Does the Church in Africa still need foreign missionaries?
The answer of Eboussi Boulaga: “La de-mission”
- The author
Eboussi Boulaga was born in 1934 in Cameroon (West/Central Africa). He was an ordained Jesuit Priest. He obtained a doctorate in Philosophy from the University of Lyon (France). In 1974 when he was writing the article he was a teacher in the Jesuit scholasticate of Yaounde. He then taught philosophy for many years at the University of Abidjan (Cote d’Ivoire). He left the Society of the Jesuit and Priesthood in the 80s (1986 or 1987?). He is presently married. He teaches Philosophy at the University of Yaounde in Cameroon. He is admired for his honesty and integrity. He was recently member of the anticorruption committee of Cameroon, which published a report on corruption. His works include ‘le Bantou Problématique’, (Présence Africaine, 1968); ‘la crise du Muntu. Authenticité africaine et Philosophie’, (Paris : Présence Africaine, 1977); ‘Pour une Catholicité Africaine. Civilization noire et Eglise Catholique’, (Paris : Présence Africaine, 1978); ‘Christianisme sans fétiche. Révélation et domination’, (Paris : Présence Africaine, 1981); ‘A contretemps. L’enjeu de Dieu en Afrique’, (Paris : Karthala, 1991). He also wrote many articles in different reviews.
Eboussi boulaga committed himself to an African critique and recapture of Christianity. He gives a critical and penetrating analysis of the inculturation of Christianity in Africa. He rejects the Christianity imposed upon and adopted by the African Churches as a fetish manufactured in the West. He proposes a constructive and comprehensive African alternative. Eboussi Boulaga emphasizes the importance of the historical and cultural being. He is the first to call for a council of the Catholic Church in Africa that will be unprecedented without model. The council aim will be for the African particular church to give to herself for the first time its own image of herself…it should be everybody business and should involved the people in a vast and free debate with ourselves.
He is polemic and controversial. He is sometimes violent using strong concise formulas. His language is sometimes hermetic, inaccessible to non-initiated reader. He is a philosopher. His difficult language does not help always to discern when he is exposing the idea of somebody, criticizing it or when he takes personal position. You need to reread him to understand better. His thoughts are complex and rich. Precise thinking, rigorous analysis, logical and courageous conclusions are characteristic of him. Unfortunately his writings have sometimes provoked strong reactions of verbal violence, calumnies or simply despise.
- The article: ‘La dé-mission’
The article was written in 1974 and first published in the revue Spiritus n. 56, of June 1974 in the section “essais et recherches”. It was then published in the book A contretemps. L’enjeu de Dieu en Afrique, (Paris: Karthala, 1991). The article is a contribution to a questionnaire sent to 500 people all over Africa, America and Asia by the revue Spiritus. The questionnaire was about 2 essentials interrogations: 1. the sense of the presence of foreign missionaries on the 3 continents and 2. the conditions of birth and growth of the particular Churches. The questionnaire was organized in preparation of the synod of bishops on evangelization, which was to be held in Rome from September 27 to October26, 1974.
The general context is that since the council Vatican II, the church witnessed the important growth of Christian communities from the South. The place of ‘coloured’ Churches in the whole of Christianity became more and more visible with many nominations of bishops from the South. The whole church witnessed also a decline of western vocation. The ‘traditional’ data of mission were modified especially with the strong appeal of Pope Paul VI in Kampala in 1967: “Africans, you are your own missionaries…you have to continue the building of the Church on this continent.” Eboussi Boulaga might have been inspired also by the protestants’ proposals of a ‘moratoire’ towards the Churches of Africa during the third general assembly of the CETA (Conference des Eglises de Toute l’Afrique-Conference of the Churches of the Whole Africa) held in Lusaka (Zambia, 12-24 may 1974). They proposed a temporary suspension of external aids in personal and money to the churches of Africa to allow them to become mature and self-reliant. Their proposals had a repercussion in the Catholic milieus.
The article addresses the concern of many African Catholics and even African bishops of that time: the autonomy of the African Churches and the redefinition of the relations of the African Churches with the so-called old Churches (Western Churches). The need for authenticity, autonomy, and more responsibility was strongly felt. The Churches of Africa were too largely dependents of foreign personnel and money. And yet they want to become self-reliant, self-propagating, self-ministering and self-supporting. The question is: How could the Churches do that?
The answer of Eboussi Boulaga is that the foreign missionaries European and American are our main obstacles. Let them go and evangelise their own continents. He calls for an organized departure of the foreign missionaries from Africa.
- The arguments of the author: an outline of the article
A critical assessment of the ‘reconversions’ going on: a clear failure:
The renewal of the missionary personnel failed
a.1 the diversification of the missionary resource: the Fidei Donum priests could not adapt themselves and had the same complex of superiority.
a.2 the lay missionaries, the militants of the Catholic Action Movements: too preoccupied with their groups and became exclusive and non efficient.
a.3 the religious Sisters: ignorant, unbalanced; inadequate formation and presence.
b.1 the respect of persons as historical beings: life and events of life are superficially analysed and not resituated enough to their historical and social depth.
b.2 the recognition of the African values and religions: too late, brusque, vain, improvised, incomprehensible for many Africans who have been told to reject their culture and now they are told to admire it.
c.1 the revision and the distribution of roles and of power
c.2 Two mistakes made by Africans:
· a moral mistake: the white missionaries are treated as executors of the decisions taken by black priest;
· a dialectical mistake: the white missionaries are given subordinate tasks that in fact make them closer to the people and give them the material conditions of power.
Two grave hypotheses:
The missionary activity today is an escape from the religious crisis of the West
b. The missionary activity today is structurally speaking a violent colonization: a violent way of imposing a type of Christianity, a type of thinking, a type of celebrating…
Conclusion: “foreign missionaries, go back home. Go to evangelize your countries first”.
- Responses to the article
The African Bishops, October 20, 1974: ‘to promote evangelisation in co responsibility.’
A strong reaction to the conclusion of Eboussi Boulaga came from the African Bishops present at the Synod on Evangelisation. They published in October 20, 1974, a declaration called “Promouvoir l’Evangelisation dans la coresponsabilitité” as an answer to the article of Eboussi Boulaga. In this declaration the bishops recognize the aspirations of the Africans to take into their hands their destiny; the problem of religious acculturation: a Christianity which is insufficiently incarnated but lived from outside without real link with the authentic values found in the traditional religions; the need of the vast majority of Africans for hearing the Gospel of Jesus Christ; and the apparent contagious disappointment in the foreign missionaries who are questioning the significance of their presence in Africa. The African bishops emphasize cooperation, ecclesial Communion and co responsibility. The evangelisation of Africa needs the sincere participation of everybody. The bishops condemned as contrary to the gospel and to the teaching of the Church any gesture, word or writing open to hinder the cooperation. We are all members of the same family. All of us and each one of us have the responsibility to spread the Church of God in the World. Nobody is a stranger in the house of God.
The review Spiritus received a lot of reactions to the article of Eboussi Boulaga. The reactions were published in Spiritus n.59 of June 1975. Most of the reactions acknowledged the courageous truth of the article but reject a sudden and total departure of the foreign missionaries. The time of change of mentality and type of relationship had come. Africans should be more and more responsible for their Church. The foreign missionaries are important as sign of universal love. With their presence the Church appears really as a Community of interracial and intercultural love. Any relations of domination, paternalism, begging, dependency, manipulation must disappear. In general many people propose that the foreign missionaries get less involved. The areas of evangelisation are still large and they can bring their specific and original contribution in simplicity and partnership.
The cases of Burundi and Rwanda
Burundi in the late 70s: The missionaries were expelled. When the missionaries were allowed to work again in Burundi a priest from the Society of the Missionaries of Africa who lived the painful experience of having been expelled went back to Burundi in 1998. He marvelled in seeing that without the missionaries the Church in Burundi survived and became totally Burundian. He wrote in a magazine of the Missionaries of Africa this beautiful testimony: “un mal immense avait été fait,…Cependant, il y a eu aussi des côtés positifs. Plus que jamais, l’Eglise locale a dû prendre ses responsibilités et ne compter que sur ses propres forces. Un certain nombre de missionnaires sont revenus, mais dans un autre cadre. Jamais les séminaires n’ont été aussi remplis. L’Eglise du Burundi est devenue pleinement Burundaise.”  Our translation: « a great evil was done, …however, there were positive sides. More than ever, the local Church had to take its responsibilities and could counting only on its own forces. A certain number of missionaries came back, but in another framework. Never had the seminaries been so full. The Church of Burundi had become fully Burundian”
Rwanda, 1998: some Rwandan journalists, MPs, priests wrote a letter to the General Chapter of the Missionaries of Africa accusing the missionaries of being an obstacle to the renewal of the Church in Rwanda. They asked the missionaries of Africa to leave temporary the country or to be less involved in the running of the affairs of the Church and to replace the missionary personal with new and young missionaries who had never been involved in the history of Rwanda.
The article of Eboussi Boulaga “la-démission” was hard to digest by many people. Yet he expressed a serious concern about the future of the Church in Africa. Are the foreign missionaries a real obstacle to the construction of an African Christianity? If we believe that they have to stay in Africa, what do we expect of them? How can they contribute to the building of the Church in Africa? How do we want to construct an African Christianity? Do we need a Council of the Church in Africa as suggested by Eboussi-Boulaga? The relevance of the Catholic Church in Africa is at the center of the debate and the relationship between the particular churches is addressed by Eboussi Boulaga. The question is still current. In some countries like Rwanda, foreign missionaries are still seen as a serious obstacle to the maturity of the Church. It is clear that the paternalistic time is over. The foreign missionaries while remaining in Africa are called to collaborate, to work in partnership, simplicity and respect with the Africans; and to empower them to be more responsible for their own Church.
Cheza Maurice, H.D, R.L, Les évêques d’Afrique parlent 1969-1992, Paris: Centurion, 1992.
Eboussi-Boulaga, Fabien, A Contretemps. L’enjeu de Dieu en Afrique. Paris: Karthala, 1991.
Eboussi-Boulaga, Fabien, Christianity without fetishes. An African critique and recapture of Christianity, translated by Robert R. Barr, Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1984.
Mudimbe V., The Invention of Africa, London: Mudimbe, 1988
La Documentation Catholique, 17 novembre 1974, n.1664
Spiritus n.56, mai-août 1974
Spiritus n.59, juin 1975
Voix d’Afrique n.40 septembre 1998
 Mudimbe V., The Invention of Africa, (London: Mudimbe, 1988), 176.
F. Eboussi Boulaga, Christianity without fetishes. An African critique and recapture of Christianity, trans. Robert R. Barr (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1984), ix.
 Eboussi-Boulaga, Fabien, A Contretemps. L’enjeu de Dieu en Afrique (Paris: Karthala, 1991),2.
 Eboussi-Boulaga, Fabien, A Contretemps, p. 4.
 Spiritus n.56, mai-août 1974, 144.
 Cheza Maurice, H.D, R.L, Les évêques d’Afrique parlent 1969-1992,( Paris: Centurion, 1992).
 La Documentation Catholique, 17 novembre 1974, n.1664, 995.
 Spiritus n.59, juin 1975.
 “Voix d’Afrique n.40 septembre 1998, p.14.