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The Inculturation Debate in Africa

The term 'inculturation' is becoming increasingly fashionable in church,
and in particular Roman Catholic, mission circles. The popularity of the
term is due to a heightened Christian self-understanding of the necessity
of adapting the Christian message to its cultural environment. There is
recognition that the implantation of European values in Africa, or in other
parts of the world, is not necessarily desirous or successful as a mission
strategy. African and other non-western criticisms of colonial hegemony,
including a rejection of Christianity as currently taught and practised,
have come from both within and outside the church, to the extent that
some African Christian theologians are rejecting the 'Christ figure' alto-
gether.2 Christianity has failed to take root, often after centuries of evan-
gelisation, if one is to judge from phenomena such as the absence or
scarcity of candidates for the priesthood, or the rejection of monogamy. A
perceived threat to mission churches from African Independent and
Western fundamentalist churches, as well as from Islam, also contribute
to a sense of urgency in the search for new solutions.
In this article I look first at some of the ways in which inculturation
is being defined and at what have come to be regarded as some early
experiments in inculturation, whether well received or finally rejected by
church authorities and local Christians. The relationship between the
Roman Catholic discourse on inculturation and the politics of religious
synthesis, and some of the problems involved in moving from the level of
theological speculation to mission praxis are also discussed. The rhetoric
of inculturation implies that here is something which can be recognised
and defined as 'true Christianity' and a local culture onto or into which it
can be in some way grafted. The models underlying this assumption tend

to be static and in practice can be seen as an attempt by the mainstream

church authorities to maintain definitional control over the faith of the
mission or former mission churches.
The example of the church in the ancient Kingdom of Kongo illustrates
some of the problems, which beset the modern debate. A church that was
considered both African and orthodox in one century was redefined as
syncretic and heterodox in another. Using ethnographic examples from my
fieldwork in Cameroon in the 1980s and 1990s I look at some of the
practical problems to be faced in the realisation of a concept such as
inculturation. To start with, how is one to decide who is a Christian and
who is not? In other words, who are the people who constitute the local
church and who are required to inculturate the gospel? By what means is
one to judge the validity of various experiments involving indigenous rites,
symbols or practices, and who is to make such judgements? What, indeed,
constitutes local or African culture? Whose culture and whose definitions
are to be regarded as normative? How are competing traditional inter-
pretations and forms of local Christian expression to be adjudicated? My
aim in addressing these issues is not simply to deconstruct the term
inculturation, nor to disparage missionary efforts to 'make Christianity
relevant'. By viewing inculturation through an anthropological lens I wish
to contribute to a debate on some of the hermeneutical and epistemolo-
gica! issues of mission praxis.

Current debates within anthropology over the nature of religion and
culture contact are relevant to mission theorists and practitioners in their
examination of the political dimensions of religious synthesis. The term
'syncretism' has been reclaimed by anthropologists as a neutral concept,
indeed, as a useful analytical tool with which to focus on the dynamics
of cultural and religious change. Shaw and Stewart, in an important
contribution to this debate, have also coined the term 'anti-syncretism'
to describe 'the antagonism to religious synthesis shown by agents con-
cerned with the defence of religious boundaries' (1994: 7). When two or
more cultural systems meet they do not necessarily merge or borrow from
one another in predictable ways, and issues surrounding authenticity, for
instance, can centre on a particular synthesis, or on an appeal to tradition
and 'purity'. Within Roman Catholic discourse on African Christianity
the term 'syncretism' has been pejoratively reserved for a perceived
distortion of Christian truth, often associated with nativism or apostasy.
African independent churches and various non-western practices in
The Inculturation Débate in Afrìca 69

mission churches are often dismissed as syncretic. The use of traditional

elements in liturgy or church order are sometimes claimed to lead wor-
shippers beyond the sphere of Christian orthodoxy.3 Inculturation is
usually defined in opposition to syncretism; it is seen as the legitimate
take up of selected aspects of indigenous culture into Christian practice, or
the search for 'seeds of the gospel' scattered by the grace of God in pagan
religions. Among such 'seeds' one could include idealised models of 'the
African family' or of an 'African respect for life'. These clichés are to be
found in papal pronouncements and in the writings of both African and
Western writers, cited as elements of traditional culture which can give an
authentically African flavour to Christianity.4 Such sentiments conflict
with other perceived characteristics of African family life, such as the
widespread practice of female genital mutilation, polygyny, or the common
acceptance of pre-marital and extra-marital intercourse (at least for men).
In practice missionaries and church leaders often see the 'African family'
less as a bulwark against pagan or non-Christian values than as a major
stumbling block to church growth.5
Charles Stewart reminds us of the obvious, but not always appreciated
fact that all religions are syncretic, and that eventually certain forms of
synthesis may come to be seen as normative and be accorded privileged
(orthodox) status. Referring to the preponderance of holy wells in Ireland
and mountain top shrines in Greece, once pagan sites but now christia-
nised, Stewart remarks that:
These examples suggest that the passage of time may dull recognition
of 'syncretism', especially for those who practice the religion in
question everything becomes equally traditional and inseparable.
This cycle of conversion, accommodation and naturalization is then
repeated in the process of missionization, with the difference that
instead of church councils excoriating divergent forms of 'super-
stition' while legislating proper practice, we now hear charges of
illegitimate 'syncretism' when the missionized do not get the mis-
sionaries' form of Christianity right (1994: 134).
There is an tendency in mission discourse to construct Christianity
and traditional religions as 'opposed ideal types' if the 'epistemological
priority of interaction', as John Peel terms it, is not kept to the fore (1990:
339). 6 Peel uses the encounter between Christian missionaries and the
babalawo, ritual specialists associated with the Yoruba Ι/α divination cult,
to emphasise his point that, 'conversion in Africa is above all a process of
impassioned communication, whose outcome, while conditioned by the

assumptions, interests and resources of the participants, is in the fullest

sense the product of their interaction (ibid.).' A realistic, as opposed to an
idealised, approach to inculturation, would recognise the dynamic inter-
play of historical, political and social factors in any religious synthesis,
with a nuanced understanding of the processes of conversion and explicit
acknowledgement of the balance of power between the parties involved.
The Roman Catholic Church rejects the concept of democracy for its
internal ordering and, convinced that it has a unique gift to offer, is not
concerned to enter into a dialogue with African culture or traditional
religion on a basis of equality. The self-understanding of the Roman
Catholic Church, and of the operation of the magisterium as it affects
local church affairs, is a crucial factor in any debate on inculturation, but
is often rendered invisible due to its normative and therefore invisible
status to the protagonists in this debate.7


The term 'inculturation' relates to a shift in thinking about the church and
its mission over the past few decades. Father Joseph Masson, a Jesuit
teaching at the Gregorian University in Rome, used the term in 1962,
shortly before the opening of the Second Vatican Council (Shorter, 1988:
lOff; Bosch, 1991: 447ff). Although given different nuances, the term
basically refers to the interpénétration of faith and culture. It is related
to, but not identical with, the term 'acculturation', which is more com-
monly used by anthropologists to refer to culture contact, and is often
synonymous with 'indigenisatiori, also favoured by anthropologists.
Inculturation, however, unlike the latter two terms, preserves a specifically
theological agenda. Its use has become widespread in Roman Catholic
circles and it is often interpreted more narrowly than just contact or
dialogue between Christianity and traditional religions. Most often incult-
uration refers to the insertion of Christianity into a culture, generally
outside the Western Judaeo-Christian context, and that culture's response
to the Christian message. A statement on 'Faith and Inculturation' issued by
the International Theological Commission of the Roman Catholic Church
in 1987 stated that:

The process of inculturation may be defined as the Church's efforts to

make the message of Christ penetrate a given socio-cultural milieu,
calling on the latter to grow according to all its particular values, as
long as these are compatible with the Gospel. The term 'incultura-
tion' includes the notion of growth, of the mutual enrichment of
The Inculturation Débate in Africa 71

persons and groups, rendered possible by the encounter of the gospel

with a social milieu (Scherer and Bevans, 1992: 156).

The statement continues with a quotation from Pope John Paul II's 1985
encyclical Slavorum Apostoli: 'Inculturation is the incarnation of the
Gospel in the hereditary cultures, and at the same time, the introduction
of these cultures into the life of the Church' (ibid.).8 This latter definition
may hint at what Bishop Joseph Blomjou (in 1980) termed 'intercultura-
tion', the recognition that inculturation is not a one-way process, and that
the Christian faith, or the particular form of it transmitted to a given
culture, will itself undergo transformation (Shorter, 1988; 13).
In practice, however, Pope John Paul II appears excessively wary of
African cultures and doubtful of their ability to embody the Christian
faith, let alone make a genuine contribution in their own right to Western
or universal Christianity The statement above was in fact made with ref-
erence to the Pope's own Slavonic culture and its christianisation by Saints
Cyril and Methodius in the ninth century. In Nairobi in 1985, John Paul II
referred to the 'theological culture' and 'theological patrimony' of the
Universal Church in which African's bishops and theologians must be
solidly grounded (Shorter, 1988: 234). Whilst a knowledge of the contexts
in which Christianity developed would be accepted by many African and
other non-western Christians as desirous, the Pope seemed to infer that it
was precisely this European, rather than African, cultural basis which was
to form the benchmark of any authentic expression of Christianity. The
process of inculturation, like that of liberation theology in South America,
is apparently full of dangers and in need of close monitoring by those in
authority.9 It is no secret that Cardinal Ratzinger, head of the Congregation
for the Doctrine of the Faith (the former 'Holy Office'), has little time for
African cultures, preferring to stress what he calls 'the universal signifi-
cance of Christian thought as it has evolved in the West'10 (Shorter, 1988:
237). At the very least there is a tension in current Roman Catholic
thinking, as represented in official Vatican statements, between a desire
to see Christianity take root in non-western cultures and a lack of trust
in those required to incarnate this process in the local churches.
Recent ecumenical statements from the World Council of Churches go
much further than their Roman Catholic counterparts in stressing the
mutuality of the missionary enterprise, although the term inculturation
is seldom used. These ecumenical documents do not have the same
authority or status as encyclical letters, being merely recommendations
from assemblies to member churches, many of whom might legitimately

disagree with the approach taken. Nevertheless, the Seventh Assembly of

the World Council of Churches, meeting in Canberra in 1991, stated that:
The gospel of Jesus Christ must become incarnate in every culture. When
Christianity enters any culture there is a mutual encounter, involving both
the critique of culture by the gospel and the possibility of the culture
questioning our understanding of the gospel. Some of the ways in which
the gospel has been imposed in particular cultures calls for repentance and
healing. In each case we need to ask: Is the church creating tension or
promoting reconciliation?11 (Scherer & Bevans, 1992: 87).
All of these official statements betray a basic hermeneutical weakness.
There is an assumption that notions such as 'the Christian faith', 'the
universal patrimony of the Church', 'the gospel', or 'scripture', are self-
evident as categories or concepts, and somehow stand in a distinct
relation to another category, that of culture. This is sometimes referred
to as the 'kernel and husk' approach to Christianity. '[Tjhe basic Christian
revelation is the kernel; the previous cultural settings in which it has been
incarnated constitute the husk. The kernel has to be hulled time and
again, as it were, to allow it to be translated into new cultural contexts'
(Shreiter, 1985: 7). Whether any particular attempt at translation is
regarded as valid is judged by the Western or mission-sending church,
rather than by local Christian communities or an indigenous hierarchy.
An experiment by two Roman Catholic bishops in northern Cameroon
and Chad, for instance, in which millet bread and millet beer, the staple
food and drink of the region, were used to replace unleavened wheat
bread and fermented grape wine for the Eucharist, was brought to an end
by the Vatican's instruction Inaestimabile Donum (Shorter, 1988: 65). In
Zimbabwe a post Vatican II experiment which sought to incorporate a
traditional ceremony aimed at bringing home the spirit of a dead person
into the Roman Catholic liturgy came under attack (Hastings, 1989: 33).
A ritual is part of a whole complex of beliefs and practices, in the
Zimbabwean instance these involve notions of spirit possession, which
could be regarded as inimical to Christianity. Wherever and whenever
different religious systems meet elements can be and often are transposed
from one system to another. Familiar rites and holy sites are given new
meanings and associations, but the process is unpredictable and not easily
controlled. To give just one example, it is difficult or impossible for
mission churches in Africa to dictate which aspects of healing might be
regarded as Christian, or as capable of being christianised, and which
aspects converts are required to reject as pagan. Notions of sickness and
health are inseparable in most instances from witchcraft beliefs, which the
The Inculturation Débate in Africa 73

mission churches have largely denounced as satanic or rejected as super-

The main problem with the kernel and husk approach, however, is that
there is no clearly definable inner essence of Christianity separate from the
culture in which it is incarnated. As David Bosch, in his seminal work on
missions, puts it, 'Our views are always interpretations of what we consider
to be divine revelation, not divine revelation itself (1991: 182). These
interpretations will be affected by personal and cultural circumstances,
as well as by the historical period and geographical context in which
they take place. Bosch continues, 'It is an illusion to believe that we can
penetrate to a pure gospel unaffected by any cultural or other human
accretions' (ibid.) and he therefore prefers to talk about 'theologies' in the
plural, rather than a single theology. Answering the charge of a post-
modernist slide into total relativism, Bosch counters that one should not
think in terms of mutually exclusive categories of 'absolute' and 'relative',
and that although all theologies are partial and socially and culturally
biased, it does not therefore follow that 'anything goes'. 'It is true that we
see only in part, but we do see' (ibid: 186). This leads, he claims, to a
creative tension between ultimate faith and commitment and personal
theological perceptions, in which the whole church should learn to
operate as an 'international hermeneutical community' (ibid: 197).
Adrian Hastings has pointed to a shift in popular emphasis from African
theology, which is concerned with questions of culture, and in the context
of which the question of inculturation is usually raised, to Black theology,
which owes more to the liberation theology of South America and the
Black civil rights movement of the United States, which prioritises social
justice. He warns against too self-conscious a preoccupation with ques-
tions of culture, which can become something of an indulgence when it
distracts Christians from issues of human rights and from the economic
and political issues which affect people's everyday lives.
The crucial issue today is that of gospel and justice rather than that of
gospel and culture ... Perhaps it is a sign of an unhealthy culture and
an unhealthy church to be too culture-conscious... A culture today, I
would suggest, is a justice-conscious culture; an unhealthy culture is
a culture conscious culture (Hastings, 1989: 35).
In the face of the enormous economic, political and social challenges
facing most countries in Africa today it is difficult to argue with this. South
African theologians have been at the forefront of Black theological
thinking in Africa, and their concerns help to protect the church from

seeing culture as a static entity - a 'tradition' or set of traditions which need

to be preserved. Cultures are dynamic, multifarious and multifaceted and
are under continual reconstruction. Colonial or pre-colonial customs no
more represent authentic 'African culture' than the Latin mass or 1662
Prayer Book represent the true, unchanging, liturgical tradition of the
Western Church. What is at issue is the kind of culture, the nature of the
traditions which individuals and societies wish to construct, and the
values that underpin them. These will draw on the past but must answer
to present concerns. The importance of individual agency and choice and
of particular historical and cultural events in determining the way the
Christian message has been received is evident when the dynamics of
actual exchanges are examined. The notion that culture can be taken as a
monolithic 'given' becomes untenable.


Recent studies of the dynamics of conversion, or resistance to conversion,
have emphasised the importance of cultural fit. Some aspects or aspects of
the new religion need to resonate with, or be capable of adaptation to,
existing beliefs and social patterns.12 Fast (1993), in an article on the
nineteenth century Wesleyan mission in Xhosaland (South Africa) explores
Xhosa resistance to the Wesleyan message, in particular Xhosa lack of
understanding of the missionaries' concept of an all-powerful yet personal
God and their emphasis on sin, salvation and the non-material aspects
of faith: 'The missionary solution for all problems was spiritual, whereas,
for the Xhosa, salvation meant prosperity and happiness in this life'
(Fast, 1993: 155). The Wesleyan message was seen as largely irrelevant
to the Xhosa as a people. A marked readiness among converts to pray
spontaneously and alone was therefore interpreted by the Wesleyan
missionaries as the action of divine grace rather than the result of a
natural inclination. Fast, however, attributes Xhosa piety to the influence
of two Xhosa prophets who had preached an indigenous for of Christianity
a decade prior to the coming of the Wesleyan mission. They had
emphasised prayer as a means of establishing correct social relations,
and those recruited by the Wesleyans were largely their former converts.
Another study which highlights the role of individual personalities and
their choices in determining the way elements of traditional cultures and
Christianity interact is Gulbrandsen's account of the Tswana (1993). In the
north-western Tswana kingdoms the rulers 'not only facilitated Christian
expansion', but also 'allowed themselves to be baptized in public and
transformed or abandoned several important nationalritualsin which they
The Inculturation Débate in Africa 75

had previously been the principal figure' (Gulbrandsen, 1993: 44). These
rulers were equally ready to abandon social practices deemed 'savage'
by the missionaries, and to take leading roles in missionary churches,
'attempting to attach them to the royal court as a kind of state church'
(ibid.). Gulbrandsen argues that, 'precisely because Tswana 'religion' was
an intrinsic aspect of the polity, there were many ways by which the
spiritual force of kingship could be reproduced, even if some of its ritual
externalizations were transformed in order to satisfy the missionary
dichotomization' (ibid.: 45). The Tswana rulers judged that Christianity
could be used to serve rather than undermine traditional cultural and
religious mores.13
Birgit Meyer, in her study of Bible translation in the Ewe mission in
Ghana, also emphasises the need to see African Christians as 'active agents
in historical processes' (1994: 45). The Protestant missionaries of the
Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) selected one deity, Mawu, from the
Ewe pantheon to translate the term 'God'. The remaining deities were
collectively associated with 'the Devil' or 'Satan'. The term Mawu retains for
the Ewe the sense of a spiritual being both within the reach of human beings
and simultaneously distant from them. The failure of the Christian notion
of 'God' to displace traditional Ewe concepts of Mawu, is evidence, Meyer
argues, in the secret nocturnal consultation of tro priests by Christians,
when prayers and church-going fail to yield results. The term chosen by the
Bible translators for 'the Devil' was Abosam, an Akan word, cognate with
the Ewe Sasabosam, a bush monster associated with witchcraft and hostile
to human beings, especially priests. The Ewe made a strong connection
between the feared evil power of witchcraft and the Devil. Members of the
EPC in Ewe, including many pastors, conceive of witches as agents of
Satan, while the missionaries dismissed witchcraft as pagan superstition, a
heathen survival that could be expected to die out with the coming of the
gospel.14 An unintended consequence of the Bible translation was the
reinforcing of the link between Christianity and witchcraft. Meyer quotes a
female member of the EPC, who stated (in 1989) that, 'If you are a good
Christian, you must believe in the existence of Satan. And if you believe in
Satan, you must believe in witchcraft. And when a person behaves
abnormally, he is an agent of Satan, a "witch"' (1994: 58).
These studies all, in different ways, highlight the unpredictability of the
indigenous response of African converts to Christianity, depending as it
does on a variety of political, religious, linguistic and other social factors.15
The example of the Kingdom of Kongo allows us to look not only at an
African reaction to mission teaching, but reflexively at the dynamics of

power within the central organs of the Roman Catholic Church, and at the
shift from a pre to a post-Tridentine understanding of mission.


The Kongo Kingdom to the south of the Congo River, in what is now
Angola was missionized by secular Portuguese priests in 1491, and direct
political contacts between the people of Kongo and Portugal were estab-
lished. The Kongo royal family were the most important early converts in
terms of their subsequent Christian influence, and a son of Nzinga Nkuwu
the King of Kongo, Afonso Mvemba Nzinga, also known as Don Henrique,
received training for the priesthood in Portugal, being elevated to a
bishopric in 1518. The Christian Kingdom of Kongo even gave birth to
what is said to be the earliest recorded example of an African-Christian
new religious movement. Between 1704 and 1706 a young Kongo woman,
Dona Béatrice (Kimpa Vita), who believed herself to be a reincarnation of
Saint Anthony, started a group known as the Antonians (Hackett, 1995:
262). The received understanding within the Roman Catholic Church was,
however, that the Kongo church disappeared in a morass of syncretism,
resisting subsequent attempts at evangelisation, so that Central Africa
(which was also being ravaged by the slave trade) had effectively to be re-
evangelised in the nineteenth century by Protestant and Roman Catholic
missionaries from Europe.
Recent re-evaluation of the Kongo church contests this version of
events.16 It was not Kongo Christianity that declined (although this may
also have happened) but Western Roman Catholic understandings of the
nature of the Christian Church, particularly regarding centralisation and
authority, which had undergone a considerable transformation since the
fifteenth century. The Church, in effect, moved the goal posts. When the
Portuguese first arrived in Central Africa the Council of Trent (1545-63)
was still in the future and medieval Catholicism was more tolerant of
variety than the post-Tridentine Church which, in reaction to the Protes-
tant Reformation, aimed at standardisation and centralisation.
The Kongo Christians were initially free to retain many aspects of their
traditional culture (including religious practices), and just as importantly,
to develop an indigenous clergy and a high degree of autonomy. At the same
time they considered themselves to be, and were regarded by the Western
Catholic hierarchy, authentically Christian. Kongo Christianity was re-
garded as a valid part of the universal Catholic Church. Given their earlier
experience of self-rule the Kongo Church resisted subsequent efforts to
The Inculturation Débate in Africa 77

induce them to submit to the authority of Jesuit or Capuchin priests, or to

westernise their church. Despite this rejection of European attempts to
impose a greater uniformity upon their church, the Kongo Christians
struggled for some centuries to maintain contact with Rome, but met with
official refusal to ordain Kongo Christians or to offer any outside pastoral
sustenance. Instead of regarding the faith and practices of the Kongolese
Church as an indigenous authentic expression of Christianity, akin perhaps
to the Coptic Church in Egypt and Ethiopia, later missionaries and church
historians regarded the conversion of the Kongo as evidence of a failed
mission experiment which led to dangerous syncretism, and which blocked
the path of subsequent missionary efforts. Aylward Shorter, reflecting on
the crucial factor of timing, expresses the opinion that:
The tragedy of the Catholic Counter-Reformation was that this sweep-
ing standardization of the Church coincided with the discovery of
new continents and cultures. At the very moment when a rigid
uniformity was being imposed on the Church in every department
of the Christian life, explorers and navigators were discovering and
colonizing the Americas, the West Indies, the coasts of Africa and the
East Indies, and missionaries were either accompanying them or
following in their wake (1988: 153-4).
The Council of Trent made no distinction between faith and culture,
seeing its own interpretation of Christianity as universal and ahistorical.
Priestly training was standardised and Latinised, greatly increasing the gap
between priest and people, in the West as well as in the newer mission
fields, and the Church became identified with the colonial powers, despite
occasional heroic efforts by some missionaries to mitigate the worst effects
of European greed and Catholic zeal. One might mention, for instance, the
Jesuit Bartholome dejas Casas who struggled to protect the Indians of
Central America from Spanish atrocities. It is in the context of anti-
Protestant, post-Tridentine (and imperialistic) thinking that official re-
sponses to the Church of the Kongo, and other early experiments in what
might now be, termed inculturation need to be viewed.17
The need to enter the mentality and embrace some of the customs of a
missionized culture, where they did not seem to contradict Christian
principles, was evident to many early missionaries, but an indigenising
theology of mission came into conflict with the more centralising,
Europeanising tendencies. In sixteenth century Japan Jesuit missionaries
adopted Japanese costume, houses, social etiquette and other customs.18
Matteo Ricci and his successors in China carried their experiment of

indigenisation much further. By taking on the persona of first a Buddhist

monk, and then a Confucian scholar, and by entering into an informed
dialogue with Chinese culture, Ricci and his colleagues were able to gain
access to the highest ranks of Chinese society. All that was not judged to
be inimical to Christianity was accepted, including certain ancestral
funeral rites, the appelation 'Lord of Heaven' to the Christian God and,
in 1603, the celebration of the cult of Confucius. In subsequent discus-
sions and conflicts Ricci's experiment came to be known as the 'Chinese
Rites Controversy'. Ricci's contemporary, Robert de Nobili at Madurai in
southern India, adopted the guide of a Brahmin holy man in order to
penetrate Hinduism. Both these and other attempts to evangelise from
within a culture were, despite their success in terms of external results,
eventually discouraged or expressly forbidden by the Roman Catholic
hierarchy and revoked by later seventeenth century missionaries (although
to some extent vindicated by the thinking of the Second Vatican Council in
the 1960s). 19
A second type of evangelisation was through native converts, rather than
Western missionaries, as was the case in the early Christian Kingdom of
Kongo. In the sixteenth century in French Indo-China (Vietnam) a mission
strategy based on native lay evangelists was created by Alexander de
Rhodes. Although initially necessitated by the expulsion of Western
missionaries, the strategy proved successful and was subsequently adopted
by the Foreign Mission Society of Paris, and in the nineteenth and twen-
tieth century evolved into the system of mission stations dependent upon
lay catechists on which Roman Catholic expansion in Africa came to
depend (Beaver, 1992). Some catechists became national heroes (within
the Roman Catholic Church), such as the Cameroonian Andreas Mbange
(baptised in 1889) who, together with the other native catechists and
teachers, continued to maintain a Catholic presence in Cameroon after
the expulsion of German missionaries in 1916 (Mveng, 1990: 22,39).
Mbangue was unusual in having received training, particularly training
abroad. Most catechists and teachers had minimal education and combined
considerable autonomy in their work for the church with relative ignor-
ance of the Christian faith and dependence upon the mission priests who
employed them.
The relative independence of Roman Catholic missionary orders and
organisations was unacceptable to a centralising church, resulting in Pope
Gregory XVs foundation of the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of
the Faith (Propaganda Fide) in 1662. Richard Grey, in his summary of the
relationship between Propaganda and the missionary orders in Africa
The Inculturation Débate in Africa 79

concludes that: 'The ultimate check on the powers of missionary societies

depended ... on the emergence of an African priesthood from which
eventually could be recruited African hierarchies in direct relation with
Rome' (1990: 161). This African hierarchy, however, needs to be seen in
terms of the Eurocentric model of priestly training and Christian culture
which removed and alienated potential priests from their own environ-
ment. That a reconnection with the roots of African cultural and religious
values can still be seen as threatening, rather than positive, is evidenced in
the well-known case of Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo, former primate of
Lusaka in Zambia (Milingo, 1984; Hastings, 1989; Ter Haar, 1992). From
the time of his election to the see of Lusaka in 1969, Milingo was intent on
introducing African elements into what he perceived to be an inappro-
priately westernised church. The trouble really started when in 1973 he
discovered that he had a gift for healing people possessed by evil spirits.
The incident that precipitated this discovery involved a woman who
came to him in distress, claiming to hear voices and in fear of her child
whom she considered to be some inhuman creature in human form.
Milingo heard the women's confession and celebrated mass with her, but
the voices continued to trouble her. He describes what happened next in
the following terms:
I contemplated various ways of helping the woman when suddenly
an idea glowed in my mind, 'look three times intently into her eyes
and ask her to look three times into yours. Tell her to close her eyes
the third time and order her to sleep. Then speak to her soul after
signing her with the cross'. I carried out this instruction system-
atically. The woman was overshadowed by the power of the Lord. She
relaxed calmly and so I was able to reach her soul. I prayed as much
as I could, then I woke her up. We both did not know what had
happened to us (Ter Haar, 1992: 13-14).
Milingo subsequently interpreted this experience in terms of the power of
the Holy Spirit overcoming the evil forces, which had taken possession of
the woman. Her sickness, known to the people as mashawe, a common
type of spirit possession in Zambia, is seen as the cause of many physical,
psychological and spiritual ills, and is not treatable with Western medi-
cine. Milingo, with his long years of seminary training, was not particu-
larly familiar with traditional concepts such as spirit possession, but had
no difficulty in finding scriptural parallels to his experience. He began to
take Jesus' command to go out and heal the sick at face value, and made a
public announcement of his healing ministry attracted large crowds.

While many Protestant and evangelical or charismatic Christians see life

as a continual cosmic battle between good and evil, with the world locked
in the sway of evil powers, challenged by Christian 'soldiers' equipped to do
battle, such views are less popular in post Vatican II Roman Catholicism.20
Contact with the charismatic movement in the West convinced Milingo
that it was not just Zambians, but people everywhere, who are in the grip of
demonic forces, and that the church is failing to address the urgent task of
social and individual healing which confronts it. Milingo's healing ministry
evoked considerable hostility in Zambia, both within and outside the
Roman Catholic Church, and was viewed by many, particularly expatriate
missionaries, as dangerously syncretic. In 1982 Archbishop Milingo was
summoned to Rome and in 1983 officially removed from the see of Lusaka.
However, under the personal protection of Pope John Paul II, Milingo has
continued to exercise his ministry to growing numbers in Italy, demon-
strating the widespread popular appeal of such 'unfashionable' views.
To label a practice 'syncretic' in Catholic circles is to dismiss or inval-
idate it. There are parallels between Milingo's healing ministry in Zambia
(and in Italy) and the situation of the Zionist churches in South Africa
which derive from a Protestant bible-centred tradition. In both cases the
so-called syncretic features which emerged regarded healing and exorcism.
In both instance the power for that healing ministry is said to derive not
from traditional sources, but from the action of the Holy Spirit within
the church. Kiernan (1994: 74), writing of Zulu Zionist churches, points
out that, 'The synthesis... emanated from a missionary innovation, clearly
at odds with the prevailing religious ethos of established or mission
Christianity, yet the emphasis on divine healing remains firmly within
the broad parameters of Christian tradition.' Traditional elements of ritual
or cultural understandings may be added or form part of such healing
ministries, but to label them syncretic, if the term is used pejoratively, can
disguise the essentially Christian character of Milingo's experience, and
of the activities of many African Independent Churches.
In the last section of this article I move from an exposition of discourses
of inculturation, and from an examination of various explicit and implicit
attempts to inculturate Christianity in a mission setting, to a specific
example from Cameroon. It is in the context of the local church that the
dynamics of inculturation can be seen to operate on the ground, and it is
only in the local church that various missionary models of church can be
explored and realised or aborted. The mission paradigms worked out
in the West interact with and are inevitably altered through their contact
with African cultures, and by the responses of individual actors. One major
The Inculturation Débate in Africa 81

'problem' seldom highlighted, but central to any mission situation, is that

of authority. Who decides just who and what constitutes the local church?
Who are the people receiving and supposedly inculturating the gospel?
How, and with what tools and methods, is this task to be achieved? In
order to illustrate some definitional difficulties I will draw on an example
of mission praxis taken from my fieldwork among the Bangwa in Fontem
Division (South West Province, Cameroon), carried out primarily from
1980-81 (with a return visit in 1995).21


Following the defeat of German troops and the expulsion of German-

speaking missionaries in 1916, Cameroon was administered under League
of Nations Mandate by the French in East Cameroon and by the British, in
West Cameroon. The latter was linked for purposes of administration to
the eastern Enugu Province of Nigeria. Comity agreements parcelled out
territory to different Christian denominations, the Bangwa area, in anglo-
phone West Cameroon, falling under Roman Catholic influence. The
Society of Saint Joseph, based at Mill Hill in North London, gradually
established bases inland from their coastal headquarters at Soppo on Buea
Mountain, opening an outstation at Mbetta, among the Mbo, the Bangwa's
southern neighbours, in 1936. Mbetta usually had two priests22 who
would take it in turns to trek to surrounding villages to baptise children
and adult catechumens, say mass, preach and hear confessions. The people
who spearheaded the Christian advance were the catechists, often baptised
on the coast when working on the plantations established by the Germans,
who then returned to their native villages. For a nominal sum, and usually
with very little training, the catechists (who were always men, but often
supported by their wives who acted in effect as unpaid catechists) were
responsible for the upkeep of a chapel, for leading services and for giving
instruction in Christian doctrine. In many cases where there was no
separate teacher the catechist also taught elementary literacy to children,
primarily boys, in a church primary school. Catechists were expected to
trek to their central mission station on the first Friday of each month to
give a report, receive their stipend, and be given a little training - a
practice that still continues today.23
Bangwa Christians depended on occasional visits from the priests based
at Mbetta and local catechists until the first permanent mission was
established on Bangwa territory in 1965. The Bangwa mission in Fontem
(in Lebang village) is run by the Focolare Movement, and consists of a
hospital, secondary school, parish church and various workshops. There

are two parishes in the Bangwa area, at Menji and at Fonjumetaw, and
between them the priests cover the scattered outstations throughout the
Division. The Focolare mission is untypical as the Movement is primarily
lay, and does not see itself as a missionary organisation. The foundress,
Chiara Lubich, was invited by the former bishop of Buea, Mgr Jules
Peeters MHM, to open a mission in his diocese, when he visited Rome at
the time of the Second Vatican Council.24 The examples given below
illustrate the difficulties involved in defining the success or failure of the
missionary enterprise, the problematic nature of attempts to decide who is
to be defined as a Christian and what constitutes Christian behaviour.
The term 'baptised pagan' is used by Cameroonian Christians to refer
to those who have been baptised, often as children in mission schools,
who show little interest in the church (Protestant or Catholic) and who
certainly do not obey church rules. They may be former teachers of
Catholic schools who marry a second wife when their school is taken over
by the government and adherence to the teachings of the Roman Catholic
Church is no longer a condition of employment. They include the many
young men who have been baptised but who, despite promises to marry in
church, fail to follow up the traditional marriage with a church wedding
(thereby maintaining the option of a polygynous marriage at a later date).
Whether this indicates a superficial and instrumental view of Christianity,
or points to the inappropriateness of Western social regulations and
church teaching in a polygynous society is open to debate.
'Pagan Christians', on the other hand, are those people who are often the
pillars of the local church, its office holders and animators, but who are
ineligible for baptism. They may be women who were betrothed as infants
or as primary school girls as a second or subsequent wife of a chief
or notable, or a man who is named as his father's successor, inheriting his
titles, ceremonial duties and widows. In a new mission outstation the first
catechumens will almost certainly be men or women in polygynous
marriages who, despite holding offices in the church, cannot be baptised.
These pagan Christians fill the pews each Sunday, and often commit their
time and energy to the evangelisation of their neighbours, actively
supporting the church in a number of ways. They will not, however,
appear in a census of Christians or be included in the annual collation of
church statistics, based on baptisms, marriages, and communicants.
A third and quite substantial category of'hidden Christians' or Christian
sympathisers are those who have been baptised and who continue to take
an interest in church affairs, but who are permanently excommunicated.
Chief Fobellah Nkeng, a sub-chief of Lebang village with a compound and
The Inculturation Débate in Africa 83

land at Belleh, adjoining the Focolare mission in Fontem, is an example of

one such 'hidden' Christian.25 Chief Fobellah attended one of the first
primary schools established in the area in the 1920s, an experiment which
was later abandoned due to the hostility of the traditionalist grandfather of
the current Fon of Fontem, Fontem Asonganyi, who was Bangwa para-
mount chief from 1885-1951. 26 Like most children who attend mission
schools, Fobellah Nkeng was baptised and, unusually, for the time, went
on to receive some secondary school training at Sasse College, a Roman
Catholic school in Buea, where the Roman Catholic mission headquarters
on the coast is situated. In 1924 Fobellah was named as his father's
successor and returned to Bellah palace compound to take up his new
duties, which included making sacrifices on behalf of his patrilineal kin
group, 'feeding' the ancestral skulls, and taking responsibility for his
father's widows. Although nominally husband to his mother and her co-
wives, this did not necessarily imply the establishment of conjugal rights.
Among the Bangwa older widows must be supported, but often choose
to live with grown-up children away from their husband's compound.
Younger widows can be given in marriage to retainers and kin, or taken as
wives by the new chief. In addition to inheriting his father's widows,
Fobellah married over twenty wives of his own over a period of some sixty
years.27 In 1995 Fobellah's compound was still full of young children,
those of younger wives, as well as nephews, nieces and grandchildren.28 As
a baptised Catholic, who is also a polygynist, Fobellah is barred from
receiving the sacraments of the Catholic Church, but he remains a staunch
supporter of the mission and gives a warm welcome to his many Focolare
friends who work in Fontem. Fobellah insists that he had determined on
becoming a priest when he received news that he had succeeded his father,
but sees no contradiction between polygyny and Christianity. Like other
'Christian polygynists', Chief Fobellah argues that it is better to have many
wives and children, who can in turn swell the churches, than to remain
monogamous with few children. All Fobellah's children are baptised
(although many are themselves in polygynous marriages). Several of his
wives attend church, and many of his children and grandchildren have
been through Catholic primary and secondary schools.
According to Catholic practice, only the first wife of a polygynist is
eligible for baptism, although others may receive what is known as the
'baptism of desire'. Their intention to live as a Christian is recognised, and
it is held that they will receive the merits of baptism despite their
exclusion from the sacramental life of the church and their invisibility
in the official church statistics.29 Deciding who is a first wife is not always

straightforward. Mr Robinson, a Bangwa man who has worked for many

years for the Focolare mission in Fontem, has two wives, both of whom
wanted to become Christians. Mr Robinson had been betrothed to one of
these women, Teresia, while she was still young and completed bride-
wealth payments for her before she was old enough to live with him. In
the intervening period Mr Robinson married a slightly older woman,
Anastasia. Both women attended doctrine classes in the Roman Catholic
parish, but when the time came to be baptised they had to decide which
of the two women was the first wife and therefore eligible to become a
Christian. After some 'palaver' it was decided that the younger of the two
women, Teresia, who had been betrothed first, was to be regarded as the
first wife and could be baptised.
Polygyny is one of the main reasons for the discrepancy between the
number of those baptised and those admitted to full church membership.
It renders invisible those who, like Anastasia, would become Christians if
canon law or church practice permitted (cf. Hastings, 1973). Polygyny is
common among second generation Christians, and there is discussion
within the churches in Africa as to whether this constitutes apostasy and
superficiality or a process of inculturation. E.K. Ekechi has argued that:
To the missions, the return to multiple marriage by the converts was
not only sad but signified that Christianity had made no appreciable
impact upon the individuals involved. From the viewpoint of the
Africans, however, the move was certainly a reaction against Eur-
opean acculturation. In looking at the so-called backsliding of the
converts, it is more useful to look at it from the perspective of
indigenizing Christianity rather than echoing the mission cliché that
the African was inherently incapable of conforming to the teachings
of Christianity (1970: 337).
Protestant churches in Cameroon, the most prominent among them being
the Presbyterian Church of Cameroon, various Baptist churches and the
Evangelical 'Full Gospel', are generally more lenient in matters concerning
the baptism of polygynists. Wives of polygynists are admitted to church
membership, and in some cases a man who already had more than one wife
before he 'came to know the Lord' will be baptised on condition that he
shows repentance and declines to take any further wives. Asonganyi's
successor as Fon of Fontem, Fontem Defang (c. 1900-1982), supported
the Catholic mission, and had apparently been baptised as a child,30 but he
attended the local Full Gospel church (considered a 'sect' by the Roman
Catholic mission) near his palace at Azi, together with several of his wives.
The Inculturation Débate in Africa 85

He also received the last rites from the Catholic Church before his death
and was baptised, or re-baptised, into that church. Convenience, tact,
expediency and a desire to take advantage of any supernatural benefits
accruing all seem to play a part in church allegiance. Only some African
Independent Churches, which are common in neighbouring Nigeria but
which have made little inroad in Cameroon, accept polygyny as consonant
with Christian teaching.

The current Roman Catholic discourse on inculturation reflects a Post
Vatican II recognition that the Christian Church now has its centre of
gravity, numerically, if not administratively, outside Europe. A genuine
desire to see Christianity take on the shape and flavour of local cultures is
accompanied by anxiety on the part of the hierarchy concerning authority
and orthodoxy. There are continual impassioned pleas from around the
world for the Vatican to trust local churches. At the 1998 Synod for Asia
meeting in the Vatican, for example, the Franciscan Bishop of Naha in
Japan, Berard Toshio Oshikawa argued that despite 'frequent exhortations
to root the Gospel in local cultures 'the norm for Christian life, for church
discipline, for liturgical expression and theological orthodoxy continues
to be that of the Western Church' (The Tablet, 2 May 1998: 565). At
the same synod Bishop Francis Claver SJ from the Philippines stressed
bishops' suspicion of the laity, the people entrusted with the task of bring-
ing together faith and culture. In relation to liturgical language, for
example, the bishop asks, 'Why do we have to send vernacular translations
of the liturgy to Rome for approval?' implying as it does that the people are
not trusted to speak the language of orthodoxy. The need for 'internal
dialogue' in the Church is stressed 'if the inculturation process is to be
successful' (ibid.). Similar criticisms of the Roman Catholic Church's
westernised agenda, which often appears imperialistic and insensitive to
local conditions, are frequently voiced by theologians and church leaders
in other parts of the world.
These comments make clear the political dimension of any discussion of
inculturation. It is not just a question of 'drawing out the seeds of the
gospel' to be found in non-western cultures, but above all a question of
authority and interpretation. The historical and contemporary examples
given in this article are intended to illustrate some of the cultural and
political complexities of the conversion process, and to illustrate the
cultural adaptation of Christianity in various settings. The term 'syncret-
ism' has been used pejoratively by Christians, but a greater appreciation of

the syncretic nature of all religions could lead to a more fruitful examina-
tion of the dynamics of religious synthesis. The Cameroonian case studies
make the further point that even deciding who is and who is not a
Christian is problematic in many cases. Local churches are made up of a
variety of people with degrees of adherence to traditional religion and
culture, and different attitudes to mission (or other forms) of Christianity.
A simplistic dualism that opposes paganism and Christianity has little
heuristic or epistemologica! validity. Individual Christians are active
agents in interpreting and practising their faith within changing social
and cultural contexts. Whether they do this from within the Roman
Catholic or other mission churches, or as members of Independent African
Churches, may well depend upon the extent to which the Vatican and
other ruling bodies are able to respond to the experience of local believers.
The success or otherwise of the current Roman Catholic project on
inculturation will rest on two key pillars - an understanding of the socially
and historically contingent nature of western Christianity, and a will-
ingness to embrace local variation. The latter implies a paradigm shift in
thinking, with decentralisation of power and an optimistic attitude to the
workings of the Holy Spirit in the people of God. The tension, which may
or may not be creative, between orthodoxy and heterodoxy will, of course,
continue to be played out by the hierarchy and lay Christians everywhere.

Fiona Bowie is senior lecturer in Anthropology at the University of Wales

at Lampeter.

1. An early version of this article was presented at the Decennial Conference of the
Association of Social Anthropologists in Oxford, July 1993, in the Associate Section on
Christianities Outside Europe, convened by John Peel. I am grateful to John Peel and to the
other participants for their discussion and comments.
2. Cf. Shorter (1994) on the comments of African Christian theologians and other
intellectuals meeting in Nairobi, including their vehement defence of African culture and
African traditional religions.
3. Cf. Pato, 1990: 25-6.
4. The family is a frequent theme in Pope John Paul IFs Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in
Africa, which was issued following the Special Assembly for Africa of the Synod of Bishops
in 1994. On pages 44-5, for instance, we read, 'In African culture and tradition the role
of the family is everywhere held to be fundamental. Open to this sense of family, of love
and respect for life, the African loves children, who are joyfully welcomed as gifts of God.
The Inculturation Débate in Africa 87

"The sons and daughters of Africa love life. It is precisely this love for life which leads them to
give such great importance to the veneration of their ancestors. They believe intuitively
that the dead continue to live and remain in communion with them. Is this not in some way
a preparation for belief in the Communion of Saints? The peoples of Africa respect the life
which is conceived and born. They rejoice in this life. They reject the idea that it can be
destroyed, even when the so-called progressive civilizations would like to lead them in this
direction. And practices hostile to life are imposed on them by means of economic systems
which serve the selfishness of therich".Africans show their respect for human life until its
natural end, and keep elderly parents and relatives within the family.' Similarly, on page 65,
The Synod Fathers acknowledged [the Church as Gods Family] as an expression of the
Church's nature particularly appropriate for Africa. For this image emphasizes care for
other, solidarity, warmth in human relationships, acceptance, dialogue and trust'; and on
page 88, Tn Africa, in particular, the family is the foundation on which the social edifice is
built. This is why the Synod considered the evangelization of the African family a major
priority, if the family is to assume in its own turn the role of active subject in view of the
evangelization of families through families'. The valorisation of the African family is
tempered (one might say contradicted) by the statement that The Synod deplored those
African customs and practices 'which deprive women of their rights and the respect due
to them' and asked the Church on the Continent to make every effort to foster the
safeguarding of these rights' (p.89). The idealised nature of the Pope's view of an intrinsic
African respect for life can by illustrated by the irony that while the Opening Mass of the
Special Assembly for Africa was taking place (10 April 1994) Hutus in Rwanda, with the
involvement of the local Roman Catholic clergy, were slaughtering Tutsis who had been
encouraged to take refuge in a church 'Chaplains to the killers', Amelia French, The Tablet,
2 May 1998: 573-4).
5. Cf. Bowie, 1993 for a description of attempts by the Mill Hill Missionaries to reform
the African family in the Mbetta area of South West Province, Cameroon and Booth, 1994,
for a comprehensive account of the Mill Hill Fathers in West Cameroon.
6. See also Peel 1968.
7. Paragraph 67 (pages 69-70) of the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Ecclesia in
Africa deals with the Roman Catholic Church's attitude to traditional religion. It states that:
'With regard to African traditional religion, a serene and prudent dialogue will be able, on
the one hand, to protect Catholics from negative influences which condition the way of life
of many of them and, on the other hand, to foster the assimilation of positive values such as
belief in a Supreme Being who is Eternal, Creator, Provident and Just Judge, values which
are readily harmonized with the content of the faith. They can even be seen as a preparation
for the Gospel, because they contain precious semina Verbi which can lead, as already
happened in the past, a great number of people "to be open to the fullness of Revelation in
Jesus Christ through the proclamation of the Gosper'.
8. Cf. Luzbetak, 1988. For an enthusiastic account of John Paul II's writings on
inculturation see Udoidem, 1996.
9. It is also true that the Roman Catholic Church is wary of the influence of secular
culture in the West, as evidenced in the Modernist debate and since.
10. Ratzinger, J. (with Messori, V.) 1985. Cardinal Ratzinger would, perhaps, have
approved of the Bachelor of Philosophy dissertations currently produced by Roman
Catholic seminarians at the Saint Thomas Aquinas Major Seminary of Bambui in
Cameroon. In keeping with their eponymous patron, the seminarians measure aspects

of their own traditions (from which some are distanced by one or more generations of
urban life outside their 'home' area) against the yardstick provided by Aristotelian and
Thomistic thought (and find the former wanting). The intellectual training necessary to
produce a generation of Roman Catholic theologians versed in their own culture and
traditions, confident of their values, and able to reflect upon their Christian faith in the
light of these traditions, appears to be wanting. Cf. Richard Gray's description of African
priestly training in the early years of the twentieth century: 'Cut off for almost ten years
from their families, forbidden to speak their vernacular languages, provided with Cicero as
recreational reading, regularly required to pass the standard examinations, few among the
seminarians survived to take up their career of life-long celibacy' (1990: 162).
11. The Lausanne Covenant, Lausanne (1994). That some participants at Canberra found
the practice of inculturation rather harder than the rhetoric is evidenced by the controversy
surrounding Korean feminist theologian, Chung Hyun Kyung's opening dance. The
performance of a Christian theology that incorporated shamanistic, Buddhist and Australian
Aboriginal themes was denounced as syncretic (i.e. non-Christian) by some of the delegates.
12. See, for instance, Marshall W. Murphree's study of Christianity among the Shona
(1969, Wendy James' account of the Ukuk of the Sudan/Ethiopian border region (1988),
and the wide-ranging studies of conversion and cultural adaptation in Hefner (1993).
13. I am not suggesting that individual converts were not sincere in their adoption of
Christianity, but conversion never takes place in a vacuum, and religion is as much about
economics and politics and social structures as it is about personal piety. Indeed, personal
religious sensibilities are embedded in wider social and cultural formations.
14. We can see a parallel between the attitude of the EPC missionaries and the
churchmen of early medieval Europe. Village witchcraft or maléfice was dismissed by
the Church as fantasy (and consequently witches could not be persecuted). In the later
middle ages and early modern period witchcraft became fused with notions of heresy and
Devil worship, and witches (mainly women) were recast as agents of Satan. The
unintentional linking of witchcraft and the Devil took place among the Ewe as a direct
consequence of Bible translation. (For an interesting collection of essays on early European
witchcraft which stresses the elite dimension of the Devil-worshipping witch stereotype see
Ankarloo and Henningsen, 1993).
15. See also Beidleman's (1982) study of the Kaguru response to CMS (Anglican)
missionaries in East Africa, John Peel's comments on the value of archival material in
drawing out the role of individual reactions to Christianity (1996), and Stephen Neill's
comments on the inappropriate translation of Christian terms in to Japanese, which caused
unforeseen difficulties for the missionaries (1964: 155-6).
16. See Thornton, 1984; Shorter, 1988: 145-8; Baur, 1994: 55-73.
17. Christian self-image and praxis in the West must also be seen, at least in part, as a
response to Islam. The sixteenth century saw Ottoman rule extend to new areas of Europe,
coinciding with European Christian expansion overseas and increased centralisation at
home. The European expansion was motivated by, among more economic considerations, a
desire to claim new territories for Christ, rather than leave them to fall into Muslim hands.
There was the search for the legendary Préster John in the East, stemming from memories
of Christian communities to the East of the Muslim world.
18. The most famous missionary to sixteenth century Japan was Francis Xavier, who
maintained a considerable respect for the Japanese despite the mission's lack of outward
success (Neill, 1964: 145-162).
The Inculturation Debate in Africa 89

19. The Danish Halle Mission, at the beginning of the eighteenth century, sent German
Lutheran missionaries to southern India, where they adopted a similar method. Bartho-
lomew Ziegenbalg realised that he needed to ground himself in Hindu philosophy and
religion if he was to evangelise successfully (Beaver, 1992). In the twentieth century the
Christian ashram of the late Father Bede Griffiths, a Roman Catholic Benedictine, is
probably the best known, but by no means the only attempt to create an authentically
Indian form of Christianity.
20. Individuals within the Roman Catholic tradition, such as Padre Pio, the Italian
Franciscan stigmatist (1887-1968), used similar language and had not dissimilar experi-
ences to those of Milingo. Padre Pio, like Archbishop Milingo, retains a considerable
popular following (cf. Wilson, 1988).
21. See Bowie 1985 and 1993. The Bangwa use the term Nweh to refer to both the people
and the language spoken. The term 'Bangwa' was coined by the Germans, who first made
contact with Nweh speakers around the turn of the century (Bangwa = Ba Nweh). There are
nine Bangwa paramount chiefdoms of varying size and importance. The largest chiefdom
or Village' is Lebang, where Fontem, the main site of my fieldwork, is located. Fontem is
sometimes taken to refer to the smaller area in which the Roman Catholic mission is
situated, but also used synonymously with Lebang village. During the 1980s this area was
part of Fontem Sub-Division, but is now included within Lebialem Division. The name
'Fontem' derives from the title of the paramount chief (Fon or fua), Fontem. I mainly use
the ethnographic present for the 1980-1 period. If speaking of later or earlier periods this is
indicated. This usage is in no way intended to prioritise these particular years, merely being
a stylistic device to avoid repetition. (But see Hastrup, 1995: 9-25, for a defence of the use
of the ethnographic present).
22. Mill Hill missionaries included brothers (and less often sisters), but as non-ordained
people they could not perform the same sacramental duties as the priests.
23. T.A. Beetham (1967: 15-16) attributes the success of Roman Catholic missions in
Africa to various causes, including the ability to learn from the mistakes of their Protestant
predecessors, increased control over tropical diseases, and the concentration by different
missionary orders on relatively discrete areas, which allowed for a concentration of
resources. While this was undoubtedly the case, European missions were still spread very
thinly and relied heavily on the native catechists to prepare the ground and to maintain a
Christian presence in areas often remote from the central mission station. In Lebialem
Division there are numerous small Christian communities who, especially in the rainy
season, will only see a visiting priest a few times a year. The catechist is the main
representative of the church in almost all villages.
24. For an account of the Focolare Movement see Edwin Robertson, 1978. The workings
of the Focolare mission in Fontem are discussed in Bowie, 1985.
25. The administrative territory encompassing the Bangwa and Mundani is known as
'Lebialem', after an impressive waterfall at the confluence of two major rivers on Bellen
land. The waterfall is also a sacred site (fuandem) at which sacrifices for the fertility of the
land are offered, although some regard the site as too dangerous to approach. It was named
by a forebear of Chief Fobellah, a hunter who came across the site and exclaimed that this
was indeed a 'terrible' or 'fearsome' hill ('lebialem').
26. There was a period at the beginning of the twentieth century when Fontem Asonganyi
was forced into hiding, and was then exiled to the north of the country by the German
military. For afictionalaccount of this period, based on historical accounts, see Brain, 1977.

27. I was unable to determine the exact number and status of wives, as at any one time
some are living outside the compound on a permanent or temporary basis.
28. Fobellah probably has over 100 children of his own, but with an age gap of some sixty
to seventy years between his oldest and youngest children, one can appreciate the
difficulties involved in trying to keep track of one's kin and extended family. Fobellah's
standard response to the question, 'how many children do you have?' is 'over fifty sons'.
29. Father John Distelberger and Father Celso Corbioli, the former parish priests of
Fontem and Fonjumetaw, kept a record of these non-baptised Christians, but this is an
unofficial practice. The Buea diocesan Sacred Returns from Fontem parish for 1994 list a
total of 273 Catholic families, 3,610 baptised Catholics, 300 Protestants, and 42,000
Pagans. The estimated total population was 45,910. The accuracy of the population figures
is questionable, but it is clear that baptised Christians remain under 10% of the total
population of the parish. Fontem parish covers some two thirds of the Bangwa area, and
part of Bayang territory to the west, an area of (very approximately as it has not been
surveyed) of 900 square kms.
30. Personal communication from one of Defang's daughters, Madam Elizabeth.

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