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Praying to God in Africa

Jim Harries, academia.edu session, February to March 2016.


Sitting outside my house with a friend, two ladies walked past on the adjoining path. It was
Saturday evening. "Udhi e lemo ma gotieno (It looks like you are going for night prayers.) I
shouted to them over the fence. "Yes we are they responded.1
My German friend had recently read my book Three Days in the Life of an African Christian
Villager.2 "If I had not read your book I would not have known how much people are preoccupied with going to prayers", he said. I started at his comment. I had never read and
considered my book as carrying that content. I know that many people who are moving here
and there are going to or coming from prayers. For my friend, who had recently come from
Europe, this was quite surprising.
My home vicinity in Kenya is these days strongly Christian. The vast majority of the people
going for prayers are attending Christian events of one sort or another.
To say they are going for prayers is only partly accurate. The Luo term is lemo. They are
going for lemo.
The same people who are going for the prayers (lemo) are what we might call holistic. That
is, essentially, they do not distinguish the divine realm from the human realm. That might
seem striking or confusing or even impossible to a Westerner. The whole understanding of
God in the West is that he is somewhere out there in another realm, and that he is not
nature. Prayer then is making a connection between me here, and God out there in that other
category. How does that work if God is not actually out there at all because there is no 'out
there'. Where then is God?3
In the holistic world there is no nature. There are no natural processes to contrast with Godordained processes. All things (natural or unnatural, real or spiritual) are instead one and the
same. That is, God incorporates nature. But if God incorporates nature, then he cannot be
God as Westerners know him, because definitionally in the West God is something other than
nature. That is why we call him God and sometimes use the term supernatural to describe
his necessary qualities. Then we need to ask: is it actually right to refer to god in Africa as
God, if he incorporates nature as well as the supernatural?
- If no, then in order to know God one must first be a dualist who distinguishes the
natural from the spiritual realms. Then 'traditional' African people cannot know God.
- If yes, and definitions of God include the God who incorporates nature, then all
scientists (people who study nature) and everyone who believes in nature, also
believes in God.
It seems that when African people go to prayers, they are not going to pray to a God who is
other. Rather, they set out to pray to God who is with them. What might one mean to say that
God is with them? When I thought about that question, I felt I had to extend it also to myself
1

My home is about 40km from Kisumu in western Kenya.


Harries, Jim. 2011, Three Days in the Life of an African Christian Villager. Lancaster: World Mission Book
Service.
3
The West assumes a dualism between objective reality that is real, and a much disputed other realm of
spiritual reality.
2

as a Westerner, and to other Westerners. What does it mean to say that God is with me, or
that I perceive his presence? It means, it seems, that a notion of God prompts (or impacts on)
something in my mind. If God were entirely external to my mind, then I could not perceive
him. So for me to perceive him he must somehow prod or reveal himself to my mind. In fact,
if there is to be anything that I am to perceive at all anywhere anyhow anytime, then it must
impact on my mind. African people at prayer are engaging their heart, soul, feelings, being,
with their minds, where God also is, where he also is prompting4 them.
In the West people expect an impact of god5 on their minds to be other-than prompts that
come from nature (i.e. what is real). This of course leads to the puzzle of how their minds
could distinguished God from the 'real' in the first place: if their minds are natural, and what
impacts on them is natural, then where is God? He seems to have disappeared. Can we be
so sure that our minds, that are actually something very mysterious, and the operation of
which is still pitifully little understood, can make such a clear distinction? A great deal seems
to hang on this distinction.
God must impact people in their minds, or people could not perceive him. This applies to
Westerners as well as to Africans. Lemo (what we have been translating as prayer) is not so
much (or not simply) trying to consult with some force somewhere out there. It is rather
connecting with everything natural and divine combined. When I say natural and divine
combined, I do not mean like a bag of beads as with red and black beads all mixed together
seen from a distance as if they are one colour. I mean that there is only one kind of bean, and
it is all of one colour, and there is no other colour.6 That is, reality is a whole.
This is why when African people in this community go for prayers they are not holding out in
order to self-sacrificially attend to a thin thread that connects them with a little known and
even-less perceived divine other. Instead, they are together (typically people pray in
company) engaging their minds (and hearts, and souls and feelings and you name it) with the
whole of life and everything that there is! The whole of life is rather a large category. It
includes: their family, friends, ancestors, regrets, fears, hopes, relationships, pains, joys,
aspirations, sorrows, losses, anticipations, regrets and you name it.
That bunch of things called 'the whole of life' used to be a toxic mix. I think Westerners can
identify with that. When people are totally open and honest to themselves and to others, it is
not always nice things that come out. Amongst the less-nice things are hatred, jealousy, envy,
mistrust, lust, desire, greed, contentiousness and 7 These were some of the things that used
to accompany people's efforts at lemo (prayer) together. Gatherings would result in tensions,
suspicions, anger, frustration, fights, struggles and too often war itself.
When African people find-God they find the one who can enable them to be open to
themselves and to others ... peacefully. Not to say that there are no tensions. But, Jesus is
Lord. That is to say their gatherings are sufficiently other-oriented8 to take the immediate
pressure from themselves. Jesus is like an ancestor, but that has left a written text for them to
follow. This means that leaders of the Christian meetings are not gods themselves, and do not
4

Prodding, impacting, speaking to, engaging with


For the purposes of this essay, please ignore the capitalisation of God / god.
6
Nongbri, Brent, 2008, Dislodging embedded religion: a brief note on a scholarly trope. Numen 55 (2008)
440-460. Nongbri makes a parallel point to the one I am trying to make here.
7
The lists I mention here seem to have something in common with Galatians 5:19-23.
8
Not 'other' in the sense of a divine as against nature. Rather other' as per another person.
5

have exclusive access to God (god), but they are representatives, spokespeople or
intermediaries to he whose nature is articulated in the bible. These spokes-people have
thousands of years of God-directed history (the Bible) to draw on. That's quite a mixture; but
it works. That is to say God works. That is to say the whole thing is quite revolutionary.
The whole thing is so revolutionary that people's whole lives get caught up in these new
insights about God. As a result churches are springing up all around! Add to everything else
a massive increase of wealth generally since the coming of early missionaries (barely 100
years ago) and people seem to have every reason to go to lemo.
What might Westerners have to learn? One thing is: that they shouldn't be trying to squeeze
God into their categories in order to believe in him. God should not need to have to be 'real'
in order to prompt faith. 'Real' is a fleeting category of a philosophical moment, hemmed in
by severe limitations of human thinking. God is eternal much greater than that.
Another thing that I want to emphasise is the directionality of the required learning about
God from others. Indeed the West has much to learn from Africa. We all have much to
learn from one another. But it is often a very serious mistake to expect African people to tell
Westerners what they have to learn using Westerners language (e.g. English). An African
person attempting to do this can actually make God disappear. The reason he can disappear is
because an African person is forced (in translation into English, in order to be acceptable) to
articulate God as if he is real but not nature. At the same time, the African person is not even
aware of this stringent condition put down presuppositionally by Westerners. In translation
into English the nature of God in Africa can disappear. The way for Westerners to learn from
God as understood in Africa, is to learn African languages and share in African life. Other
Westerners should learn from the Westerner who has done the latter, who will try to connect
what is unknown to what fellow Westerners already know. They will attempt, that is, to bring
an unknown into a known context (the Africa context being unknown, the Western context
being the known) not known into an unknown context (an African addressing Westerners in a
Western language). The latter does not work.9

Widely accepted educational theory tells us that people should learn from known to unknown. That is to say,
a good teacher starts with where his students are. Then he adds something else for them to think about.
Unfortunately, someone who is culturally a Westerner wanting to teach Africans, or someone who is culturally
an African wanting to teach Westerners, does not know where they are, so cannot start from where they
are. Only the African can do this for his own people, and the Westerner for his own people. For more on this
see:
https://www.academia.edu/18716819/Translation_from_unknown_to_known_is_desperately_needed_Africa
_and_the_West

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