by Larry L. Niemeyer
Accepted missiology didn’t help when this village church planter moved from one tribe to another.
Two years of mission work among the patrilineal (inheriting or determining descent through the male line) Shona people of Zimbabwe in the late 1960s gave me just enough knowledge of culture and people to cause serious misunderstanding of the matrilineal (inheriting or determining descent through the female line) Bemba of Zambia, whom I approached in the early 1970s. Although I shifted geographically, I failed to shift missiologically. Prepared to bring entire families to Christian faith, to plant village churches, and to disciple men in particular, I failed to consider the social structure in which those activities were to take place. I did not see the complex, significant social distinctions between these two groups.
My eagerness to see entire families come to Christ was neutralized by my neglect of the social dynamics of the matrilineal Bemba family networks. As a North American, “family” meant a man, his wife, and their children. Grandparents, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, and cousins were, to my mind, scattered over hundreds of miles. In Zimbabwe, the contrast between my cultural understanding of family and theirs hardly impressed me at all. When I got to Zambia, I expected their extended families would be just like those I knew in Zimbabwe.
But I was totally wrong. In Zimbabwe, I had seen the power of brothers living with their father, but I was not prepared to understand the dynamics of sisters living with their mothers among the Bemba. In Zambia, the matrilineal Bemba father’s limited role and status contrasted sharply with that of the patrilineal Shona father’s.
I neatly summarized the dynamics of both societies in the term “family.” Other things bothered me about the Bemba: Why was the father always gone from the family? Why were marriages entered into and broken off so casually? Why the frequent separation and divorce? Why did the village fathers receive Christ so quickly, yet seem so unable to bring their wives and children to faith?
Thinking that I had made great adjustments in my missionary thinking as a result of my time in the Shona villages, I looked forward to starting the first evangelical churches in the rural Bemba villages. But my failure to grasp the impact of a matrilineal society on village life handicapped the spread of the gospel among the Bemba.
The first church came easily. I got to know a village laborer and he introduced me around Bwacha. The people invited me for several weeks of Bible teaching, and soon our first church was under way. Several families joined in the new congregation, which built a small shelter for worship. Here was a church in the village.
Only many months later did I discover that the men who had responded so readily were just marginal residents of Bwacha. In a matrilineal society, it was natural for them to come to their wives’ villages at marriage, where they would be tolerated outsiders until certain social obligations had been fulfilled. They had no power and little respect, until the missionary came to start his church.
The same thing happened in my discipleship program. Based on what I had seen in developing male leadership in the new churches in Zimbabwe, I started to train the Bemba men immediately. I followed all of the best missiological teachings. I was sensitive to certain cultural factors, used the vernacular with its resources of music, drama, proverbs and folk tales, and threw in a generous portion of “church growth thinking.” I was determined to disciple men so that they could become leaders in the five new village churches I had started.
However, all of my academic theories and my good intentions were undermined by my insensitivity to what life was really like for these men. I did not know their frustrations in leadership, or understand the tension of their loyalties to villages other than the ones in which I had found them, or their temptations to power. As a result, my teaching was very shallow. It failedtopenetrate the veneer of outward conformity. It fell short of bringing about submission to Christ’s lordship.Allofthis happened, mainly, because I had neglected the male social world of the Bemba.
This went on for eight years, while my anxieties mounted. Those three missiological concerns so crucial to success — families, villages, and leadership — were of course correct, but among the Bemba families were not cohesive in their commitment to Christ, village churches occupied only an inconspicuous place in society, and leadership was neither respected nor significant. If the concerns seemed so right, why were the results so wrong?
My dismay was not unreasonable. In four of the five villages, I was working with the only church in the village. Yet in three of those villages, the Christians were marginal people. For example, in one church the most prominent family was feuding with the headman. In another, the leading family was that of an older man who had no relationship with the larger, more central village nearby. Only one of the churches was located in an important central village.
In four of the churches the leaders turned out to be outsiders with real loyalties elsewhere. In only one church did the leaders have the respect of the community, and they seemed to have earned that through their farming and fishing skills. Three churches had unstable leaders who had not yet been firmly established in the village. They gave no assurance of remaining in the villages or the churches. Only one of the five main leaders showed growth in discipleship, but later he dropped out of his church.
Of the five main leaders, three had unstable marriages. Their tension with their wives was only reluctantly brought up in Bible study and conversation. These men were young and still socially dependent, two of them on their wives’ families and one on a father who himself was still living in the village of his wife and her sisters. One leader obviously had no support from his nuclear family. I wasn’t certain about the cohesiveness of other leaders’ families.
Fortunately, my subsequent studies in anthropology opened my eyes to the intriguing reality of a Bemba world I had hardly recognized. I had been to their world, supposedly had entered it, but had never really seen it. My sight and understanding had been blurred by my confused thinking about family, village, and leadership—all seen through the lens of patrilineal society. My later studies helped me to refocus and to begin to see some of the uniqueness of matrilineal systems as they related to my three main mission concerns.
The following shows the matrilineal distinctives that I observed.
Three Mission Concerns and Two Ways to Focus
– Patrilineal focus: A man, his wife and children; extended on basis of male lineage; guarded marriages: infrequent divorce, overshadowing fathers
– Matrilineal focus: A woman, her children and husband; extended on basis of femal lineage; close to wife’s brother and sisters; casual marriages: infrequent divorce, absent fathers
– Patrilineal focus: Loyalty is where wife and children reside
– Matrilineal focus: Loyalty is where a brother or sister reside
– Patrilineal focus: Male authority corresponds with his family and village residency
– Matrilineal focus: Male authority does not correspond with his family and village residency
For the Bemba, in contrast to the Shona, family was not a man, his wife, and children. It was a woman, her children, and her husband. Families were extended on the basis of the wife’s lineage rather than the husband’s. Family warmth included the wife’s brother rather than the husband’s brother. Casual marriages, frequent divorce, and absent fathers were more common among the Bemba than the Shona.
In village life, a Bemba husband’s loyalty is toward his sister’s village rather than where his wife and children live. In the wife’s village, the wife’s brother has special interests, often causing conflicts.
The matrilineal system also produces a different leadership style. Whereas male authority corresponds with family and village residency among patrilineal people, it does not do so among the matrilineal.
The lesson for me was that it’s possible to have the right mission concerns but the wrong mission focus on those concerns. Concerns for families must be met by a knowledge of families; desire for village churches must be undergirded by a keen awareness of the social life in those villages; discipling must reach people where they are, not where the disciplers think they are. Until we include such considerations in our mission strategies, we won’t be able to meet the needsofmatrilineal people.
THE WIDER PROBLEM
While reflecting on my own blunders, and the grace of God, I wondered how many other missionaries had stumbled because of similar blind spots. But when I tried to identify such missionaries, their missions, and the matrilineal people with whom they worked, I came up empty. When I examined mission statements and strategies that included the kind of dynamics I had come to recognize among the Bemba, I could not find any connection between the matrilineal system and mission strategy. So, I asked myself, how many missionaries and agencies understand the special challenge represented by matrilineal people?
My questions subsequently led to a three-year research project at Biola University, La Mirada, Calif. As far as the matrilineal people of Africa are concerned, Who are they? Where do they live? What are their histories? How can they be characterized?
Regarding missions to these people, Who works among them? What missions are interested in doing so, and why? What has been done and what is being done by missionaries working among them? What has been their success?
The nature of their response to the gospel also aroused questions: What matrilineal people have been reached? Where are they? Have they accepted or rejected the gospel? Can we compare their response to patrilineal people? What matrilineal people have yet to be reached?
It was also necessary to examine the nature of Christian work among matrilineal people. How have missionaries shown sensitivity to the peculiarities of their kinship system, and with what success? Have any new strategies worked? Can these strategies help other missionaries? Have we learned anything about how better to communicate the gospel to them? Is there any evidence that matrilineal people are seen as distinct, deserving informed consideration? Is there a sense of urgency about reaching them, considering the rapid social changes in their lives? Are the African Christians in matrilineal societies being given any incentive to figure out how to contextualize the gospel among their own people? What resources do we need to become more adept at working with matrilineal people?
The project did reveal answers to many of these questions:
1. There are 305 matrilineal groups south of the Sahara. This number represents 12.6 percent of the 2,424 ethnic groups in this region identified by George Murdock.1 They are set apart by 30 distinct social characteristics.2
2. One hundred and two missions and churches work with matrilineal people in 16 countries.3 They report 8.9 million adherents from 80 ethnic groups totaling 130 million people.
3. One hundred and fifty-seven matrilineal groups are identified in a compilation of language groups in Africa.4 Sixty-eight of those groups need the Scriptures.
4. Seventy-seven matrilineal groups have been identified as unreached.5 This is 9.6 percent of the 802 on the unreached list for Africa.
5. A seemingly disproportionate number of matrilineal people (24.2 percent of the sample) are identified with independent church movements in Africa.6
My own survey of 30 missions and churches in four countries in Africa revealed a great desire for more information.7 Relatively few agencies have recognized the special needs of matrilineal people, and, as far as I can tell, none are adequately meeting their needs. To get something started, I have compiled three data bases:
1. A guide to anthropological literature. An attempt to make the complexities understandable.
2. A historic and ethnographic description, as well as a gospel need assessment, of the 305 matrilineal societies identified in research.
3. An ethnographic bibliography of matrilineal people, with more than 2,000 entries.
Just over a year ago, The Daily Nation in Nairobi reported that the Nuba and Fur people of Sudan — some of the most resilient matrilineal people in Africa, and longtime opponents of Islam — are being systematically destroyed by the Sudanese government.8 Surely the need is urgent to understand and reach these and other matrilineal people. Using the information that has beengathered,missionagencies and missionaries can develop more effective strategies to do so.
1. George P. Murdock, Africa: Its People and Their Culture History (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1959).
2. David M. Schneider, “Introduction: The Distinctive Features of Matrilineal Descent Groups,” Matrilineal Descent, David M. Schneider and Kathleen Gough, eds. (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1961), pp. 1-29.
3. David Barrett, World Christian Encyclopedia (London: Oxford University Press, 1982).
4. Barbara F. Grimes, ed., Ethnologue: Languages of the World, 11th ed. (Dallas, Texas: Summer Institute of Linguistics, 1988).
5. C. Peter Wagner and Edward Dayton, eds., Unreached Peoples ’80 (Elgin, Ill.: David C. Cook Publishing Co., 1980, 1981). Edward Dayton and Samuel Wilson, eds., The Refugees Among Us: Unreached Peoples ’83 (Elgin, Ill.: David C. Cook Publishing Co., 1983). Harley Schreck and David Barrett, Unreached Peoples: Clarifying the Task (Monrovia, Calif.: MARC, 1987).
6. David Barrett, Schism and Renewal in Africa: An Analysis of Six Thousand Contemporary Religious Movements (Nairobi: Oxford University Press, 1968).
7. Larry L. Niemeyer, The Matrilineal Peoples of Africa: The Unmet Challenge to a Distinct People. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Biola University, La Mirada, Calif., 1991.
8. “Survival International Say Nuba Are Being Destroyed,” The Daily Nation, Nairobi, Kenya, December 11, 1991.
EMQ, Vol. 29, No. 1, pp. 26-31. Copyright © 1993 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.