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Talking For Money: The Donor Industry as Fulfillment of Ancient African Religious Ideals

Author: Jim Harries
Published: August 2011

MD 2.2

Article Type: Peer Reviewed Article

Certain African stories suggest that outside “aid” received by African people today is fulfilling ancient utopian ideals. It is the actualization of a means of running an economy and society through friendship and relationship—including with the departed. The fiends in these ideals are evil spirits. The utopian ideals being based on “magical” beliefs means that English in Africa is a language of magic. The continuity of this dependency-based self-benefitting system is frequently maintained by the ignorance of Westerners. Creation of dependency on the West is often not a perceived problem for African people. One key to grasping the misunderstandings going on is the realization that, contrary to popular perception, words do not carry meanings. In the present study, for example, English adjusts to local African meanings, which the original purveyors of English then misunderstand. This article advocates that some Western missionaries should attempt to develop a reputation in Africa other than that of donor. They could imitate the ministry of Jesus, who did not function as a “donor.” Otherwise, the African church may continue to find that Western money is the bottleneck in all its projects, and the Western church’s role in places like Africa may never extend beyond that which it funds.

Part of the ancient mythology of the Luo people in East Africa depicts mankind as receiving daily needs without exerting difficult physical effort.  The current system of aid and donations in Africa appears to actualize this historic utopian ideal.

A Luo story tells of a miaha (newly married lady) being sent to take a hoe to a field.1 Had she simply left the hoe there, it would have dug the field by itself overnight, we are told.  Instead, because she was determined to please her new family, the miaha swung the hoe and began turning the soil using her own strength. Unfortunately this act broke the spell.  From that day on the Luo people have had to work by the sweat of their brow. But the existence of the story tells us that the Luo people have not forgotten their utopian ideals.

Utopia, Magic, and African History

The story of the miaha has striking parallels with the biblical account in which Eve’s listening to the serpent resulted in the “fall” of humankind to a state of having to work hard for daily bread (Gen 3).  The notion of a prior era of close fellowship with “god” and “easy living” followed by a fall seems to be widespread in human societies. But how consequential is this utopian view for contemporary life?  If Max Weber was right in identifying a “Protestant work ethic” arising from European Christianity, this utopia has taken backseat in Europe.2 But has it elsewhere?

“When an American needs money, he works for it. When an African needs money, he talks for it,” says David Maranz.3 These seem to be radically different approaches to economics.  If Maranz is correct, then money for an African comes from a person and not from a process designed to effect its generation. The title of Maranz’s book, African Friends and Money Matters, as well as its content, suggest that economics and friendship are particularly closely integrated in Africa. Maranz goes so far as to say that in Africa “a disinterested friendship is something without sense.”4

Whereas some of my specific examples and illustrations are drawn from the Kenya Luo people, with whom I have lived since 1993, I suggest that insights acquired in this essay apply more widely to sub-Saharan Africa as a whole.  While acknowledging local and regional differences, I agree with Maranz,5 Laurenti Magesa,6 and others that the culture of the people of sub-Saharan Africa has many similarities. Hence what applies specifically to Luoland in Kenya certainly in broad outline also applies much more widely across the continent.

Africa’s worldview being holistic, as is widely supposed, impacts the nature of economics in Africa. Whereas in the West many people are overtly oriented to economic activity as a category of life, economics in Africa is simply a part of a more complex whole. As a result, economic success in Africa may be seen as arising more from pleasing one’s ancestors than from following particular economic strategies. Hence, Robert Blunt found investment and savings advice columns adjacent to articles on how to avoid witches in a Kenyan periodical.7 Blunt’s research into what is going on under the surface of Kenyan society finds a preoccupation with chasing away devils. This is in line with my own findings that the good life is in much of Africa known to come by default, while people’s energies are expended in removing untoward spiritual influences.8

Such spiritual influences are thought to arise from people; dead or alive.9 Africa is deeply oriented to subjects. The so-called “objective” is seen as being a part of, and subsumed under, subjects. In that sense, in traditional Africa, there is no objectivity. African photographers, I discovered while in Zambia some years ago, unless deeply influenced by the West, will only take pictures of people, never of scenes, views, flowers, or other things. It is difficult for Westerners to understand that “The Negro African does not draw a line between himself and the object.”10 Human physical, social, and spiritual existence, all arising from the (metaphorical) heart of a person, are the sum of people’s attention and interest. Things are seen as extensions of hearts.

Anthropologists have extensively studied the link perceived in parts of Africa between one’s heart and one’s environment or surroundings. They have thrown some light onto this understanding for the benefit of Westerners in their work on African magic. Seminal work was done by classic researchers like E. E. Evans-Pritchard in his book Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande.11 Witchbound Africa, on the Kaonde people in Zambia, was first published in 1923.12 More recently, Christopher O. Davis articulates the blurred (for Westerners) relationship between things, forces, and, human subjects in her Death in Abeyance: Illness and Therapy Among the Tabwa of Central Africa.13 Unfortunately for scholars using English, we find a paucity of terms in English to help us to understand this area of life, because the English language has (in its mother-tongue use) been monopolized by science.  Recognizing that I am unable to overcome such language difficulties, perhaps the best I can do while asking for the reader’s considered understanding is to say that much in life, and in some senses the whole of life, in Africa is governed by magic.14

We have made a few hypotheses so far.  One is that there is a sense in which African people are seeking for a utopian life that could be theirs if only they would succeed in deterring the evil (or bad) forces that threaten it. African people seek this ideal through the development of relationship, and the target relationships are with those who are seen as having succeeded economically (once considered in terms of wives, children, and land; but nowadays also in terms of Western measures of prosperity).  Hence, African people search for patrons, this being to them the way to progress in life.15 The means of acquisition of desired wealth can be described by the term magic.

In this sense; aid to Africa is magical and mystical. African people can easily find foreign aid to be a confirmation of the above-mentioned utopian ideal(s).  In Africa today, aid flows are incessant.  While they may change from one form to another, they never stop.  They are not earned or achieved in any rational way; their source is clearly rooted in the “subjective;” the whim of other people, as directed by spiritual forces. They seem to vindicate and confirm ancient African beliefs about the acquisition of wealth through non-rational, “magical” means.16

As a result of these perceptions, the current socio-economic climate in Africa is proving to be an enormous boost to traditional religious ideals.  The dreams of many prior generations are being fulfilled in the present.  Careful negotiations with the “the West” can release enormous supplies of all kinds of material wealth.  A traditional attitude of helplessness and dependence on others once focused on the dead but now on Westerners is paying dividends. As the influx of aid continues, the African is careful to remain on guard; protective measures against bad magic, life’s fundamental orientation to pleasing the dead, and ambiguity in life that prevents evil forces from taking a hold continue.17

The position and identity of the white man as a patron is frequently reconfirmed.  Millions of African children spend seven, eight, twelve, or more of the prime years of their youth learning European languages and European ways.  These have proved to be the great languages of magic in the current era. “Talking for money” is more and more effective, and the addition of extensive and widespread communication media such as the internet further enables the finding of Western people with whom to communicate.

To this point, we have outlined some very serious barriers to social and economic advance (I write as a Westerner and not as an African, for whom the above are often seen not as problems but benefits) that require urgent attention. At the moment most Western aid workers do not even recognize their impact in confirming and strengthening traditional religious beliefs. Not recognizing this impact, they cannot be expected to be addressing and resolving problems arising from it. Westerners do not perceive what is happening—as the issues concerned disappear in the process of translation. The ever-growing identification of whites as wealthy patrons is constantly reaffirmed. Because the current understanding of whites is lucrative for Africans, it is hardly in the interest of Africans to inform them of the way their actions are fulfilling ancient religious ideals. In a sense it can be said that it is in the interest of African people to maintain the ignorance of outsiders with regard to what goes on in their own communities. This raises and reinforces barriers to the gaining of mutual understanding, which means that when Westerners take the reigns, power in Africa is more and more in the hands of the ignorant.

My allusion above to keeping whites “in ignorance” is in part an outcome of something articulated in detail by Maranz. Maranz puts it like this: “Africans readily share space and things but are possessive of knowledge. . . . Westerners readily share their knowledge but are possessive of things and space.”18 Whereas Western libraries contain numerous books written by people spilling the contents of their heart onto paper, for many African people, so opening one’s heart can invite spiritual attack. It follows that concealing issues can bring blessing, and indeed in practice this is often found to be the case with respect to white donors; new or short-term visitors from the West are frequently much more inclined to material generosity than those who are more au fait about what is happening on the African scene. That is, the most lucrative contacts with Europeans are often with those who remain ignorant of local realities.

It sometimes seems in Africa today that the indigenous black population takes all whites as patrons or potential patrons. A relationship with a patron is a particular kind of relationship, with deeply ingrained expectations and conventions.  It is certainly a relationship of respect, for which read (it is hard to get this into English): distance, a sort of formality, and a degree of concealment of truth.  I wonder whether such a universal “standoff,” which I guess in British English one might call racism (in reverse), is very healthy?

Patrons and Language

If I am correct so far, then (almost) the only type of language used by African people and communities in relation to whites is the language that is appropriate to patrons.

A problem arises if Western missionaries do not realize this dynamic.  I suspect that few African people are unaware of this dependence-communication.19 I suspect also that few whites are fully aware of it—how can they be, as it is generated by cultures foreign to them?

African people are on the whole perfectly competent at forming words, sentences, paragraphs and more in the language(s) that have been exported to them—for example, English.  What Western missionaries do not fully realize is that someone sharing words and sentences of a particular language that they have been obliged to learn in the course of formal schooling since childhood does not amount to their having grasped the meaning that the originators of that language might have in mind.

There seems to be an easy deceitfulness in all of this.  If someone says “I have seen an elephant” then we assume that they know what an elephant looks like, when actually it is quite possible (and easy) to say “I have seen an elephant” without ever having seen one.  The ability to say “sustainable development” does not in itself show that someone has understood what a British or American person means by such a term. To say “Tanzania is modern” will mean something different if said by an African, who has not been able to experience whatever it is to “be modern” in America, than if it is said by an American.  A Tanzanian saying that “Tanzania is modern” is frankly an insufficient basis for an American to conclude that Tanzania is modern, because the latter’s idea of what is modern will be vastly different from that of a Tanzanian.  Some words have “false friends”—for example, what in the UK could be called a “shack” in which you can get a cup of tea is in East African English boldly and routinely called a “hotel”.

The expectation that a word can move across a vast cultural divide and not change fundamentally in nature and content is frankly not rational but magical. Thus it seems to me that one might accuse Western missionaries who base their actions on what they hear nationals say to them in English by interpreting according to the rules of Western English, of believing in “magic.” It can be said, in a sense, that every word someone uses assumes their whole culture, and every expression is correctly understood only in the light of that culture.  An adult person cannot know a word without implicitly attaching vast amounts of context and background to it. Try saying any word to yourself.  Then think of different parts of your particular history and context that link to that word.  Much of that is specific, individual knowledge.  This applies even to scientific terms.  If someone says, “methane is CH4,” my mind goes back to a particular chemistry lab in a particular place where a particular person taught me while of a particular age—and so on.  My hearing a word itself, such as “methane,” brings to the fore many links and associations in my mind. The same applies to any word.

The potential for miscommunication becomes vast when someone, or even whole communities, learns someone else’s language without sharing in the culture from which the language arises. There is a (vast!) difference between a French person learning to speak English while at a French school, and another French person learning English by interacting with people on the streets of Oxford. The former will, by default, apply a French-person’s life context to the English words that they are using. This happens more and more with the current global usage of English, and the possibility of English spreading almost totally devoid of its culture, as enabled by widespread print and electronic media, is great.

Foreign words in and of themselves, I suggest, usually do not challenge an environment that they enter if shorn of their foreign content, as words of course are!  Rather, foreign words are appropriated into the new context.  How, after all, can foreign words effectively challenge a strange cultural situation, when on account of the fact that the situation is strange, the words in the process of cross-cultural transfer loose the contextual component of their meaning that I suggest is invariably vital to their original anticipated function?

Going back to the case of patronage above can easily furnish us with examples.  “I love you” said to a patron on whom one is dependent for one’s daily existence is clearly different from “I love you” said to a beautiful girl one happened to meet. “Yes, I will” in a context in which “no, I won’t” would endanger my life is different from “yes, I will” to someone who offered for me to join them for supper. The realization that a client is speaking to a patron will affect one’s understanding of the words spoken. In other words, someone listening to or even participating in a patron/client conversation while ignorant of its patron/client nature can easily miss the whole plot and will certainly misunderstand. Therefore, the meaning of words, sentences, and even whole conversations or books differs according to the context in which they are understood.

What then are the implications of having a patronage system dominate a community? Institutions set up in an environment of patronage may be established and maintained not through the heart-will of the people, but as a result of particular patronage offered.  So someone will work as a nurse in a hospital, not because that is how in their own mind the sick should be tended, but because there is a salary on offer for doing it.  Someone will teach in a school, not because they value the insights that they are imparting, but because that is the way they know to make a living. Housekeepers, UN employees, even Bible school teachers and indigenous “missionaries” operating in a patron-client system (being paid for their services and having the perimeters of their roles dictated to them) are all doing that which may be contrary to their deeper heart-felt orientations, because they are in need of an income.  All these people are fulfilling particular rituals in pursuance of a fundamental objective—receiving finance. They are all going to be careful to conceal whatever may run contrary to the required ongoing flow of funds.  That is, they will be careful not to tell the truth to their donor(s) whenever this appears to contradict the donor’s primary aim(s).

The solution to this shroud of secrecy surrounding every patronage situation is simple, if also complex: that some Western workers in sub-Saharan Africa stop playing the role of patron, for at least a part of what they do.

A prominent feature of African society today is that while people have been taught how to spend money, they have not necessarily learned how to generate it, except through the sale of poverty in the form of sad stories designed to beget “guilt” in Westerners. This is producing a society in which foreign funding fuels all initiatives. The potential material benefit arising from foreign alternatives results in locally based thinking being increasingly squashed. Misunderstandings arising can generate and perpetuate so-called corruption.

Can anything be made out of African roots that is not a little-understood copy of what is foreign? Does the West have anything to offer that is not money that only they know how to generate? The disjunction between indigenous understanding and increasingly widespread every day proceedings is growing dangerously wide.20 The chances of bringing indigenous thinking up to speed with what is happening seem to be getting slimmer and slimmer.  I could share my own experience as a Westerner who came to this continent as a missionary in 1988 with the hope that I might understand and encourage the African people in their godly walk.  Over two decades on, the system of patronage has only gained ground. The only role for a foreigner in my home (Kenyan) community often seems to be that of patron. Maranz tells us: “The Westerners are people who appear to have ample resources that many Africans would like to have them share but lack most other qualifications for meaningful relationship.”21 One’s influence rarely goes further than one’s money.  Even local knowledge acquired over years of exposure to a people appears to be of little help. For reasons explained above, ignorance on the part of Westerners may be preferable to understanding in the frenzy of activity pursuing aid money.

The Apostasy of the Church?

Christ had ample opportunity to be a “patron.”  His temptations included that of turning the very stones around him into bread (Luke 4:3). He refused.  He did at times feed thousands (Mark 6:30-44; 8:1-21), but then it seems he almost regretted having taken such actions (John 6:15). He is certainly not recorded as having solicited major funds from governments or wealthy businessmen.  He was, it seems, very careful to ensure that those who followed him were true followers and not only after food or money.

Is this a contrast with the church of today?  God’s servants who seek to put themselves at the hub of numerous donor projects can become as prone to accusations of corruption as anyone else. Donors attach strings, which at times restrict the church in its options in approaching people with the Christian message.

What can one say about the church in the West?  Have Western Christians become so addicted to their comfortable lifestyle as to have abdicated their charitable responsibility to the problems faced by people around the globe?  Or is it that they have swallowed whole the materialistic solutions that the media’s presentation of world issues proposes to them?  Are they right in expressing Christian love in a way that is devoid of relationship—by acting as donors to those whose cultures and walk they cannot begin to comprehend?  Is money a sufficient alternative to a living, breathing, crying, feeling, minister of God’s word?

Someone holding the purse-strings usually cannot help having a say. What they say and how they say it becomes rather consequential.  Westerners used to using money advocate remedies and solutions that require money, even when other alternatives are available.  When these money-solutions are adopted, they frequently result in a rise in costs out of proportion to the increase in benefit from a given project.  Hence, projects are always short of money.  The pressure is always on the donor to give more, while local managers are waiting, sometimes twiddling their thumbs, in expectation.  The bottleneck is funding, so the pressure is on the distant donor while the local person sits pretty.

Impact on the West

Globalization these days results in Western churches paying more attention to issues pertaining to distant countries.  “Extreme need over there” can result in people being absorbed in the foreign, to the neglect of local issues that they understand and really could resolve.  The secular media’s domination of global communication affects local churches’ perception of global issues. This in turn orients people’s understanding to the perception that money is the solution to all problems—from prostitution to hunger to Satanism to earthquakes—you name it! Is this reduction of the churches’ role to fundraising appropriate? Is it really Christian? Is it scriptural? Is it even godly?

I have suggested above that for a Western missionary to be in the role of patron easily acts to re-affirm tradition rather than to advocate change. Shutting off the role for a patron in mission opens up numerous alternative and (I suggest) much more challenging and certainly more Christian avenues of service for foreign missionaries: nurses will be needed to nurse and not diagnose and treat only as far as their budget can stretch.  Teachers of the Word will be needed but will not use their mother tongue when thousands of miles from home.  Pastors can pastor instead of being expected to fundraise.  Evangelists will not have to promise cars, PA systems, and English classes in order to draw their congregations.  The above roles will leave the missionaries concerned free to learn from the people they are reaching.  Thus they will be free to draw nearer to them.  They will be able to relate to them socially as well as professionally.  They will be able to integrate with them instead of only to “oversee” what they are doing.  They will be able to recognize and interact with the deep spiritual issues that will make God’s Word come alive.

It is the latter revival of spirituality that can bring deep, heart-felt changes, which can be a foundation for healthy life-style changes around the world.  The re-realization of the importance of spirituality in human existence is bound to have a kick-back effect on the West, which has in recent decades been so heavily influenced by historical materialism: the belief that “it is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.”22 A revival of the church is as vital in Western nations as in other parts of the world, after all.


Living in such a way as to be vulnerable to a foreign people being reached by the gospel is not an optional privilege for a few eccentrics.  It is a necessary prior step to gaining an understanding that one can acquire in no other way.   More specifically, the Western missionary must carefully examine and overcome the institution of the patron in order to play a part in rescuing African societies from their demise at the onslaught of Westernization on their communities. Today’s missionary force unfortunately all too often supports and confirms the patron orientation—as foreign missionaries plant themselves on the top of the African pile, and gain a hearing in proportion to the size of their budget. There is a desperate need for ‘vulnerable missionaries’ from the West to ‘poor’ places in the world such as Africa; that is, for some Western missionaries to be ready to minister using only the languages and resources of the people they are reaching.

Jim Harries (PhD) served for three years amongst the Kaonde people in Zambia. Since 1993 he has lived in a Luo village in western Kenya. In that time he has been teaching Theological Education by Extension at Yala Theological Centre and Siaya Theological Centre in western Kenya. He lectures part time at Kima International School of Theology. He has learned the languages of the Kaonde, Luo and Swahili people. Harries is the chairman of the Alliance for Vulnerable Mission and serves as adjunct faculty at William Carey International University and Global University, both in the USA. He can be contacted at


Blunt, Robert. “Satan Is An Imitator: Kenya’s Recent Cosmology of Corruption.” In Producing African Futures: Ritual and Reproduction in a New Liberal Age, edited by Brad Weiss, 294-328. Boston: Brill, 2004.

Davis, Christopher O. Death in Abeyance: Illness and Therapy Among the Tabwa of Central Africa. London: Edinburgh University Press, 2000.

Evans-Pritchard, E. E. Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande. New York: Clarendon.

Harries, Jim. “Pragmatic Theory Applied to Christian Mission in Africa: With Special Reference to Luo Responses to ‘Bad’ in Gem, Kenya.” PhD thesis, University of Birmingham, 2007.

________. “Good-by-Default and Evil in Africa.” Missiology: An International Review 34, no. 2 (April 2006): 151-164.

________. “The Magical Worldview in the African Church: What Is Going On?” Missiology: An International Review 24, no. 4 (October 2000): 487-502.

Magesa, Laurenti. African religion: The moral traditions of abundant life. Nairobi: Paulines Publications Africa, 1997.

Maranz, David. African Friends and Money Matters: Observations from Africa. Dallas: SIL International, 2001.

Marx, Karl. A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1977 [1859].

Melland, Frank H. In Witch-Bound Africa: An Account of the Primitive Kaonde Tribe and Their Beliefs. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1923.

Ogot, Grace. Miaha. London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1983.

Senghor, Léopold Sédar. On African Socialism. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1964.

Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd., 1930.

1 Grace Ogot, Miaha (London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1983).

2 Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd., 1930).

3 David Maranz, African Friends and Money Matters: Observations from Africa (Dallas: SIL International, 2001), 23.

4 Ibid, 65.

5 Ibid, 2.

6 Laurenti Magesa, African religion: The moral traditions of abundant life (Nairobi: Paulines Publications Africa, 1997), 26.

7 Robert Blunt, “Satan Is An Imitator: Kenya’s Recent Cosmology of Corruption,” in Producing African Futures: Ritual and Reproduction in a New Liberal Age, ed. Brad Weiss (Boston: Brill, 2004), 317.

8 Jim Harries, “Good-by-Default and Evil in Africa,” Missiology: An International Review 34, no. 2 (April 2006): 151-164.

9 Jim Harries, “Pragmatic Theory Applied to Christian Mission in Africa: With Special Reference to Luo Responses to ‘Bad’ in Gem, Kenya” (PhD thesis, University of Birmingham, 2007), 219-223,

10 Léopold Sédar Senghor, On African Socialism (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1964), 72.

11 E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande (New York: Clarendon, 1976).

12 Frank H. Melland, In Witch-Bound Africa: An Account of the Primitive Kaonde Tribe and Their Beliefs (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1923).

13 Christopher O. Davis, Death in Abeyance: Illness and Therapy Among the Tabwa of Central Africa (London: Edinburgh University Press, 2000).

14 Clearly this is a simplification; it raises the question of the meaning of magic. It does not mean that Africans themselves consider their lives to be governed by something called “magic.” Yet, I believe this statement can be helpful in assisting Westerners to understand what they will find on the ground in many parts of Africa. See Jim Harries, “The Magical Worldview in the African Church: What Is Going On?” Missiology: An International Review 24, no. 4 (October 2000): 487-502, for further details.

15 Maranz, 137.

16 I appreciate that English usage would not usually associate someone’s “whim” with being influenced by spiritual forces—this being one of the points in this study at which we meet with the limitations of English.

17 Maranz, 88. Ambiguity in one’s actions can throw evil spirits off one’s scent, so to speak.

18 Ibid., 30-31.

19 However that may be understood in their particular milieu.

20 In reference to “proceedings,” I mean things like the educational system, medical practices, administrative procedures and so on that, rather than having grown from the development of indigenous understanding, are transplanted foreign imports.

21 Maranz, 11.

22 Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1977 [1859]), preface,

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