, marijuana is an integral part of Ngombe culture. As a crop, it is much more than an isolated phenomenon that can be discarded. It is tied to economics, bride price, western education for their children, the success of the hunt, prestige, and status. But most significantly, it is tied to their religion.
Marijuana is a religious symbol and becomes a model for reality. Symbols capture relationships and make them apprehensible. As a religious symbol, marijuana reduces anxiety because it gives the Ngombes power over the unseen world. If marijuana were to be eliminated, the fabric of society would collapse.
Catholic Christianity came to Edwngu in the mid-1960s, Protestantism about 15 years later. After several visits by our evangelism team, the Kapita (chief) and several young men became Christians and were baptized. Since then the Protestant church has grown to well over 100 adult members, and several other churches have sprung up in other villages. It is not our purpose to trace church growth, but to examine the dynamics of marijuana and the church. Can a Christian grow marijuana? Can the church accept from marijuana crops? What should the missionary do? What should the church do?
THE PRINCIPLES OF SOLUTION
1. The validity of culture. Culture, or the man-made part of the environment— what is learned and transmitted— ”is above all else an adaptive system. We have to begin by understanding that these systems adequately meet people’s needs most of the time, not all of the time, and not all of the time perfectly. This helps us to empathize, if not sympathize, with the so-called "target" culture.
How would you like to face an elephant with a spear? Undoubtedly, marijuana bolsters one’s courage. Very adaptive indeed. Given the presuppositions about the spirit world, and given the hallucinations produced by this drug, one can understand why the Ngombes feel that they have been put in touch with the spirit world. We must tread carefully before disrupting this sequence that has served them over the years. With what should marijuana be replaced? Is there a substitute?
2. The integrative nature of culture. The Ngombes’ use of marijuana is something like the use of peyote among American Indians. It is not like a useless organ that can be surgically removed. It is more like a tumor intertwined with all aspects of society. To cut out marijuana would prevent children from going to school, reduce marriages, cause men to fail in the hunt, and anger the spirits.
It is integral to the Ngombes’ world view. Therefore, any changes would have to be approached from that angle, not simply from behavioral changes. For example, if they held a different perspective on the spirit world, the necessity of using marijuana would be reduced.
3. Cultural mappings and perceptions. Enculturation produces mental maps of reality. As missionaries, one of our prime tasks is to absorb these maps so that we can find our way around the local culture. We must soak up as much as possible of this perceptual grid. It means becoming convinced of the reality of the spirit world, so that we can equip Christians to deal with it one way or another.
4. Elements of cultural change. As missionaries, we enjoy the respect of the church the host society in general. Therefore, we may serve as advocates of change, but not necessarily as innovators. One of our responsibilities is to locate the local innovators, the people with prestige and clout. We have them in our Edungu church: the Kapita and several young hunters.
Presently, the Ngombe culture is stable. Being isolated, they have forestalled disintegration and their pride and self-confidence are high. We seek to build on this, to share their common interests, and to communicate that we admire them as they are.
But how can we motivate them to change? Having innovators is not enough, because, as George Foster points out (Traditional Societies and Technological Change, Harper and Row, 1973, p. 150), isolated innovators normally are not stimulated to make changes. One possibility would be economic competition and gain, because coffee and cotton are also good cash crops. Whatever way we go, we must deal with the potential economic gains or losses.
Of course, we are not dealing necessarily with all of the Ngombes, but primarily with the Christians, who, to this point, grow and sell marijuana. It would not be enough simply to ask them to grow another cash crop instead of marijuana. The desire to make more money is not a proper motivation for them. Rather, we have to teach them that the drug is harmful and that Christians should not grow and sell harmful things. Christians must desire change because of their faith, not because of economic substitutes.
TOWARDS A CONTEXTUAL SOLUTION
The presence of the church itself in Edungu is a precursor to change. In effect, it is a new sub-group, with new values and different systems of thought and teaching, and new allegiances to the true God above other gods, and to the Holy Spirit above all other spirits. However, the Christians are still part of Ngombe culture and participate in the folkways.
So far, we have a reduction in drinking alcoholic beverages and the Christians are less disposed to add to the number of their wives. These changes have come about with relative ease, however, while the marijuana problem continues. Here, there is general resistance to change.
It is easy for missionaries to become fixated on the evils of marijuana and to neglect the only avenue that will permit us to encourage change, is, personal rapport. We have to be accessible and understanding, and offer our assistance and admiration. Our witness from the outside can be effective to some degree because of our prestige and our evident immunity to the mwembos, but in the end it is up to an insider to make a breakâ€”a successful changeâ€”if others are to follow.
As we noted, there is strong resistance to change, but elements are in place that could start the process. The Christian community owes its loyalty to Njambe, who dominates the other spirits and protects his people. Already the Christians do less to placate the spirits. They do not bury their ancestors in their homes and they do not perform ceremonies aside from prayer before hunts.
In time, the protective element of marijuana to placate ancestors and to make magic potions will diminish. Probably the more important issue for Christians will be their means of livelihood. They will have to face the economic realities. We are seeing the leavening process of a Christian world view, but that may not be enough to convince either the Christians or the people at large. We may need something more along the line of power encounter. The Christian hunter will have to be as successful as the non-christian. No more misfortune may befall him because of his lack of use of this drug than on the general village population. His children must be as well educated as the others, and brides secured for his sons without reliance on marijuana income. Then the villagers of Edungu will pay attention.
Other factors may come into play, too. One is the law, since marijuana is illegal; the other is the number of "potheads" hanging around as vacant, useless burdens. So although marijuana fits the Ngombes’ culture and world view, it is not a perfect fit and there is some room to dislodge it.
Eventually, the Christian community may say, "We will not use marijuana, even if it means economic hardship." The nonchristians will not say that. So we will have to see cultural uplift in the church. The Christian church blessed by Godâ€”children free of drugs and so capable and able, less prone to drunkenness and polygamyâ€”may demonstrate an economic level superior to that of the rest of the village. The Christians may be freer to move their homes closer to garden spaces without ties to their ancestors, and so save time and work. That remains to be seen.
In sum, Christians must realize that their allegiance to God means allowing their new world view to take effect in their lives. For the nochristians, they must either become Christians and change, or see that there is security in something other marijuana. They need more than a new cash crop, because no other crop serves as a functional substitute for marijuana.
PRACTICAL STEPS TOWARD A RESOLUTION
We do not want to make peripheral changes that could affect culture in destructive ways. For example, the secularization of medicine might communicate that God doesn’t exist, but only cause and effect. Neither do we want to be as missionary policemen. Nor do we want to communicate that our magic is better than theirs.
We must avoid two pitfalls: one, that Christ is against the Ngombe culture, i.e., that he fundamentally disapproves of it and wishes for its destruction and replacement by some other Western Christian culture; two, that Christ is captured by it, is of its essence, that Jesus is basically just a good Ngombe. Neither is Christ above the culture as a sky-God; no, he is the transformer of their culture, and that transformation comes about in their shift of allegiance their corresponding change in world view.
Here, then, are five steps for changing the role of marijuana among the Ngombe Christians:
1. Communicate an appreciation for the indigenous values at work that make its use necessary. We do, in fact, value some of the same things they do: good education for our children, bravery in face of danger, respect for the memory of our ancestors. Missionary work essentially is relational, so we must be seen as being on their side.
2. Stress the loving omnipotence of God as demonstrated in Jesus Christ. Either in our teaching, or in that of the local pastors (who often ask us what to preach about), we must emphasize the blessing and protection of God for his people, his power over demons and evil spirits, his power to change their lives, and the reality of his kingdom reign now.
3. Give special training to innovators in the church. Encourage them to define the problem and look for solutions. We must resist the temptation to hit the problem head on with our Western theories. We can’t force cultural change. In the long run, the most effective means is to help the local Christians to define and deal with their problem in their own way. Down the road, we can challenge them to "put the Lord to the test," as it were, and do without marijuana. But that should not come too soon.
5. Offer economic alternatives. When all is said and done, Ngombe Christians still have to face high bride prices based on a marijuana economy. Their prices are atrociously high compared to other tribes. Presently the Christian community is large enough to permit marriage within its ranks. We could encourage Christians to lower their prices to Christian men. But that is not a simple matter, because it lowers the self-esteem of the bride when her price is reduced. Perhaps her value could be enhanced in other ways, like laboring as Jacob did for Rachel.
Another alternative would be lumber. The country is starved for building materials, and Edungu is situated in an immense forest. Our mission is planning to set up a portable sawmill. The lumber could be floated downstream to the town. Even outboard motors could facilitate the marketing of coffee and cotton and help to avoid the dangers of hidden hippos.
Whatever steps we take, ultimately we are at the mercy of the Holy Spirit, the one whose perfecting processes bring changes as he wills.
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