by Del Chinchen
Anywhere you go in Africa, you will find the prized virtue of hospitality.
A missionary couple, retiring from the field after 15 long years, lamented to me, "Not one African family has ever invited us into their home. We’ve had them in our home many times, but they never invite us to theirs. We’re tired of this one-way street."
This couple applied American hospitality customs to an African context and came up empty-handed. If they had grasped the unwritten rules of African hospitality, they could have simply popped in on their African friends, without waiting to be invited. Their attitudes, ministry effectiveness, and relationships with Africans might have been completely different.
Anywhere you go in Africa, you will find the prized virtue of hospitality. I hesitate to use the term "hospitality" for what I see in Africa, however, because it is much more than Webster’s definition: "The generous reception and entertainment of guests or strangers." The African dictionary would read more like this: "The spontaneous, warm reception of expected or unexpected guests, especially strangers, characterized by welcoming rituals, discourse, feasting, celebration, parting speeches, presentation of gifts, and the practice of accompaniment (escorting)."
Africans are honored to have visitors at any time of the day or night. No prearranged time is set, no calendars or watches are consulted, no excuses are made for being too busy. The visitor is always welcome in Africa. In fact, the more visitors, the better. In the dry Rift Valley of Kenya, the Kipsigis say, "Visitors are like rain." In Malawi, people say, "A traveler is dew." To get a guest is a blessing.
This virtue of hospitality is so deeply rooted that it is withstanding the pressures of modernity, even among the youth. In a survey of 255 first-year students at the University of Nairobi aged 20-25, 82 percent affirmatively answered the question, "Are African values like honesty, hospitality and charity very important?"1
Due to the deeply ingrained community value in Africans, hospitality seems to have survived the onslaught of individualism, as well. Two of my African Christian friends and I were driving around the outskirts of Nairobi, searching for a piece of land to purchase. When we stopped at a house near an empty plot to ask about its availability, the owner, (a Kenyan), who was unknown by all of us, insisted that we stay for tea. After chatting for a while and discovering that we were related in Christ, she began to share with us a family problem. We offered counsel and advice, prayed with her, and then requested permission to leave. Reluctantly, she agreed, but only after giving each of us fresh produce from her garden to take home. Amazingly enough, this form of hospitality still persists in urban centers.
OPPORTUNITIES FOR MISSIONARIES
Missionaries should take full advantage of this durable, indigenous method of ministering to others. It provides an ideal vehicle for the Christian visitor or host to spiritually nurture those in the home. A Christian visitor has the potential of bringing peace and restoration into a home through the power and presence of Jesus Christ. Of course, this is not a new concept or practice for African believers. They have been using this natural discipleship technique for as long as Christianity has been on the continent. They just have never needed to articulate it, because such practices are caught better than taught.
Here is a cherished and well-developed African rite, fully commensurate with the biblical teaching of hospitality, that can be a fruitful method of evangelism and disciple-ship. We don’t need to do a theological study of hospitality. We know the Bible is filled with the command to show Christian love through hospitality: "Extend hospitality to strangers" (Rom. 12:13); "Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so some have entertained angels without knowing it" (Heb. 13:2); "He executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and shows His love for the alien by giving him food and clothing. So show your love for the alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt" (Deut. 10:18,19); "Be hospitable to one another without complaint" (1 Pet. 4:9). Being hospitable is listed among the requirements for holding a church elder position (1 Tim. 3:2).
Unfortunately, some missionaries insist on using evangelism and discipleship methods that, while effective in the West, are impotent in Africa because they are designed and developed for individualistic societies (e.g., a six-week crash course, door-to-door evangelism, distribution of tracts, phone evangelism, one-on-one methods, etc.).
Rather than introducing foreign methods, missionaries should employ anthropological and sociological tools of research, as I will do in the next section, to study local practices (e.g., hospitality) that can be used for ministry.
To begin with, we will consider the traditional practice of hospitality in Africa. Then we will examine the discipleship methods African pastors and Christian leaders are using, through hospitality, in their local contexts.
TRADITIONAL AFRICAN HOSPITALITY
Hospitality in Africa is more than just entertaining a guest. It is a deeply ingrained value in the African worldview, practiced in every social, economic, political, and religious structure of a community. Hospitality gives the community its identity. It is an ethical duty, a way of life.
A hospitable person is known to be full of integrity, reliability, honesty, kindness, and knowledge of his or her cultural practices. One’s social position and leadership ability are rated by it.
An African leader advertises his generosity by displaying it publicly. A hospitable person, according to the Turkana tribe located in the baking, arid land of northern Kenya, is judged to be "cool" or "sweet." In contrast, a person who does not extend hospitality displays antisocial behavior and is labeled "hot." They say that "one who eats alone is like a witch."2 The inhospitable person in Tanzania is selfish "like the spout of the teapot which turns back on itself."
Upon arrival, visitors in parts of Tanzania and Uganda are given a coffee bean to chew, symbolizing acceptance into the community. In West Africa, the host and visitor together chew the kolanut. The Nandi of Kenya keep an extra plate of food ready for a guest who could appear at any time. Among the nomadic Turkana, when a stranger first arrives, even before greetings are exchanged, food and water are served. When entertaining a stranger, especially, it is mandatory for the head of the family to slaughter a goat. The host lays aside all other duties to spend time with the guest. In addition to providing food and accommodation, the host stays with the stranger and indulges in a lengthy conversation. A guest who is provided food and accommodation without discourse feels unwelcome. At the same time, the guest can offend the host by not accepting food. This can even be interpreted as a hostile act. Even if the visitor has eaten previously, she or he must eat again.3
There is no limit to the sacrifices the host makes for the visitor. During the war in Liberia, when there was a food shortage, I visited the home of a Liberian friend just as he and his family were about to eat. They invited me to join them, and my friend "cut" half of the food on his plate and gave it to me. Soon, someone else arrived, and the host gave the new visitor the other half of his food. I was with my friend until very late that night, and he never ate while I was with him. As they say in Tanzania, "The hen with chicks does not swallow the worm."
When the visitor is ready to depart, formal speeches are made both by the guest and the host. The host then prepares a gift, usually produce from the garden, and gives it to the departing guest. If possible, the visitor is escorted home, or at least part way home, to extend their time together as long as possible. In Kenya, the escorting ritual is predicated with, "I will give you a push." In Liberia, the host says, "I will carry you halfway."
The community obligations to be a good guest and host weigh heavily on the traditional African. When the apartheid government of South Africa could no longer resist the demands for Nelson Mandela’s freedom, he was offered immediate release and a flight to Johannesburg. Mandela refused both offers because it would break the unwritten law of African hospitality.
For the 26 years Mandela was a prisoner in the Cape Town area, he was also a guest in that community. He and the community that hosted him needed time to prepare for his proper departure according to the rituals of hospitality. He also wanted to allow the local people to walk with him (the ritual of accompaniment) from the prison gates and into freedom, which they did by the thousands. Observing these treasured hospitality traditions was so important to Mandela that he delayed his release from prison for three weeks.
CHRISTIAN AFRICAN HOSPITALITY
Missionaries could jeopardize their reputation by not being hospitable and by not visiting others. To not visit or extend hospitality could be weighed, on the African ethical scale, as un-Christian and unforgivable. Story after story has been told by Africans of their unforgettable experience of entering a missionary home at supper time when the family is in the middle of a meal. The African is shocked when told to come back later or to wait in the other room. To treat a visitor in such an inhospitable fashion, according to them, is a sin of the highest order.
But if the missionary observes the hospitality etiquette of visiting and being visited in Africa, the door is gently opened, like no other means, for evangelism and discipleship opportunities. Let’s explore some of these possibilities-first looking at the missionary as the guest and then as the host.
THE MISSIONARY AS THE VISITOR (GUEST)
Visiting as a discipleship method.For African pastors, visiting and being visited is nearly a full-time ministry in itself. Each visit gives the pastor the license to read Scripture, pray, and provide wise counsel. John Mbiti, the "Father of Theology" in Africa, wisely observes, "In the eyes of African peoples, the visitor heals the sick (African proverb). This means that when a visitor comes to someone’s home, family quarrels stop, the sick cheer up, peace is restored and the home is restored to new strength. Visitors are, therefore, social healers-they are family doctors in a sense."4
The extended family concept, adopted by the African church, enables the pastor and elders to be accepted as the substitutes for the traditional village chief and elders. These church leaders become the family doctors, counselors, consultants, and peace makers all rolled into one. Hannah Kinoti, a renowned African theologian, states, "The gospel of Jesus Christ is about the greatest thing that ever happened in Africa. The African Church today is like the kinship system of yesterday."5
Some Christian leaders in urban centers such as Nairobi claim that it is impossible to develop a community church in such an environment. Pastor Steve Maina of Lifespring Chapel refuses to succumb to such pessimism. He is cultivating a visiting culture within his church by beginning with the church leaders. As he fulfills his goal of visiting six of his church elders each week, with an apprentice in tow, he is convinced this will filter down to the rest of the congregation.
His hope is that church members themselves will eventually visit each other to disciple one another, keep one another accountable, and meet one another’s needs.
Visiting dilemmas. It is easier for Americans to be visited than to visit. Missionaries struggle with visiting others for at least three reasons.
1. We perceive this type of spontaneous visiting as an imposition on people, an intrusion on their privacy. But is this how the African perceives it? Absolutely not. Africans love to have visitors, and at any time. If we insist on applying our American concept of hospitality to an African context, we will severely hamper our ministry, as happened to the couple mentioned in the beginning of this article.
2. According to Gittens, another possible reason missionaries find it difficult to visit others is because they feel a loss of power and control as a guest in the domain of another’s home. "Only when we consider the missionary implications of receiving hospitality and being strangers (1 Peter 2:11) can we claim to be engaged in truly mutual relationships. Unless the person who sometimes extends hospitality is also able to be a gracious recipient, and unless the one who receives the other as stranger is also able to become the stranger received by another, then far from ‘relationships’, we are merely creating unidirectional lines of power flow."6
Some missionaries prefer to have visitors in their home, rather than visit others, because it gives them a superior social status. They fear placing themselves in the inferior and vulnerable position of a visitor.
Their virtue of independence hinders them from visiting others. They would rather be in control, in a position of dominance, as the host.
Even if missionaries do visit, they sometimes try to maintain the upper hand. On one occasion, before an American missionary couple went to visit in an African home, they called and asked for the ages of the children in that home in order to bring gifts for them. The African host pleaded with the missionaries not to bring anything with them. The consumerism mentality, thinking that one must pay for everything, corrupts African hospitality. It makes it difficult for us to receive.
African hospitality requires reciprocity if the relationship is to grow. The Kikuyu of Kenya depict it well through their traditional custom of exchanging cooked food. We stumbled onto this practice by accident. We sent a cooked dish to a neighbor woman who had just returned from the hospital. The empty container was never returned. We wondered if we would ever see that nice casserole dish again until, months later, it came back with githeri in it (a Kikuyu dish). If one receives food from a friend in a pot, the empty pot is kept until it is returned with food to the original giver. This reciprocal exchange of the pot is continued for the duration of the friendship.
Visits are conducted according to the same reciprocal principle. It is never healthy for the relationship if you visit someone else all the time but you are never visited. Neither is it healthy to be visited all the time (which is often the problem with missionaries who invite people to their homes) but never visit. If the missionary does not visit but is only visited, the relationship lacks mutual respect and trust, and the friendship becomes lopsided, because the missionary holds all the power and prestige. The Christian community is perplexed with the paradoxical life of the missionary who comes to share Christ’s love but never visits.
3. Missionaries dislike the thought that they are the foreigners, the strangers, the visitors in a home and even in a host country. "It is the missionary who is, or should be, the stranger. Failure to acknowledge this, and the need to reposition ourselves at the center and to recreate a home away from home, has dogged the footsteps of many a missionary and soured relationships between missionaries and local people."7 Some missionaries try to make their home a little America, unwittingly making their visitors feel quite uncomfortable. One missionary home we were in recently had a big picture over the fireplace of Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara kissing.
Missionaries offend their hosts when they have one foot in America and one overseas, counting the days until they return home for their next furlough. To be grateful guests is to appreciate the hospitality of the host country, to make it home, and to sacrificially live among people as Christ lived among us.
Churches supporting missionaries also need to understand the importance of perceiving their missionaries as the foreigners where they serve. A questionnaire sent to missionaries abroad from a supporting church in the U.S. contained the question, "Describe your relationship with foreign nationals." This church and its missionaries need to be reminded that the missionaries, not the local people, are the foreigners.
Visiting occasions. In Africa, nearly any excuse for a visit, usually unannounced, will do. For a prearranged visit, the prospective visitor will simply state, "We are coming to visit you." But there are also strategic times for visiting, and each time a visit is made, the relationship thickens. The more you visit, the deeper the roots of relationship go. A proverb from Nigeria reminds us, "Relationships can not be maintained by what we ate last year." And again from Kenya: "To maintain a relationship one must keep walking to and fro" (Kikuyu proverb). Interestingly, the Kiswahili words for walking (tembea) and visiting (tembelea) are nearly the same.
During a visit, the spiritual nurturing opportunities are ideal because every visitor, before departing, is given an opportunity to make a formal speech. This is always the appropriate time, not just to express appreciation for the hospitality, but also to read Scripture, provide Christian counsel, and pray.
I cannot emphasize enough the importance of visiting someone who is sick or injured, whether at home or in the hospital. When the funds and medicine are limited or unavailable altogether, illness can become a life-threatening ordeal. Visiting, especially at this particular time, is expected deportment of a pastor or Christian leader. It is an African leadership trait. The note below, sent to me after a I visited a sick student, substantiates the point. "I thank God for your leadership ability. Your presence to my house yesterday did not show only sympathy but has shown a high degree of leadership quality."8
Probably the most important visit of all visits is to the bereaved. The grieving family, especially the widow, needs prayer, emotional support, and the promise of solidarity. The pastor, close family members, and friends are with the bereaved family every night for a week before and after the funeral. A visit one year after the loss of a loved one is also observed.
Visiting those with marital or family problems is always appreciated. In urban centers, with the absence of the local village elders to settle disputes, couples lack the authority figures and the community as a whole to help them solve their problems. A Christian leader, even a missionary, can be included in family gatherings to help restore the relationship of a separated couple, to help settle disagreements among family members on marital issues, to intervene in the case of an abortion by providing alternatives, to protect the battered wife from a violent husband, and so on. The missionary, who has been a regular visitor, will be invited to such family meetings just as the local pastor is.
God’s gift of a new baby in the home is a good reason to rejoice and calls for a visit. Africans highly value children. Children carry on the family name. They elevate their parents in the eyes of the community. When I joined my colleagues from the university department to visit one of our own who had recently delivered a baby, she was well prepared for us. We feasted, looked at baby pictures, and took turns holding the baby. The climax for me was when the mother handed me her baby and asked that I say a prayer of dedication. This is one of the privileges of being a visitor-pastor. It provides an opportunity to invoke God’s blessings on the home and child. Who knows, one may even be honored as a godfather or godmother, as is the common custom in most of West Africa. Then the discipleship possibilities become unlimited, since the missionary godparent is expected to pass on Christian values and principles to this new "son" or "daughter" with each visit.
Another opportunity to visit a home is during exam time, when you can pray that the student will have peace, good recall, and success. If the student is graduating from primary, secondary school, or college, it is an achievement worth celebrating. The visitor shares in the joy and gives God thanks, through prayer, for this accomplishment. Sometimes the student travels far for further studies. In this case, the escorting party flows from the home of the traveler all the way to the bus station or airport. Prayer for safety, success, and eventual return is always appropriate.
THE MISSIONARY AS THE VISITED (HOST)
Hospitality in the home. This comprehensive African style of hospitality can be onerous for some missionaries who are not accustomed to having their privacy invaded by frequent and unexpected visitors. But the Bible never promises that Christian hospitality is easy. In Greek, the word is filoxhnia (philoxenia means to love strangers). Stranger (xenos) means someone who is foreign, alien, creating distaste. It is even possible to suffer from xenophobia (the fear of strangers). The Christian’s love is challenged by the presence of strangers in the home. According to Kosuke Koyama’s stranger-centered theology, "the way of extending hospitality to the stranger may even become the way towards martyrdom."9
This was true for Fidel and Yvonne Masasangohe, of the Hutu people. They lived in harmony with their Tutsi neighbors in Kigali, Rwanda, until the ethnic cleansing mentality set in during the war in 1994. Then Hutus went on the rampage and massacred any Tutsi they could find, even neighbors. Some were left for dead, others went into hiding. A few fortunate ones found refuge in the gracious home of the Masasangohes. At one time, they had 16 Tutsis hiding in their home. The Masasangohes’ extension of Christian hospitality to injured and insecure Tutsis led to Fidel’s martyrdom and Yvonne’s widowhood and displacement, now living in Kenya.
Extending hospitality is a risk that all Christians must be willing to take. For the missionary, it may mean extending a culturally appropriate form of hospitality that entails, as a Westerner might perceive it, tremendous sacrifice. After Cote d’lvoire lost a soccer match to the visiting Ghanaian national team, some angry Ivorians went on the rampage, beating Ghanaians and looting their homes. Twelve Christian Ghanians took refuge for 10 days in the security of our home until tempers subsided. The rich fellowship made up for the temporary inconvenience.
Hospitality, in Africa, includes inviting the visitor to stay as long as she or he would like. Having young people over for a weekend or longer provides them an inside look into a Christian home. As Pearson Chunga, a Malawian Christian leader, expresses it, "We are bearing children for Jesus. He sends us one at a time who lives with us, is weaned, leaves the nest, and then another comes in." My wife and I sometimes find ourselves providing premarital counseling to young couples over the weekend. They learn as much from just watching us relate to each other as from the material discussed.
Hospitality in the office. For the holistic-thinking African, hospitality is not limited to the home. Hospitality extends to the workplace. Office visits are never interruptions. One is never too busy for people. People always come before projects. Appointments before visiting a home or office are not usually necessary. Visitors are always welcome, even at work. In fact, if you post office visiting hours on the door, African visitors may be repelled by this depersonalization. Making appointments within a slotted period of time is far too formal and impersonal for a friendly visit.
Hospitality on the phone. Since a phone call is a mini visit, one always inquires first about personal matters such as health and family. Phone conversation never begins immediately with business. This could be perceived as insensitive. The phone is seen as an alien creature that disembodies people. The phone contains a voice, floating through the air, severed from the body. Even more of an anomaly is the answering machine, mysteriously harboring people’s voices and then regurgitating them. The near total absence of answering machines in homes and businesses throughout the modern city of Nairobi is a telltale sign of their foreignness. One can relate much more comfortably to the whole human being intact, through a visit, than to a piece of a person on a phone or answering machine.
Hospitality in the car. Cars driven by Africans seldom contain only one person. There is no need for a car pooling lane in Africa. It is selfish to pass a friend walking on the road when there is space in the car. Besides, it is an opportunity to visit along the way. Consider the impact that Jesus had on the two walking on the road to Emmaus, who willingly allowed this stranger to join them. Imagine the blessing they would have missed had they not extended Jesus hospitality both on the road and in their home (Luke 24:13-35). Sometimes I have a Christian message on tape playing when I pick up people who need a ride. This can lead the conversation toward spiritual issues.
Hospitality by institutions. Missionaries on mission compounds or associated with a missionary organization will also recognize that the institution, not just the individual, is responsible to give and receive hospitality. Those in the vicinity of the offices or compound are your neighbors and should receive neighborly love. When the institution expresses concern for its neighbors and indicates that it has a stake in the community, the doors open wide for opportunities to extend the Christian message and influence.
The public relations department at the Christian university where I teach is one of the most important and busiest offices on campus because of its role of welcoming visitors. The African president of this same university entertains visitors in his office, serving not only tea or coffee but full-blown breakfasts or luncheons. The board meeting table in his office is converted into a dining room table, replacing pens and paper with plates and silverware. Other faculty are invited to join the visitors in the "family" feast. The visitors leave the university feeling very special, having experienced the warm heart of Africa.
Missionaries who practice the African style of frequently visiting and being visited will revolutionize their ministries. Admittedly, the risks are many when stepping into a totally different ministry style. But it is worth the risk when the door opens wide to many more opportunities of reaching people with the gospel.
1. C.M. Mwikamba, "Changing Morals in Africa" in Moral and Ethical Issues in African Christianity. Mugambi and Naimyu-Wasike, eds. (Nairobi: Acton, 1999), p. 90.
2. Isaiah Emanikor, "Traditional Turkana Hospitality Contextualized," paper presented at Daystar Univeristy (Christian Social Ethnics class), May 2000, p. 4.
3. Joseph Healey and Donald Sybertz, Towards an African Narrative Theology (Nairobi: Pauline, 1996), p. 180.
4. John S. Mbiti, "The Forest Has Ears" in Peace, Happiness and Prosperity, July 1976, p. 23.
5. Hannah Kinoti, "African Morality: Past and Present" in Moral and Ethnical Issues in African Christianity, Mugambi and Naimyu-Wasike, eds. (Nairobi: Action, 1999), p. 81.
6. Anthony Gittens, "Beyond Hospitality to Strangers—A Missiology of Theologia Crucis," International Review of Mission, July/October, 1993, p. 284.
Del Chinchen has been a missionary in Africa for more than 22 years. He is chairman of the Bible Department at Daystar University in Nairobi, Kenya.
EMQ, Vol. 36, No. 4, pp. 472-481. Copyright © 2000 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.