Summoned from the Margin: Homecoming of an African

by Lamin Sanneh

Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2150 Oak Industrial Drive N.E., Grand Rapids, MI 49505, 299 pages, 2012, 276 pages, $24.00.

Reviewed by Mike Nichols, program director for Intercultural Studies, Lincoln Christian University, Lincoln, Illinois; former missionary to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Just how did a boy of little means from the Gambia end up teaching at Harvard and Yale? Lamin Sanneh’s life story will inspire readers. This book is an application of Kierkegaard’s quote, “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” Sanneh’s life would have been impossible to predict at the beginning, but fascinating to analyze looking backward. The author’s willingness to be transparent about thoughts and emotions will help many readers see their own life story within his. Human emotions are the same in every culture, although expressed in different cultural forms.

This is a story of surprises. At 8 years old, Sanneh kicks a pile of papers at a garbage dump, finding the remnants of Helen Keller’s autobiography. The hope and courage he reads about transforms him into an avid reader—he reads anything he can get his hands on, including the labels on boxes of food. Getting to go to school is a thrill.

This is a story of struggle. We get an insider’s view of a boy who grows up in a polygamous family, with a mother as the second wife. We watch a young boy’s struggle to understand and survive a traditional male initiation rite. We see a little boy trying to understand why his mother eventually leaves his father. We taste the hopelessness of real hunger in a life-endangering drought.

This is a story of a man seeking God. Sanneh traces his faith journey from Islam to Christianity. He accepts Christ without losing respect for Islam. As a Muslim, he learns to honor God; as a Christian, he learns to love him. He leaves the worldview of fatalism, embedded in the culture of his village, and makes a life-altering decision to live by choice and responsibility.

This is a story of irony. A man is summoned from the margins of Africa to the West—all while the Western Church is pushed to the margins and the African Church is expanding exponentially. Ironically, Sanneh eventually finds a home in the Catholic Church, the first church to reject him as a young man in Africa.

This is a story of adventure. He encounters civil war in Nigeria and Ghana. He arrives in the States a few months after the assassination of John F. Kennedy and lives in Scotland during the coal miner strikes. While studying Arabic in Lebanon, he lives under the stress of Arab-Israeli tensions.

This is a story of grace. The tone is humble, sharing mistakes, as well as victories. Sanneh is deeply introspective as he continually seeks to understand the purpose and calling of his life.  The entire book is sprinkled with insightful poetry, lyrics, and quotes from classic literature. He doesn’t gloss over mistreatment he receives from various people along the journey, but treats them with grace and forgiveness. He never gives up on the church, even though he was often not welcome.

This is an inspirational story. Sanneh confronts well-entrenched academic views about colonial missions with courage, seeing the missionary use of mother tongue translation of scripture as genuine cultural empowerment, a counter-force to the imperialism of the day.

I have a friend who signs her letters “love God, live passionately, and inspire others.” In this book, Lamin Sanneh has done all three.

Check these titles:

Noll, Mark A. 2009. The New Shape of World Christianity: How American  Experience Reflects Global Faith. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.

Robert, Dana L. 2009. Christian Mission: How Christianity became a World Religion. Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley-Blackwell

Sanneh, Lamin. 2009. Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books.


EMQ, Vol. 49, No. 2, pp. 381-382. Copyright  © 2013 Billy Graham Center.  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.


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