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Anti-Racist Strategies in the West Perpetuate Global Poverty: A Critique from Africa

Missionary-scholar Jim Harries argues that the wide differences between the West and the Rest are being ignored by anti-racist strategies. These misunderstandings are perpetuating dependencies in the majority world and stunting sustainable development. However, there is a way forward, a path of humility that rejects colonialism and embraces real equality.



Strategies designed by Western nations to counter racism can conceal difference between non-Western and Western peoples. Such concealment results in a misleading obscuring of social reality outside of the West. Because the globalised world is dominated by European languages and scholarship, non-Western academics can be forced to plan their strategies for socio-economic development in the light of contexts and peoples other than their own. By preventing development in the majority world this provides a back door to the ongoing stoking of racist thinking in the West. “Anti-racist” strategies in the West and the tidal spread of globalisation seem at the moment to be relentless. This article suggests that Christian champions practicing vulnerable mission make a contribution taking us towards a society more accepting of ethnic, cultural, and linguistic diversity that can understand rather than condemn difference. Once understood, difference can be compensated for and appreciated rather than ignored.



Image: Sergey Pesterev

This article links two issues which are frequently addressed separately—development for the poor in the majority world (with a focus on Africa) and anti-racist strategies in the West. The author, who is British born and raised but has lived in Africa since 1988, points to an antagonism between the above two: policies designed to counter racism are oriented to ignoring consequential cultural differences that fall along racial lines. Such ignoring frustrates efforts at majority world development.

The first section looks at the roots of racial thinking and its ongoing impact in global perspective. It finds that a self-deception on the part of the West, perhaps arising from its “shame”[1] over a history of racist thinking and policy, is undermining the efficacy of scholarship about “the other.” This in turn is skewing strategies pertaining to international and intercultural relationships, including development intervention in the majority world. There has been a “rise of claims to global knowledge in the contemporary world,” according to James.[2] I interpret James as telling us that the contemporary Western world these days considers itself to be well informed about human societies beyond its shores. It does so in part since the Western world conducts much well-funded anthropological and other research. Unfortunately, such research may follow over-simplified models of translation from indigenous languages of the majority world. These models often arose from work in Bible translation,[3] but have in extension of their use resulted in insensitivity to indigenous cultures.[4]

The West, through interpreting non-Western ways of life according to its own categories has perceived non-existent similarities. Visitors to the majority world, missionaries included, can be determined at all costs to find the “sameness” that they are told back home should exist. This renders them impervious to signals that point to massive and deep cultural differences. Because the way in which majority world cultures are different from Western ones is consequential to their economic and social development, development strategies that ignore these differences are constantly frustrated. Through contributing to the perpetuation of poverty in Africa, the undermining of development aggravates racist thinking in Africa, which impacts back in the West.

The second section seeks for solutions to the above scenario. The option of doing nothing could be disastrous. This author advocates for champions operating based on vulnerable mission. Champions are people who dedicate themselves to intercultural service on behalf of others. The term vulnerable mission refers to ministry using indigenous languages and resources.  Champions practicing vulnerable mission buck the system by expressing a deep love for and commitment to people in the majority world as they are, rather than as they ought to be according to the West.

The author’s personal experience in Anglophone sub-Saharan Africa should be borne in mind as a backdrop to this discussion.

Black people referred to herein are predominantly those of sub-Saharan origin, including some now living in Europe or the United States. Whites described are those originating from Europe or the United States, some of whom are living in sub-Saharan Africa.


Cultural Linguistics

 I will in this article draw on very recent work on ‘cultural linguistics’. Sharifian, a self-proclaimed leader in this field,[5] draws heavily on research into Aboriginal people in Australia. Genetic evidence points to Aboriginal origins in Africa, their having left Africa separately and prior to European and Asian peoples.[6] Cultural similarities remain between them and African people, as observed by some visitors,[7] and as is clear from scholarly descriptions.[8]

“Cultural linguistics,” according to Sharifian “explores the relationship between language, culture, and conceptualisation.”[9] Such “exploration brings to the surface ‘differences’ and arising issues that were not previously visible.”[10] Whereas it has traditionally been thought that learning a language required knowing words and their meanings, Sharifian points out that “cultural conceptualisations … underlie the use of human language.”[11] These conceptualisations that arise from a people’s culture, mean that two people coming from different cultural communities can use the same language very differently. This applies even if they say the same words. Sharifian found Australians who, “because they sounded like speakers of Australian English, were not identified by their teachers as Aboriginal English speakers,” yet, “English words such as family, home, and shame evoked cultural conceptualisations in these students that were quite different from those of Australian English speakers.”[12] For Aboriginal people, for example, contrary to the understanding of Western people, land is a living being.[13] This is strikingly similar to the understanding of land held by Luo people in western Kenya, for whom land can speak (piny owacho), can die (piny otho), and can be us (wan e piny).


Hidden but ‘real’ differences between Africans and Westerners

African people can sometimes be surprised by portrayals they receive through the media of fellow blacks who have emigrated to and live in the West. That is, the way they are depicted may be contrary to expectations at home in Africa. To some extent this may be because blacks who have migrated to the West have adapted and become “Westernised.” Additionally, I suggest, it arises from determined efforts by Westerners not to represent people of African origin as “inferior.” Since Westerners implicitly understand “inferior” behaviour to be any that is “not-western,” these efforts are in effect to depict them as behaving essentially no differently than white Westerners.

Handling issues of racial identity is a big concern in Western nations. Robert Young explains that not so long ago different (especially black) races were looked upon by the West almost as if they were different inferior species (“types”).[14] According to Neville Alexander, race replaced religion as the main social status differentiator in British society in about 1806.[15] The West is still trying to recover from the reverberations arising from its legacy of scientific racism. In reaction to this past the West has developed an extreme sensitivity to any portrayal of Africans that one could interpret as implying their inferiority.

African people tend to be monistic in their thinking.[16] That is: Africans typically make a much less clear distinction between the spiritual and the material than do Westerners.[17] Such has certain out workings. It results in a holistic approach to problem solving: if problems (i.e. misfortune) are caused by “spiritual agents” then they need to be resolved by prayer, the shedding of animal blood, the following of customary law codes, etc.[18] When Africans who live in the West are depicted as using Western reasoning to solve problems, those who remain in Africa ask themselves whether that depiction is accurate.

Any attempt at providing evidential support for hidden difference will need to draw on contextual contributors largely invisible to Westerners, but very evident to many Africans. This is what Sharifian refers to as conceptualisations that are associated with a language, which are peculiar to a culture. The Luo people of Western Kenya have a term jochiende that refers to a cause of negative feelings in living people that are linked to less than positive experiences of people who are at the time already deceased. For example, a girl who dies childless could bring misfortune to a living woman. The term jochiende is commonly translated into English as ‘spirits’. English speaking people who come across the term ‘spirits’ and consider themselves already to have an understanding of what they are will be missing specifically African conceptualisations. Luo people, who may also take spirits as the English translation of jochiende, can remain largely unaware of Westerners’ assumptions that arise from their understanding that jochiende = spirits.[19]

The message given at a Pentecostal church I attended in Kenya regarding dealing with your past seemed to be strongly akin to ways in which counsellors in the West endeavour to help people to come to terms with prior experiences. Paying careful attention to what was going on in this church however revealed that the actual targets of the preacher’s message were the ancestral spirits that were troubling the congregation. The service turned out to be a massive exercise in exorcism involving 90% of the congregation. People’s relationships with their ancestors are complex and rooted in numerous traditions. Dealing with ancestors implicitly brought all that profound complexity onto the scene. To have depicted those African people to be dealing with their past, in the way that this English phrase seems to suggest when used in western circles in England, would have been failing to grasp local conceptualisations.[20]

Questioning African people’s capabilities as scientists could be considered a very racist position. Yet “In contrast to the classic European, the Negro African does not draw a line between himself and the object … Thus the Negro African … abandons his personality to become identified with the Other … he lives in symbiosis [with it]”.[21] A foundation for science, is that it is practiced by people who in some way endeavour to separate themselves out from the objects that they are studying. How can an African person do this if he “does not draw a line between himself and the object” (as cited above)? In so far as Senghor is right, an African person’s capabilities in science must be limited or at least different from that of a typical westerner. To claim that this is not the case is misleading untruth.

Shamala tells us that ceremony is “the bedrock to African Obuntu [i.e. communalism].”[22] “Ceremony denotes … the presence of the departed,” Shamala adds, linking to our point from the church service above.[23] The love for ceremony does not suddenly end when Africans leave their homeland to live in the West. It will continue in the West. Western people who do not perform such regular ceremonies tend to ignore such goings on amongst Africans living in their midst. Could ignoring such be doing many Africans a great injustice?

A lady who had for many years lived in South Africa approached me a few years ago. She explained that the standard of English of many South Africans is far too poor for them to submit their writing as it is to their professors. They are obliged to use people like her (a native English speaker) to radically re-work what they have done before submission. The level of editing she was doing for South African students was high. That reminded me of comments I have often heard from British friends of African students studying in the UK telling me things like: “I told my friend what to write,” or even, “I wrote something for my friend, because it was obvious that he would not get his degree without my help.”

My final piece of evidential support for difference comes from a fascinating if frustrating experience that I had on accompanying a North American colleague visiting a Kenyan in the USA, who had already lived for a number of years in the USA. The difference between my engagement with that Kenyan, and that of my North American colleague, was to me very striking. My American colleague treated the Kenyan (I have lived in Kenya, engaging very closely with indigenous people, since 1993) as if he was American. He ignored endless ‘Kenyanisms’ that I was constantly perceiving. For example, my American friend told the Kenyan that I wash in the traditional way. The Kenyan articulated with his hands, a movement like that of throwing water over oneself with one’s hands. My American friend did not recognise this movement, or the implications that someone who washes in that way is somehow ‘primitive’ or of the lower classes. This Kenyan was not very impressed by the way in which I lived with his fellow countrymen in Kenya – something to which my American colleague remained oblivious. I was very aware that the tribe that I live with tends to be despised by this American Kenyan’s tribe. My American friend was oblivious as to how this inter-tribal relationship profoundly detracted from the development of good rapport between myself and this American Kenyan. My American friend was oblivious to endless conceptualisations attached to my Kenyan colleague’s English.[24]

I hope the above provide sufficient evidential support for ways in which the West is determined to ignore ways in which African people differ from them. It is drawn from personal experience, and in each case depicts insights hidden from regular Westerners. It is because the above bases for difference are hidden that they are easily ignored by the West.


Anti-racist policies in the West contribute to the ignorance of Westerners

Samuel Tshehla once observed that globalisation can be the global spread of provincialism.[25] While the West may believe that globalisation enables a flow of information to and from all corners of the globe, the reality is that information flow is rather heavily from the West to the rest.[26] The evidence for this in fact is rather overwhelming. The influence of the Western film industry is enormous globally. So is the influence of Western academia.[27] Western news media are translated into numerous languages and listened to almost everywhere around the world. Can poorer countries have a voice in the global world? Gayatra Spivak’s study of majority world women concludes that they, along with subalterns (the global poor and “underprivileged”) in general, “cannot speak.”[28]

A general concealing of cultural differences contributes significantly to this unidirectional flow of information.[29] Westerners are deceiving themselves into the belief that concealed differences between cultures, such as those between dualistic (Western) and monistic (African) ways of understanding, do not exist. To use Sharifian’s language, they “conceptualise the source domain in terms of the target domain,” that is, they assume monistic conceptualisations simply to be equal to Western ones. To restate that: Major efforts being made in the West by all kinds of organisations and institutions to conceal cultural difference by means such as positive discrimination and other strategies, can end up misleading the population of the West itself. Westerners can believe that conceptualisations that are concealed from view have disappeared.

It is wrong to think or imply that “the problem of Africa” is in the behaviour of the African people themselves.

The linguistic situation that prevails in communication between the West and Africa confirms such misconception. “Indigenous difference [can be] identified and recognised, but only in order to be translated into a language commensurable with the very state that is structured on the disenfranchisement of fundamental indigenous claims,” write Jodi Byrd and Michael Rothberg.[30] Communication between the West and African contexts is almost universally engaged in using Western languages that African people have spent many years learning. They have learned them from books and in classrooms. That is, they have not learned them in the contexts in which Westerners use them. They have not acquired Western conceptualisations. Neither have they learned them in ways that fit their own contexts. Instead, they hang. Should African people be interested in doing the latter, this would render, the process of communicating between themselves and Western people especially fraught.[31] In short; language cannot of itself cancel contextual difference. Instead, the same language can mean different things: “cross-language ‘equivalence’ that comes to be only superficial.”[32]

Is witchcraft widespread in Africa? Do Westerners understand what witchcraft is the same way that Africans do?

Let us take another example to illustrate this. Witchcraft is understood as being widespread in Africa, yet it is little known (or little perceived) in the West. As a result English modes of expression describing witchcraft experiences are either little known or little used and are not found in formal school curricula. Yet, when ‘witchcraft’ is mentioned Westerners do already have an idea about what is being referred. Their idea may be very different to what the African person has in mind. Aidan Southall, a Westerner who has become better informed about Africa, tells us that if witchcraft cases were “banned,” the African homeland would “become infested with an evil atmosphere of unresolved witchcraft accusations and counter-accusations.”[33] The term “religion” is another example. African people speaking English are obliged to use the term religion thus easily giving the misleading impression that this category “religion” is meaningful for them in the same way as it is for Westerners. This may be far from the truth. The same will apply to almost any difference between African peoples and ways of life on the one hand and those of European peoples on the other. The use of European languages in African communities that may (to a limited extent) reveal Europe to Africa, will certainly conceal Africa from Europe. Benjamin Graves calls this process “cultural erasure.”[34]

If the general populous in the West is misinformed by the above mechanisms, then it is likely that policy makers and academics are making decisions on a misinformed basis. We must ask; can Western scholars writing about Africa, including those advocating for particular means towards social-economic development, be trusted?[35] Were the impact of their scholarly study to be clearly visible and receiving feedback from genuine intercultural experience, then the reality of the context could be preventing them from going too far astray. The outcome of research on Africa arising from Western scholarship could be more reliable if the Western scholars doing the research were on an ongoing basis deeply immersed in African contexts and languages. This cannot be happening if a Western scholar writes about the other (say indigenous African people) on the basis of a misguided assumption that what he or she appears to find in the West will also be found in Africa, while fearing that to suggest otherwise could bring an accusation of racism. In reality, many scholars draw for their research on the writings of other scholars and short-term relatively shallow interaction in Africa confined almost universally to engagement in European languages.[36] While they may draw on what the others (in our case Africans) have written about themselves, this writing typically being in English is limited for reasons outlined above.

Racism and reality in Africa: “Anti-racist” policies in the West are contributing to the ignorance of Westerners.

“Anti-racist” policies in the West are contributing majorly to the ignorance of Westerners. Those Westerners who get involved in African affairs on the African continent with African people will, like their colleagues “back home,” try to ignore many peculiarities of local people’s ways of life. They may be very determined to maintain this ignorance of reality on the ground. They may be determined, that is, to ignore the conceptualisations that might actually be showing African people to be different, in favour of their conviction that they will find them to be the same.

As well as Western people being determined not to find differences in the course of their exploration of Africa, Africans may well attempt to conceal that about themselves which is different from Westerners. This could be for many reasons, and I can only touch briefly on a few here. 1. They are unlikely to want their visitors to receive confirmation of the once-held notion that Africa is a dark continent with all that this implies.[37] 2. African people prefer as far as possible to themselves control the interventionist strategies proposed by their visitors. If “the problem of Africa” is in the behaviour of the African people themselves, this implies that Westerners should be in charge of the many foreign-funded projects that are designed to “put Africa right.” It is understandable that African people get tired of having their affairs run by outsiders.[38] This makes it often in African people’s interests (at least in the short term) to deny extant difference in order to be given charge of whatever project is at hand, even if this means that the project concerned may not function as was intended and may instead “fail.”[39] The high rate of “failure” of projects in Africa is a known concern.[40]

For many reasons, Africans may conceal from Westerners what they are really like and how they are different.

While it may be difficult to relate across any cultural chasms, it may be the most difficult to relate across those chasms that are concealed from view, and that in a sense are not supposed to exist. Aspects of supposedly absent but actually very pertinent African conceptualisations can in my experience interfere with and sometimes ruin countless developing relationships between Westerners and Africans.[41] Surely honesty and openness is advised. Policies designed to counter racism in the West can in effect prescribe honesty and openness. This can cause many severe difficulties outside of the West, especially in Africa.

Because Western countries do not sit high and dry from the rest of the world, issues that affect the majority world, including Africa, come back to them through new immigration, the media, travellers, migrants, the globalised communication system and other means.

Africans are not fooled by the West’s claims of equality.

Western policies creating difficulties for others in the majority world parallels what Wolterstorff calls “world system theory”, according to which “domination by the core of the periphery is indispensible to the expansion of a capitalist economy.”[42] So “modernisation theory harbours a cruel illusion.”[43] This applies especially to numerous countries in Africa that have chosen (although in reality they had little choice[44]) to adopt European languages to run their affairs, and that have chosen to run their economies and societies in imitation of the West. The populace of these countries is not fooled by the West’s claims of equality. In other words, a poverty-stricken, sickly African man living in a war torn society riven through with corruption will not be impressed if he is told by the media that African people are as competent in every way as Europeans. To him, this is a ruse, perhaps designed to keep him in ignorance. To him and his children, family, village, town, city, or whole community white people from European lands resemble gods. Such African people coming to Europe carry a very deeply ingrained, implicit racially based understanding of their own inferiority that can easily and seriously aggravate the West’s racial situation.


Strategies for dealing with “anti-racism” in the West, in global perspective

We have seen above how “anti-racist” policies in the West are causing considerable confusion in Africa (and quite likely the majority world as a whole). I now want to look at possible resolutions to the stark picture painted above.

Unhealthy levels of foreign dependency are already the order of the day. What will this mean for the majority world?

It is difficult to begin to imagine that “anti-racist” strategies in the West might be undone. It seems that globalisation is here to stay. English, on the American model, is marching forward in its role in global academia. Indigenous institutions are being swept away by its advancing tides. Replacements for those institutions that are Western cannot be facilitated or operated locally. Unhealthy levels of foreign dependency are already the order of the day.[45]

Finding solutions to people’s problems requires contextual knowledge.

What will happen? Will we have catastrophic suffering and death arising from disordered dependency in those parts of the world that have not been able to stand up to the tide of globalisation? The global community (i.e. Western nations) being poorly informed are currently unable to provide intelligent assistance to such dilemmas. Finding solutions to people’s problems requires contextual knowledge. Acquiring such contextual knowledge presupposes starting with their languages. The West would be in a much stronger position to be able to assist different peoples around the world to develop their own communities if it had people to draw upon who had contextual knowledge, i.e. who could translate on the basis of being informed about conceptualisations that are unfamiliar to the West.

The barriers (many mentioned above) to the circumvention of our problem are so enormous as to appear at the moment to be insurmountable. There is a place for those who attempt to challenge the status quo both in the academic and in the political arena. The people who will do so will, as things appear at the moment, have an uphill struggle.

Champions are those who cross between one people and another to act as a communication-bridge between the two and work in the interests of the other.

While there is a place for academics, and there is a place for political action, I suggest there is also a place for those known by Quarry and Ramirez as champions.[46] That is, there is a place for individuals who attempt to cross global divides. I do not mean that they do this only geographically. That has these days become easier and easier. I mean they cross divides culturally, more specifically, one could say linguistically: a language learned properly is learned in tune with a culture, and a culture learned properly has to be learned with a language. Champions then, as I am defining them, are those who cross between one people and another to act as a communication-bridge between the two and work in the interests of the other.

Operating with the principles of vulnerable mission enables Westerners to work in the same way as locals, without the baggage from their own context and people.

Two principles of interaction I consider advisable to would-be champions are also known as the principles of vulnerable mission. They consist in 1. Confining oneself to the use of local languages and 2. Confining oneself to local resources in key services or activities. I will not go into great detail justifying or explaining the outworking of these two principles here as I have already done so elsewhere.[47] Holding to these principles enables a Westerner in many respects to work in the same way as do locals, i.e., to work without endless baggage from their own context and people. It avoids falling into common traps that often ruin projects or relationships. It is truly empowering of local people because it has removed the gross privileges that an outsider typically takes advantage of to do that which local people cannot do of themselves. It avoids the situation in which “handing-over” results in unhealthy dependency on outside help to continue the activity concerned. It is contributing to a sustainable foundation to the future of the majority world.

A lot of research has in recent decades been done into what is the appropriate choice of language for education.[48] Contrary to apparently widely assumed wisdom, it is believed by researchers to be in the interests of majority world people’s intellectual development for them to use their own language (typically their mother tongue) for as long as possible in the educational process.[49] Westerners working with a people using the people’s own language can help them appreciate and value it. They can help in the growth and expansion of that language. They can thus add directly and indirectly but powerfully to the prospects of a people’s intellectual development. Working with a non-Western people using a Western language undermines the non-western people’s competency in their own tongue. I refer those who consider Africa’s problems to be that it has too many languages to the writings of Prah.[50] One cause of the ongoing failure of African languages to thrive is the smothering effect of subsidised Western languages like a blanket for formal purposes over African communities.

An outsider’s refusal to subsidise his key activity with foreign resources will enhance local productivity and reduce the production of dependence. If outsiders can do something using local resources, then so should local people be able to imitate them without becoming dependent in an unhealthy way on outside donations.

If outsiders can do something using local resources, then so should local people be able to imitate them without becoming dependent in an unhealthy way on outside donations.

More specifically, I would like to mention how this vulnerable-mission strategy can assist in the overcoming of problems arising from “anti-racist” measures in the West. I would not be the first to notice that it is cultures without literacy in their own language that appear to have suffered the most and to have become most disoriented as a result of the ongoing impact of colonialism.[51] Assisting or encouraging people to develop their own languages can be a means to empowering them.

Disquiet expressed in this article can be considered to be part of a wider category of post-colonial concerns. The post-colonial legacy in parts of Africa, when examined closely, can be extremely discouraging. This article is an attempt at encouraging Christians (and others) in the West to develop an awareness of such concerns. Considered from within the West, racially based bias is clearly the bad guy. From a global perspective, if as appears to be the case non-Western races are often foundationally culturally different from Westerners, trying to avoid racially based bias can result in the spreading of types of knowledge that do not have a fit to local understanding.

This article, especially through drawing on linguistic insights, proposes that committed individuals are key to finding solutions to some of the world’s problems. Sufficiently committed individuals in focus here are those inspired by their faith in Christ. It is very difficult for those not so inspired to achieve the standards here advocated.

This article does not claim to present the silver bullet required to resolve global issues. Interrelationships in today’s world are such that a change in one area has implications everywhere else. Yet, a renewed look at the race-question in global perspective is an important piece to be considered in the process of unravelling deep contemporary injustices in the interests of building a better society for tomorrow.

What “champions” are able to do, once they have acquired sufficient understanding, includes sharing beneficial information from the wider world with people who are disenfranchised. They may be able, through a careful process of translation in the light of the local context and language, to share benefits of Western academia, literacy, history,  the experiences of other cultures, religious traditions, and so forth—things that otherwise remain trapped in foreign languages and traditions.[52] By doing this, a “champion” will empower a community to resist the attack of globalisation by building their own capacity and literacy.

Should foreign (non-Western) communities be able to develop their own innate competencies, then clearly this will reduce the competence gap between them and the West. This in turn will undermine racism, reduce numbers of migrants, and perhaps do so much more effectively than current “anti-racist” regulations.


Producing champions

Given that dominant models of intervention into the Majority World have been found wanting (Africa certainly being a case in point), we have suggested a need for “champions.” This raises the question of how one is to find these “champions” who can follow the alternative “vulnerable” means of intervention here advocated?

Champions humbly translate the good news, the story of Jesus, across cultural bridges.

I believe that at least one source of champions must be the Christian church. More generally, I believe it could be argued that the very notion of “champions” we have referred to above is foundationally Christian and arises from foundational teachings of Christianity. The Scriptures, and in turn the church in its praxis, advocate the primacy of love in inter-human relationships (Jn 13:34). The church is a universal body (Christianity is not confined to a particular ethnicity Mt 28:19). The example of Christ himself is one of a total sacrificial life-commitment to others (Phil 2:3–8). Because the Scriptures are eminently translatable and, we can add, really must be translated for the sake of effectiveness,[53] a champion who is a Christian is one who (after acquiring contextual knowledge of the life of others[54]) endeavours to translate the gospel to them. This is not the role of a conqueror or someone who is “better” imposing onto the lives of those who are ignorant, but a sharing of the power of God in a context of personal weakness with those who are to be reached. The precedent for doing this is revealed in the Scriptures, and has become an inspiration to many who have followed Christian teaching into missionary commitment over centuries.

I have above narrowed the defining characteristic of a champion as being the practice of vulnerable mission, which is itself defined as the use of local languages and local resources in ministry to the people being reached. This has in the past usually happened by default rather than through purposeful intention. However, recent colonial and neo-colonial conditions increasingly give potential Western champions a choice. Such a champion (i.e. missionary) should remember the Spirit-given example set in Acts 2:11, in which every person in Jerusalem at the time heard the Gospel in his or her own language. Acts 22:2 gives a clear example of how Paul’s knowledge of the mother-tongue of a very aggressive mob that wanted to lynch him enabled him to share the gospel with them. Acts 14:8–20 is a little more complex: Paul and Barnabas’ preaching to the Lystran people without first having learned their language resulted in a very serious misunderstanding, as a result of which instead of being able to communicate about God, they were taken as being gods. Could this passage represent a way of warning would-be missionaries not to engage in serious ministry until they have a grasp of indigenous tongues?

The overt motivation for a lot of the use of outside resources by Western missionaries in Africa in recent decades has been compassion. Western missionaries who have perceived problems of poverty, ill-health, hunger, morbidity, infant mortality, and so on chose to invest western resources into communities that they have been reaching. This has led to many problems, not least unhealthy dependency and a very widespread prosperity gospel in much of the continent of Africa and beyond. Careful consideration of Christ’s own approach to mission and ministry (reflected in the Christian Scriptures) reveals that Jesus did not hand out material resources as a means to boost his ministry. He rejected that option in a very overt way through his refusing the temptation by the devil to turn stones into bread (Lk 4:3–4). Later, after Jesus had fed thousands, he had to walk-away from both them and his disciples to avoid being given political office by force (Jn 6:15). While Jesus taught people to be compassionate (and he had compassion for those who suffered) we do not find him raising funds abroad so as to initiate projects in the way that has become common practice in mission in recent decades. I believe that his failing to initiate such “projects” was intentional. It allowed him to identify with communities as a champion. Such practice on the part of Christ himself is often known in Christian doctrine as his incarnation.

Impacts of champions can be widespread even if not always visible. I want to give just a few simple examples from personal experience, having lived and worked amongst Africans since 1988. In one instance, a local church had invited me to share in some door-to-door ministry in a part of Tanzania. When it was time to leave, a motorised rickshaw was sent to pick us up. I got in and said nothing. My hosts paid for my trip back. I was told that a few years earlier they would have expected a white person like myself to pay for my own trip. My failure to offer to pay transformed me from an agent from the outside into a servant under local leadership, who could potentially be entrusted with sensitive local information. Another example involves the fact that outside speakers coming into western Kenya are usually ignorant of a very pernicious problem troubling local people. The problem is known locally as chira. This Luo-language term represents the outcome of people’s failure to follow ancestral decree. Outsiders’ unfamiliarity with the details of what causes chira can prevent outsiders from intelligently articulating and dealing with it. My own position of having learned the Luo language and culture in-depth, and my ability to communicate using the same language enabled me to apply healing balm in the form of Christian teaching to this gaping wound.[55]

I can illustrate how one may as a result of being better informed apply ‘healing balm’ by way of an example: Chira, suffering caused by sin, for the Luo people in many ways resembles AIDS. Telling people that AIDS is not caused by sin is either to radically re-define sin, or to be 180 degrees in contradiction with an incredibly deeply held belief and fear. Correct Christian teaching has, to my understanding, to find a more profound and helpful ways of understanding and dealing with sin than simply to deny that it causes misfortune such as chira / AIDS.

In communication back to the West, perhaps the main thing a champion can do is simply to encourage others to be champions.

A champion can feed back to the West. Such feeding back must be done with sensitivity. Any implication that funding may be reduced or withdrawn as a result of the words of champions puts them into a very delicate position.[56] Hence, in communication back to the West, perhaps the main thing a champion can do is simply to encourage others to be champions, that is, as I am here defining champions: those who use local languages and resources as the basis for at least a part of their work. Those who take up such a challenge can begin to counter the obfuscation of knowledge referred to above arising from “anti-racist” policies in the West. Hence, they can begin to be a part of a way of ministering that meets deep needs as a result of its engaging in the light of the full local context as faced by nationals.

I believe that it is Christian teaching, the full depth of which has only been touched upon in the above few paragraphs, that by the power of God’s Spirit produces true champions. The deep influence of Christian teaching in the West over many centuries continues to influence our era. As a result, even many Western people who no longer confess Christ have been so profoundly affected by this kind of ethic as to be able also to appreciate the role of champions. The closer people are to their Christian roots, the more likely they will be able to appreciate the role of champions. The church can, through the production of champions, begin to counter the problems identified in this article that are brought on by “anti-racist” strategies that run on the basis of ignorance of the impact of conceptualisations on language use, in the West today.



Scholarship in the West that looks at inter-cultural relationships, especially those involving Africa, is found in this article to have been seriously undermined by strategies that are intended to counter racist thinking. This undermining has resulted in a skewing away from contextual truth in the planning of projects and programmes of all sorts oriented to the facilitating of development and healthy international relationships. Because this hampers or even prevents socio-economic development from occurring amongst many people outside of the West, it in turn accentuates unhealthy racist thinking in the West through the perpetuation of endless scenarios of apparently racially-based inferiority. The skewing of scholarship caused by “anti-racist” strategies is also found to conceal the importance of specifically Christian mission activities, such as the need for Christian discipleship.

Either the rate of globalisation should be slowed, legislation countering racism in the West withdrawn, or some means found to help to facilitate strategies that counter poverty that are drawn up in the light of non-Western conceptualisations. Because the likelihood that globalisation will be slowed or “anti-racist strategies” will be annulled in the West looks small, I have suggested another means by which enlightened Westerners can cut through the current screen of deception regarding race in their relationships with Majority World people. They may become champions who work on the basis of the practice of vulnerable mission. Such champions will become a cutting edge for new strategies that do take serious account of extant conditions in the promotion of socio-economic development in the majority world. Once such new strategies gain traction, they will reduce the apparent level of incompetence of majority world nations. Raising the capacity of Majority World people so that they can function effectively in their own contexts will remove the back door of feedback from outside of the West (including new immigration) which currently continues to fuel racist thinking inside the West. The Christian church in the West is well equipped to play a role in raising champions that can empower people in the majority world.





[1] Nancy Lynne Westfield, “Teaching for Globalised Consciousness: Black Professor, White Student and Shame,” Black Theology: An International Journal 2, no. 1 (January 2004): 73.

[2] Wendy, James, ‘Introduction. Whatever Happened to the Enlightenment?’ in The Pursuit of Certainty: Religious and Cultural Formulations. Wendy James, (ed.) London: Routledge, 1995, 1-14, 2.)


[4] Bible translation operates on the basis of an assumption of ongoing divine inspiration which means that the divine can use translations of his ‘living words’ to speak truthfully to a wide variety of linguistic communities. So called ‘secular’ translation has I suggest falsely presupposed that divine action to be universal to almost all translated texts.

[5] Farzad Sharifian, Cultural Linguistics. Amsterdam/PA: John Benjamins, 2017, 9.


[7] In conversations about traditions, it turned out that there were surprising similarities in the lives of the Aborigines and the Maasai – for instance in circumcision ceremonies.

[8] Sharifian’s descriptons of Australian Aborigenes’ ways of life have striking parallels with that, from personal experience and much reading, of many African peoples. (Farzad Sharifian, ‘On Cultural Conceptualisations’, Journal of Cognition and Culture, 3(3), 2003, 187-209, 194-198.)

[9] Sharifian, Farzad, (ed) 2015, ‘Cultural Linguistics’, 473-492 in: Sharifian, Farzad, (ed.) The Routledge Handbook of Language and Culture. Abingdon: Routledge, 473.

[10] Sharifian, Farzad, 2017, Cultural Linguistics. Amsterdam/PA: John Benjamins, 36.

[11] Sharifian Cultural, 21.

[12] Sharifian Cultural, 194.

[13] Sharifian Cultural, 55.

[14] Robert C. Young, Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture and Race, London: Routledge, 1995, 13, 15, 117.

[15]  Neville Alexander, “An Introduction to Perceptions and Conceptions of ‘Race’ in South Africa,” in Racism in the Global African Experience, ed. Kwesi Kwaa Prah, Cape Town: CASAS, 2006), 129–141, 130.

[16] Jim Harries, Secularism and Africa: in the light of the Intercultural Christ, Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock 2015.

[17] In this, as many other cultural features, Australian Aboriginals appear to be very similar to African people, hence finding any difference between the ‘spiritual’ and the ‘real’ to be invalid (Sharifian Cultural, 42).

[18] Note that “Aboriginal people [as Africans] sometimes use words such as spirit and spiritual when talking about ‘beings’ in their worldview, as a communicative strategy to facilitate somehow non-Aboriginal people’s understanding of experiences that draw on the Aboriginal worldview” (Sharifian, Cultural, 42.)

[19] See also Sharifian Cultural, 201.

[20] Sharifian Cultural, 168.

[21] Léopold Sédar Senghor, On African Socialism, London: Frederick A. Praeger. 1964, 72.

[22] Lucas Shamala, The Practice of Obuntu among the Abaluyia of Western Kenya: A Paradigm for Community Building. Saabruecken, Germany: VDM Verlag 2008, 135, 54.

[23] Shamala, 10.

[24] I encourage my reader to go to Sharifian Cultural in order to grasp what I mean by conceptualisations.

[25] Samuel M. Tshehla, “’Can Anything Good Come out of Africa?’  Reflections of a South African Mosotho Reader of the Bible,’” Journal of African Christian Thought 5, no. 1 (2002): 15–24, 23.

[26] I would argue that a lot of what might be supposed to be the flow of information from the non-West to the West is more accurately a reflection back of what the West wants/expects or is able to hear from the non-West; hence not a non-West to West flow but West to West.

[27] Hans de Wit, “Africa Must Lead Innovation in Higher Education Internationalisation,” University World News: The Global Window on Higher Education, no. 239 (September 16, 2012).

[28] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, ”Can the Subaltern Speak?” in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg, Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1988, 271–313, 308.

[29] Jim Harries, “Racism in Reverse: the impact of the West on racism in Africa.’ In: Jim Harries, Vulnerable Mission: Insights into Christian Mission to Africa from a Position of Vulnerability, Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2011, 163–184, 175–176.

[30]  Jodi A. Byrd and Michael Rothberg, “Between Subalternity and Indigeneity: Critical Categories for Post-colonial Studies,” Interventions  13/1 (2011): 1–12, 7.

[31]  Jim Harries, Communication in Mission and Development: Relating to the Church in Africa, Oregon: Wipf and Stock, 2013, 106–124.

[32] Andreas Musolff, ‘Metaphors: sources for intercultural misunderstanding?’ International Journal of Language and Culture, 11, (2014), 42-59, 48.

[33]  Aidan W. Southall, “History and the Discourse of Underdevelopment among the Alur of Uganda,” in The Pursuit of Certainty: Religious and Cultural Formulations, ed. Wendy James, London: Routledge, 1995, 45–57, 51.

[34]  Benjamin Graves, précis of “Can the Subaltern Speak?”

[35] “The fact that scholarship is tradition-bound, in such a way that the cultures and societies create their own scholarship, which speaks to the experience of their societies, remains lost on us till the present day” (Kwesi Kwaa Prah, The African Nation: the state of the nation, Cape Town: CASAS, 2006, 114.)

[36] Thiong’o comments on this in Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature, Nairobi: East African Educational Publishers Ltd., 1981, 6–8.

[37] See the above account of the church service in which African people were told to exorcise those aspects of their past that might hold them back from being modern and prosperous. By faith, people who have gone through such an experience, believe their past and traditions to be ‘gone’.

[38] Aboriginal people in Australia have a different problem. Whereas many African people want it to be known that they no longer have a ‘a culture’ and so can run their own affairs, Aboriginal people point to their culture as the source of their authority in modern-day Australia.

[39] Although what constitutes a failed project for Westerners may not be so understood by Africans: David Maranz, African Friends and Money Matters: Observations from Africa, Dallas: SIL International, 2001, 151.

[40] Andrei Schleifer, “Paul Bauer and the Failure of Foreign Aid,” Cato Journal  29/3 (Fall 2009): 379–390.

[41] See David Maranz, African Friends and Money Matters: Observations from Africa., Dallas: SIL International, 2001, 9.

[42] Nicholas Wolterstorff, Until Justice and Peace Embrace. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmann’s Publishing Company, 1983, 32.

[43] Wolterstorff 32.

[44] Neville Alexander, ‘English Unassailable but Unattainable: the dilemma of language policy in South African Education.’ Paper presented at the Biennial Conference of the International Federation for the Teaching of English, University of Warwick, England, UK, July 7-10, 1999, 6. (accessed 28.08.08).

[45] Jean Johnson of World Mission Associates (USA) is particularly concerned about this kind of unhealthy dependency:

[46] Robert A. White, “Research on Communication for Development in Africa: Current Debates,” African Communication Research 2/2 (2009): 203–252, 218.

[47] For examples, see

[48] Allan Pitman, Suzanne Majhanovich, and Birgit Brock-Utne, “English as a Language of Instruction in Africa: Policy, Power, and Practice,” in Language of Instruction in Tanzania and South Africa—Highlights from a Project, ed. Birgit Brock-Utne and others, Rotterdam: Sense Publishers, 2010, 1–10, 3.

[49] Kwesi Kwaa Prah, “The Burden of English in Africa: From Colonialism to Neo-colonialism,” (Keynote address presented to the department of English fifth international conference at the University of Botswana on the theme, Mapping Africa in the English-Speaking World, June 2–4, 2009, 9. See also Sharifian Cultural, 207-247.)

[50] Prah, “The Burden,” 5.

[51] Kwesi Kwaa  Prah, ”The Language of Development and the Development of Language in Contemporary Africa: The Challenge of African Development in the Context of Current Linguistic Realities and Dominant Knowledge in Applied Linguistics.” (Paper presented at the annual conference of the American Association for Applied Linguistics (AAAL) in Chicago, March 26–29, 2011), 11.

[52]  Martha A.S. Qorro, “Unlocking Language Forts: Language of Instruction in Post-primary Education in Africa—With Special Reference to Tanzania,” in Language of Instruction in Tanzania and South Africa (LOITASA), ed. Brock-Utne and others, Dar-es-Salaam: E and D Limited, 2003, 187–196.

[53] Lamin Sanneh, Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture, New York: Orbis Books, 1989, 174.

[54] A process that could take many years.

[55] A problem with both of my examples is that their full explanation would require a lot more contextual explanation than I can give in a limited space. This is of course exactly the difficulty that I am dealing with in this article. The examples illustrate what they cannot, given limitations of space, fully articulate.

[56] For more discussion on this see Jim Harries, From Theory to Practice in Vulnerable Mission: An Academic Appraisal, Oregon: Wipf and Stock, 2012, 94–111.

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Category: Fall 2021, In Depth

About the Author: Jim Harries, PhD (University of Birmingham), is professor of religion with Global University and adjunct faculty with William Carey International University. He works closely with a wide variety of churches in western Kenya in informal theological education. These include many African founded churches, Pentecostal churches, and the Coptic Orthodox church. Jim uses indigenous languages, and local resources in his ministry. He chairs the Alliance for Vulnerable Mission and is the author of Vulnerable Mission: Insights into Christian Mission to Africa from a Position of Vulnerability (William Carey Library, 2011), Three Days in the Life of an African Christian Villager (New Generation Publishing, 2011), Theory to Practice in Vulnerable Mission: An Academic Appraisal (Wipf and Stock, 2012), Communication in Mission and Development: Relating to the Church in Africa (Wipf and Stock, 2013), Secularism and Africa: In the Light of the Intercultural Christ (Wipf and Stock, 2015), New Foundations for Appreciating Africa: Beyond Religious and Secular Deceptions (VKW, 2016), The Godless Delusion: Europe and Africa (Wipf & Stock, 2017), and a novel African Heartbeat: And A Vulnerable Fool (2018). Facebook: Vulnerable Mission. Twitter: @A4VM.

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