We live to serve others with a holistic touch

Issue 2021, vol. 75

Review of Mennonites and Post-Colonial African Studies, edited by John M. Janzen, Harold F. Miller and John C. Yoder (Routledge, 2021)

While the title of this book is dry, the content is not. The editors have collected 24 personal and engaging reflections that together provide a story of the impact of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) and various Mennonite mission agencies. It is an impact, however, that isn’t often considered – how their experience affected those who went to Africa and what they did when they returned, as well as during their service. It is a story of Anabaptists, mostly from North America, for whom initial engagement in Africa from the 1950s to the 1970s affected the trajectory of their lives and careers, whether in academic studies that focused significantly on Africa or professional work in Africa or both. The editors asked each contributor to share about their background, their first encounter with Africa, how they ended up in their particular career, what the focus of their work as a professional Africanist was, and how their work was shaped by an Anabaptist-Mennonite perspective. Thus, it is also a story that seeks to examine the impact of Anabaptist communities and their values and practices.

Of the 21 North Americans who appear here (my count includes Lydia Glick Samatar, whose story is shared as it interacts with that of her husband, Said Samatar), 18 first went to Africa with Mennonite institutions – 11 with MCC and seven with Mennonite mission agencies (Eastern Mennonite Missions [EMM]; Council of International Anabaptist Ministries [CIM]; Mennonite Board of Missions [MBM], now Mennonite Mission Network; and the Mennonite Brethren [MB] Mission). They went during the ferment of the decades of nationalist movements (1950s), independence (1960s) and the early years of independence (1970s) – four in the 1950s; ten in the 1960s; and seven in the 1970s – the majority to what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo (11) and the rest to East Africa (3), the Horn of Africa (2), southern Africa (2), West Africa (2) and North Africa (1). This cohort was also significantly shaped by Mennonite colleges: 20 of the 24 (including two of the three African contributors – my count includes Aliko Songolo, who shares his story as part of the Foreword) attended Anabaptist colleges (Goshen [Ind.] College; Eastern Mennonite College, now University, in Harrisonburg, Va.; Bethel College; Manchester [Ind.] College, now University; and Tabor College in Hillsboro, Kan.). The largest group of contributors (9) went to Africa with MCC’s Teachers Abroad Program (TAP). The nine reflections from TAP alumni give a glimpse of the impact of a program that sent more than 800 North American teachers to secondary schools and teacher training colleges in Africa between 1962 and 1976.

Given its focus, this book is of particular interest to any reader of Mennonite Life. It was not published by an Anabaptist publishing house, however, but by the academic publisher Routledge. Especially as someone who grew up with the Mennonite emphasis on humility, I find it a bit hard to believe that Routledge thought these personal reflections of Anabaptists were worthy of academic publishing! It does reflect, however, the fact that the contributors to this volume have had distinguished careers as either Africanist academics or practitioners or both and have made significant contributions in their particular fields, whether history, anthropology, language and literature, economics, education, music, religion, public health or international development. The totality of the professional contributions described in these chapters (as requested by the editors) over these 24 lifetimes is impressive. While all told, half of the 24 stories in this book are from practitioners, 22 of the 24 engaged in doctoral study, 20 of them receiving PhDs, indicating a deep interest amongst this cohort in education, learning and research-based practice.

Routledge’s publishing this book presumably also reflects the more recent academic interest in the connection between scholars’ locations (social, cultural and economic) and their research. This has grown out of post-modernism with its reflections on the impact of power and privilege and the ways in which scholarly work cannot be considered inherently objective or divorced from the structures of power in which it is embedded. In their introduction, the editors note: “The goal is to illustrate the dynamic interplay of the influence of the writers’ parochial backgrounds and particular experiences, the power of the prevailing scholarly paradigms they encountered, and the unbending realities of post-colonial Africa. … Although this volume is an account of a distinct cohort of scholars and practitioners, it serves as a reminder that the work of every Africanist has been shaped by the particularity of their own life story” (1). While the editors do not embark on a scholarly discussion of how these essays contribute to a better understanding of this dynamic and its implications, the book does provide a distinctive cohort and their case studies from which others could do their own analysis.

The editors do discuss changes in African studies since it was first recognized as a field of academic study in the 1950s, defined by the formation of the African Studies Association in 1957. They note the shifts from “studying and measuring Africa against Western structures and values to a consideration of African life and culture on its own terms. This move also took more seriously the agendas of scholars and writers born and based in Africa” (4). They also indicate that “today, African studies are conducted by a more inclusive group of scholars [including significant numbers of women], many of them from the continent. In terms of the agenda of scholarship, there has been a shift from one-way transfers of knowledge to the use of knowledge generated in an African setting or gleaned from pre-existing traditions” (4). This discussion helps locate the scholarly contributions of the authors within the larger field in which they worked, and it is possible to see the ways in which they contributed to the shifts in the field that the editors describe. John M. Janzen’s extensive and influential research into the social dimension of healing, particularly focused on the institutional tradition of ngoma in general, found across Africa, and Lemba in particular (71-73), is one such example.

The editors argue that “this book gives special attention to how paradigms related to decolonization and development were adopted, reevaluated, reformulated and reapplied by scholars and practitioners whose focus has been post-colonial Africa” (1; italics mine). This is more true for development, however, than it is for decolonization. While the editors give a helpful definition of decolonization as the “decoupling from the ‘neocolonial’ personnel, institutions and mind-sets of former colonial empires or overcoming the labeling as ‘other’ or ‘inferior’ in favor of authentic institutions and cultural forms defined and shaped by national leaders and citizens in the ‘postcolony,’” there is actually very little specific reflection on decolonization as a topic in these essays. It is possible to see, however, the ways in which the contributors’ scholarly and professional work has contributed to the overall and ongoing effort to move decolonization forward. One example is David A. Shank’s magisterial work on the Prophet Harris (1860-1929), one of the most influential founders of African Initiated Churches (AICs). In his book Prophet Harris, the “Black Elijah” of West Africa (1994), Shank used “unused sources to explore the prophet’s personal history, complex thought and creative approach to distancing Christian faith from colonialism” (134).

While lacking specific discussion of decolonization, the book does include significant and valuable treatment of development, which reflects the many contributors who were directly involved in development work in Africa, both with MCC (Ronald J.R. Mathies, Sara M. Regier and Fremont Regier, Franklin C. Baer and D. Merrill Ewert) and other organizations (Baer, Musuto Mutaragara Chirangi, David L. Denlinger, Ewert and Stanley Yoder). These reflections are of particular interest to anyone working in the field, but especially to those working with Christian organizations in general and MCC in particular. For me, having served with MCC in Africa for the past seven years, one of the most fascinating discussions was by Ewert who, in addition to sharing his own experience, participated in research on Christian development organizations, including MCC, to understand “how religious values inform the development philosophies, strategies and practices of intercultural workers” (212).

One of the most intriguing parts of this research was a comparison of “why evangelical missionaries and MCC workers (as groups) believed Christians should be involved in community development” (214). The research indicated that while “both groups pointed to the importance of Christ’s example in their motivation for social engagement, the evangelical sample clearly tended to view that example as a means to another end – gaining credibility with their target audience in order to share the Gospel more effectively.  MCC workers, on the other hand, believed people see Christ in acts of compassion and view development as helping build the Kingdom of God. Engaging in development in order to ‘earn the right to be heard’ was not only dead last in the MCC workers’ rankings but was also the factor on which the two groups diverged the most” (214). In his own conversations with evangelicals at Wheaton (Ill.) College about development and through his work with an evangelical global health organization, Ewert realized that he “had never separated sharing the message of Christ from acts of mercy” (215), discovering that he had an Anabaptist understanding of development.

Emily Welty, one of three contributors who share “observations from outside,” based her dissertation on an ethnographic analysis of MCC’s programs in East Africa and argues that “MCC’s peacebuilding and development work have remained consistent with the deeper Mennonite understandings of the theology and practice of peace.” She summarized her research in an article in Mennonite Quarterly Review in 2016, concluding that how MCC does its work – the importance its volunteer service workers and local staff place on building relationships with partners and on living out their faith in their everyday lives – represents a unique Anabaptist approach to development. Her recent research correlates with that of Ewert much earlier, and is also evidenced by all the practitioners in this book who clearly see their development work – whether it be helping communities control tsetse flies (Denlinger); agricultural extension (Fremont Regier); building community health systems (Baer); or building strong health organizations (Chirangi) – as contributing to the Kingdom of God even if they don’t express it in those exact terms.

As we look for themes that connect the lives of this cohort of Anabaptist Africanists, I agree with Songolo and Steven M. Feierman that two important ones are service and community (another could be peace). Songolo notes in the Foreword: “Too often, the field is replete with careerist scholars who are seeking the next advancement. In the essays assembled here, on the contrary, the prime motivation seems to be, always, service first” (xv). This is also reflected in the title of this review, taken from that of Chirangi’s reflection: “We live to serve others with a holistic touch.” Chirangi is a Tanzanian Mennonite, currently the CEO of a government hospital, originally founded by the Tanzania Mennonite Church, and health college in Mugumu, Tanzania.

It is easy to see this mindset of service in the work of the practitioners, but it is also evident in those who spent their careers in academia. For some that meant considering what they chose to research. As E. Wayne Nafziger argued, “One can choose an abstract problem that doesn’t have any relationship to people and gain professional credit, but the question is … Do you really want to spend 20 years of your life on something that has no relevance to other people’s lives?” (116). His scholarly work related to his concern for economic development in the Global South. John D. Metzler at Michigan State University helped build one of the largest and strongest U.S. study abroad programs in Africa, working with K-12 teachers in the United States to expand their knowledge of Africa in order to improve their teaching about the continent. Others took meaning from helping their students better understand the global community, particularly Africa, through their various fields whether history, anthropology, economics, literature, French or music. Curtis A. Keim wrote Mistaking Africa: Curiosities and Inventions of the American Mind (which has now gone through four editions), tackling widespread American misperceptions of Africa (86). Donald C. Holsinger categorized his service this way: “I have sought to contribute to … the cultivation of a global perspective, that is, the broadening of cultural horizons so as to encompass the entire human family” (63).

The service mindset amongst the academics can also be seen in the importance placed on relationships with students. John C. Yoder mentions the hundreds of students he introduced to Africa and the careers that many of them went on to have in African studies or in Africa, many as volunteers with Peace Corps, MCC or other NGOs (152). Karen R. Keim notes the relationships she and her husband, contributor Curtis Keim, were able to build with African students over the years. The Keims also encouraged Moravian College to establish scholarships for international students and contributed to programs that supported them. Karen Keim summed it up this way: “The curiosity about African cultures that resulted from participating in the MCC TAP program in Zaire led to my life-long endeavor to be an international friend, teacher and scholar of Africa” (99).

For Feierman, another of the three scholars asked to share “observations from outside,” community is what distinguishes this cohort. He generously stated that the Mennonite Africanists he knew were “wonderful scholars and morally centered in an unusual and admirable way,” so he looked forward to reading their stories to try to ascertain “how did they get to be this way” (257). He concluded that a key reason was that “Mennonites who returned from alternative service remain in a community with one another. Continuing service, woven through their lives, often encouraged and coordinated by the Mennonite Central Committee, means that the initial years abroad are not a departure from the arc of a life, but integral to it, recurring at each stage” (259). He sees this as distinguishing these Anabaptist Africanists from others who also received a moral upbringing or from ex-Peace Corps volunteers, who also return with African grassroots experience. MCC helps create a community that is reenforced by local Anabaptist churches and Anabaptist colleges. These networks help encourage others to serve and also draw back in those who have already served (Janzen and Lauren Yoder being examples). These Anabaptist institutions have helped create a globally-minded community concerned about how we are living in and contributing to the wider world.

In a book concerned with decolonization, how far does it assist us in the ongoing process of undoing colonial mentalities? Welty is disappointed in what she sees as the overall lack of analysis of “their own race and the way that it influenced their work in the African context” (268). While she does acknowledge that these recollections are “countering traditional colonial narratives” (269) and details ways she sees this happening, she suggests this volume barely avoided “glossing over difficult truths about Mennonite racism and participation in colonial structures” (269). From my reading, I don’t think this is fair, as many contributors shared their concerns over the paternalism and patronizing attitudes they found among the missionaries in the communities in which they served. This quote from P. Stanley Yoder, who was placed at a Mennonite mission station, is one example: “I felt distinctly uncomfortable being identified with missionaries, some of whom spoke of local people in paternalistic and even racist terms” (245).

As someone who has studied missions during the colonial period in Africa, I find it all too easy to discern the colonial mindset amongst missionaries, Anabaptists included, especially in the 1920s and 1930s at the height of the colonial era in Africa, and it certainly needs to be reckoned with. My observation, however, from my research and experience is that World War II had a substantial impact on how Westerners thought about Africa, even before it became clear that the nationalist movements of the 1950s were going to be successful. Westerners who came to Africa after WWII generally had a significantly different mentality from those who arrived before. While Welty picked up on a quote from Don Jacobs that seems to belie this, the way in which the first Tanzanian Mennonite Bishop, Z. Marwa Kisare, described Jacobs in his autobiography is instructive: “In 1954 Donald R. Jacobs arrived as a new missionary to work with us here in Tanzania. He was a forward-looking person and things began to change. I do not fully understand how the change came about. But with the arrival of Don Jacobs, our situation began to improve. … He was well-educated and it didn’t offend him that we loved learning too. … His greatest gift to us was that he saw us as brothers and sisters on equal standing with him. He saw us as fellow human beings on the same level” (99-100, from Kisare: A Mennonite of Kiseru).

For me, the story of these essays is a story of transformation. Each emphasizes how the author’s thinking about Africa changed; how their lives were impacted by their service in Africa; and the things they learned in Africa. Ewert titled his reflection “Africa: a transformative place,” which encapsulates the stories these contributors are telling. It’s the reason why they decided to return to do research in Africa or to spend much of their professional lives there. The desire to learn from and partner with those who are different from ourselves represents a post-colonial mentality, one that assumes we are all equal human beings worthy of respect with cultures and histories that are worth learning about. How this is lived out in partnerships on the ground in Africa and elsewhere, however, when racism and power imbalances between the Global North and the Global South endure is something that MCC continues to wrestle with. In fact, MCC’s internal Dismantling Oppression Team recently sent a survey to all MCC partners to try to gauge how we are currently doing in this regard.

In terms of “where to from here,” given the value of these stories, I hope the Mennonite journals will take up the task of continuing to collect them, especially to increase their diversity. Of the 24 included here, only four were about women and only three were about Africans. Like Welty, I wished the editors had asked Lydia Glick Samatar to share more of her story – her journey as a young woman from a rural community in North Dakota to teaching English in Somalia, marrying a Somali and becoming an academic spouse in New Jersey is almost as improbable as Said Samatar’s journey from camel herder in the Ogaden to celebrated academic interpreter of Somalia to Western audiences. Glick Samatar represents a much larger cohort – there were significant numbers of single women who served abroad with Mennonite institutions during these decades. Since, unlike their male counterparts, there was no push due to the U.S. military draft, hearing what motivated these young women to serve and the impact of that service on their lives would be a valuable addition to this topic and contribute to a better understanding of the impact of gender on this generational cohort. Similarly, stories of Africans impacted by participation in the International Visitor Exchange Program (IVEP), or TAP teachers whose significant contributions in their communities were supported by MCC, would further expand these stories of transformation through service and the creation of a global community.

Feierman concludes his essay by noting: “At this moment, when some religious institutions around the world support agendas of nationalism and exclusion, it is particularly important to file the papers for a divorce of religion from nationalism” (261). This book reveals the significant impact of service with Mennonite institutions, which helped create a global community working against xenophobia and the fear of those who are different from ourselves. That these fears continue to be stoked is an unwanted and unexpected challenge in 2021 when the world has never been more connected. As MCC moves into its second century, I hope Mennonite communities will continue to urge their young adults to participate in global service.