I try not to use the word “Africa” – ever. The continent of Africa is a huge and varied place that an undifferentiated and imprecise term doesn’t seem to be of much use.
Yet I have often heard reference to the “African church,” as in, “The African church believes x” or “The African church doesn’t like y.” Yet as I have traveled around “Africa” – this summer and on other visits – I never fail to be impressed with the diversity within this allegedly monolithic entity.
For instance, here is the bishop’s house in Owerri, Nigeria, where I was in June.
And here is the bishop’s house in Aweil, South Sudan, where I was last week.
What you can’t see is that the house in Owerri is part of a large compound with nicely-tended gardens. The bishop in Owerri has three sitting rooms (he needs them all to entertain his many visitors) and they are air-conditioned. In Aweil, that little building has two rooms – with dirt/sand floors – that serve as housing not only for the bishop but also the diocesan school principal and his family. The building also serves as the bishop’s office. In Owerri, the bishop has two offices in two different buildings, at least one of which is larger than the entire building in Aweil.
Here are some women after church on a Sunday in Owerri.
And here are some parishioners in Aweil.
What you can’t tell from the pictures is that the women in Owerri speak great English and smell great. That might be because they have running water in their homes (a few even have hot water) and cook over propane or electric stoves. In Aweil, those women speak Dinka and Arabic and – there’s no other way to put this – have a certain odour about them, which I have often come across in people who are not able to bathe all that often and cook all their meals over smokey fires. Perhaps that’s because they have to carry all their water in buckets from a well.
As I sat in Aweil last week, I couldn’t help but pine for my air-conditioned bedroom in Owerri with a tub with hot water and a sink with taps in it. Instead, I had my umpteenth bucket bath – I’m developing an odour not unlike those women – in the grass hut outside and immediately got my feet all sandy when I walked back into the bishop’s house and crawled into my bed crammed against a wall. (Great thing about bathing outside, though, is you get to look at the stars while you wash – or, in one memorable case, watch an amazing thunder storm roll in across the plain.)
These are two little visual examples of the differences between a place like Owerri and Aweil. There are a huge number of others, of course. Owerri has countless programs, construction projects, and events going on. Aweil can barely provide enough wafers for monthly communion in its cathedral. There are at least twenty church schools in Owerri and many are quite good. The school in Aweil is in huts with flimsy grass walls. Life in Owerri is more similar to life in an American diocese than it is to life in Aweil.
And just as there is programmatic and financial diversity within the “African church,” there is also theological, philosophical, liturgical, and ideological diversity as well. Nigeria and Sudan were both evangelized by the Church Missionary Society but have developed on quite separate paths. There is quite a lot of difference between a Sunday morning in Aweil and a Sunday morning in Owerri.
So how can we speak of the “African church”? Maybe instead of speaking about it so much, we should start spending more time visiting it.