Author: Cheryl Martin
“Community” is a fairly common word. We use it to describe the towns we live in, centres we have recreational activities in, and networks of people who share a common faith or interest. Community is a loaded word, a word I thought I understood, until I went to Africa.
Imagine with me for a moment, you live in an area so remote, that official, government-regulated branches of services didn’t even reach you. You don’t make enough money to support your family, but there’s no welfare office to pick up a cheque so you can get by. You feel sick, weak, unable to get up for days, but have no way of accessing medical care. A young child loses both her parents, but there’s no CPS to find a foster family. You witness a crime, but there’s no courtroom to bring the perpetrator to justice. There’s hungry families, but no food bank or soup kitchen.
This is a reality for thousands of people I encountered in Malawi and Zambia. Communities of people that lived miles outside of cities, with bumpy, sometimes inaccessible roads in between. It was in these villages that I began to understand “community” was more than a name place, but a way of life, of surviving and even thriving.
The difference between a thriving village and a village in ruins could always be traced back to the strength of its community ties. The power of a strong community, especially one united in Christ, resulted in food and livestock being grown and shared, hungry children being fed, the sick being cared for, orphans finding homes amongst family, and a strong justice system bound by respect and tradition.
Community is more than a place, it is an identity. People bonded by more than family ties, but a sense of inter-connectedness that encompasses nearly every part of living. It’s how neighbours live in relation to on another. It’s tackling shared problems in numbers, it’s valuing collective achievements over personal gains. It’s pooling resources together not because you have to, but because you know you are only as strong as your weakest, most vulnerable neighbour.
The power of identity through community has interesting and powerful implications. Often, communities come to Christ as communities and entire households, developing personal relationships with Jesus after the decision to collectively follow Him has been made. It reminds us of the story of Paul and Silas in jail in Acts 16. When their guard realized all the prisoners had stayed in their cells despite the giant quake, he asked the apostles what he must do to be saved. And his salvation was not an individual matter, the Bible mentions three times in such a short passage that this was a household affair: “They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” (Acts 16:31 NIV)
Sometimes, certain cultural practises* are in opposition to Jesus’ teachings. Practises that damage vulnerable women, but are so engrained in the community’s traditions. In these instances, our African partners have advocated for the discontinuation of these practises – encouraging leaders to build community on their faith in Christ. When it comes to our work in community transformation, we are tapping into what already exists in the very core of our African brothers and sisters – Ubuntu, community. Community transformation is about restoring and strengthening relationships between family and neighbours. It’s providing assistance for them to do what is already natural – live in community amongst one another.
It’s home-based care workers volunteering hours of their time to visit and care for their sick neighbours. It’s groups of women who rally behind victims of abuse, bringing perpetrators to justice before traditional authorities and healing to the broken. It’s women singing in the fields as they harvest the tomatoes, okra and eggplant they planted together last November. It’s hundreds of small children eating fortified lukini phala, cooked in a giant pot every day by widows who care that the little ones grow up healthy and strong. It’s young people who help widows fetch water and repair their homes after rain storms. It’s parents who build a school with mud bricks and grasses so their children can have some form of education. It’s inviting foreign travellers into your home and offering food and rest.
It’s a system of leadership in which the wisdom of elders are respected by the young, and the welfare of the young is the primary concern of the elders. It’s recognition that every person has a part to play, every action has consequences on more than just an individual.
There’s a word rooted in the Bantu language, Ubuntu, it describes a philosophy, a way of life. When it was described to us, our African friend said, “The best way I can put this, is that in North American culture you say; I think therefore I am. You have identity because you are an individual. In Africa, it’s Ubuntu; we are in community, therefore I am.”
In the peri-urban slums like Mgona and Shamabanse, re-building that lost sense of community is even more important. These are areas full of displaced persons who have left their blood relatives in villages far away. A community build upon the identity of Jesus creates new spiritual bloodlines even thicker than natural ones.
The African experience of community is something innately (and perhaps surprisingly), biblical. God created us to live in relationship with each other, to break bread together, live in community with each other – just look at the early church as an example (Acts 2:41-47). Somewhere along the way our Western culture stumbled. We became uncomfortable with “too much” sharing (that sounds like communism after all). But perhaps we need to step outside of our comfort zones, and consider what the African church can teach us about true, Christian community.
* In some regions, “coming-of-age” rituals have involved young teens girls being coerced into sexual relations with older, (sometimes related) men