Incarnation - Inculturation

By 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 with them.

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 setting.

This article first appeared in "White Fathers - White Sisters" (UK), issue 348, of October-November, 1999.
It may be published freely with due acknowledgements to the "White Fathers - White Sisters" magazine.

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