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Examples of Catechetical and Homiletic Inculturation


6. Examples of Catechetical and Homiletic Inculturation

Catechetical and homiletic inculturation may not take place on the same scale as the Gbaya project, nor with the same degree of comprehensiveness, however, like the Gbaya example, they usually reflect the wider background process of inculturation of which we are speaking. One of the most successful religious education programmes in Africa has been the so-called Gaba Syllabus for Secondary Schools. In fact, the syllabus for the final two years of the course was drawn up at a series of international and ecumenical
workshops. The result was a thematic treatment of Christianity, beginning with an analysis of the present situation, going on to the values of African tradition and the experience of the Churches, and finally deepening the findings in the light of Biblical revelation. This process was designed to help the student make a synthesis for his or her own life. A conscious purpose of the syllabus was to explore the cultural heritage of Africa in order to see how it could contribute to a Christian understanding of each theme and to a sense of continuity and identity for the African Christian. From the point of view of content, such an aim was wholly within the purview of inculturation, although the term was not yet current when the syllabus was published. However, the materials themselves were devised for the classroom and were addressed to the young educated elite in the African secondary school. Methodologically, they were comparable to other published examples of experiential catechesis.

Ten years earlier, a missionary in Nigeria had made a plea to take catechetics out of the classroom, to jettison blackboard and chalk, and to abandon the traditional, printed catechism or religion syllabus. Instead, Bernard Mangematin, an acknowledged expert in the language and culture of the Yoruba, preferred to use a form of traditional praise prayer known as oriki.   He argued that catechesis through prayer would give the student a true religious sense and a real conviction that was impossible to achieve through explanatory and discursive lessons. "My Father’s House is a House of Prayer. Do not change it into a classroom."

The Oriki has been called "a form of prayer by which the Yoruba praise their gods in a manner that is in complete conformity with their culture". It is a poetic hymn, chanted in honour of an Orisa, or divinity, or of an important person. It can be addressed to a divinity either in the privacy of an early morning offering or in regular cult meetings and festivals.  It is a series of epithets or appellations addressed to the subject by the devotee, which is both expressive and efficacious. Not only does it encapsulate the essence of the subject, but also it enhances its presence. It empowers, it propitiates, and it augments the reputation of the subject. It strengthens the bond between praise-singer and subject and it spreads healing and harmony in the community. Oriki praise poetry constitutes a shared, protean repertoire, with an infinity of manifestations.

The Oriki is essentially oral, spontaneous and imaginative. It recruits ideas and images from a wide spectrum of sources, and appeals as much to the emotions as to the intellect. In this way it mirrors the world, natural, human and divine. Like the Yoruba divinities themselves, the poems, which praise them, are inconsistent, fragmented and merging. This is not an accidental or deplorable untidiness, but is, as Karin Barber shows, a faithful reflection of the fluidity and dynamism in relationships, both human and divine. Although Yoruba traditional religion has declined, the Oriki still flourish vigorously, especially among women.  In fact, the principal praise-singers and carriers of Oriki are women, because through marriage they are also the primary sources of social differentiation and social linking.

It is obvious that considerable skill and inventiveness is needed for a religion teacher to master this oral, literary form, and to adapt it to the requirements of Christian catechesis. This, no doubt, is why catechists and pastors have been slow to take up Bernard Mangematin’s challenge. The very fluidity and fragmentary nature of the genre may also make it appear unsuitable as a replacement for a catechism text or R.E. syllabus. However, the missionary’s appraisal of the Oriki’s cultural importance is corroborated by the judgement of the anthropologist and scholar of religion.

No doubt, the published translations of Oriki poems do scant justice to the elusive and subtle character of the originals, and this is equally true of Mangematin’s inculturated Oriki.  This incorporates quotations from traditional examples, published and unpublished, but basically it is a mosaic of excerpts from the books of the Old and New Testaments. These include, Genesis, Job, Isaiah and Psalms, as well as the Four Gospels, Hebrews, 1 Timothy and the Apocalypse. There is also a reference to the liturgy of Ash Wednesday, the Lord’s Prayer and the Hail Mary. Mangematin insists on the use of proverbs, aphorisms and images derived from the Bible and the Liturgy, even if they are not fully understood at first. The Oriki’s power to generate conviction rests on the ability of symbols to question or disturb the hearer.

Mangematin’s sample Oriki is a catechesis on the mystery of God’s holiness. It begins as a praise greeting of God, and then develops images of light, fire, lightning, swiftness and sharpness.  After this, the poem uses symbols of purity, lucidity and innocence. These qualities are contrasted with the sinfulness and weakness of humanity, and the poem ends with a prayer for salvation. The reciprocity of God and humanity emerges in every stanza and the hearer is progressively involved, as the poem develops: "Take the shoes from thy feet"; "Rise from the dead and Christ will enlighten thee"; "And we are but dust and ashes"; "Pray for us sinners, now and at the last hour";  "Alas, I must keep silent", and so on. It is in this reciprocity that the poem’s efficaciousness consists. It is clear that to pursue this experiment a type of catechist or religion teacher would have to be formed, who is not only steeped in Yoruba culture and oral literature, but in the Bible and liturgy as well. This is necessary if the inculturated prayer poem is to draw upon all the resources of Yoruba culture and Catholic Christianity. At present no such creative people have been encouraged to come forward, and the official Church practises a somewhat negative tolerance towards the chanting of Oriki. This is permitted, for example, at Catholic funerals after the departure of the priest. The Oriki tradition is an aspect of the Yoruba cultural heritage, which unites Christians of every denomination, and it is clear that it has considerable catechetical and liturgical potential, as Mangematin suggests.

The Kimbu people inhabit about eighty village clearings in the woodland wilderness of west-central Tanzania. They are shifting maize cultivators with a hunting-gathering specialization. An important genre in their oral literary tradition is the chante-fable or choric story, in which speech and song are alternated.  Story telling is a popular pastime in the Kimbu village, and it is characterized by much spontaneous dialogue between the storyteller and his or her audience. The latter is not afraid to interrupt the performance with questions, comments and reiterations, the better to savour the story. The chante-fable  formalizes this tendency, by introducing a sung response or refrain at set moments in the story. Although the story itself is basically a free narrative, the refrain imparts an air of formality and turns the telling of the story into a celebration. The refrains fulfil various functions in the story. They indicate its structure and mark successive, parallel episodes or developments. Even more importantly, they encapsulate the story’s deeper meaning.  The refrain is a key to its final denouement.  For this reason, the choric story form is used mainly for aetiologies and myths, which convey a social moral or community value. Among the Kimbu these include the stories of "Miyunga and the Birds"; "Nyumaa, the Buffalo Hunter"; "The Girl and the Forest Monster"; and "Chief Ipupi, Terror of Those Who Wake Him".

The first two stories deal with hunters whose prowess in the forest was an affront to nature, and who were destroyed by the creatures they hunted  - in the case of Miyunga, birds; and of Nyumaa, buffaloes. The story of "The Girl and the Forest Monster" is told in many versions. It is a salvation myth about a little girl called Uchali who was seized in the forest by Idimungala, the giant master of the animals. In some accounts she was rescued by her fellow children; in others, through her own daring. It is a celebration of the victory of innocence over the power of evil. The myth of "Chief Ipupi, Terror of Those Who Wake Him" is a politico-cosmological charter for the seniority of the Kimbu founder chiefdom and for the chief’s role as surrogate of God. It is full of solar and earth symbolism, but the story is centred on the magical gourd-bow, the musical instrument by means of which Ipupi communicated with his subordinates.  This instrument is known to the Kimbu as Isimeli. The refrain expresses the popular fascination and wonderment regarding Ipupi’s magical device: "Isimeli, you are sweet and fair!"

At the end of 1968, I launched a homiletic experiment in which the Sunday homily took the form of a Kimbu choric story, with a refrain to be sung at different points by the congregation.  A serious attempt was made to use Kimbu stories in these homilies, and while their original meaning was respected, it was amplified in the light of Biblical teaching and Christian doctrine.  An African, traditional theme was thus developed into a Christian theme. Although the homilies were given in the Swahili language, they contained copious references to Kimbu language and literature.  In an Advent homily, the stories of Miyunga and Nyumaa were used to show that we have to render account to God for our use of creation. This was put in the context of the Advent readings about being faithful and watchful stewards. The tune of the refrain was based on that of a Swahili hymn, and the words were: "You are close, O Lord!" A Christmas homily used the salvation myth of Uchali as a lead into the story of Christ’s birth,  and a lesson on spiritual childhood. Again, the chorus: "The child Jesus has saved us!", borrowed the tune of a  Swahili hymn refrain.

The most ambitious of these homilies used the solar symbolism, which Kimbu apply to God, and developed it with reference to Biblical solar symbolism and New Testament salvation themes of light and darkness. The refrain was: "Sun of Justice, shine on us, shine on us!", and this was set to the tune of the  Kimbu Isimeli refrain. The extraordinary enthusiasm, which greeted this experiment, exceeded all expectations, and news of the Kimbu homilies spread far beyond the villages in which they were preached. Some people appreciated the sung refrain and said that they found it difficult to listen to a monologue.  Others liked the references to the Kimbu stories and customs, which made the message of the homily more real for them.
Since conducting this homiletic experiment in Ukimbu in 1968, I have continued to use the choric story format on many occasions when preaching in East Africa. Although this was a genuine case of independent invention, many African preachers naturally use the method. The late Cardinal Emmanuel Nsubuga, for example, Archbishop of Kampala, Uganda, was an accomplished exponent.

With regard to the cultural content of the homily, there have been several other initiatives involving the use of African oral literature.  Declan Brosnan and Jon Kirby edited a collection of African parables, which follow the cycles of the Lectionary and provide thoughts for expounding the Sunday readings in the homily. For some years, Donald Sybertz and Joseph Healey have been collecting Tanzanian proverbs, analysing and presenting them for homiletic and catechetical use. The inculturation of the ministry of the Word is, beyond doubt, a developing reality in Africa.

7. Conclusion

In attempting to answer the question:  "Inculturation of African Religious Values - How Far?", I hope I have shown  how difficult  it  is  to set any limits  to  inculturation.  If the Christian transformation of culture is undertaken in earnest, then the possibilities are virtually endless. What matters is to remain faithful to the tradition concerning Jesus and to the authentic values of African religion and culture. That fidelity can only be ensured by a profound acquaintance with both the Christian tradition of faith and with African cultures. To this - it goes without saying - must be added a genuine faith in the process of inculturation itself!

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