Cultures et foi - Cultures and Faith - Culturas y fe - 2/1996 - Plenaria 1997
The Holy See
back up


Faith and Cultures in Ethiopia

A Symposium - February 5th to 9th 1996


Dietmar LENFERS, M. Afr.
Adigrat Seminary

A Polish satirist coined a witty word that may serve as warning and guide-line for our approach to the subject: "Liberty, equality, fraternity! And how do we get to the verbs?" Evangelization and inculturation are abstract nouns - and how do we get to the verbs?

Evangelization of a culture

What exactly are we talking about when we say that cultures need to be evangelized? What is a culture, and what would make it Christian?

For the social anthropologist, the term culture denotes the entire range of the recurring patterns of behaviour that characterize the life of a community: the way they build houses, settle quarrels, celebrate feasts, educate their children, earn their living, spend their leisure, fashion utensils, organize politics, face death, evaluate whatever comes across their path. Many aspects of culture cannot really make sense with the adjective "Christian" - what are Christian houses or Christian musical instruments? - while others can and should be an expression of Christian faith. So I find the social anthropologist's description not very helpful for our subject. It fails to offer the dividing-line between those areas where the Kambata and the Irobs both have it their own way and where, if they are Christian people, one ought to perceive at least some convergence owing to their shared Christian faith. Hence we need to turn away from "the entire range of the recurring patterns of behaviour" and look for another description of culture.

"A culture is a set of meanings and values informing a common way of life, and there are as many cultures as there are distinct sets of such meanings and values" (Bernard Lonergan, Method in Theology, New York, Herder and Herder, 1973, p. 301). Cultures that are Christian or are becoming evangelized can therefore be expected to converge towards shared meanings and values. And when we look for the verbs, we are already one step further. For now we can ask: which are the indispensable meanings and values of a Christian life, and how close or alien are they to the meanings and values found in any particular region of Ethiopia?

The faith has entered a given culture when Christian values and meanings cease to be experienced as alien or incongruous, but have been integrated into the overall set of meanings and values with which that community orders its day-to-day life.

The logic of the Cross will always remain "a stumbling-block to the Jews and folly to the Greeks" (1 Cor 1,23), hence always something alien and incongruous; so the conversion of a culture will always remain a lasting challenge. Secondly, the comparison of Gospel values with the meanings and values of a given way of life is not an easy, clear-cut affair. Thirdly, and this is of particular significance for Ethiopia today, we must reckon with an on-going process of change even with regard to these meanings and values. Evangelization has always to begin with readiness to reflect critically on the aims and methods of our pastoral work: the policy of just ploughing on in the same way as ever seems to lack the required sensitivity for the cultural situation in which we find ourselves.

Now faith is a gift of God, and culture is the product of human beings. The meanings and values set before us by Christian faith are marked by a peculiar solidity; those which human communities produce, however, are brittle, always endangered by new situations and events that exceed their horizon. Any culture will be opposed to Christian conversion because of its natural endeavour to protect its own fundamental principles in a ruthless effort at self-defence: "Human culture is, on the one hand, a gigantic (and spectacularly successful) on-going effort to give meaning to human life; on the other hand, it is an obstinate (and somewhat less successful) effort to suppress the awareness of the irreparably surrogate, and brittle character of such meaning" (Z. Bauman, Mortality, Immortality and Other Life Strategies, London, Polity Press, 1992, p. 8).

One of the bishops at the African synod tried to sum up the problem of Africa in the familiar proverb "Blood is thicker than water". To what extent does this apply to Ethiopia? Is it true that the focus of sense and meaning lies in blood relationships? Those of my family, my kind, my people are the centre of my concerns, practically to the exclusion of all "strangers and outsiders": one needs to think only of the officer in charge who organizes the relief distribution starting with his own village; the man in authority whose entire staff happens to be recruited from among his people...; the endearing parish priest who year after year recommends all his nephews and great- and grandnephews to the Minor Seminary. In Government hotels customers are divided into Ethiopians and foreigners and charged different prices accordingly. Now the main point of such examples is to realise how quickly and spontaneously arguments come to mind that would approve and defend these cases. Or would our very first reaction be quite different, a kind of painful dissonance to the tune of the gospel from which we say we draw the guide-lines of our lives? Our immediate spontaneity is of great help in indicating our own cultural position, before any sophisticated reflection on what we ought to think and say and do puts us deliberately on to the Christian track.

Evangelizing a culture begins with the realisation that a way of life is in need of being brought into harmony with what Jesus Christ has laid before us as "the new way". Now his principle of concern for people does not look at blood relationships, but draws its inspiration from a totally different source. When travelling through Ethiopia, one of the most striking features are the enormous loads of things that people carry up and down the country. It is mainly the women who do the carrying when it comes to everyday articles, while the occasional heavy burdens fall to the men. Each society has arranged the distribution of necessary tasks: that marks its way of life. The point in question is whether a given arrangement has any claim of being in harmony with the policies of Jesus; in this case, whether the loads are fairly and justly distributed. Recently I attended the feast of a school. After the speeches, all the boys remained sitting on their benches while the girls went around serving tea and bread, courteously and with a charming smile. Nobody found it odd in any way: dishing out the food was, of course, the girls' job. Jesus recommended service as the honour of being first among his disciples, but where do we find any hint in the gospels that, naturally, the women should be ahead of the men? This easy example may stir us into a reflection whether our culture is in need of being evangelized.

Evangelizing Ethiopian cultures, how do we get to the verbs? The verbs are: meditating on the Gospel, reflecting on our way of life, and finding the courage to notice the difference, that is, overcoming the reflex of cultural self-defence. Then follow the practical steps: breaking out of the spontaneous arrangements of my native culture by my personal example, deciding with like-minded Christians on a common pastoral action in view of the crucial points we may discern, reviewing our teaching and preaching accordingly.

Inculturation of the Faith

Beyond considering the basic set of meanings and values of a culture, we ought to resume the perspective of the social anthropologist, looking at the entire range of recurring patterns of behaviour. Let us dream a little. How wonderful it would be if the process of building a house offered the occasion for a prayer and a blessing: "If the Lord does not build the house, in vain do its builders labour"; or if the social mechanism of settling quarrels included a reconciliation before God, the Father of mercy and forgiveness. All real feasts have a religious component - which is why purely political feast-days so easily fall flat - and these religious elements often predate Christianity. What a lovely dream it would be to see them all fully penetrated with echoes of Jesus' word and example; or if education was inspired by the belief that children are indeed God's children; if the toil of earning one's livelihood could be appreciated as more than just the inevitable scramble for daily food and money, rather as a service to the community, a partaking in creating our world; there could be moments and gestures to bring this spiritual dimension of work to expression and awareness; and why should leisure be merely fun and entertainment, often boringly shallow and morally dubious? How wonderful it would be if politics took into account people's destiny of everlasting communion with God, if politicians had some opportunity of giving a little more transparency to their guiding (Christian) convictions. Funerals could go beyond grief over loss of a loved one among us, to profess some hope that the departed has joined the Risen Lord in glory. But where do we find this Christian hope visibly and audibly expressed? If such lovely dreams had already become the reality of Ethiopian life, we could happily forget the question concerning the inculturation of faith; but, still far from the goal, we must look for possible steps that might lead us a little nearer to this target we desire.

In the first place, I would suggest, we ought to do what we can to relativize existing rules and conventions, patterns and customs, to create space for inventiveness and creativity. For example, what obliges us, at a funeral, to put aside Christian hope and express only grief, loss and pain, faith "in the resurrection of the body and life everlasting" remaining quite invisible? Is it our lack of faith, or is it rather the fear that any untraditional ceremony, word or gesture would be resented by those attending? Are we simply caught in the existing pattern, or lacking in imagination, or have we never even noticed how contrary our funeral culture is to Saint Paul's advice about the dead: "Do not grieve about them, like the other people who have no hope. (They are)... to meet the Lord.... With such thoughts as these you should comfort one another" (1 Thess 4,13-18).

It is a beautiful custom that, at a festive meal, a prayer is spoken over the first wantcha of suwa (or menelik of tella), and again before the tehelo. But there always lurks the danger that customs become so ritualized that their meaning gets lost. Such gestures ought to be truly a sign of faith, from the heart; perhaps a little variety, a little personalisation of the ceremony, could help safeguard its role in the culture.

In many places the building of a house involves a celebration at the end or even at the start. Nothing against the beer that graces such an occasion, but there is also room for the workmen to introduce a gesture of thanksgiving, or an expression of their need for help. Look how many lorries carry a holy picture as their protection from the dangers of the road, where others may prefer to decorate their cruiser with a pin-up girl. Perhaps Christian workers need a little encouragement or some gentle hint to become inventive; but with support they will find their own way of bringing their faith into the daily realities of their job.

This kind of inculturation is in the first place a matter for the Christian people themselves; they need the freedom and encouragement to express their faith, and to do so imaginatively; the occasional hint by way of example can be useful. The more deeply, clearly and lively the teaching of the Gospel is put before them, the more the Spirit will produce the corresponding creativity in the people of God. Church leaders do not need to plan this sort of inculturation of faith; they may fully rely on their faithful to pick out the possibilities they recognise as their own, as most appropriate in their lives. And then the faith surfaces everywhere in the culture.

The Problem of Modernity

Cultural change in Ethiopia has two aspects: the mobility of people and modernity. Developments in European history have made possible and shaped the global modern culture, and Ethiopia is passing through a phase that echoes the Enlightenment: breakdown of traditions, a scientific approach to all problems, efficient re-organization of all areas of life, religious pluralism, literacy campaigns and education of the masses, rapid urbanisation, individualism and liberalism.... Much of this is gnawing at traditional cultural values. And the Church in many ways stands helpless in the face of these social facts, just as she did in Europe in the Age of Enlightenment.

We are not facing the good or bad will of individuals, but where traditional values are increasingly replaced by the merely commercial values of the global market, the gospel has to be preached again in terms of freedom and liberation: "Liberty, equality, fraternity! And how do we get to the verbs?" Well, in the Church we should not find it difficult to discover that the gospel creates the experience of freedom, not only as liberation from "old-fashioned" ancestral conventions, but especially as a counter-culture against the massive trends that are trying to pattern our new urbanised life according to the fashion dictated by the media industry. Jesus is an alternative and always an alternative with appeal. As the Bishops at the African Synod chose to put it, the Church is a family where all can feel at home in an atmosphere of love and mutual care as our modern civil society can never hope to offer anything comparable.

But evangelization is not simply a process to be encouraged around us, the "professional Christians". It remains a theory unless we begin to evangelize ourselves and thus also the Church we together form under the influence of the Holy Spirit.


Brendan COGAVIN C.S.Sp.

As the title suggests I am not going to describe inculturation in Ethiopia. Initially what I shall reflect on will be the way in which the term inculturation has been applied to Ethiopia. This clarification is necessary because it is a term used by many people but it is not always clear what is meant by their use of it. In the second part of the discussion we will suggest how inculturation might better be applied to Church life in Ethiopia and Eritrea and explore some of the challenges which this application might open up.

Inculturation: a Clarification of Terms

The first use of the term inculturation in official papal documents was during the Pontificate of John Paul II, who said, in Catechesi Tradendae 53, that "the term acculturation or inculturation may be a neologism, but it expresses very well one factor of the great mystery of the Incarnation. We can say of catechesis, as well as of evangelization in general, that it is called to bring the power of the Gospel into the very heart of culture and cultures". A more elaborate treatment of the term has been worked out since then and is expressed in Redemptoris Missio 52-54, which emphasizes the patience required in real inculturation, "the intimate transformation of authentic cultural values through their integration in Christianity and the insertion of Christianity in the various human cultures"; "through inculturation the Church makes the Gospel incarnate in different cultures and at the same time introduces peoples, together with their cultures, into her own community". This document, together with Lumen Gentium, Gaudium et Spes, Unitatis Redintegratio, Orientalium Ecclesiarum and Ad Gentes, reflects the new vision of the Church as "missionary by its very nature"(AG 9); they must be taken together to avoid too narrow a vision of Church, of mission and of inculturation.

New terminology in missiology takes time to be accepted and to enter fully into the vocabulary and consciousness of the Church. In Catechesi Tradendae 53 we saw that acculturation was equated with inculturation. It is now acknowledged that acculturation is an anthropological term meaning the encounter between cultures; inculturation is a theological term which has been defined in Redemptoris Missio 52 as the on-going dialogue between faith and culture. But "faith itself is culture" (cf. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, "Christ, Faith and the Challenge of Cultures", in L'Osservatore Romano, English edition, 26 April 1995, p.6), unless it has "not been fully accepted, not thoroughly thought out, not faithfully lived" (Cf. John Paul II, Motu Proprio letter Inde a Pontificatus, in Atheism and Faith, XXVII-2, Vatican City 1993, p.84, and Cardinal Paul Poupard, "Religion and Culture in the Contemporary World", in L'Osservatore Romano, English edition, 9/16 August 1995).

The primary agent of inculturation is the local Church, and the missionary's role is secondary (cf. RM 54b, 53). In terms of the letter to the Philippians, we cannot hope to understand mission and carry it out unless we take on the mind of Christ - missionaries are to be servants and not masters (cf. Phil 2,5; RM 53); they are to be challenged and formed by the cultures they encounter. Part of the challenge is to be open to discover the seeds of the Gospel already present in every cultural situation. And there are two sides to this encounter; the process goes beyond a purely external adaptation, the insertion of elements from the local culture into the way the Western Church expresses its faith.

In Ecclesia in Africa 62c, John Paul II gives thanks for "the fruits which the efforts at inculturation have already brought forth in the life of the Continent, notably in the ancient Eastern Churches of Africa". He also said to Abuna Paulos that "the close link between faith and Ethiopian culture, the persistence of the ancient monastic tradition, the riches and splendour of your liturgy - these are the many things which the Catholic Church observes with sincere admiration" (L'Osservatore Romano, English edition, 16 June 1993, p.5). The ancient Church of Ethiopia has a close link between faith and culture; it is an authoritative example of successful inculturation. The work of Justin de Jacobis can be held up as worthy of imitation, inasmuch as he left behind his home country and culture and adapted himself in everything to his people and the local conditions. But it should never be forgotten that the Orthodox Church was already well "implanted". Justin de Jacobis' mission was to bring the Church of Ethiopia back into what was thought of as the one true Church. That was the ecclesiology of his time and the motivation behind his apostolate in Ethiopia. Redemptoris Missio and other documents dealing with mission and inculturation are intended for situations where the Gospel has not already taken root; its insights must be related to the new vision of Church and mission expressed in Vatican II. In the particular case of the Oriental Catholic Churches discussion must include recent developments in the understanding of ecumenism and evangelization, and the role of these Churches in relation to their Mother Churches.

"The pilgrim Church is missionary by her very nature" and takes her origin from "the mission of the Son and the mission of the Holy Spirit" (AG 2). The Church is being sent and is not the one who sends. It is not itself the origin of mission. Because God is a missionary God the People of God are a missionary people. Therefore mission is not some sort of appendix to its other activity, which in turn means that we can no longer speak in terms of the Church and mission but rather the mission of the Church. This incorporation into the life of the Trinity finds its greatest expression in the Eucharistic liturgy: Pope John Paul II said to Abuna Paulos that "we share the same faith" and have "the same sacraments" (L'Osservatore Romano, English edition, 16 June 1993, p.5). So, through the celebration of the Eucharist, the Eastern Churches also contribute to the growth of the Church of God and are missionary by their very nature. David Bosch remarks: "When the church, in its mission, risks referring to itself as sacrament, sign or instrument of salvation, it is therefore not holding itself up as a model to be emulated. Its members are not proclaiming Come to us! but Let us follow Him!" (Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission, Orbis Books, 1992, p. 376).

Pathways to Mission and Inculturation

The Church is in movement towards perfection and thus is always in need of renewal and conversion. The path of renewal and conversion is through evangelization and inculturation. In Ethiopia and Eritrea faith and culture have formed a synthesis. The Church there is held up as an example of successful inculturation. But the Church in Ethiopia and Eritrea cannot complacently sit back and say to others "Look at our successful inculturation". It, too, is a pilgrim Church. AG 9 reminds us that "fulfilment will come at the end of time". For a particular Church the process of inculturation continues throughout its life, for a culture is a living reality, in a continuous process of change. Cardinal Paul Poupard reaffirms this, pointing out that culture as a human reality is not static, which it is essential to remember when we consider the relationship between faith and culture (Cf. Paul Poupard, "Culture et inculturation: essai de définition", in Seminarium, Nova Series: Anno XXXII, No.1, Januario-Martio 1992, p.21). GS 58 makes a similar point, as does Ecclesia in Africa 62: "Inculturation is a difficult and delicate task, since it raises the question of the Church's fidelity to the Gosepel and the Apostolic Tradition amidst the constant evolution of cultures". The call for an on-going inculturation is a demand of faith. Faith needs to be constantly strengthened in order to face new challenges. The Churches in Ethiopia and Eritrea face these challenges too. How are we to interpret and transmit the Good News in a culture which is dynamic and changing?

To find out where we are going we need to study and revitalize our tradition, to look at where we have come from in an honest and holistic way: John Paul II points out that "it is essential to go back to the past in order to understand, in the light of the past, the present reality and in order to discern tomorrow. For the mission of the Church is always oriented and directed with unfailing hope towards the future" (Slavorum Apostoli 31b). But when tradition becomes something static, it becomes a museum piece, admired for its beauty, but more and more challenged as irrelevant in adressing the needs of contemporary culture. The challenge to make tradition a living reality is part of the challenge of on-going evangelization of culture and inculturation. Another area of concern is: the Oriental rite Church and its right to evangelize through its own rite. Vatican II declares that "it is not enough for the Christian people to be present and organized in a given nation. Nor is it enough for them to carry out an apostolate of good example. They are organized and present for the purpose of announcing Christ to their non-Christian fellow-citizens by word and deed, and of aiding them toward the full reception of Christ (AG 15). On the occasion of the ad limina visit of the bishops of Ethiopia and Eritrea to the Holy See on 4 October 1993, Pope John Paul II said: "Your clergy and religious, together with the generous men and women who serve among you, are all called to renew and strengthen their commitment to the task of evangelization and catechesis" (L'Osservatore Romano, English edition, 13 October 1993, p. 5). How is the Catholic Church in Ethiopia's commitment to evangelization to be understood and exercised? Is the fact that the missionary branch of the Catholic Church in Ethiopia follows the Latin rite a correct state of affairs in the light of Vatican II? Those who wish to express their missionary vocation have to join Latin-rite missionary congregations or orders and use the Latin rite. It was the witness of the diversity of traditions expressed in Orientalium Ecclesiarum and Unitatis Redintegratio that provided the impetus for the new vision of Church, as articulated in Lumen Gentium. The example of the Syro-Malabar Church could be an inspiration for the Ethiopian Catholic Church.

Monasticism gives special expression to the riches of the spiritual traditions of the Churches of the East. In the Eastern Churches great generosity has been shown through involvement of monks in evangelization, which is "the highest service that the Christian can offer his brother" (Orientale Lumen 14c); John Paul II urges that "with regard to monasticism, in consideration of its importance in Eastern Christianity, we would like it to flourish once more in the Eastern Catholic Churches, and that support be given to those who feel called to work for its revitalization" (OL 27). This concern for the re-discovery or renewal of the religious life is necessary because there is a danger that it will die out or be replaced by alternative forms, as a result of foreign influences on the Eastern tradition. One problem is lack of knowledge of the fact that "forms of monastic life lived by the Eastern Churches have been extremely flexible, adapting to cultures, contexts and times. There has been room for evangelization and diakonia among its forms" (Cardinal Achille Silvestrini, L'Osservatore Romano, English edition, 16 November 1994, p.11). When Western religious come to work in Eastern Church areas, what seems to happen is that candidates for the religious life who come from Oriental-rite backgrounds are required to adapt themselves to the Latin Church. This seems strange considering what RM 53 asks of missionaries. It is those who come from outside who are required to adapt or acculturate themselves to the local situation, especially so when it is a matter of encountering another Church tradition. The Latin or Western way of doing things seems to be the norm for others to follow. But Western monasticism and religious life have their origins in the East and need to feed on the living experience of the East in order that the Church may maintain its catholicity (RM 54) and breathe with two lungs.

The need for mutual enrichment between Sister-Churches would seem to be of particular importance in the realm of inculturation. RM 52 highlights the effects that inculturation in a local or particular Church has on the universal Church. If the local incarnation of the Gospel manifests the catholicity of the Church then this manifestation has a potential universal quality. Some argue that while the term inculturation expresses quite a lot, there is a need to find a formulation which will give more emphasis to the meeting of cultures and mutual enrichment and refinement. Cardinal Ratzinger proposes inter-culturality (art. cit., p. 5). Faith is the power which enables this cross-fertilization. Thus interculturation is the endeavour to build up communion between particular Churches through mutual exchange and enrichment. Communion is not a static reality, but rather an on-going process (SA 18). The effort to build up the unity and catholicity of the Church is interculturation in action, and the Ethiopian context seems a very fertile one. Each Church is in constant need of re-evangelization and inculturation, understood as the on-going dialogue between the Gospel and a culture. This applies in Ethiopia too, where the reality of the history of relations between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches cannot be ignored. We are dealing with human weakness, which seems to be resisting the Spirit of unity. The only solution to this is a "change of heart" (UR 7). To the extent that the Church is an institution of human beings on pilgrimage here on earth, she is in constant need of reform. Human cultures are never static and therefore they have a constant need of encounter with the Gospel message. Inculturation is the pilgrim way, the way of on-going reform and conversion to the Gospel.


Fr. Anton LEUS C.S.Sp.
A Missionary in Dhadim, Borana

This paper is on the Borana, a nomadic tribe in Southern Ethiopia which, until twenty years ago, was hardly affected or influenced by Christianity or Islam. In fact Borana was hardly touched by the outside world: if it was, it had no effect, as the society was strong and closed enough to put it in their own perspective. While the Borana have a strong sense of their identity, history and culture, there is no time to put down "roots" in the physical sense. Drought, famine and over-grazing push them on, and they are always looking for good places of grass and water.

"You must be either crazy or your country must be poorer than ours, that you decided to come to live and work in Boranaland..."

(said in amazement by the Borana in the 1970s).

"You are close to the people and one with them; you know their language and customs; you are very much accepted and are known all over Boranaland; the Borana trust you very much"

(said by a Norwegian evangelist in the 1990s).

Between these two statements, the Borana and we have gone through a process of evangelization of cultures. We came with something to share with them, something we believed in, and at the same time we wanted to know and live with these people and learn from them. When we started we experienced very soon that evangelization is not a kind of computer programme, with all the answers and possibilities. It is a history, both personal and communal. For this group of missionaries in Boranaland it has meant bringing the message to their atmosphere and their setting, getting used to one another not only in our own professional field but on a daily and human level. The process of learning to communicate with them went on for quite a few years and it was only possible by living close to the people and not building fences and "structures" around us. Our group consists of seven nationalities; this challenges us to be open in our outlook, sharing our gifts and responsibilities with respect for the other person and their history and culture. This crossing of cultural barriers is an enriching experience and it is always a source of wonder and amazement for the Borana that so many tribes and languages, blacks and whites can live and work together in peace and harmony.

We did not start with an institutional Church in the beginning. We were foreigners and did not bring the whole conglomeration of being a catholic Church. We were pushed back to basics among the Borana - "the Gospel with no frills", only the Bible in our hand, going to the villages saying "we would like to share with you the Word of God". The Borana would answer: "of course we want to listen. Who in this world can be against God's word?"

We did this for ten years, sharing the Gospel in the villages but also taking part in Borana life, in their celebrations and ceremonies, their feasts and sacrifices. They saw "by our deeds" what kind of people we were. Their response was: issani nama nagayaa - "You are people of peace". We had an agreement with the Ministry of Education to start a primary school. In the beginning education did not fit in too well with the daily way of Borana life. The Borana didn't need "new things", but eventually we contacted the leaders and elders of the Borana, asking if we could visit their villages and have prayer services (coffee ceremony) and teaching/sharing God's Word with them.

Evangelization of Borana culture

Apart from evangelizing individuals there is also a need of a "baptism", a birth of a new quality of life for the Borana society, an evangelization of the deepest aspects and roots of their culture, in all fields of life... so that with all the changes and developments that will come they will have a strong foundation to build their future on. We will give here some major aspects of this evangelization of their culture which is going on:

The Borana and God: There is only one God, worshipped in many things like big trees and rocks, above all in the sky, the source of rain and life. God promotes good and evil! "The poor have no god"; they will remain poor because that is their destiny given by God. God doesn't love all equally. God is known and unknown, near and far, is there in situations beyond their understanding and power - otherwise everything is regulated by customs and laws. Is God interested in their life? Is there a personal relationship with God?

God is a loving father, who wants life in abundance for all, the forgiving one, the one you will meet deep in your heart, who is so close to us and interested in us that He sends his only Son, the creator who saw that everything was good; the God to whom you can relate in a personal way is close to you.... These are the words the Bible and Jesus teach us.

The Borana and other ethnic groups: everyone else outside their society is seen as an enemy, an intruder, a potential target to be killed... everyone, especially the women, will sing and praise a warrior for his heroism. They have very little knowledge of other peoples and nations beyond the enemies who surround them. Until a couple of years ago, there was very little communication with the outside world for the majority of the Borana. During the past ten years or so, they have suffered three years of war, and twice there was famine and drought; this brings a great deal of change to their life. They are becoming more dependent on outside influences for their market, their food, their farming etc., and we should be present with them in this change.

The story of the Good Samaritan: the unity of all the children of God, of all tribes: "no Jew or other tribe, no slave or free person, no man or woman, we are all one in Christ". A new tribe in Christ: they are open to that, because the unity they have according to their customs is getting weaker. God as one Father and creator of all gives them much respect. There is a basis to build on, as the Borana themselves say: obboleesi namaa ka namaa na'e - "the one who has mercy on you and helps you is your brother".

Respect and equality for women: women don't count much; they are considered children and are beaten "because they don't know anything and therefore they spoil things or don't do them the way the husband wants it". The woman is first of all there to give birth to a son and to increase the strength of the clan. There are many expressions of women being inferior. But do they have the courage or soul to respect themselves? Borana women too are changing; there is, in a sense, more "freedom".

The creation story is the basis of evangelizing this outlook: the equality of men and women created in God's own image. Borana women have said that the Gospel Word and the person of Jesus has given them much self-respect and dignity....

Life and life after death: Eegi nami du'ee homa hinjiran - "when a person has died there is nothing any more", and women we don't even mention because they don't count at all. Borana is a society without much personal outlook or hope beyond the here and now and the fulfilling of their customs and ceremonies.

The respect we receive from Jesus' Word, his life and input of his Spirit can give the Borana a wholeness of life. It makes an "impression" if we talk about life in this way: that we are not animals or birds, but the rulers and children of a God who wants life; we have his Spirit of life, and He is a God of the living, not of the dead. These words are very new for the Borana and aren't absorbed yet but can certainly help to increase their respect for life, and each other's life.

Work and development: a couple of years ago, the Borana were not interested in education and did not accept agriculture - it was against their customs! Now they have to become part of a wider world. They were a closed society with a strong set of rules for supporting one another. But "The Borana don't help one another as in the past" is often said. People travel more and communicate with the outside world.

The Gospel and Christian, Gospel-inspired expressions of development can give them a new foundation and outlook and help rebuild a community to support one another on the basis of Jesus' Word.

These are a few of the major aspects of evangelization of Borana culture. Sometimes people say they like the Catholic Church and its approach because, in contrast with Islam or other Christian groups, we don't start straight away to attack all their smaller customs and expressions of their way of life.

The inculturation of faith in the Borana

The seed has been sown in many ways - first of all through our being one with and interested in the Borana. In their struggle with life, famine, drought, tribal warfare, the people saw that we didn't leave them as orphans. Some have accepted the Word. Many more are interested now; we have two Christian communities in Dhadim and Dhoqolle. The Borana had strong customs and we have to understand which are vital to them. Faith will be inculturated slowly; in the beginning the Borana would say "this is a ferenji word and faith" while now they see more and more that it is theirs as well.

We started our work not at "the mission" but in their own setting, in their villages and communities, and all in the context of the coffee ceremony.

At birth the Borana give you a temporary name, but until the time of the gubbisa, the official namegiving, you are nobody. The newly named receives new life, a "new birth" into Borana society, culture and customs. Baptism is a namegiving. In this second birth, one becomes part of this "new tribe of God" and not only a Borana. Jesus Himself is our First Born.

The Borana have sacrifices in certain situations. The animal is slaughtered and shared; before it is killed all those who are present pass their hands over the animal while saying prayers. Christ is our sacrificial lamb; this aspect of the Eucharist as sacrifice is very important. All Christians present at the Eucharistic celebration pass their hands over the bread and wine while saying prayers. During the Eucharist they kiss the Gospel book; the Borana kiss one another only when they are close relatives or know one another very well. We have accepted and love Jesus and his Word.

When one of the Borana has admitted that he was wrong, he puts fresh grass (a sign of life) at the feet or on the knees of the one who has been wronged, and receives forgiveness. After the examination of conscience in penance services everyone places fresh grass at the foot of the cross or presented to a Christian who will be asked for forgiveness.

The making of a new fire is an important custom in Borana society, especially when people move to a new place or after marriage; the sticks rubbed together are used for lighting the Paschal Fire during the Easter Vigil.

We don't have big numbers of Christians but interest is growing. We have hopes that the Word of God will be inculturated in Borana society. We want to walk with the Borana at their pace. The inspiration that keeps us moving is that true inculturation and evangelization will only come about when the Borana who have received the gift of faith respond to this gift from their own cultural setting.


Au cours du symposium d'Addis Ababa, les Pères Lenfers, Cogavin et Leus ont fait des exposés très révélateurs au sujet de l'inculturation. Le Père Lenfers insiste: il faut trouver un juste milieu entre l'image de la foi qui a pénétré une culture (au moment où on ne la juge plus comme étrangère), et le fait que le christianisme ne peut s'accorder avec tous les usages humains. Le Père Cogavin souligne que la notion de l'Église, «missionnaire par sa nature même», devrait pénétrer dans nos coeurs et notre manière de penser. Le père Leus illustre le travail missionnaire chez les Borana, et la patience et la largeur d'esprit qui ont été toujours nécessaires.


En el simposio de Addis Ababa, los padres Lenfers, Cogavin y Leus ofrecen reflexiones iluminadoras sobre la inculturación. El P. Lenfers resalta que la fe ha de penetrar completamente la cultura (de modo que no sea ajena a ella), pero que el cristianismo siempre entrará en conflicto con algunas de las costumbres humanas. El P. Cogavin destaca que la naturaleza misionera de la Iglesia ha de empapar mucho más nuestros corazones y nuestras mentes. Por último, el P. Leus ilustra el éxito de la misión en la tribu nómada de los Borana, fruto de la paciencia y de la apertura de espíritu.