by Del Chinchen
A new and exciting trend is developing in missions today. Many Christians, in retirement, are fanning out across the world as short-term missionaries.
A new and exciting trend is developing in missions today. Many Christians, in retirement, are fanning out across the world as short-term missionaries. They are sharing Christian ethics curriculum with teachers in Russia and Eastern Europe, performing surgery on patients in Sudan, installing a network of computers for a city electrical system in Romania, assisting fledgling entrepreneurs with business skills in Brazil and Khazakstan, teaching English and engineering in China and training young pastors in biblical principles and theological truths in many different countries of the world, just to name a few endeavours.
With a servant’s heart these ambassadors of Christ are finishing the race well. As more people are retiring at an earlier age and living longer, there are more opportunities to make good use of those extended quality years with which God has blessed them. These empty-nesters are the healthiest, wealthiest and best-educated generation yet. Only a couple of years ago, Nelson Malwitz, founder of the “Finishers Project,” recognized this untapped resource for missions of skilled personnel with a disposable income. He dismantled barriers erected by mission organizations preventing those who wanted to enter missions as a second career. Now the movement has the full support of more than fifty leading mission agencies.
We are in the age of the sage in missions, not only because so many senior missionaries are on the field but also because Africa and other places in the world highly value their age, wisdom and experience. In Africa, the old are respected, revered and awed. Many people of other nations in the Southern Hemisphere shake their heads in disbelief at the way America idolizes youth and margin-alizes older people. They cringe at the disrespect youth display towards the elderly. An African philosopher laments: “The purely intellectual form of knowledge is so over-valued that the wisdom of old age gets lost” (Vujo 1998, 204).
This article affirms our retired, second career missionaries in their noble endeavors and helps them understand how they can use their age as a mission strategy. It is often the roles in a culture that are the most invisible to the cross-cultural worker so the tools of anthropology become very useful in revealing and identifying the status and roles of elders in African societies.
RESPECT IN AFRICA
In Africa, to grow old is not at all something negative. People eagerly look forward to climbing the ladder of status by getting older. Hair dye and wrinkle-free formulas are not attractive commodities in Africa. It is common in East Africa to use the Swahili term of respect, “Mzee,” when addressing an older man. In Liberia, the respectful terms “Old Ma” or “Old Pa” are used. I took offense, at first, when people began to call me “Old Pa” when I was in my early forties. It took time to adjust to this cultural perception of age.
It is unthinkable, even immoral, for Africans to confine older people to institutions, isolated from their family. Benezet Bujo, a Kenyan theologian, expresses his worldview:
From the African point of view, to erase old people from our memory instead of allowing them to live near us and within our family community is tantamount, not only to exploitation, but even to killing them. (1998, 203)
A Ugandan proverb also reminds us: “One should not throw away the old hoe.”
Children begin to acquire this value of respect for older people at a very early age. There is even an order of authority among the children, younger children yielding to older children. There is a pattern of dependence on the elders which pervades all human contacts. In school, the child develops this value further. Teachers and classmates inculcate additional related values, being part of a culture that honors the aged. Teachers are treated with respect (older teachers even more than younger ones). Teachers are treated with deference even outside of class. In Malawi, a student on a bicycle passing a teacher walking will get off the bike and walk by the teacher, greeting the teacher respectfully, with a slight bow, when passing. When a primary student presents a paper to be graded to the teacher, it must be presented respectfully with both hands while kneeling. The student must never be higher than the teacher. The value of equality is to Western societies what hierarchy is to Africa.
The principle of hierarchy and the virtue of respect of the superior by the inferior is what organizes social relationships.
Westerners assume equal opportunities in education, work, promotion and achieving success. In contrast, ascribed status and position are a means of identification and definition of one’s place in society in Africa. It is present in most conversations, especially greetings. There is a constant awareness of superordinate and subordinate. At a university in Kenya when three heads of departments were sitting together at the lunch table, a younger teacher felt uncomfortable sitting with them and was about to sit at another table until the heads of departments insisted that she join them.
In hierarchical societies the central value is respect for and obedience to those older. Disobedience or disrespect towards one’s elders is considered the most heinous of crimes. Recently, in a Kenyan village, the chief fined a young person one sheep for theft but then added a more severe fine of a cow for showing disrespect by stealing from an older person.
AGE GRADES IN AFRICA
The traditional African is always associated with a group, of about the same age, made up of those who passed through the initiation stage (circumcision) together. In the modern setting it is the hardship of passing through the national examinations ordeal together and other schooling experiences that unites them in age set categories. As one grows older this network of one’s age-mates is diligently maintained even in the modern context. Jomo Kenyatta, former president of Kenya, identifies three traditional age-grades for the Gikuyu tribe in Kenya. The first (council of spear-carriers) was attained when a man had married and had established his own homestead. The next grade (council of peace) was reached when a man was married and his son or daughter was old enough to be circumcised (1937, 204). The last and highest grade of elderhood (council of the elders) was …reached when a man has had practically all his children circumcised, and his wife has passed the child bearing age. At this stage the man has passed through all age-grades, has been initiated into them all (Kenyatta 1937, 204).
Among the Akamba of Kenya, the last and most distinguished stage in the age cycle begins after the age of fifty (Ndeti 1972, 84). One is always moving upwards to a higher age-grade level. “Age was determined not according to the date of birth but according to the age group with whom a person was initiated” (Mugambi 1989, 158).
Whereas in Western societies those of approximately the same age do not have a well-defined organization, in age-set societies individuals act jointly, often as corporate groups. When a house is built, a crop is harvested or funds are raised it is often the age set that join together to accomplish the task. For Westerners, a person’s chronological age does not provide much information about his social location. In age-set societies, on the other hand, the age system is more definitive. The younger age-sets (e.g., children and the unmarried) are placed in a category of non-persons, unable to make a significant contribution to the community. The older age sets, on the other hand, have accumulated significant material and immaterial wealth in the form of children, cattle, wisdom, knowledge, experience and protection from which the community benefits.
ROLES OF ELDERS IN AFRICA
As one reaches the prestigious position of an elder, at the more exclusive, higher levels of the gerontocratic ladder, more status and power are acquired.
Role as priest. When a Kikuyu man reaches the last age-grade position (similar to our stage of retirement) the leadership role takes on a more priestly nature of religious authority. “The ideal elder was … expected to be a godly man…any authentic elder was a man of prayer” (Wachege 1992, 56).
These elders of the community would take on the responsibility of interceding for their community and reinforcing the laws through blessings and curses. “The traditional Gikuyu saw a vital connection between virtue, God’s blessings and old age” (Kinoti 1999, 197). Elders were highly feared and respected due, in part, to the power and potency of their words.
Role as reconciler. Elders often find themselves in the role of mediator, reconciler and harmonizer. Their wisdom was based on the belief that age enables elders to consider problems rationally, not driven by their emotions. Often, the task of the aged is to cool down and resolve the conflicts generated by the emotional youth. Recently, an elderly African leader was intentionally brought into the higher echelons of a university in Kenya because he would have the respect of students and faculty and would be able to use his wisdom to settle any disputes that may arise. He was introduced in this way: “When you have old men and the youth (pointing down with his hand to symbolize the lower status of the young) along with the middle aged, all in the same home, you can’t go wrong. The older maintain the traditions and vision and the younger keep the institution moving ahead and dynamic.”
Role as counselor. To grow old means to become wiser. Age and experience brings wisdom. Old age is the crowning period of human existence combining experience, patience, wisdom and knowledge—invaluable commodities to the community. As they say in Liberia: “If the new hoe needs to know the condition of the soil, let it ask the old hoe.”
Role as mentor. In Africa, the one who has “gone before” in years becomes the example and guide to the younger generation that follows. “What the Samburu refer to as the firestick relationship links each new age-set with a set of elders who act as their sponsors, patrons and disciplinarians especially during the period of moranhood…” (Spencer 1976, 156). The aged, as models for the young, are to be imitated.
Traditional Africans have found in the Bible echoes of their cultural values of wisdom and respect for older people. The Bible is filled with teaching about the wisdom of and respect for elders. “Wisdom is with aged men, with long life is understanding” (Job 12:12). “The honor of old men is their gray hair” (Prov. 20:29). “You shall rise up before the grayheaded, and honor the aged, and you shall revere your God…” (Lev. 19:32). This verse implies that if one respects those who are older, then, it only follows that God, who is highest on the social ladder, will also be respected. The decline of Israel began when King Rehoboam rejected the counsel of the elders and listened to the young (2 Kings 12). Honoring father and mother is such an important biblical value that it is the first command with a promise (Eph. 6:2). In Titus 2:2-3, older men and women are encouraged to model a Christian lifestyle before the younger.
One is never too old to be productive for the Lord. “The righteous will flourish like the palm tree…they will still yield fruit in old age” (Psalms 92:12-14). Abraham, Moses and Daniel were being used by God even in their 80s.
STRATEGIES FOR THE MISSIONARY SAGE
As we have seen in the anthropological research, climbing the ladder by aging is a strong social value. When filling the role of an elder in Africa, the senior missionary is able to slip into that influential position in society quite easily. Missionaries of mature age in Africa are able to work into the inner circle of top decision-makers quickly and effectively because they are near the top rung of the ladder. The older are considered to be age-mates with those who share similar backgrounds and experiences. An American, 60 years of age, with gray hair, gray beard and a wealth of knowledge and experience in industry, became dean of Science and Technology of a large Christian university in Kenya in less than a year! Suggested below are a few of the many ways to strategically take advantage of your age, for the kingdom of God, when serving in Africa.
Capitalize on the elevated status and rank. Foreigners from societies where equality is the norm struggle with accepting the “inequalities” (as they perceive them) that exist in Africa. Rather than try to change the system it would be less frustrating and more energy effective for older missionaries to accept the system as valid and use it in socially acceptable ways to enhance their ministry. Because age elevates one in status and position it can become a valuable source of integrity and credibility. John Jager, though retired, has served as a missionary on assignments to the Philippines and Tanzania. His age has been an asset for him when working in these countries. He explains: “A lot of people look at your gray hair and it commands a bit more respect.”
My wife’s father, gray hair flowing, came to Liberia, while war was waging in parts of the country, to teach Bible courses in a Christian university. His presence was so appreciated during this time that he was presented with a live rooster. This gift communicated volumes. There were very few chickens left in the country due to the hard times of the war. Relief supplies of rice were even being brought in. This rooster had been hidden from the looting rebel soldiers deep in the jungle, preserved for a very special purpose and person. My wife’s father returned to the US heralding his time in Liberia as the highlight of his life!
On a more sober note, mission organization leaders need to seriously consider an unhealthy trend developing in missions today. Just as missionaries are entering their prime (as an African would see it), at the elder stage (40-50 years of age) when the gray hair begins to appear, many missionaries disappear from the field after acquiring years of valuable experience. Just at the time when they could have the most influence in Africa they opt to return home. Mission organizations need to recognize the strategic value of seasoned missionaries and find ways to encourage them to stay on the field.
Churches and mission organizations in the US also need to consider the cross-cultural effects of youth missions. When we send our young people on missions trips, they need to be educated on the value of respect for older people lest they offend. They also need to be careful that they do not usurp local leadership authority when involved in ministry. Older Africans find it shameful to be trained by those younger than themselves, regardless of the younger person’s professional and/or educational qualifications. Education and experience are never considered a substitute for age in Africa. An African board member of a Christian university, after discovering that an older missionary-director was to be replaced by a younger one, lamented: “The institution will not have the same respect and cooperation from the government as before.”
Youth who go on a missions trip seem to be the ones who benefit the most as they are impacted by the missions experience. On the other hand, when Africans speak of a missionary who has had the greatest impact upon them it is almost always an older missionary.
Draw upon experience. The years of education and experience our retired people have need to be utilized. Africa can benefit. At Daystar University, a retired American chemical engineer is designing and launching new computer science and engineering programs; a retired American computer programmer is teaching staff and faculty new software programs; a retired vice president of a Christian college in the US is teaching literature courses and advising administrators on academic policy; a retired American clinical therapist is assisting in the design of a Master’s program in Counseling Psychology; a former editor of Tyndale Press teaches journalism courses to graduate students.
Gray hair, however, should never be used to flaunt one’s authority. Some come to the mission field with the paternalistic attitude that they have all the answers. Mutual respect and a humble attitude are important characteristics for any newcomer, regardless of age.
Provide wise counsel and advice.Christian elders in Africa visit and pray with the sick, sit on boards, act as consultants and mediate during a crisis. Christian elders are expected to bless others though their wise words and powerful prayers. Elders are also expected to rebuke others, correcting the young, when necessary. Lester Chikoya, an older Christian leader in Malawi, believes in taking advantage of this cultural practice: “If I refuse to be a father to those who expect it of me, it would disappoint them…so I talk strong to them, using pressure as the family would: ‘You call me father, then why do you do this, behave this way? If you continue to do this, you will bring us shame.’”
A former president of a Christian college in the US, who had had many years of experience in Africa, returned to Kenya at the age of eighty-five for a ministry trip. While visiting a refugee center, he spoke to those gathered around him. To punctuate his words of sagacity he raised his black cane and pointed it at them. You could have heard a pin drop as they listened with intense respect to every word. Words from a man of his age are powerful and filled with much wisdom, especially when he carries a black cane (a symbol of authority among many tribes in Africa).
Disciple the young. The master-apprentice relationship is still practiced and valued in many parts of Africa. The apprentice learns best from a mentor who has “gone before” the younger one. The experienced one can guide the way for the one who follows through modeling Christian maturity. Use the system to pass on, not only skills of the trade, but also Christian values. The more intimate the relationship becomes (being careful to use culturally appropriate relational methods) the deeper the values penetrate. There is a way to keep the company of your age-mates but at the same time mentor the young. Through the system of reciprocity, the older give the intangible gift of wise counsel and the younger reciprocate with the gift of respect. The older have a wealth of insight and are expected to pass it on through the nurturing process. Many of the younger generation long for a word of advice from the older, sometimes even plead for it.
Missionary sages can have a significant role to play in missions in Africa. They have much to offer and have tremendous influence on those around them. If they strategically apply their wisdom and experience to the work of missions they can impact souls for eternity—the highest return on their investment they could ever hope to make.
Instruct those who are rich in this present world… to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life. (1 Tim. 6:17-19)
Bujo, Benezet. 1998. The Ethical Dimension of Community. Nairobi: Pauline.
Kenyatta, Jomo. 1937. Facing Mount Kenya. New York: Vintage Books.
Kinoti, Hannah. 1999. “African Morality: Past and Present,” in Moral and Ethical Issues in African Christianity. Mugambi and Naimyu-Wasike, eds. Nairobi: Action.
Mugambi, J.N.K. 1989. The African Heritage and Contemporary Christianity. Nairobi: East African Literature Bureau.
Ndeti, Kivuto. 1972. Elements of Akamba Life. Nairobi: East African Literature Bureau.
Spencer, Paul. 1976. “Opposing Streams and the Gerontocratic Ladder: Two Models of Age Organization in East Africa.” Man. June. 11.2.
Wachege, P.N. 1992. Jesus Christ Our “Muthamaki” (Ideal Leader). Nairobi: Phoenix.
Del Chinchen has been a missionary in Africa for 22 years. He is chairman of the Bible department at Daystar University in Nairobi, Kenya.
EMQ, Vol. 39, No. 3, pp. 336-343. Copyright © 2003 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.