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David Hoekema

Missions and Modernity in Colonial Africa

Most of what you think you know is wrong.

What was the relationship between Christian missions and European colonialism in West Africa? For decades Western and African historians have agreed on an answer—with support from leading authors and activists. It goes like this: When the Atlantic slave trade ended at last in the 19th century, missionaries arrived along the same sea routes. Both along the coast, where slave trading had been a flourishing business since the 17th century, and in the interior, where few white faces had ever been seen, the missionaries settled in, learned local languages, and devised writing systems for Bible translation. Alongside colonial authorities they built schools, clinics, and roads. Thus they sought to bring both the spiritual benefits of the gospel and the economic and political benefits of modernity to communities long burdened by paganism, ignorance, isolation, disease, and poverty.

But their seemingly benevolent intentions—so the story continues—masked a program of domination and control, setting the stage for two centuries of colonial and postcolonial exploitation. The benefits of modernity carried a heavy cost. Communities and families were torn apart by alien systems of hierarchical and centralized authority. Traditional beliefs in the unity of gods, humans, and animals gave way to a new creed of human dominion over creation. No more slaves were loaded aboard departing ships, but now they carried minerals and crops produced by cheap native labor. Africa's self-proclaimed benefactors uprooted ancient traditions, disrupted families and communities, and instilled a slavish imitation of all things European. Native subalterns cast aside their traditional skins and cloths and donned suits and neckties, carrying in their hands shoes too precious (and too uncomfortable) to wear. And they forsook their own traditions for Western concepts of God, the self, and community. But their Faustian bargain haunts Africa today, as its people languish in a cycle of ...

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