Buttocks, Bridges, and Kola Nuts

Lonely elephant

By Niyi Gbade and John Becker

A proverbial look at navigating through conflict in North-South partnership.

Matako ghawi ghaleka cha ku kwenthana (Two buttocks cannot avoid friction).

—Malawian Proverb

We could not hold back our laughter as we considered this Malawian proverb. Although a bit crass, this clever verse creates a humorous word picture of an inevitable truth—friction can’t be avoided in a close relationship.

Being long-time friends and close colleagues with real life experience of partnership in Africa, we want to share, through poignant African proverbs, nuggets about resolving and lessening conflict in North-South partnerships. Our hope is that through these well-worn “words of wisdom” we will provide fresh encouragement to foster fruitful partnerships.

As partnership activists, we are witnessing a growing spirit of collaboration and an increase in international diversity. The global church is learning to work together to fulfill the mission Jesus commissioned us for. However, there are significant historical, cultural, economic, and experiential challenges to be encountered between Global North and Global South partners. As we cross this divide and draw near in partnership, we will face conflict. It’s how we respond to it that will determine our success in reaching the world with the Gospel together.

ponte di legno
When we’re in crisis, strategic solutions act like bridges to make our partnerships long-lasting and effective.

In the moment of crisis, the wise build bridges and the foolish build dams.

—Nigerian Proverb

A new partnership was emerging between AIM and Calvary Ministries, CAPRO. After a wonderful week of meetings at our international office, we were enjoying our fellowship and favoring our African sense of time a bit too much when I (John) realized we were going to be late for the train. Jumping into my “western” sense of time, I hurried us into my car and utilized my “Kenyan” driving skills to negotiate the streets of Bristol as Amos and Niyi were praying Nigerian prayers. Jumping out of the car, I shouted, “follow me!” Niyi and Amos followed without question as we dashed through the crowds and up and down stairs to the platform. I threw the bags and bridged my body in the open train door, just as the station dispatcher blew the whistle for the train to depart. Although winded and disheveled, Niyi and Amos made their train to London!

Shared experiences like this mini crisis help forge partnership which flows out friendship. Friendship that has come from time spent together in each other’s homes and offices. However, too often when conflict and “crisis” arise in partnership, we begin to dam up problems rather than find bridges. Solutions need to be found through our collective resources that have the potential of making our partnerships long-lasting and effective. It’s much easier to achieve this when there is friendship.

This became very pronounced for me in 2015 when I was invited to a conference to train mission and national church leaders in strategic partnerships. The church leadership had a particular interest in hospitals and theological institutions and were not as enthusiastic about new missionary personnel being assigned to outreach areas. Mission leaders, on the other hand, were championing a vision to reach the unreached areas of the nation and were lessening the focus on managing projects in majority Christian areas. These competing visions reached a crux during the conference. In an awkward moment in the middle of my session on “shared vision”, the president of the denomination interrupted and verbalized his frustration with the lack of respect for the church’s vision. He went on to explain that if foreign missionaries were coming as invited guests and under the authority of the church, they needed to prioritize the vision of the church. He reminded each of the leaders that they needed to submit MOUs before proceeding with strategies.

Too often when conflict and “crisis” arise in partnership, we begin to dam up problems rather than find bridges. Solutions need to be found through our collective resources that have the potential of making our partnerships long-lasting and effective.

This situation left everyone with a choice. Either part company, or find a way through to the future. Quite honestly there was the temptation to terminate the decades-long partnership and find another means for visas to exercise freedom in outreach. Though emotions were high, the leaders resisted the easy out and pursued an opportunity to establish open dialogue towards better cooperation and understanding. In the days and weeks ahead there was a concerted effort to bridge the gap and reach agreements. This took prayer, humility, and creativity to address the felt needs of the national church and patiently wait for better alignment. Persevering to preserve the “unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” proved more important than proceeding with vision and strategy. Rather than the foreign missionaries pushing their agenda, they took a posture of submission. God opened hearts and moved the president’s leadership team, who embraced a vision for the unreached, to help move the vision of the church and the president to a point when unreached people groups became more of a focus for them. Thankfully, things are moving forward with greater unity, local ownership of a shared vision, and marked progress towards engaging more unreached peoples.

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Kola Nut: Among many ethnic groups, giving a kola nut is a symbol of hospitality, friendship and respect.

Oro pele yo obi lapo (A good word takes a kola nut from the pocket).

—Yoruba Proverb

Words are capable of making or breaking relationships. A thoughtful word spoken at the right time is life-giving and capable of diffusing an escalating tension. Effective communication is an essential element of partnership and one of the most important keys to amicable conflict resolution.

I (Niyi) once worked with a global leader on a significant research project. He was in the US and I was in Nigeria. He called out for responses and I usually delayed responding—so it seemed. He had high-speed internet and reliable service. I had the national phone company to depend on—even for the simple delivery of my fax messages. There was growing frustration at the slowness of progress and communication from my end. I assumed he knew my struggles. We once got talking on the phone and I told him that my car was in a queue for petrol for the past three days. When he eventually discovered what I was working with, he felt so sorry for putting pressure on me and offered a very gracious word of apology. It immediately relieved my tension. Though globalization and technological advance is real, so is the lack of electricity and petrol! We are still living in two different worlds and need to bestow grace and patience towards each other.

The Global North, especially North American leaders, need to work much harder at talking less and listening more.

In building a lasting relationship, we might want to do away with certain clichés that have become our usual side comments: Have you ever heard that Africa’s Christianity is “a mile wide and an inch deep?” What measuring instruments did they use to measure the growth of Christianity? Maybe if the same instrument is used in the Global North, we might find the same results. Another cliché is the word “national” which is used to describe indigenous missionaries working within their country or region. I have been a missionary for 38 years but I am still being introduced as a “national”. The truth is that even within my own country where we have over 250 ethnolinguistic groups, it is easy to cross cultures. I am from the South-Western part of the country but I lived in the North most of my life and speak three languages. I have crossed many cultures taking the gospel with me. I am a “missionary”, not just a “national”.

Another persistent problem is the dominance of English. Those partners who have English as a second language might appear disinterested and lacking leadership around issues, when in fact, they are struggling to keep up with the conversation. At a recent network leadership meeting, one of the Global South leaders expressed her frustration, “We bite our tongue waiting for our turn.” If we fail to address this challenge and accommodate multi-lingual solutions, partnerships are hamstrung by not benefiting from diverse voices.

The Global North, especially North American leaders, need to work much harder at talking less and listening more. This includes not insisting that meetings be conducted in English. When we intentionally provide interpretation at meetings and translation of resources in the languages of the partners, we take kola nuts from the pocket and bless one another.

Common Bowl: Eating from a shared bowl is more than just a delicious meal, it’s sharing collective resources and building relationships.
Common Bowl: Eating from a shared bowl is more than just a delicious meal, it’s sharing collective resources and building relationships.

A united family eats from the same bowl.

—Buganda Proverb

Not an uncommon practice throughout the Global South is the tradition of eating from the same bowl. The meal becomes an intimate occasion and an illustration of sharing. One of the most striking evidence of partnership is the sharing of resources. Partners come together because of shared vision and the need they have for the other. Each one brings something unique and collective resources are gained. However, money too often becomes the dominant ingredient in the bowl and the very thing to derail the partnership.

We have witnessed it time and time again, where unclear accountability, competition for limited resources, and different approaches to managing ministry funds ends in accusations, broken trust, and a parting of ways. Foundations and new mission structures are interested in financially supporting indigenous mission activity rather than sending foreign missionaries. Because Jesus’ statement in Luke 10 that “the harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few” is as true today as it was then, the same indigenous missionaries are being pursued by competing organizations. Success is often measured by reporting the number of people reached and churches planted. Such numbers are difficult to assess and collecting the data leans heavily on the workers themselves or their regional supervisors. Workers want to please their partners and ensure the funds keep coming which leads to a temptation to inflate the numbers. We also find upon further investigation that there are inflated numbers because each partner is claiming the same fruit—“double counting”.

We need to work towards a balanced diet, where there is truly a sharing of collective resources which is not limited to dollars on one side and workers on the other.

Early this year a collection of international organizations in Vision 5:9 were developing a new partnership in a very under-reached area. One of the leaders suggested including an indigenous Southern organization whom he had a relationship with. One of the other partners adamantly opposed, stating that this organization was over reporting the multiplication of churches and that the whole operation was being driven by US dollars. Surprise and disappointment resulted. However, on further investigation, it seemed that this brother had not yet brought this concern to the leader of the accused organization. Once the concern was raised, there was a willingness to take ownership and put a strategy in place to address it. Partnership did not need to be severed nor reputation blemished, but rather rigorous communication and assistance in assessment.

Many Global North partners fund projects but do not pay remunerations to their partners in the South. The challenge here is the attitude and approach of seeking to control the projects from a distance just because they have funded them. Ministry partners can feel overwhelmed by the demands for budget reports and accounts of spending. Often partners have not played their part well with a lack of balanced accounts which gives the impression of being dishonest, closed and unreliable.

In one context, the wife of the president of a national church had developed an excellent response to the growing number of orphans she found in her town. She mobilized some local resources and people and welcomed the children into her home. When visiting partners from sister churches in the USA saw her faith and compassion, they were able to raise funds to build a new center for the children. The orphanage caught much enthusiasm and quickly developed into a robust operation owned by a foundation which took it on as one of its premier projects. Wonderful, right? I’ll never forget the tears of confusion, frustration, and fear that came from this dear sister when she found herself unable to meet the expectations and demands of the board. She had simply responded to local needs out of a pure heart and now she was accountable to a system and structure that caught her by surprise.

Too often the well-known proverb “He who pays the piper dictates the tune” comes into play. Ownership of the project can be lopsided on the funder because they have an acute sense of responsibility to report to the actual donors how their donations are used for God’s mission. This drives a vision which might not be co-owned by the local leaders. The funds move it forward without true local ownership and it becomes ineffective in bringing real and lasting Gospel impact. Sustainability is hindered because of foreign structures and dependence on foreign funds.

We need God’s wisdom, patience, and the ability to listen to others’ perspective if we want to avoid these common conflicts. Although in this new day of missions where most of the world’s Christians live in the Global South, still the greater part of the material resources is located in the North. Real partnership will develop through mutual transparency (i.e. Global North partners sharing their accounting with their Southern partners). We need to work towards a balanced diet, where there is truly a sharing of collective resources which is not limited to dollars on one side and workers on the other. As we learn to eat from the same bowl our partnerships can foster local ownership through indigenously developed accounting training, project management, and ministry assessment.

Those whose palm-kernels were cracked for them by a benevolent spirit should not forget to be humble.

—West African Proverb

As we celebrate the reality that more missionaries are being sent by the Global South and there are increasing opportunities for partnership between North and South, perhaps the most important thing we need is to apply the oil of humility to oil the partnership engine. If we have a proper perspective that all that we have is a gift from God and no achievement of our own, we will be far more gracious and forgiving.

With the change in the global mission fulcrum, making it function “from everywhere to everywhere” we are left with no option but to strengthen our North/South partnerships. The field for partnership projects has changed over time. From Brazil to Africa, from Africa to Europe and America, from Korea to the Gulf states, we see missionaries crisscross the lands in unusual patterns. The sovereign God of the world directs His laborers to serve in the harvest fields bringing completion to our work on earth and establishing His eternal kingdom. In times like these, we must consider best partnership practices that are based on scriptures like “How good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity” (Psalm 133:1).

The sovereign God of the world directs His laborers to serve in the harvest fields bringing completion to our work on earth and establishing His eternal kingdom.  In times like these, we must consider best partnership practices that are based on scriptures.

In our Vision 5:9 network we are working hard to address the conflicts that arise in our partnering together across the North-South divide. We recently formed an “Inclusion” task force to intentionally help us move forward in diversified leadership and inclusive organizational culture. Allan Matamoros, our chairman, expressed, “You in the West may have changed your language, but not your behavior. Some do not have the courage to share their hearts and tell brothers in the West this. We cannot avoid tensions but we can be more inclusive, especially when making decisions. How can we be more equals around the table, preserving the love amongst each other and also having more colors present?”

We know too easily that pride gets in the way in our partnership relationship. Also, we get caught up promoting our organizations and forget that we must put the “Bride before the brand!” Mutual respect, and admitting our contribution to friction (remember our first proverb?) will help us to develop fruitful partnerships that will endure the times and seasons of the harvest.

Jesus said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles dominate them, and the men of high position exercise power over them. It must not be like that among you. On the contrary, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant” (Matthew 20:25–26). Again we are reminded in James 3:13, “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.” Let’s outdo each other in humble service.

Finally, borrowing a proverb from our Korean partners, “The Frog forgets he was once a Tadpole”—we are reminded of the road we have traveled thus far and learn from our mistakes so that we can take mighty leaps forward in glorifying God among all peoples!

Niyi Gbade is a mission mobilizer for Calvary Ministries CAPRO USA and Assistant Pastor at Christian Life Center in Tinley Park, Illinois.
John Becker is the Director of Ministries for African Inland Mission and is the International Coordinator for the Vision 5:9 Network. He has been a contributing author of several books including Where There Is Now a Church.


Questions to ask yourself:

  • Are you nurturing your relationships with Global South leaders? How much time do you give to opportunities for friendship growth?
  • What can you do to build “bridges” through conflict, demonstrating creativity and an inter-dependence on North-South solutions?
  • Do others hear you talk about partnership with the Global South? What rhetoric needs changing in your vocabulary? How are you accommodating your partners when English is not their language of choice?
  • Can you mature your partnership endeavors, from the promotion of your organizational “brand” to promoting collective resources and co-ownership?
  • Are you demonstrating transparency with your accounting in the same way you expect from your Global South partners? How can you develop mutual accountability in administering projects and assessing progress?
  • When did you last ask your cohorts for feedback on the success of your partnership and for advice for better serving them?
  • When did you last apologize in a culturally appropriate way to one of your partners?
  • What do steps in humility look like to you in your partnerships—and to your partners?
  • How can you actively develop kindness in your heart for your partners and show it to them other than through financial resources?

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