I wrote on Facebook:
I called it an ‘evangelistic conversation’ but I really don’t like the term. ‘Evangelism’ can have negative connotations of conquest and for 200 years Africa has been the plaything of European imperial ambition (let alone the colonisation that came before that).
This conversation highlighted that poignantly.
The nineteenth century colonising of Africa assumed the inferiority of African cultures, and was accompanied by missionary zeal which might not have been as bad as sometimes believed, but certainly imposed baggage from the west. For example, I was saddened to learn in my Swahili Oral Literature course last semester that even those who wanted to preserve African culture by recording it were not immune to this: they disregarded or did not see some cultural practices or stories because they did not have an equivalent in western culture. Western faith traditions were necessarily tied up with this. At some level, being ‘civilised’ meant being Christian, if only nominally.
Today, both Christians and others recognise the folly of this idea. In light of this, people like us come to Tanzania hesitantly. We are a bit uncomfortable with the term ‘missionary‘ and its legacy. We come with an expectation that we are the ones who need to change, and that we will not be able to truly hear on the first pass what Tanzanian Christians are really saying. We don’t expect to give Tanzanians dignity; we recognise that it’s already inherent. We come at the invitation of Tanzanians to work as partners, because while they believe we have something to offer, we know that this contribution is limited. There’s no denying or overcoming the colonial legacy but we at least try not to perpetuate it.
And then I run into someone who’s been told that African belief in God is backward, that the enlightened West no longer believes in God. That same disrespect of African people and cultures rears its ugly head here, as if the next step in development is the eradication of religion. I’m not suggesting that atheism or agnosticism is somehow un-African or not allowed for African people. But the irony is that where once white people imposed Christian faith on Tanzanians, today many preach a different message of atheism or secularism or agnosticism or whatever you want to call it, as if we expect Africans to follow the agenda and anxieties of the West. If once we urged a particular kind of faith on Africans; today many westerners belittle any African faith.
So when I say I had an evangelistic conversation with this woman, it feels like conquest: winning back the poor, helpless, confused African from the claws of the arrogant secularist. And I hate that, because African people are no more things to be won by westerners than their oil or their diamonds, much as we refuse to believe that.
Yes, I’m glad to have had the opportunity to give her the good news that this life is not the end, and that Jesus secures that for us. Hallelujah! But that’s not an unusual message here: there are plenty of powerful Tanzanian preachers and evangelists.
And that’s not all that was going on in the conversation either. My hope is that I was able to subvert the popular notion that the West is ‘further ahead’ or that westerners are more enlightened. I hate that a white face saying it’s OK to believe in God is, to her, more authoritative than a black face saying it. But I’ll say it anyway, not because I want to impose my worldview or belief system, but because I hope it will give her the permission to see her own search for God as valid.