Sibiri Samuel Zongo, a student at LOGOS University in Burkina Faso, lamented that the church in Africa is "like a canoe that passes without leaving a trace." Anicka Fast, serving with Mennonite Central Committee and Mennonite Mission Network, is committed to changing this reality, through teaching courses that hone skills in writing oral history.
A class of 34 students from 10 denominations was studying Christianity in West Africa at LOGOS University in Ouagadougou, the capital city of Burkina Faso. As the teacher, I wanted the students to become aware of the central role of African Christians in sharing the Christian message in Africa. At the same time, I wanted them to recognize their own potential role in preserving the stories of this missionary activity. To integrate these two goals, I organized the course around biographies. We explored key historical themes — colonialism, independent church movements, persecution, and African missionary initiatives — through the lens of life stories of African Christians. These included people like Perpetua, Marcellus, Kimpa Vita, William Wade Harris, Samuel Crowther, and Alfred Diban, the first Burkinabè Christian. In practical exercises, we focused on interview techniques, such as asking good questions and requesting consent, and on archiving and writing.
The students were fascinated by the lost kingdoms of Nubia and the shocking statistics of the slave trade. They grasped the significance of prophets like Kimpa Vita and William Wade Harris in rooting Christianity in African cultures and contexts. Their shoulders slumped in discouragement as they contemplated the betrayal of Bishop Crowther by his young White colleagues.
"Can reparations be made for this?" one student poignantly asked.
During the week, the students identified a long list of post-independence themes that could be topics for future research by African scholars. And, in daily practical sessions, they began to plan their own biographies of African Christians. These would be the first biographies of Burkinabè Christians to be added to the Dictionary of African Christian Biography, an electronic, open-access resource that uses biography to document the 2000-year history of Christianity in Africa.
At the end of the class, I felt a deep sense of satisfaction. This was my first time teaching a course directly related to my doctoral studies (completed in 2020). I felt like I had arrived at a destination that I had been seeking for years. It was a vindication of years of biking through cold Boston traffic, countless moments of disorientation with, and temptation by, ivory tower elitism, and many weary Saturdays slogging through papers in which I wrote about — but could hardly imagine — the shimmering reality of friendships and conflicts within missionary encounters in Africa.
On the last day, I asked students what they would take away from this class. Their feedback was powerful and thought-provoking.
Sibiri Samuel Zongo, one of the oldest students, and a member of the Burkina Faso Assemblies of God Church, commented on how many important contributions of the church in Africa remain unknown and undocumented. He lamented that the church in Africa is "like a canoe that passes without leaving a trace." At the same time, he and others expressed their sense that they now had "tools to write the story." They spoke of the empowerment they felt in having clear steps to produce a biography.
Many students were amazed to learn that the church in Africa had been present prior to colonial powers. This felt like a game-changer. Yet they asked pointed questions about the ongoing inequities of access to sources and stories, inequities that continue to divide African Christians from many Western counterparts.
I have many ideas to improve the course. I need more input on pre-colonial kingdoms, more on Islam, and a more nuanced presentation of the Rwandan genocide and South Africa's anti-apartheid movement. I need ways to better ensure that more women are selected as biography subjects.
I am excited about working alongside these African historians. But I am also sobered by the ongoing barriers that make some stories so much more influential than others. I am grateful for the opportunity to be in Africa and to participate in the diverse, faithful, Spirit-led missionary movement that has flourished on this continent since ancient times.