Alemu Checole, Samuel Asefa, et al.. Kitchener, ON: Pandora, 2003. 320 pages.
With Africa, the Global Mennonite History project has produced its first volume, with four more to come in due time. Although the editorial direction and publication are in North America, all of the ten writers are African Mennonites who tell the story from their own African perspective. As a result, this book has a different flavor from most Mennonite history. After three introductory prefaces and chapters, the book is divided into chapters that cover Mennonites in geographical areas: Central Africa, Brethren in Christ Churches in Southern Africa (the longest chapter), Eastern Africa, Western Africa, and an Afterword.
The competing religions of Africa are Christianity and Islam. What is evident from this book is that African Mennonitism is predominantly a sub-Saharan development with no presence in Mediterranean (Muslim) Africa. The chapter on Eastern Africa deals somewhat with Islamic relations in that region. Major growth, however, has been in the central and southern areas as converts are won from traditional African religions.
In addition to giving the narrative story of the African Mennonite churches, this book develops several interesting themes relevant to church history in the various chapters. First is the relationship of traditional African culture to Christianity; to what extent are they compatible? This has been a difficult issue for Mennonite missionaries as they have tried to relate to the African audience and at the same time preserve the purity of Christianity. Barbara Nkala of Zimbabwe raised several of these issues, such as the African concept of a Supreme Being, belief in ancestral spirits, and use of traditional ceremonies. Whereas these have often been labeled idolatry by westerners, she points out other ways to understand them.
Another very interesting theme is to see the African view of Mennonite missionaries. Western missionaries and “missions” (Mennonites included) have taken quite a beating in recent literary and historical accounts. The writers of Africa, however, are quite generous, and usually appreciative, in their portrayal of Mennonite missionaries. Erik Kumedisa of Democratic Republic of Congo in his chapter on Central Africa had questions about the collaboration of Mennonites with the Belgian colonial authorities (so that more Mennonite schools and churches could be established). One criticism of the missionary-established Mennonite churches, raised by several writers, was that the new believers were not challenged to support their own churches financially (the missionaries did not teach “how to give”) but rather were dependent on missionary finances.
Apart from the interesting material contained here, the book is very relevant for understanding present-day Christianity and the direction it is going. The emphasis on “global Mennonitism” rather than European-American Mennonites reflects the growth of the African churches, which by 2003 had overtaken North American Mennonites in total membership. The southern Mennonites are now the majority; the northern Mennonites are becoming the minority. This book and the Global Mennonite History project also fit in well with the interpretations of Philip Jenkins in The Next Christendom (2002), who argues that Christianity as a whole, not just Mennonitism, is becoming a southern hemisphere phenomenon. The good news is that Christianity, led by the new Christians, is showing great dynamic growth and vitality on the world scene. Mennonites share in this growth and vitality.
The book reads well and raises many interesting issues. It has an academic flavor and will be of most appeal to serious readers of Mennonite history, although it will certainly be of value to anyone concerned with issues of Christianity and culture. I used the book in a recent seminary class on Global Mennonite History, and I recommend it highly. I am looking forward to further volumes in the series.