by John Jusu, More than a Mile Deep coordinator
When I became a Christian at an early age, the missionary who baptized me gave me a new Christian name. I was taught to dress differently, act differently and even learn a new language. The conversion experience alienated me from my culture. I assumed a new culture—the Christian culture. I ceased to be an African.” This lament hits at the core of contextualization.
Contextualization is not just another buzz word that will go away soon. It addresses the perennial problem of relating the gospel and Church to a local context to the extent that the gospel and Church become incarnate in that local context. Very often, we hear the expression that Christianity in Africa is a “western religion” partly because Christianity reemerged in Africa during the missionary movement clothed in western culture and civilization which the missionaries erroneously presented as the gospel. The message was never allowed to take on the clothes of the receiving culture. Thus, for a long time in Africa, to be Christian was to be western. As a result of failed contextualization, many Africans are described as “generations that left, but never arrived.” They left their African cultures but never really arrived as westerners. They became estranged and the consequences are dire to the state of Christianity on the continent.
Contextualization is as important to the educator as it is to the missiologist. The gospel and education entered African cultures simultaneously. The philosophy undergirding missionary education was in many ways antithetical to the philosophy of African education at that time. Missionary education, oblivious of the context, controlled the place, the pace, the space and the time for a fixed, fragmented and inflexible knowledge to be delivered by a “guru” to an age specific group of people largely considered as “empty”. This type of education was called “formal education” with a superior aura. It relegated to oblivion the African education that was more utilitarian, open, integrated and communal. African education was called “nonformal,” which carried inferior connotations. The content of western formal education was high on content and low on context while the African education was high on context and low on content.
Do not try to save a fish from
drowning by extracting if from
- African Proverb
The effect of western formal education can be felt very strongly on the streets of most major cities in Africa that are traversed by “generations of Africans who left but never arrived.” Their western oriented education cannot provide jobs for them in Africa; their western oriented education cannot help them solve the perennial economic, political, health, infrastructural and environmental problems in Africa. The irony is that we have myriads of problems in Africa and a huge educated labor force without jobs. Probably, their western education was not meant to prepare them to address those problems. Their education was out of context.
Africans are now responding to the reality of their context as globalization continues to dig in. They are asking existential questions about their contexts and situations, bringing to the forefront issues of contextualization. Attempts at providing answers have littered the educational and religious landscapes with models and practices that can only be described as heretical and “un-educational.” Cases of neo-syncretism have emerged with the fusion of near-eastern mysticism, African Traditional Religions and the Christian faith in which the Christ of the gospel is lost. In the educational sphere, contextualization is seen mainly in terms of access to education—providing education that fits the lifestyle of the learner though using the same old curriculum that is unresponsive to the needs of the African society. However, in this confusion of finding an authentic contextualization of religion and education, evangelical Christians continue to make significant strides.
First was the publication of the Africa Bible Commentary. Another was the publication of the Africa Study Bible with the tagline of “the Bible through African eyes” in which significant issues facing African Christianity were addressed using African epistemologies and learning strategies. On the education front, Entrust’s More than a Mile Deep curriculum project is producing educational products and services that respond to real African issues in real time and space. For this group, real contextualization happens when the educational model foremost takes into consideration the situation of the learners, their contexts and community of learning. When these are clarified, they become the guiding pegs for the design of the curriculum content.
In view of the context, MMD conceptualizes, develops and implements its curriculum against the backdrop of the situation the learner is prepared to transform. Quite unlike the formal system that feeds theoretical information often devoid of real context, MMD uses the context as the learning laboratory. The learner is trained in current context and not for a future context. Consequently, the daily experiences of the learner constitute the driving force for learning. Theoretical systems are developed from within the context of the learner. The learner generates knowledge as he or she interacts with and reflects on the situations in context.
Learners within MMD interact together as a community to develop common and shared solutions to contextual issues. Unlike formal education that is individualistic and competitive, MMD reinforces the African concept of community where learners in cohort groups take charge and direct their learning as suitable for their context. Overall, MMD helps learners to understand and interact with their context in view of extant literature with the aim of providing solutions in real time to the issues confronting their context. For contextualization to have its effect on learning and spiritual experiences, these experiences must be embedded in the context, and contextual language and forms be used to express and transform those experiences.
This article first appeared in the summer 2018 Engage.