“This sound is heard
in Somalia, Sudan and Senegal
it is heard
in Gambia Ghana and Gabon
in Niger, Nigeria and Namibia
in Madagascar, Mali and Morocco
it is heeeaard,
in Zimbabwe, and indeed in mother Zambia”
Their sound blasted through the atmosphere, reaffirming and retracing their African identity. Their attire was as colorful as the textures of the edges of the continent. Their faces contorted here, smiling there, unleashing the passion and promise of these current and future leaders. These students were here to sing in spoken word form, “I am a youth. I am African and I am from Africa!”
This oratory was a highlight for me as we gathered under the auspices of the International Association for the Study of Youth Ministry’s Africa Regional Conference from the 6th – 8th of September, 2018 at the Justo Mwale University (which I came to learn, was an instrumental meeting space for the ending of apartheid in South Africa) in Lusaka Zambia. This gathering of scholars and practitioners in youth work left me with a warm heart and a broadened smile, that there are people deeply committed to the young people of Africa’s continent.
A two and half hour flight (which was delayed for 3 hours by KQ – so much for African development 🙂 ) got me to the warm country further South. The drive in the taxi from the Lusaka International Airport was scenic, with the acacias towering over the lush green grass, typical of the Savannah that defines much of the continent. The Chinese have also penetrated this peaceable nation, with the stadium towering above the landscape and the stylish new airport waiting to be launched in December as a Southern African hub. In this modern day view of development, I couldn’t help reflect on the people of Africa. I met a Nigerian (of Hausa belonging) who informed me that their ethnic group traces its lineage to Mang’u in central Kenya – In fact this sub-group of the Nigerians call their roast meat “Nyam” which finds phonetic synonymity with Kenya’s famed “Nyama Choma”, a testament that the African boundaries are foreign. This was to be affirmed during the Sunday worship during the university’s chapel conducted by the Reformed Church of Zambia, when the women belted their voices in African praise and worship, myself partly singing along due to Chewa’s (one of Zambia’s local languages) similarity to Kiswahili, indicative of the Bantu umbrella that shelters a large part of Africa.
The conference combined plenary lectures and breakout sessions. Dr. Shantelle Weber (a researcher at the Stellenbosch’s Faculty of Theology) opened the conference with a reflection on navigating the tension of faith and culture in urban youth ministry. It set a helpful precedence on how youth in Africa can be genuinely Christian and genuinely African. The breakout sessions happened in the late afternoons. On the first day, I presented a paper on how relational apologetics can be a way of holistically forming the youth, in view of the over-emphasis on psychological or emotive aspects that ignore the intellect in faith formation. The feedback from Stellenbosch’s Theology Faculty Dean, Prof. Reggie, was helpful in pointing me to how faith formation could be a tool for young people to engage in public theology – that is, a theological framework that can equip the next generation to engage public issues. The other keynotes by Rev. Nene Muthuri, a Methodist and Kenyan minister, on Friday, challenged the silence on the taboo topic of sexuality in African churches and Dr. Garth Aziz (of UNISA) on Saturday explored identity discovery. I found Nene’s presentation stimulating in that in Dr. Helen Blier’s words “we need to capture the imagination” of young people as a way to view sexuality holistically. It was a pertinent conversation given the fact that sexuality, which at the end of the day is a question of what it means to be human, is quite the Avante Garde in the 21st Century. Aziz helped me to see that God is already at work with all of us generally, and youth in particular, and the core question of identity is not one of formation or finding, but that of discovery.
The two other breakouts that I attended on Friday and Saturday were by Rev. Godfrey Walalaze (a Lutheran pastor in Tanzania) and Pastor Ebenezer Hagan (a youuth pastor in Nigeria). Walalaze looked at how immigration of young people challenges the mission of God. As was clear throughout the conference, it was the informal conversations that broke the glass ceiling of the formal talks. After his presentation, for instance, we began to critique the whole idea of Africa’s brain drain, when we noted that the church has the mandate to transform systemtic structures (socio-economic, justice, equity) that can create a safe haven for young people to build their own continent. Hagan looked at how some indigenous cultural expressions (in Ghana, appellations and awensem) can be embedded in African youth ministry. It was a fantastic reflection that left me questioning my own ideas and ethos of the youth ministry that God has called me to be a part of in Nairobi. The other presentations looked at how young people can participate in liturgy given race issues in America (Dr. Helen Blier), youth radicalization in Africa (Rev. David Ewagata and Dr. Nathan Chiroma), a Christian understanding of initiation rites in the DRC Congo, youth media and agency (Prof. Anita Cloete), youth racial identities in South Africa (Wimpie Wasserman), sexual work in Tanzania (Dr. Emanuel Buganda) among many others.
We spent Saturday afternoon visiting the Kalimba reptile park, a 40-minute drive from the heart of the city. Sunday morning was the summit with a truly African worship service and reflections on the Christian epicentre – Love! Love is the only debt that cannot be paid and it is the true wealth that can transform this continent and world. The hymns and choruses, interspersed with English and Chewa, drew the richness of the Christian faith as truly a diverse gathering of all nations. It was a witness to the true diversity that finds its true meaning and unity in Christ. Our last hour was spent in the city’s version of “Maasai market” where we had a chance to “produce evidence” that we had truly visited this African city.
Even here, I hear a sound.
I hear a sound,
of a generation bound,
by Christ’s love that confounds;
I hear a people,
singing a song,
in heaven’s great throng;
I see young people,
dancing all around,
their identity truly found;
I hear a sound,
of a generation bound,
by Christ’s love that confounds.