Case study from Nigeria: You must purify this house!

"As most of you know, Dana and I have been working with the Fulani for more than three years," Ian said, "and we have not yet had any converts."

He and Dana were speaking at a session of the "Joint Christian Ministries of West Africa," an organization composed of missionaries working with the Fulani. The Fulani, a nomadic tribal people numbering about fourteen million, are scattered through eighteen to twenty African countries stretching from Senegal to Sudan and Ethiopia.

"A month ago, we returned from home assignment," Dana continued, "and we discovered a large nest of bees inside the wall of our house. I went outside and found the hole where they were entering and leaving. After spraying and killing most of them, Ian removed some siding and discovered their nest. Killing the bees was relatively easy. Explaining what we had done to our Fulani neighbors was far more difficult. They are extremely upset and have insisted that our house be ceremonially purified. We do not know what to do."

Ian and Dana Heath, British Wesleyan Methodist missionaries, had been in Nigeria for more than four years. Ian first taught agricultural science in a secondary school established by the Methodists. His first contact with a Fulani was initiated when two of his students spoke of the need to inoculate Fulani cattle against intestinal parasites. The students introduced Ian to Yohanna Abdu, a Fulani herdsman. The students, after several extended conversations with the herdsman, were able to persuade him to allow Ian to treat his cows. The cows did well, but Abdu did not become a Christian. He did, however, serve as the Heaths' entry point into a wide network of Fulani families. By the end of Ian's second year of teaching, he and Dana decided to devote more of their time to working with these intriguing people.

They began by studying the Fulani language, Fulfulde. They moved into a small bungalow located close to two Fulani villages and began the process of enculturation. This, they believed, was the first step toward any effective evangelization.

The Fulani, Ian and Dana learned, were among the most resistant people in Nigeria to Christianity. Their Fulani ancestors became Muslims in the fourteenth century when Arab traders introduced the teachings of the Prophet. Today, virtually all Fulani are followers of Islam. Islam has indisputably become a part of the Fulani culture, and to cease being Muslim was equivalent to being no longer Fulani. Thus, it was unclear to Ian and Dana whether the staunch Fulani resistance to Christianity was primarily theological or cultural.

About a year before leaving for a time of home assignment, Ian and Dana attended for the first time a meeting of the "Joint Christian Ministries in West Africa," an ecumenical biannual assembly that brings together missionaries from nearly fifty different groups — Protestant and Catholic — who are doing or attempting to do Christian ministries among the Fulani. In this meeting, the Heaths heard a formal presentation on the history of Christian missions to the Fulani. The speaker said, for example, that the first Christian effort to evangelize the Fulani began decades ago, and though a few isolated individuals showed interest and some began to identify themselves as Christians, hardly any were baptized. One man who was baptized had died less than a month later, poisoned, it was believed, by his own family. The threat of being disowned by one's family, of losing one's cattle, of suffering complete social alienation from one's tribe, and possibly even of death was too heavy a price to pay for most potential converts. The Heaths' optimism was greatly tempered that day as they were confronted with the reality of what they had set out to accomplish.

They decided they should work to gain their Fulani neighbors' confidence, help them in whatever ways they could, and try to develop genuine friendships with them before attempting to present the Christian message. The year they spent on home assignment in England studying at Selly Oak College convinced them of the rightness of this approach. The incident with the bees, however, seemed to put in jeopardy any progress they thought they had made with the Fulani before leaving for England.

Less than a month after they returned to Nigeria, Ian and Dana drove to Jos to attend the meeting of "Joint Christian Ministries in West Africa." Ron Martin, the program chair, asked Dana and Ian after they arrived if they would speak to a plenary session about their experiences before and during their home assignment time. The Heaths decided they should relate what had happened to them since moving into the Fulani area, a few things about their year at Selly Oak, and conclude by describing their experience with the bees.

Those in attendance included nearly fifty missionaries and a small number of Fulani Christians. Ian spoke briefly about how they came in contact with Yohanna Abdu and why they decided to move closer to the Fulani, stressing his and Dana's belief that, before attempting any evangelization, they needed to go through a process of enculturation. "This conviction about needing to immerse ourselves in the Fulani culture," Ian said, "was strengthened by our experience and by our year of study. Since returning to Nigeria, however, we have encountered a problem for which we need your advice and help."

"We had been back from home assignment only two days," Dana continued, "when I heard what sounded like a low humming noise in the wall of our little house. I suspected it to be a swarm of termites that had taken up residence while we were away. Outside, I found a hole in the wall where insects were entering and leaving. But they were not termites; they were bees.

"We had brought with us from England some cans of insect spray. I placed the nozzle of one can over the hole, held the button down for five or ten seconds, and backed away. Bees began to crawl out, dying as they came. I sprayed a second time. More bees came out and died."

Dana noted the faces of the Fulani who were listening to her and continued the story. "We could still hear some buzzing in the wall, so Ian thought we should take off some siding. He got a claw hammer and gingerly pulled off a piece of siding. Though there were still some bees in the nest, it was obvious they were dying. We sprayed some more and killed the remaining bees. To our delight, we found a large comb filled with honey. We carefully removed it, laying it on the ground a couple of meters from where most of the bees had fallen.

"I swept the dead bees into a pile — there were hundreds of them — picked up the honeycomb, put it in a large pan, and set it on a stool near the front door."

"A short time later, I heard a greeting from one of our neighbors. When I went to the door, I saw the neighbor and two other Fulani men squatting several meters from the house. I responded to their greeting and invited them to come in. They approached the front of the house, all the while eyeing the pan and the honeycomb. Saidu spoke, `Ah, what a large honeycomb. What do you plan to do with it? Where did you find it?'

"By this time, Ian had come out, and he explained to them how we had found the hive in the wall, and how we had sprayed, killing the bees, and then taken out the honeycomb. He led them around to the side of the house and showed them the pile of dead bees.

" 'Oh, you have made a great mistake,' Hassan exclaimed. At first, we assumed he was saying that by using the spray, we had contaminated the honeycomb. We soon realized this was not the problem. Our mistake, he made clear, had been in killing the bees that he connected with their cows and with God as Creator.

"While the discussion was enlightening for us, it was also very troubling. We realized that to our neighbors, bees are a blessing. In fact what they said was, 'The bees came from God.' It was not a fear that the honey had been contaminated and that we had thereby destroyed food. In their eyes, we had destroyed, though unwittingly, something God had sent.

"Shaking their heads, they left. We were upset but did not know what to say or do. In our ignorance, we had committed what Hassan and his friends considered a grievous thing."

Ian continued the story. "Before dusk that afternoon, several Fulani elders came to visit us. They asked us to tell them what had happened. In the course of the conversation, one of them suddenly demanded that we pay them for having killed the bees. We did not respond, but then another elder ominously said, 'You will pay, but not in money!'

"Then the oldest one spoke a bit more solicitously, `This house must now be purified. I will send some women who will come at dawn with gourds of milk to begin the purification ceremony. After that, a shaman can come and complete the rite.'

"Our initial reaction was to try to explain our point of view, to tell them again that we meant no harm. The truth is we were afraid of the bees and did not know we were doing something wrong.

"I really wanted to say," Ian concluded, "that as long as we had spray cans, we didn't need a shaman. However, we did not want to make matters worse. Nevertheless, we want them to know that if our actions had offended the living God, then we should be praying to that God for forgiveness because the true and living God does hear our prayers. I searched for a way to say that I did not believe that a Fulani purification rite was needed."

At that point in telling his story, Dana asked the senior missionaries, "What should we have done? What would you have done?"

Study questions

  1. Who are the Fulani, and how do they differ from other West African tribal groups?
  2. What is the Joint Christian Ministries of West Africa (JCMWA), and why is it significant in this case?
  3. Do you see a clash of cultures in this case? In what ways would you explain this conflict to a European or a North American?
  4. Why were the Fulani neighbors upset about what the missionaries had done? In what ways did they express their anxiety?
  5. How should the missionaries respond to what the Fulani elders proposed?

Suggested biblical texts for reflection

  1. 1 Kings 18:20-40. Elijah and the prophets of Baal.
  2. Matthew 12:43-45. The return of an evil spirit.
  3. Mark 5:1-20. Jesus and the man with the evil spirits.
  4. Mark 9:14-29. Jesus heals a boy with an evil spirit.
  5. Acts 19:11-20. The Apostle Paul and the evil spirits.

This appeared originally in Christian Mission: A Case Study Approach by Alan Neely, Orbis Books. Edited and used under the educational "fair use" provision of the U.S. copyright acts.

    -- Howard Culbertson,

Background material

The Fulani, also known as the Fula or Fulbe, are a prominent ethnic group scattered across West and Central Africa, with significant populations in Nigeria, Senegal, Guinea, Mali, and Cameroon. Primarily a pastoralist people, the Fulani are renowned for their expertise in cattle herding and are often associated with their distinctive nomadic lifestyle. Despite their widespread distribution, the Fulani maintain a strong sense of cultural identity characterized by their language, Fulfulde. Historically, they have played significant roles in trade networks and political structures, contributing to the cultural tapestry and diversity of the regions they inhabit. Today, while many Fulani continue their traditional ways of life, others have integrated into urban centers, engaging in various professions beyond agriculture and animal husbandry.

More tribal beliefs case studies for you

Recommended links