by Malcolm Hunter
Reasons nomadic peoples have been neglected by Christian missions, and suggestions to help change that.
It’s no secret that the approximately 200 million nomadic peoples in sub-Saharan Africa, Central Asia, the Middle East, South America, northern Europe, and Canada have been neglected by those of us in Christian missions. Here are some reasons why, along with suggestions to help change that.
1. Ignorance of the existence and complexity of the problem. Ministry to nomadic peoples is quite different from ministry to settled rural or urban people. We assume that our strategies for nearby areas with settled, cultivating people will be effective among nomadic peoples. Both Western and national missionaries from non-nomadic cultures struggle to grasp the worldview and values of these people.
2. Little serious missionary effort. Nomadic peoples are generally considered resistant to the gospel, difficult to get to and to live among. Most missions have concentrated their limited resources on more accessible and apparently responsive peoples. This misses the missiological point that they are an essential part of the Great Commission. If they are "among the most difficult to reach" peoples, there is little point in leaving them until last. As to the charge that they are resistant to the gospel, it may be more correct to say that our presentation of the gospel has been resistant to their value system. Much of current missionary work gives the impression that Christianity is for settled people, while Islam is the religion for nomads.
3. The misconception by outside agencies, both secular and missionary, that nomadic pastoralism is a primitive, inefficient, and unsustainable socioeconomic system that is dying out. Several recent studies have shown that it is considerably more efficient than ranching or any other agricultural system in using land with inadequate rainfall. True, many of the children of traditional nomadic peoples are looking for work elsewhere, but that is often so that they can diversify the family’s economic options.
4. Immense material needs that cannot be avoided. The people make a missionary appear uncomfortably rich even in the best of times. During the inevitable droughts and famines, missionaries will be overwhelmed with human suffering and starvation. When they do respond with famine relief, it is almost impossible to maintain a realistic balance of spiritual and physical ministry. It can be even more difficult to make the transition from short-term relief to long-term development and rehabilitation.
HOME ON THE RANGE
Choosing to build a home "as close to the people as possible," as many missionaries do, is fraught with peril. The missionary who does this will find, sooner or later, that he has attracted the poorest, laziest, or most incompetent herd managers, usually the most destitute and disenfranchised members of the nomadic pastoral community. The missionary may be encouraged at first to find this ready audience. He may even be able to write home after a surprisingly short time and tell exciting stories of numbers coming to his services and professing to accept his religion. Some may indeed believe his message and become Christians, but, unfortunately, their dependence on the missionary devalues their profession.
This lack of credibility is magnified if these first professing believers all happen to be from the destitute families who have lost all their animals. Loss of the animals means serious loss of self-esteem and usually the respect of the other pastoralists who manage to keep their herd, even if much diminished. The missionary must direct his main communication toward the elders and respected herd owners.
Choosing a house in a suitable urban location has its own problems, however. The home will need to be as near as possible to the pastoral area but far enough outside it so that the missionary can get adequate rest. The home should probably be in a large enough town or village so that he can hope to assume a lower profile without facing the constant demands of ministry to the local community.
From this base home he and maybe his family sometimes can move out to the true pastoralist heartland, the grazing areas. He does not need to follow the people around in the bush. When pastoralists are watching their animals in the bush is not at all the best time to try to talk with them. In practice it has proven to be much easier for a "nomadic missionary" to make short visits to a well or pond, especially if he has contacts who will introduce him to some of the other herdsmen. The missionary will find that the active pastoralists will come to him very regularly, in good times every day; in drought, perhaps every third day.
These contacts at the watering point will often lead to invitations to spend the night back at the camps where the people are staying in clusters or extended family groups. Here the real opportunities for the "nomadic missionary" begin. A pertinent question in nearly all non-Western rural areas is, "What do you plant after the sun goes down?" Answer: "The church."
The possibilities in this approach are obvious, but there is the negative side. How long can the missionary live that sort of nomadic life? Few people can appreciate the isolation and sheer monotony of spending night after night in remote and often noisy camps. Little wonder that few missionaries care to take this approach.
KEEPING IT SIMPLE
The missionary may begin with a simple prefabricated, and supposedly portable, building, but soon he needs a store to keep the food supplies. Usually he or his wife cannot avoid getting involved in medical work. Almost inevitably a clinic building will come, just for hygienic reasons. Then some sort of shelter comes next for the sick children and families to stay in overnight.
Sooner or later the inevitable demand for medical attention will require a full-time worker. Usually by this time a pumped water supply has been installed, which may begin with a wind-driven pump but will lead, before long, to electrical power. This used to mean a diesel generator, but now we have the considerably more efficient but expensive solar equipment-not just the array of panels but deep cycle batteries, special fluorescent lights, fans, pumps, and solar refrigerators.
Whatever the missionary’s original intention, a permanent church on the mission station seems almost inevitable. Visitors from overseas who like to see their missionary in action usually express surprise if there is no "proper church" among all the other buildings that have sprung up. Maybe they subconsciously think that the building of a "proper church" will make their missionary’s work more spiritual. How often money is allowed to determine the missionary strategy. All the problems of the missions station church are greatly magnified in a nomadic community, almost certainly hindering the emergence of a truly indigenous church.
A church on the mission compound confirms to the local community that it belongs to the missionary. Also, the missionary is bound to make the church building of good, solid construction, but unfortunately the more permanent he makes it, the more he demonstrates that this is a church for settled people. This definitely confirms what the nomadic pastoralists had been thinking-that Christianity is not for them. For most in Africa, Islam seems much more attractive and appropriate. It allows them to pray anywhere and, really, anytime that is convenient, as long as they do it five times a day. All they need is a prayer mat, and everyone has something that will serve.
HELPING WITH MATERIAL NEEDS
How do we help nomadic peoples with their material needs in an effective and sustainable way? Not only Christian missionaries but, even more so, large international and national government programs have struggled in this area. Appropriate development must include the indigenous church as the transformed and liberated body of Christ in every society. This is true anywhere, of course, but is especially relevant among nomadic pastoralists.
The best that we seem capable of achieving through all our present well-intentioned efforts is to minimize the problems of giving the wrong impression of what Christianity and the church will mean when effectively and attractively established among nomadic pastoralists.
The following lessons have been learned from experience in both West and East Africa.
a. Large-scale irrigation projects and resettlement schemes have generally been the most common and costly intervention attempted but the least helpful if dependent on outside technology, such as water pumps.
b. Animal and human medicine are most commonly appreciated by nomadic pastoralists. Where these are dependent on the services of trained professionals from nonpastoralist peoples, however, nearly all programs seem to fail because of the unwillingness of the government or project personnel to serve in remote areas where their help is most needed. The only hope of supplying effective, if basic, medical services to pastoral peoples will probably be through what are usually termed "barefoot primary health workers."
c. Veterinary medicine is particularly vulnerable to the reluctance of "trained professionals" from nonpastoralist backgrounds. The demand for their skills and medicine is often so high during outbreaks of disease that the professionals often demonstrate their corruptibility.
d. Education is usually the last development option that nomadic pastoralists care about. In situations where education has been welcomed, usually a nongovernmental organization has sponsored the few brighter students. The advantages of sending children through the long process of education are seen not just as the potential future salaries but also the influence of the graduates in government.
e. Animal restocking has proven to be surprisingly positive, in spite of mistakes and mismanagement. Some traditional restocking practices have special relevance to Christian approaches. In each case those who have animals are required to share them with those without. Among the Borana of northern Kenya, if a man loses all his animals through a disaster such as an outbreak of disease or enemy raids, he does not have to ask others for help. His fellow clansmen will decide how many beasts the unfortunate man needs to support his family. Surprisingly, none of the several restocking projects that had been undertaken independently had utilized this culturally well-established procedure.
SHARING THE GOOD NEWS WITH NOMADS
Sharing the good news with nomads must include helping them develop in economically and culturally appropriate ways. What does appropriate development mean for nomads? Here are some suggestions.
1. Recognize that they have learned to survive in ecological conditions usually considered agriculturally nonproductive or, at best, marginal. Let us learn all we can from them.
2. Minimize the use of Western resources and technology. These people are the most independent of modern "civilization" and, all things being equal, would probably remain that way. Unfortunately, external pressures do not allow things to remain equal
3. Begin with a long-term commitment to learn from and with respected community leaders about their felt needs. Be willing to try any possible innovative solution. All too often the first contact comes in desperate famine conditions where relief is the dominant priority. Beginning there may be inevitable, but plan for long-term development.
4. Avoid introducing dependence on Western aid as much as possible. The culture may make begging quite acceptable. Rehabilitation may entail restocking, but respect the traditional practices of repaying and redistributing stock.
5. Carefully build on the traditional technology within particular nomadic economies and cultures. Some common elements are:
a. Water resources. Hand-dug wells in dry-sand river beds. Very seldom are mechanical pumps justified. Deep-bore wells are usually most inappropriate, as they lead to herd concentration and overgrazing. Digging catchment ponds can be improved with this technology. Respect the local methods and build on their technology.
b. Veterinary care. Especially simple kinds, with trained local people supported by the community. Supplies will come from the "outside" but can be paid for in kind or with community service.
c. Stock control. Almost as difficult as human birth control, stock control requires marketing an alternative.
Maclom Hunter and his wife Jean are SIM missionaries who cultivate and encourage work with nomadic peoples.
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