World missions case study: African ancestral feast

Should Christians in Africa accept invitations to festivals venerating the ancestors?

A case study to hone critical thinking and ethical decision-making in cross-cultural situations

"I don't know how to answer your question, Moses," the young missionary began. "I am certain, however, that there are times when we have to make a choice between (1) being faithful to Christ and (2) participating in something that has a long tradition in our culture."

"That's right, Alan," Moses replied, "but you must realize that the way Christianity was introduced here destroyed much of our culture, blotting out any sense of destiny for us. Along with Christianity, we accepted many European ways, and now we see those ways failing. At times, we have a sense of we have being left with nothing. Isn't there a way to regain at least some of what we left behind?"

The two friends were relaxing under a tree near a beach-front house along the West African coastline. Moses, a forty-five-year-old Ghanian, was a language instructor in the capital city. Alan was a young missionary from the U.S. who had studied with Moses for the past year. The two had become friends.

To support his wife and three children, Moses also worked for an insurance company. Years earlier, he had married a second wife who remained in her village. However, after a few years, Moses began feeling that the second marriage transgressed his Christian commitment. So, he found a way to release the second wife from her vows.

Moses had suggested that Alan accompany him and his family to his home village to observe a traditional festival honoring the ancestral spirits. Moses thought it would give the new missionary additional insight into local culture. After Alan agreed to go, a problem arose. Moses' wife, Grace, refused to attend. A committed Christian, Grace felt strongly that participating in the libation to the ancestors and what she called the "lesser deities" would be an idolatrous sin.

When Alan heard about Grace's opposition, he debated with himself for several days about whether he should go. Finally, however, he decided to go ahead and go. He had studied enough anthropology to know that he would not attach the same meaning to the festival that the local participants would. Moreover, this festival likely would present him with opportunities to photograph a traditional African cultural celebration.

The day of the festival arrived. Although Grace did not go, Moses did bring his children along. It was an hour's drive to Akwataman, where they immediately went to greet the chief. After introductory formalities, the chief sat back on his carved wooden stool and inquired as to the purpose of their visit. Alan said he had come to observe the festival of the ancestors and to learn about the culture. Looking pleased, the chief began to talk about his cultural heritage:

"Akwataman is named after Nii Akwata, my ancestor, who founded this village. Before my ancestors settled here, Nii Akwata was a war captain whose people lived way over in that direction near the mountains.

"A drought came. It was so severe the people needed to move to survive. My ancestor Nii started looking for water holes. Finally, he found this river which still had some water in it. Nii moved the village here. Because of that and his successes as a war captain, they named the village after him. Today, it is in honor of him and the subsequent residents of our village that we celebrate this festival."

After a long conversation between the three men, the village elders began preparing the ancestral feast. They brought out a bottle of gin that would be used to pour out a libation to the spirits of the ancestors. In a large pottery bowl, they mixed handfuls of yellow corn dough with palm nut and fish. The chief then began to dance to the beat of the village drummers, swaying and announcing that the festival had begun. The villagers gathered behind him as he poured gin on the ground and called out for the spirits to join the procession.

At this point, Alan became a little uneasy, wondering how closely he should be involved. But the desire to photograph the chief's pouring of the gin on the ground distracted him, and he wound up following along.

At the first group of houses, the chief grabbed a handful of sourdough, dipped it into the soup, and threw it against a wall, calling to the ancestral spirits in that building to come out. He splattered the yellow mixture freely on the outsides of homes and tossed handfuls into rooms where he recalled that people had died. Then he ran off down the trail to the next set of houses. Moses and Alan followed the villagers as they danced from house to house. The villagers sang, drummed, and danced along behind the chief, who proudly splattered the mixture on each home. One of the villagers who spoke English explained to Alan that this was a harvest meal and that throwing food showed they could scoff at hunger because their crop harvests had been so abundant.

The chief offered food at all of the houses in the village to show the unity of the community in the shared meal. Then he led the parade back to his own house, where he again began dancing and swaying under a sacred tree.

Suddenly, as if provoked by someone, the chief stopped and fixed his eyes on Daniel, Moses' oldest son. Daniel had been sitting with disinterest on a nearby porch. "You brood of vipers!" the chief said, addressing the young man, "Why do you live in the cities and never return to your home to honor the ancestors? You attend mission schools and start saying you are a Christian. You think you are too good for your own culture. What a wicked generation!"

Daniel looked noticeably hurt by the chief's outburst. Later, after the dancing had stopped, the young missionary asked the chief if he was against Christianity.

The chief responded:

"The pagans are better at telling the truth than the Christians because the Christians don't have the fear of God. Their God doesn't take action quickly enough to judge them when they lie. Our local gods are quick to show us their power, so when we swear by them, we are careful to tell the truth.

"You know that some of us in this village were trained in Christian schools, and I no longer use the magic of my ancestors. I have never put black powder under my skin. I have never buried a live goat or cat in the house to gain spiritual power. In the old days, even humans were buried in the house of the chief. But I have seen Christians reject their old ways and refuse to honor their ancestors.
"All that you have seen us do, we do in order to keep our tradition. If we lose our traditions, we have lost everything. The rituals you have seen are not anti-Christian paganism. They are our tradition, or what you call our culture."

As they sat talking, the chief asked Alan if he would join him in a toast to the ancestors as a testimony to those they were honoring. Alan's stomach churned with tension as he thought about whether he should drink the toast. He glanced at Moses seated nearby. His mind was churning with questions:

The glass was passed from hand to hand toward Alan. He began to sweat. What should he do?

This case study is a revised version of one by Greg Roth that appeared in Case Studies in Missions, Baker Book House. This case study may be reproduced only upon payment of a 35-cent royalty per copy to Baker Book House, P.O. Box 6787, Grand Rapids, MI 49516 USA

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Case studies are designed to be used in classroom settings. A good case study is an open-ended story in which the narrative stops before the resolution of a problem. It thus forces students to visualize themselves in that situation, making them come up with a "what's the next step?" answer.

If the stories had endings, students could discuss what happened and why but it would be much more difficult to get them into the role-playing they must now do to try to respond.

Harvard Business Scohol pioneered the use of case studies as a teaching tool. Case studies work great for world missions classes, though the lack of endings may make them frustrating reading for some website readers.

    -- Howard Culbertson,

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