Village News

African Connections – Part One

  • Gary Dyck, Blog Coordinator
  • Executive Director, MHV

A travelogue series on Mennonite places

ED note: I’ve asked Charity Schellenberg who grew up in the Congo and still lives there most of the time what should people know about Mennonites in Africa and why should someone visit these parts of Africa?

In southwestern Congo where I was born the sandy, palm-lined avenues of Kamayala frame the rural home of the majority of my childhood. The Chokwe-Lunda people adopted my Mennonite missionary parents, Ben and Helen Eidse and baby-in-arms, Hope, when they arrived from far-off Manitoba in the early 1950’s. In the course of time three more girls were born into the family. These artistic, joyful, hearty-living folk have fully embraced us. My value and belonging were molded among them, their acceptance, their celebration of life, work and worship, and enduring love. Africa holds many of my heroes and closest friends.

My parents were drawn by the characterization of an open people in southwestern Congo eager for the Good News of Christ. The Evangelical Mennonite Conference formed a Board of Missions to send them out. The Eidses immersed themselves in the indigenous context, insisting that decisions be made by local community consensus to establish “a truly autonomous African Church.” Eidse emphasized that we need to “see the people with whom we work as a common humanity” who use “many more of their indigenous forms of art, drama, music, proverbs and oral traditions.” By the end of Ben and Helen’s 30 years in Congo 100 Mennonite churches had been organized. Ben, along with two pastors, Mwataswana and Mutunda, had translated the whole Bible into Chokwe, and Helen had built up medical services for the vast region. Those initial Mennonite churches have multiplied in the ensuing years and have reached out in holistic ways to impact the regions around.

These Mennonites recognize that “we are also descendants of the Anabaptist radical reformers”. The interpretation of a biblical theology, communal sharing, peace witness and example of a living faith forged in adversity, poverty and persecution speaks to this deep identification with the 16th century reformers. To visit these Mennonites now, you will find they continue to cherish their global and historical connection, while expressing their faith enthusiastically in their own culture.

In the 1980’s my husband, John, and I and our children moved from Canada to Burkina Faso, West Africa. Being committed to a contextual sharing of the Gospel, we searched out where we could settle with our family. We contacted numerous villages and met with the elders, explaining, “Generations ago our ancestors received a message from God that they passed down to us. Now our elders have sent us to share it with those who want to hear it. However, we are like children who have to first learn your ways, to speak your language, to know your stories and taboos, to eat what you eat.”

In the village of Kartasso the elders replied, “In our culture, it is the women who raise the children. We cannot make that decision without them.” So they called the women in from the fields. When the women arrived three hours later they palavered about our strange request.