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The Portrayal of Missionaries in African Literature
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The Portrayal of Missionaries in African Literature. these themes I will refer more briefly to the Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiongo. Ezekiel Mphahlele from South Africa and Zimbabwe s Stanlake Samkange. I CHINUA ACHEBE THINGS FALL APART, It is appropriate to start with Chinua Achebe who is widely regarded as the. father of the modern African novel In his classic Things Fall Apart Chinua. Achebe charts the fundamental changes that took place in Africa with the advent. of imperial penetration Things Fall Apart specifically challenges the European. stereotype of Africa as a primitive continent inhabited by benighted natives so. graphically recorded in Joseph Conrad s Heart of Darkness Achebe described his. mission in an article The Role of the Writer in a New Nation. The fundamental theme is that African people did not hear of culture for the. first time from Europeans that their societies were not mindless but frequently. had a philosophy of great depth and value and beauty that they had poetry and. above all they had dignity It is this dignity that many African people all but lost. during the colonial period and it is this that they must now regain The worst. thing that can happen to any people is the loss of their dignity and self respect. The writer s duty is to help them regain it by showing them in human terms. what they lost 2, It is therefore not surprising to note that one of Achebe s major themes in. Things Fall Apart is the conflict between African traditional religion symbolized by. Igbo beliefs and Christianity Achebe highlights the strengths and weaknesses of. both religions Indeed one of the reasons he is regarded as one of Africa s foremost. writers is his evenhandedness As he himself put it. We cannot pretend that our past was one long technicolour idyll We have to ad. mit that like other people s past ours had its good as well its bad sides I main. tain that any serious African who wants to plead the cause of the past must not. only be God s advocate he must also do duty for the devil 3. The essential decency of the Umuofian society is clearly articulated in the. evocation of the lives of the major characters in Achebe s book One pivotal weak. ness of that culture however is its harsh treatment of those who do not fit into the. basic framework symbolized by its rejection at birth of twins and throughout their. lives of osu outcasts from the clan This is the structural weakness that Christian. ity is able to exploit, Achebe presents two models of missionary endeavors The first is Mr. Brown who establishes a toe hold in the clan by ministering to its outcasts This. strikes a chord in sensitive souls like that of Nwoye. But there was a young lad who had been captivated His name was Nwoye Ok. onkwo s first son It was not the mad logic of the Trinity that captivated him He. did not understand it It was the poetry of the new religion Something felt in. the marrow The hymn about brothers who sat in darkness and in fear seemed. 2Chinua Achebe The Role of the Writer in a New Nation in African Writers on African Writing. ed G D Killam London Heinemann 1978 8, to answer a vague and persistent question that haunted his young soul the. question of Ikemefuna who was killed He felt a relief within as the hymn poured. into his parched soul The words of the hymn were like drops of frozen rain melt. ing on the dry plate of the panting earth Nwoye s callow mind was greatly puz. The poetic nature of Achebe s imagery bears eloquent testimony to the man. ner in which Christianity has taken root in parts of Africa The new religious dis. pensation met the spiritual needs of converts who were disillusioned with their. community s beliefs This success owes much to the sensitivity of missionaries like. Mr Brown to their converts culture Mr Brown lived among the Igbo and learned. from them He respected their culture learned their language and ministered to. their specific needs or situation, His successor Rev J Smith typifies the worst elements of fundamentalist.
zeal Achebe cleverly allows this priest to condemn himself by his narrow and dis. honest interpretation of the scriptures, Mr Brown s successor was the Reverend James Smith and he was a different. kind of man He condemned openly Mr Brown s policy of compromise and ac. commodation He saw things as black and white And black was evil He saw the. world as a battlefield in which the children of light were locked in mortal conflict. with the sons of darkness He spoke in his sermons about sheep and goats and. about wheat and tares He believed in slaying the prophets of Baal. Mr Smith was greatly distressed by the ignorance which many of his flock. showed even in such things as the Trinity and the Sacraments It only showed. that they were seeds sown on rocky soil Mr Brown had thought of nothing but. numbers He should have known that the kingdom of God did not depend on. large crowds Our Lord himself had stressed the importance of fewness Narrow. is the way and few the number To fill the Lord s holy temple with an idolatrous. crowd clamouring for signs was a folly of everlasting consequence Our Lord. used the whip only once in His life to drive the crowd away from His church 5. Mr Brown s liberal perspective of starting from where his congregation is is imperi. ously swept aside by the sanctimonious assurance of the elect The perception of. mission as a two way process is replaced by a top down model. II MONGO BETI THE POOR CHRIST OF BOMBA, The most scathing attacks on missionary activities in African literature tend. to focus on the spiritual chauvinism that afflicts certain kinds of missionaries. Those who like Bishop John William Colenso Bishop of Natal South Africa. 1855 respected some of the philosophies that underpinned the social structures. of their flock were in turn respected by the host communities traditionalists and. converts alike Those who came convinced that they had nothing to learn and eve. rything to give were and are the ones singled out for biting criticism The most hi. larious example of a pig headed missionary is perhaps Mongo Beti s Father. Drumont in The Poor Christ of Bomba to whom we are introduced thus. 4Chinua Achebe ThingsFallApart London Heinemann 1958 reprint Harare Zimbabwe Educa. tional Books 1987 103 4, The Portrayal of Missionaries in African Literature. Surely it isn t any blasphemy oh no It even fills me with joy to think that per. haps it was Providence the Holy Ghost himself who whispered this advice in. the Father s ear Tell them that Jesus and the Reverend Father are all one Espe. cially when our village children looking at the picture of Christ surrounded by. boys were astonished at his likeness to our Father Same beard same soutane. same cord around the waist And they cried out But Jesus Christ is just like the. Father And the Father assured them that Christ and himself were one And. since then all the boys of my village call the Father Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ Oh I am sure it s no blasphemy He really deserves that name. that simple praise from innocent hearts A man who has really spread faith. among us made good Christians every day often despite themselves A man. full of authority A stern man A father Jesus Christ 6. Beti uses a naive narrator Denis whose witless adoration of his idol Father. Drumont enables the author to present a devastating expos of spiritual smug. ness as epitomized by the Reverend Father, Unlike Mr Brown Fr Drumont cannot speak his parishioners language in. fact the joke is that they can only decipher what he said the following day Though. making much of his likeness to Christ itself a reflection of eurocentric portrayals. of Jesus Fr Drumont is quite unchristlike he despises children is a misogynist. and is largely insensitive to the plight of the blacks who are laboring under the. yoke of colonialism His utter self assurance linked to his authoritarianism blinds. him to the reality of what is going on in his mission Albeit that he builds through. his relentless exploitation of female labor under the guise of training them to be. good Christian wives a beautiful town in Bomba it is finally abandoned because. of the corruption it signifies As Professor Blair summed it up. Drumont was completely unaware that his Sixa has become a brothel that his. catechists are pimps his African staff corrupt opportunists his converts simply. fugitives from forced labor 7, Fr Drumont s downfall reflects his inability to see the forest for the trees as.
he himself states during his moment of epiphany, I left France with all the ardour of an Apostle I had only one notion in my head. and one ambition in my heart to extend the Kingdom of Christ Rationalist. Europe so full of arrogance science and self consciousness filled me with dis. may I chose the disinherited or those whom I was pleased to regard as such. How naive I was for are we not ourselves the truly disinherited When I ar. rived here twenty years ago Christ was not wholly unknown in this country. The German missionaries had been here before us and I found a population at. tentive and compliant almost to the point of obsequiousness I abandoned my. self to proselytism never pausing to question my activities I interpreted their. attention as the hunger for Christ and their compliance as a proof that they had. found Him I never stopped to think that I was in a colonized country or that. subjugated people might have special characteristics I found myself amongst. men who obeyed the slightest motion of my little finger I played the aristocrat. throwing them orders which they instantly obeyed I built schools churches. houses almost a whole town at the Catholic Mission to Bomba I didn t even ask. 6Mongo Beti The Poor Christ of Bomba London Heinemann 1985 3. 7D S Blair African Literaturein French A History of Creative Writing in French from West and Equato. rial Africa Cambridge Cambridge University 1976 210. myself what all this display had to do with Christ In a word I became an administra. tor like you Monsieur Vidal Yes exactly like you This lasted a long while. It might have lasted even longer if I hadn t suddenly noticed among them a sort. of volte face I was vexed I stormed at them but it made not the slightest differ. ence They simply weren t the same people any more I didn t recognize them. And I didn t realise that they had spotted me that they d judged me and decided. that I had all along deceived them 8, Fr Superior Drumont s fixation with external things buildings outward. signs of veneration and his obsession with cult dues despite the dire poverty or. domestic circumstances of some of the members of his flock led to his loss of pres. tige As the Ziba catechist put it, It s really terrible No one is interested any more except women Only the. women have religion in their blood the men are completely indifferent They. claim there is no difference between a Greek trader and a priest even one like Fa. ther Drumont And for evidence they point to the wealth of the Catholic mis. sions all the presents which the Father collects and all the cult dues They say the. Father is as greedy as a tax collector as the Administrator 9. Fr Drumont comes to realize that his mission is damned by association with white. imperialism, Wasn t their adherence to Christianity a formal adherence at that simply a de. fence mechanism just like that little animal What is it called The chameleon. which takes the colour of its surroundings to avoid being hunted Oh Monsieur. Vidal you don t know these people yet It s very hard to understand them as it. must be with all oppressed people Their reactions may strike you as strange at. first They don t stand firm in the place of violence like the oak tree of La Fon. taine no They bend as their experience has taught them to bend And my road. side Christians bend in becoming Christian for the sake of form Oh They aren t. fools They noticed long ago the tone of deference and superstitious respect with. which you colonials speak of missionaries and all religious matters even though. you don t practise your faith for an instant All the formal aspects of religion are. presented to them its prayers its genuflections its signs of the cross and incanta. tions and saints and crucifixes What an instrument for the revenge of their out. raged humanity See how at ease we are with your own deepest mysteries Why. then do you persist in despising us 10, Fr Drumont grapples with the humanity of the black victims for the first time He.
struggles with the realization that their outlook must be taken into account rather. than ignored as he lives out his fantasies He has to encounter people as people not. as objects that can be manipulated whimsically,III SAMKANGE MPHAHLELE AND WA THIONGO. This sense of cultural chauvinism appears also in Stanlake Samkange s The. Mourned One Though he is a son of the manse Samkange s novel is nevertheless a. powerful indictment of the Methodist Church in Rhodesia which was a District of the. 8Beti The Poor Christ of Bomba 153 4,10Ibid 155, The Portrayal of Missionaries in African Literature. British Conference The segregation at Waddilove Mission reflects how the formal. structures on church ground mirrored the larger divisions in colonial Rhodesia 11. How can the Christian message of the brotherhood and sisterhood of all hu. mankind be mediated honestly in a deeply segregated environment This is a. challenge that affects the American churches today The perception of missionar. ies as hypocrites stems from such divisions In Ezekiel Mphahlele s autobiogra. phy Down Second Avenue the Anglican Church is presented as being more. interested in church shillings than in fighting on behalf of the oppressed 12 The. prophetic mission which celebrates Yahweh as the champion of justice is ignored in fa. vor of the equivocation Render to Caesar that which is due to Caesar and to God what. is due to God The dismissal of Christians as mealy mouthed unprincipled people. stems from the selective nature of the churches mission the message that offers pie in. the sky when you die rather than attempting to address people s material condition. Ngugi wa Thiongo s quarrel with Christianity rests on this His later novels. Devil on the Cross Petals of Blood and Matigari are virulent attacks on the ecclesias. tical brand of neo colonialism the rise of evangelical sects preaching the gospel of. prosperity all the while fleecing the members 13 In his earlier works however. Ngugi did try to synthesize African traditional religion and Christianity This is. seen in The River Between which traces the confluence between Christian and. Gikuyu creation myths The death of Muthoni who has been circumcised against. the wishes of her father suggests that syncretism cannot work 14 In Ngugi s finest. novel A Grain of Wheat the Christian cycle of death and resurrection is used to. show the price that must be paid in order to secure national liberation The guer. rilla leader Kihika is presented as a Black Moses leading his people out of Egypt. into Canaan 15, From the examples cited above it is evident that Christianity has had a sig. nificant impact on the development of African literature Many of the writers stud. ied initially at mission schools where religious instruction figured prominently It. is thus not surprising to find that missionary activity is an important theme in. their writing The attitudes to missionary endeavors vary in line with the experi. ences of the given author and communities as one would expect Some writers. like Chinua Achebe pay homage to sensitive missionaries who respected different. spiritual perspectives while others like Mongo Beti heap scorn on arrogant and. callous priests who despised the communities they purported to serve The chal. lenge to those missionaries still in the field is to discover how to minister along the. lines set out by Christ himself who showed sensitivity to the needs of the people. 11Stanlake Samkange The Mourned One London Heinemann 1975. 12Ezekiel Mphahlele Down Second Avenue Harare ZPH 1982. 13Ngugi wa Thiongo Devil on the Cross London Heinemann 1982 Petals of Blood London. Heinemann 1977 Matigari London Heinemann 1989, 14Ngugi wa Thiongo The River Between Harare ZPH 1990. 15Ngugi wa Thiongo A Grain of Wheat London Heinemann 1976.

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