Picture this. You're standing in one of the most remote corners of Tanzania, East Africa, in a place called O'lerumo. Around you are a few bomas (collections of huts) - you're in a Maasai village comprising maybe 200 people, living more or less in a dozen family groupings. There are no cars here. There are no wells here. There is no electricity here. There is no one here with more than a high school education, and even those who have finished elementary school are in the slim minority. You're standing in a circle of a dozen people under a thorn tree, praying, and you're feeling like for the first time you really understand just how nearby God is. Then a cellphone rings and a dozen Maasai reach into their shukas and pull out their phones - some of them have three - and someone apologizes and takes the call. It's in that moment you're reminded that the difference between here and there is not as big as it used to be.
Which Side Are You On?
Media is taking Africa by storm. There's an invasion of MTV, Hollywood and Bollywood taking place right now and it's of incredible proportions. It used to be that the street vendors in Arusha, Tanzania were hawking tourist curios and fruit. They still are, but for every one selling a carving or a mango there are three selling ripped dvds and three others selling cellphone cases and holsters. It's eye opening. People living on $70 a month now feel compelled to buy a dvd player and TV (if they can get access to electricity) so they can watch b-rated Kung Fu movies in Korean. To say the least, it was culture shock for me, coming back after ten years away.
In those first few weeks back, one of my most important experiences was at a local church where we went for a Sunday morning service. I felt right at home again, singing, praying; it was all just as I remembered it. Then it hit me. It was all just as I remembered it, but only inside those walls. Outside there were five cellphone companies trying to get me to sign up, and I was thinking about which internet provider could get me a better wireless signal and some dude in a rasta hat was trying to sell me a dvd with every movie Leonardo di Caprio has ever been in. Inside, it was as though nothing had changed. I knew all the words to every song. Looking around I noticed something else: there were no youth inside.
Discipling Cultures Through Media
Missions in Africa has a long history, and a lot of good has been done. The missionary endeavor in Africa dating back to pioneers like Livingstone has been wildly successful. Now, we're at a turning point. We can keep doing what we've been doing and see the law of diminishing returns at work, or we can embrace the new season I believe is upon us where the role of the outsider becomes less directive and more supportive in order to allow and even encourage the Church in Africa to come of age. Many of the same tasks remain and the need for outside expertise is as great now as it has ever been (we were created not for independence but for relationship and mutual support), but the implementation must change and adapt to today's needs, realities, and opportunities.
Let me introduce myself. I'm Jeremy Feser (say it Fay-Zer), married for ten years, father of three and Director of Operations at Pamoja Ministries in Tanzania, East Africa. My wife, Christine, and I are here because we believe that the next wave of change in Africa will come because of media and we believe that the Church is obliged to play a part in that. We are using media as a lever to influence a wide audience for the cause of Christ. That's our vision statement at Pamoja – discipling cultures using media.
Right now Pamoja Ministries is in post-production of a film called Nipe Jibu. “Nipe Jibu” means “Answer Me” in Swahili, and the film is a musical, a love story, and it's going to change lives. We're harnessing the strengths of East Africa - storytelling, which is a powerful cultural teaching tool, dance, which is so very much a part of the expression of identity here, and music, for which Africa has always been known. We're coupling that with all the strength of video to paint a pageant which causes the viewer to ask questions - questions about things that are ingrained in their worldview, but which we believe are a stumbling block to Godly living. Specifically, in this film, we are tackling the debilitating fear of the spirits of the ancestors that chains people in East Africa to continuing to do things the way they've always been done even in the face of immense crises (AIDS, political instability, famine and desertification – you know the list). Just a few short years ago it would have been almost impossible to conceive of doing a project like this, but with the decreasing cost of equipment and the increase in international travel within Africa, it's now a reality. We were able to pull together a cast of 200 from 9 African nations, plus volunteers from 5 other nations, and filming was completed in 2 months. The trailer for the movie can be found at www.nipejibu.com
Be the Voice
That Sunday as I sat in a church with no youth in a country where more than 75% of the population is under 20, I realized some cold hard facts, and in the weeks and months since, as I've begun to re-learn a culture I grew up in, I've come to realize that God was speaking to me at that service. The Church has an opportunity now to do something timely. Transformational. We have the chance to use technology and to be the voice. We'll not match Hollywood's production budgets and we'll not keep up with the sheer quantity of movies coming from Bollywood, but what we can do is change the game. Swahili is spoken by 100 million people, and no one else to my knowledge is yet making high quality media in Swahili coming from an African viewpoint. We cannot do it from the outside. But we are able to facilitate the process. We're able to shape the message and harness the creative ability of East Africa, and we're able to put the church in the lead in matters of home-grown Africa-class (if not World-class) media. All it takes is partnership. “Pamoja” means “Together”.
Creator of All You Can Imagine
In February, Pamoja Ministries released a beautiful photo book called En-kata, A Time for Singing. The En-kata project is the result of a partnership with an indigenous Maasai organization. This particular Maasai group is having more of an effect on their tribe than any outsider could. They have fully integrated faith with social change and development and are preaching the Gospel loud and clear. They don't need a traditional missionary. They don't need outside theories on what should be done. What they need are partnerships to enable them to do what God has raised them up to do. They need training in areas like financial accounting. They need connections to specialists (in water, agriculture, education, and media) and to information. They need funding. We are partnering with them on the photo book project to tell their story to the West and by selling that book we will fund a school that they themselves have decided to build. You can read more about it at www.en-kata.com
I learned the words of Isaiah 40:28 as a child. God is “the Creator of the ends of the earth” (NIV). I relearned those words recently; Eugene Petersen's paraphrase captured something timely in describing the size of God's creativity. “He's Creator of all you can see or imagine” (The Message). It's beautiful. It reminds me of Johann Kepler (1571-1630), one of the great scientists my dad loves to talk about, who having dedicated much of his life to the study of the motion of the stars and having discovered the elliptical orbit of the planets is quoted as saying, “I was merely thinking God's thoughts after him.” Truly, He is the Creator of all we can see, as Kepler and countless other scientists have discovered, and He is also the Creator of all we can imagine, as so many artists and creatives can testify.
Entering the Creative Space
Remembering that He created all we can see, we should be motivated to think big thoughts. Let's imagine ways of changing how discipleship is done by using media. Let's train church leaders without them having to leave their families and communities for years. Let's focus on the most neglected demographic out there – the children – and bring them hope and a future by using animated heroes and by planting Christian teachers where secular ones won't go (Maasailand might be a good place to start) and give them access to resources that are the very best available. Let's think one of God's thoughts about the education systems of the third world and apply some of the best of the West's media savvy to the desperate needs for training in the developing world. Let's use the strengths (relational) of Africa and couple them with the strengths (technical) of the West and create products that will shine a new light on our Great God and reveal his incredible appeal in both the West and the East! Pamoja is tackling some parts of that, but you may have a part to play as well.
We can do this because we are the Church – that beautiful bride of Christ – destined to spend all eternity imagining and seeing, continuing to discover the unfolding beauty of thinking God's thoughts after him. We need to be on the lookout, with pure motives, and when we see an opportunity, we need to be ready to jump on it. Right now there is an opportunity of unmatched proportion for the Church to assert itself in the creative space in East Africa. Attempts that at times appear to be small, timid steps, are already making waves, and the time is right for us to begin to walk at a faster pace – our steps less timid – thinking the thoughts of God and presenting them to cultures, nations, and peoples, in a way that brings life, liberty, and love.
That's what missions is about.
This article, with very minor differences, was originally published in the August/September issue of Collide Magazine - check them out!