by Edward Simiyu
We are an oral culture in Africa. This calls for face-to-face contact.
Recently, I heard an American pastor lament that his African pastor friend had not replied to his emails for a long time. He asked, “Why can’t he just check the browser to make sure his inbox is working properly?” You can bet this happens mainly in Western countries. Most of Africa’s population hardly knows what a browser is! They do not read or write regularly and know just one way of communication—talking. As simple as this may sound, this is very true and very important. The cellular telecommunication industry is now the most profitable and fastest growing business in Africa because it is giving Africa a treat to what she does best—talk. However, talking among the oral cultured people now carries more than mere words.
We are an oral culture in Africa. This calls for face-to-face contact. Less than two percent of people over the age of sixty can read or write. Our generation received teachings, stories and moral lessons from our parents and grandparents. With excitement, we would look forward to our grandparents visiting because we knew they would tell us stories. I sense the same craving in my nine-year-old daughter when she pleads with me to tell her stories at bedtime. The values of our culture and society were passed on that way. Our formative years were not so much shaped by what we read or acquired in libraries filled with journals, books and magazines; instead, they were shaped by what we heard from our elders. That is why we say in Africa that when an elder dies, a whole library is buried with him. We passed on—and still pass on—things from one generation to another by word-of-mouth. Understandably, physical presence in order to communicate face to face has quickly taken on a new dimension. For example, it was not long before we all understood that attending a funeral, without even saying a word, signalled a show of condolence, sympathy and solidarity with the bereaved family. This spread to all spheres of the African social and spiritual life. Today, presence has acquired such a great value that when one does not show up to gatherings like weddings, funerals and Sunday services, people get very worried or even offended.
It is in answer to the call for presence that makes Africans travel to far lands such as America and Europe to attend their sons’ and daughters’ graduations, weddings or even funerals—even while most of these same Africans live on less than one dollar a day! Presence is in fact also making Africa discover how different she is from some Western nations. For example, here is a dialogue I had with my American host regarding my first cup of tea in America:
Host: Would you like a drink?
Host: Would you like a cold or a hot drink?
Me: I would love a hot drink.
Host: Would you like coffee, tea or hot chocolate?
Host: With or without milk?
Me: With milk please!
Host: What kind of milk?
Me: What do you mean?
Host: Whole milk, evaporated milk, low-fat milk or cream?
Me: Just give me tea with milk
please. I don’t care whether it comes with low-fat, high-fat or no-fat. Just milk!
Obviously, I could not hide my impatience. I wondered what these people did to the poor cow for it to give all sorts of milk. Where I came from, milk was simply milk—straight from the cow! Of course, if we use the browser the American pastor referred to above, we find that a Google search tells us that all kinds of milk exist; however, that is as far as it goes. The magical split-second Google wonder sadly does not put those different kinds of milk on our tables back in Africa…but the cow does. People in Africa rarely have the opportunity to make choices such as which kind of milk to drink. Some people blame it on politicians; however, I wonder what portion to blame on presence. When politicians visit, they are surrounded by a mob of people who are very excited to hear them speak. They leave with no written manifesto or commitment to which we can hold them accountable. What happens when they come back again? The same thing happens. We get excited and are left with no tangible commitment. Why does this happen over and over again? Because we enjoy their presence as they do what we love to do most—talk!
The Church around the world would benefit immensely if she realized that while it is good and important to send the much needed gifts and donations to support brothers and sisters in Africa, that is only one side of the story. Their physical presence through visits will minister even more powerfully. The visits do not have to be large mass crusades. All that is required is to show up and just “hang out” on low-key visits. You may comment that this is a pretty expensive thing to do. To that, I would reply, “Well, that is what I call the ministry of presence!”
Edward Simiyu is pastor of City Harvest Church in Kenya. He also conducts pastors training events and lectures part-time at the Universite
Espoir d’Afrique in Burundi.
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