FAQ: Aren’t Missionaries Really Just Colonists?

Someone recently asked us to address this accusation: “By developing an alphabet and insisting these indigenous peoples of color learn a written language, you are acting as oppressive Western colonists.”

While it is true that there are some similarities between missionaries and colonists (i.e. both left their home cultures and both come to bring about change) there are enormous differences. Here are a few:

We come to give.

Have you ever heard of King Leopold II of Belgium? If not, check out Dave’s blog HERE. King Leopold boldly came into Africa (specifically the region of the Congo) and claimed it for Belgium. Over the course of his reign in Africa, he murdered more people than Adolf Hitler! Why would he do such a thing? Rubber. He wanted rubber. He longed for the wealth that rubber could bring him and his country and he was willing to kill for it.

Unsurprisingly, we (who bear the same skin color as the colonists) are often greeted with suspicion. On more than one occasion people have asked us what we are really here for. It is difficult for Cameroonians to imagine white people coming to live in Africa unless they are here to take. However, for those who do know us, the suspicion has slowly begun to fade.

Just the other day, I had a neighbor come by and thank us for helping her put a roof on her house. She said that she never wants us to leave and if we ever do, she’ll cry and cry. I wonder how many people responded to the colonists that way. Did they cry when they left?

We are here to serve the Kwakum people by teaching the Bible, helping them learn to read and write in their language, delivering their babies, putting roofs over their heads, and bandaging them up. The people thank us all the time for coming here to help them. But I have never heard them say they were thankful for the colonists.

We promote mother-tongue usage.

A major, blaring difference between the colonists and what we are doing is that the colonists insisted that the people speak their language (in the case of our region in Cameroon: German and then French). Can you imagine being invaded by a foreign power, having them pillage your rain forest, and then having them insist that you speak their language? I’ve been told that if children spoke their mother-tongue in school, they would be beat.

In fact, while we were in France we learned about the French “civilizing mission.” The French looked at the Africans as “uncivilized.” Therefore, in coming to Africa they worked not only to take their resources, but saw themselves as humanitarians imparting culture to those without it. The result was not the imparting of culture to those without it, but an attempt to replace the African culture with the French.

Though some connect the “civilizing mission” to Christian missions, the distinction is huge. Our goal as missionaries is not to replace their culture, but to show them Christ. By nature, Christ does change culture, but not into French (or American) culture. Missions ought to result in a redeemed African culture with African Christians now worshipping Jesus in their own language. This is why we translate the Bible. The Bible is not American or French, it is meant for all people.

And so, we have devoted 6 years to studying the Kwakum language, looking to them as our teachers. Nothing screams service to them like learning their mother-tongue. Just today someone in the market heard me speaking in Kwakum and could not believe that a white woman would come and learn a minority language. She was surprised because (in spite of her expectations) we are not acting like colonists.

We persuade by love.

Just this week, I was with Kwakum friends near an old German fort, built before WWI. One of my friends pointed to a mango tree just in front of the fort and said that that was where the Germans had hung his grandfather. His father had been a leader in the community and resisted colonial orders. So, they hung him. King Leopold employed European men too work Africans to the bone. Then, if they did not produce enough, they cut off the limbs of their children. Colonists didn’t love the nationals. Colonists would go to any measure necessary to control them, even mutilation and murder. As believers, we are here to call the Kwakum to the Gospel and persuade not through force, but instead through love and service. In the words of Paul, “The love of God controls us” (2 Cor 5.14).

Aside from the fact that the work of the colonists and our work are nothing alike, I would like to also add that we are completely confident that, even though we are white and the Kwakum are black, we have an obligation to be here.

Jesus told us to GO!

In Matthew 28, Jesus gave the command to his Disciples (and by extension the disciples to come):

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matt 28 :19-20

This means that Jesus commanded Africans who have the Gospel to go to the whole world (even non-African nations). This command applies to white Americans, who are called to the whole world (even black Africa). Teaching someone to observe all of Christ’s commandments is not arrogant or oppressive because we are teaching his commands, not our own. Missionaries do not come to other countries to enforce their culture upon the people. Instead they invite people to follow Christ, be forgiven, and inherit eternal life. Christ is the center of Christian missions, not the missionary’s own culture/language/traditions.

We as believers do not take our cues from whatever ideologies are floating around in American culture, but instead rest on the timeless command of Jesus Christ. People can twist this command and make it sound like something oppressive, but (at the end of the day) we really don’t care what they say.

The Kwakum want us here

Another reason that we feel we have the right to be here is because the Kwakum themselves want us here. When we first came to Cameroon on a vision trip in 2010, we toured around the country speaking with different people groups. In eight different meetings, with representatives from eight different people groups, we were encouraged, exhorted, and even bribed to come. People don’t beg their oppressors to oppress them.

In addition, our neighbors who never had the opportunity to go to school (which is the majority) bemoan the fact that they don’t know how to read. There is a longing deep in the heart of all people to learn. People come to my house all the time, maybe once a month, asking me to teach them either to read or write or to teach them Bible. I even had a white European nun come by the other day to ask me if I would teach her how to read, write, and speak Kwakum.

I say all of this to show that the idea that we are forcing the Kwakum learn to read and write is absurd. We are not forcing anyone, we are giving them what they are asking for and they are tremendously grateful. I tell my national colleagues all the time that we are a team – we are here to help them learn reading and writing and translation principles and they are here to help us speak their language, teach their people, and ensure that the Bible is translated well into Kwakum. There is a beautiful solidarity among white and black here which is unfortunately not being recognized by many in the States.

It is more than a little ironic that the Americans leveling colonization accusations argue based on American presuppositions. They attack missionaries across an ocean, assuming they know what is best for the Africans. Were they to come, sit down, and discuss the issues with our neighbors, they would walk away with a very different perspective. I’m sure that not every Kwakum person wants us here, but honestly, the only reason we live where we do is because Kwakum people begged us to come.

To conclude, based on the Great Commission, Christians from any country have the right (even the obligation) to enter into all nations and teach people about Christ. As a friend said, there is no “melanin clause” restricting Christ’s commands to certain races. And we must honor Christ, even when American culture calls us names. There is a lot of talk about privilege in America. Especially after spending time in Cameroon, I know that I am privileged. But I believe that the Lord caused me to be born into privilege so that I could go to the underprivileged and share. And we have done so hoping to see these Kwakum people become privileged in this life and in the life to come.


Author: Stacey Hare

Stacey is a servant of Jesus Christ as well as a wife, mom, linguist, and Bible translator among the Kwakum people of Cameroon.