Many African Independent Churches (AICs) have been founded as a reaction to European colonial domination – politically, economically, and also culturally. As a consequence, they tend to see development industry of today in the tradition of colonialism.
Before Africa was integrated in the world system, it comprised of multiple communities in nations which had their own characteristics in terms of community organisation, political formations, economic structures, and structures of religion. These communities interacted with each other in trade, governance, and politics - which involved collaboration and conflict. This situation started changing when trade between Africa and the rest of the world increased as Africa’s natural resources attracted the attention of the rest of the world - most especially Europe and the Arab middle east. Trade in minerals and human beings - as slaves - defined the integration of Africa in the global trade. Africa was brought into global economic by collaboration and coercion.
The arrival of missionaries coupled with the process of colonisation deepened the efforts to bring Africa in the global environment. This was largely done on the terms of external interests. The 19th century was the major period for the deepening of these processes which were to define what Africa would be. The Berlin conference of 1884 concretised the process of colonisation by sharing out Africa among several European political powers. This accelerated religious, political, and economic processes that largely invited and coerced Africa into foreign frameworks. Consequently, the structures for religion including education, the governance and public administration structures as well as trade structures were planted on Africa. Cultural domination, political domination and economic domination was the resultant factor of these processes.
The local is important to the AICs
Many African Independent Churches (AICs) today interact with the development industry from positions informed by the way they related to the religious, political, and economic dynamics of the late 19th and early 20th century. This was the founding era of the AICs. A section of African Christians started reshaping the way Christianity is understood and spread in Africa. One of the liberating factors was the translation of the bible in local languages. These African men and women found a Christ in the bible, who did not conform to the values of cultural domination, political domination, and economic domination which were being propagated through religion and colonisation. This is what lays the foundation on which AICs base their interactions with what they consider to be foreign and consequently dominating. They draw on their cultural resources, together with theological resources to form positions which influence the way they interact with the local and bring the local to interact with what they consider to be foreign.
The local is important to the AICs. The local as faith structures, knowledge systems, community organisation, economic structures, and other processes. It is through this that they assess what they would like to be part of, and what they object to be part of. This is an assertion of autonomy.
The resourcefulness that such local formations rely on are reflected in the following ways: Above all is the faith motivation which enables congregations at the local to act to respond to the needs of church members and the communities around them. There is a level reciprocity rooted in the social and economic structures at this level. These structures can look like a cooperative society in a given situation, they can take the shape of benevolence and to a great extent community insurance, to mention a few. Social protection is in these structures. Giver and receiver type of relationships are prevalent even in the way many development agencies relate to local organisations in Africa. Yet the major community mechanisms that people rely on are structures that are not hierarchical. With reciprocity all are givers and all are receivers. Such structures are of people of similar economic status. The support that is given out of these structures is perpetual which means there is no end to what they do in support of each other. Finally, the people in these structures know what they are doing, how the accountability mechanisms work, and they have the ability to impose sanctions to what threatens or undermines this autonomy.
Community structures for the well-being of church members
Protecting the local from external domination is in the founding values of many AICs. On the other hand, the global development industry is largely driven by resources and conceptualisation processes that can be different from the world view formed by the AICs and other African formations. Given the power to intervene for development which many international development agencies have, they tend to set criteria and frameworks for partnership. It is through these frameworks that these agencies decide whom to include or exclude.
The institutional frameworks of AICs tend to look rudimentary to an external eye. These churches largely rely on community structures they put in place for the well-being of their members and the communities where they are placed. Further, some AICs and other formations -which are largely cultural institutions-, that value the resourcefulness of being African tend to view external project processes or funding as a threat to the local and hence a threat to their autonomy. For example, in international development-cooperation structures western medicine is seen as the medicine, the rest is seen as alternative medicine. Likewise, only education as provided in the structures inherited from the western context is seen as formal, while Africa’s multiple education systems are termed as informal. In general, Africa’s community support systems are seen as informal while the project structures that rely on other types of resources are affirmed as formal. This is what sets the clash between the local and the external in contexts where AICs and other African formations that value their autonomy and resourcefulness when they encounter what they consider to be dominating development arrangements.
Discrimination of HIV-infected people
In contexts of major threats, the local tends to move into protecting the community from what is considered to be harmful. The resultant action to these threats is based on the resources at the disposal of the local. And this can be done while closing out what is considered to be external resources that are considered disruptive or undermining. Responding to HIV and AIDS is a scenario for this clash. The emergence of HIV and AIDS in the early 1980s was followed by scientific facts that were provided to guide communities on prevention and care. Since HIV and AIDS was related to being spread largely through sexual relations, the situation elicited multiple responses in Africa. The responses were based on resources which different communities rely on to deal with a situation that was considered to relate to some taboos or breaking of community norms. If a woman whose husband died refused to be remarried in the way the way it was stipulated in the community norms. These actions that seemed to be breaking community norms could lead to suffering which included a disease that could cause someone to waste away. The implication of such understanding of reality is that: there was denial of HIV and AIDS; there was marginalisation that increased the risk of infection, especially for women. This resulted in stigma and discrimination which impacted people living with HIV and AIDS as they denied the support they needed from the local support mechanisms. It also resulted in a clash between the official position of the governments or of development organisations that was based on scientific facts on HIV and AIDS, and the multiple positions. that were based on diverse cultural and theological understandings of the reality that was emerging. Theological and cultural understandings that had related HIV and AIDS to sin as the cause impeded a holistic response.
Shift towards a shared understanding
Communities and organisations can drift across the four positions depending on what they are responding to and the how they understand or view the role of the external agency involved. The Organisation of African Instituted Churches (OAIC) works with member churches and local communities to accompany them so that they can shape responses or initiatives that fit in category number four. In the case of HIV and AIDS, the OAIC recognised the fact that the AICs were acting out an understanding of reality that was not holistic. They wanted to protect their communities from harm but they did not consider the place of women, children, men, and young people in their society, as well as the existing social-economic inequalities. What the OAIC does in such situations is to illuminate the reality by enabling the interaction of the local knowledge systems and the facts about an emerging or existing reality.
In relation to HIV and AIDS, what was at the centre was whether the responses by the AICs and other formations were protecting the community from harm or whether they were harming the community by generating stigma and consequently withholding the support that is required for HIV and AIDS prevention, care and support. This is what led to engaging the theological and cultural positions that different AICs held on HIV and AIDS. This enabled the shift towards a shared understanding that brought stigma into the category of actions that harm the community because of the suffering it causes for the people living HIV and AIDS and their families.
These are processes of lengthy conversations over a period. The processes generate disagreements and agreements based on the multiple knowledge systems that the communities of AICs bring with them. In this process transformation takes place. The resourcefulness is identified and affirmed, and the barriers that undermine informed action are identified and brought to the surface. The actions to be taken to build on the resourcefulness are clarified, and the processes to eliminate or transform the barriers are agreed on.
This is a complex process to the outsider, and time consuming to short term projects which require immediate results. Many development agencies turned the AICs into project targets and as instruments for externally designed projects. The results were mixed in relation to the four levels of action mentioned above. The AICs either refused to cooperate or cooperated without a full understanding of their resourcefulness-hence confining their action to external resources. Yet the engagement that was done between the OAIC and the member churches resulted in hundreds of local level initiatives that provided prevention education, care and support of people living with HIV and AIDS, supporting thousands of orphans and vulnerable children. The rallying theme that was born out of this process was Building Community Support Systems for HIV and AIDS Prevention, Care and Support (BUCOSS.) BUCOSS was designed as a framework for action and specific projects were designed to fit the various local contexts. This kind of relating is the basis of the OAIC’s engagement with AICs and local communities on many other issues such as theological education, food sovereignty, social accountability, community health, gender and generational issues and issues of ecological renewal.
Need for trust
There are few lessons that could be helpful to development agencies in Germany, Europe and the Western world in general that would like to work fruitfully with AICs and other African formations that value their resourcefulness and autonomy: We engage with AICs as autonomous organisations and as communities that have similar values but at the same time are heterogenous. What may seem to be informal to the outsider is clear to the AICs. We take time to understand the written and the unwritten in the knowledge systems and other resources of the AICs. They work with undocumented values that have been passed on generation to generation. It is these values that they mobilise as resources that enable the local to interact with the external. There is need for trust so that the engagement that takes pace leads to transformative action. This requires agreeing to be in fellowship, yet the OAIC retains a stance of critical solidarity to facilitate the AICs to critique themselves. We do not exalt external resources over local resources. In fact, the local resources are overwhelmingly much more than what the outsiders bring. Finally, faith shouldn’t be turned into an instrument.
It is important to come into partnership in the framework of reciprocity. This demands of the outsider or external to agree to receive and give. The future could be in our willingness to continue learning and delearning in relation to the way development has been handled. And this calls for humility from both the actors in the developed and developing world.
Nicta Lubaale is General Secretary of the Organisation of African Instituted (OAIC) which is a fellowship of African Independent Churches. Nicta has interest on the theme of faith and development. He was Director for the Development Programme of the OAIC before his current role. He has been involved in designing programmes on HIV and AIDS, social accountability, and food sovereignty. He is one of the convenors of the Africa Interfaith Initiatives on SDGs platform that enabled Africa’s faith communities to participate in shaping the SDGs and now engaging the implementation. He holds an MA in Social Development and Sustainable Livelihoods from the University of Reading (UK)