Nico de Bekker W.F.
A rather large church had been
built at Ukirigulu, in Bukumbi Parish, Mwanza Archdiocese in Tanzania. It
was ready for the blessing by His Grace the Archbishop Anthony Mayala on 17th.
December, 1993. It was a festive occasion, of course, but I was not so happy
because the walls were still only plastered with cement and looked a drab
grey. At about the same time a priest-friend of mine in the Netherlands asked
me if I had a project for which he could find funds. I asked him to help me
out for painting the walls with some Biblical scenes. I had already seen murals
in a church of the neighbouring parish, Nyakato, done by an African artist.
He had received some training from Danish people, who are regular visitors
to Bujora parish, where they study and promote the local traditions of the
Sukuma people, one of the largest tribes in West Tanzania. Charles Ndege,
a young promising African artist, followed another session with these Danish
people before he started in Ukirigulu church. He was asked to paint a Christ
of the faith, not a historical Christ as such, who belongs to all people and
is not like the European Christ of the pictures former missionaries had brought
The results were marvellous,
Christ and His apostles were painted in the same colour as the people who fill
the church every Sunday. My Bukumbi Parish Priest initially did not think much
of having the church decorated. But, long before the artist had finished painting
the Last Supper, he enthusiastically took the painting as an example of his
preaching on inculturation which the Archbishop had just started to emphasise.
It gives an idea how Christianity should be lived in an African environment.
Christ is there among His people of that village. The head of the person at
Christ's right hand is that of the local Catechist and the man with a necktie
is the chairman of the local Parish Council.
The words Incarnation
and Inculturation may overlap one another but they
are not identical. In Swahili, the common language for all tribes in Tanzania,
they have a word for each idea. The wonderful results became still clearer when
Charles Ndege created Jesus on His visit to Mary and Martha. You see an African
rural house in which Mary Magdalene and Martha shelter from the sun and rain
and pass the night. Behind Mary you see a child, a shy allusion to Mary's former
life or a child of relatives that helps them out by running small errands. Martha
is kneeling before Jesus, as it is the African custom when making a request.
In these murals the artist is at his best. He succeeded with his idea that Christ
is the Redeemer of people of all times.
The people were very
happy about the murals. Many of them, especially women, are still illiterate,
and like the paintings and statues in the Middle Ages they are a sure way of
teaching: Biblia pauperum, the Bible of the poor. Even those who know the 'three
Rs' were attracted. They told me that they paid more attention to what was painted
than to what was happening at the altar. To my delight they looked more at those
pictures than they listened to what was explained in sermons. An added bonus
was that with all those paintings the building was more attractive.
In his free time the
artist took to following his fantasy, and characteristically he presented me
with a drawing of a Dance of the Witches. As an African
priest once told me, the belief in witches and spirits is still one of the major
obstacles for the Christian belief to take root. And so it was natural for him
to return to this subject for making something to his own liking. Charles is
a real artist who works when inspiration works. Often he worked at night when
noone was around to disturb him with noise or a conversation. And creative work
is really tiresome.
Despite the positive
side we should not think that all people are in favour of incarnation
and inculturation. In Bukumbi parish church there
is a statue of Our Lady carrying the Child Jesus on her back, as all African
women do. Already in 1964 the then Parish Priest of Bukumbi requested a local
man with artistic gifts to carve that statue. Although this man had no formal
artistic education he managed to carve an impressive statue from a heavy log
of wood. Without any polishing or varnish it was placed in the church. Many
people did not like it in front next to the sanctuary. So another Parish Priest
put it in the back of the church and a plastic statue of Our Lady, really kitsch,
was put in front for people to satisfy their veneration. My Parish Priest gave
the Our Lady of the Inculturation some colours and
we put it in front again. Some time later, when the church wall needed repainting,
the statue was temporarily removed. We saw to our astonishment that the kitsch
statue was again put at the front and the statue of the inculturation was relegated
to the back of the church. Without having any discussion about it somebody,
we don't know who, took action against what we Europeans thought to be the right
thing to do. It means that inculturation and incarnation
of the faith in Africa takes more than nine months.
There can be added something more
about the pictures themselves. For example you see that the Last Supper is
not eaten in a room or big hall. The meal is taken outside and the participants
are sheltered behind a reed fence. Unwanted onlookers cannot see what is going
on. The resurrection scene is a mixture of colours indicating the dawn and
glorious happening. The mural of the Let the Children
Come to Me is very lively. Look at the child still rushing on. It is
all creative work for which the artist had to use his own imagination after
reading the Bible. Everywhere Charles Ndege painted the murals in the African
first appeared in "White Fathers - White Sisters" (UK), issue 348, of October-November,
It may be published freely with due acknowledgements to the "White Fathers
- White Sisters" magazine.
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