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Rescuing the memories of our people

31 March 2009

For many years I’ve kept a database of African Independent Churches, (AICs) and at times I get strange requests from people wanting information from it.

This week I got a request from the Office of the Presidency, wanting to update their list of stakeholders.

Most requests are from people who’ve been wanting addresses of churches to mail stuff to, or to do surveys about responses to Aids and such things.

But it isn’t that kind of database.

I started it when I was teaching missiology at the University of South Africa (Unisa), and in particular a third-year undergraduate course called Mission as African Initiative: African Independent Churches.

I had to mark student assignments, and then I had to revise the study guide for the course, and one thing I discovered was that most of the books on the topic were full of generalisations, and the students made even more generalisations.

There are some 10000-20000 African Independent Churches in Africa, ranging in size from single congregations that meet under a tree on a Sunday afternoon to several million in the case of the Zion Christian Church (probably the largest single Christian denomination in South Africa) and the Kimbanguist Church in the DRC.  Some of them have spread to other continents as well.

With such a large number of different denominations, there is a huge variety of theology and practice, but it is difficult to get a picture of this because information is scattered in a variety of places. There are passing references to such bodies in books and articles, and in archival papers, but very little information about any single body, except the largest ones.

So I thought it would be useful to establish a database to collect information about each body, and gather the scattered references into a single place, which might be useful to church historians and missiologists wanting to write the history of a single church, or churches in a particular place, or tracing how Christianity has spread in Africa.

So most of the information I collected was historical — the name of the church (and names changed, and there were often nicknames as well), the name of the founder and later leaders, which body it seceded from, if any, and notes of its history, its theology, its practices and so on, where these were available. If information about addresses is available, I include it, but very often the addresses are not current, and the main purpose is not to have a current address list, but historical and missiological information.

I began the database as a pilot project and suggested to my colleagues in the missiology department at Unisa that it become a department project. Discussions were also held with the church history department, and that is where academic politics reared their ugly head.

I envisaged a database that could continually be added to, a growing resource for researchers. But some of my colleagues (who shall remain nameless) had different ideas. They envisaged a publication, and the main question shifted from what information should be collected and how it should be stored to the question of whose name should be on the publication as editor, and who would get the academic brownie points. At that point I lost interest in the discussion.

Eventually a project was started, under the aegis of the Research Institute for Religion and Theology (RITR) at Unisa. A few hundred thousand rand was spent for field workers to go and collect information from various AICs, and the information they collected was stored on a computer somewhere in the university. I wasn’t consulted, but at one point I was allowed a brief glimpse of the information in the database. It had a lot of useful stuff, but clearly needed editing. At one point I offered to do that as part of a broader project of making missiological abstracts available on CD — producing a CD which would have missiological journal abstracts and the AIC database (from my pilot project combined with the information collected by the field workers). This was rejected by the university authorities, so I just continued my pilot project on my own, adding information as I have time and opportunity, and not having several hundred thousand rand to spend on it.

In 2002 I went to a church history conference in Rome, on Rescuing the memories of our people. It had missiologists, church historians and archivists from 40 countries discussing the problem of preserving the history of Christianity, especially in poor countries. Much was being done, but much was also not being done.

Much information has been collected, and much has been lost. Sometimes it has been lost because of lack of funds, or because of wars and natural disasters. One researcher spoke of the wars in the north-eastern Congo, which had caused many records to be lost, but also the sufferings of people in the wars was something that itself deserved to be recorded.

But in South Africa much information has been lost through carelessness, bureaucratic incompetence or academic ambition.

Here are a few instances.

  1. The RITR database. I have already mentioned this, but there is perhaps more to say. I offered to make the information ready for distribution, and add it to that which I had already collected. The offer was refused, but the question remains — what has happened to the database? Is it lying, forgotten, on some computer somewhere in the university? Or was it trashed when some computer was upgraded? The point is that no one seems to care. All they care about is that when they started the research project they got a government subsidy to do the project, and the project appeared in the reports as research done by the university. The results of the research don’t matter, what matters is the subsidy and the reports that the work is being done. So the government is pouring research funds into a bottomless pit, where the results of the research are never used and are simple lost or trashed or forgotten. This happened wiith an earlier research project as well, when Allan Anderson investigated churches in Soshanguve. Once his book was published and the research subsidy received, the data he collected was forgotten, or tossed out.
  2. The Department of Physical Planning. When I first started my pilot database in the early 1990s I was contacted by someone from the government Department of Physical Planning. They had put information on some 7500 AICs on a database. They gave me a list of the names of the denominations, but no other information, which they said was confidential. They compiled the database because Christian denominations are always applying for church sites in various places, so they wanted information to see which bodies were applying, how many other sites they had applied for and so on. That’s fair enough, but I wonder what has happened to the database, and whether the Office of the Presidency knows about it, and is able to make use of it. I replied to their request by suggesting that they use that, but I don’t know if they will have any joy in it. I suspect that, like the RITR database, it has been forgotten, lost or trashed.
  3. The Christian Institute. Another example is of a research project into AICs in Soweto commissioned by the Christian Institute in the 1970s. A researcher, Martin West, collected a lot of information on denominations in Soweto, which he used to write a book Bishops and prophets in a black city, published in 1975. He did not use all the information collected in the book, but the information he did collect would have been enormously valuable for church historians and missiologists and others wanting to track the growth of Christianity in Africa. The Christian Institute was banned in 1977, and all its records, including, presumably, Martin West’s research, was seized by the Security Police, and has disappeared from public view. With the end of apartheid, the Security Police were disbanded, but what happened to these materials? Someone once told me that they were destroyed when a pipe burst in a basement where they were stored, but there were no details, no confirmation.

So I continue with my little database, with no subsidy, no academic support. I do it because I think it is important to rescue the memories of our people.  I sometimes get requests from people for information from it, sometimes from researchers to whom it may be useful. And sometimes from people who are just looking for addresses for their mailing lists. It is much more rare for people to contribute information to it. But if anyone would like to help to rescue the memories of our people, there is more information about the database, and how you can contribute, here.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. 31 March 2009 11:36 am

    Greetings, Steve! Good to hear your voice again, and most encouraging to learn that your unique database keeps puttering along. What you are doing is so worthwhile. Grace and peace to you.

  2. Angus Crichton permalink
    5 April 2009 7:16 pm

    Thank you for telling the story of AIC database including some of its more disturbing elements. This story raises awkward questions about why we do research and for whose benefit. You observe: ‘The results of the research don’t matter, what matters is the subsidy and the reports that the work is being done.’ I’m based in Uganda. I have identified over 50 Post-graduate theses on Ugandan Christianity. The research in these theses is either unpublished or if it is published, is done so in the global north, so we never see it in Uganda because the publications are too expensive. Consequently we cannot access this research where we need it most – Uganda!! Thank you for your work in preserving memories of AICs across the continent.

  3. Justin Long permalink
    17 April 2009 12:10 am

    I wonder about putting all of this information into a wiki that others could add to/edit in a controlled fashion, via the Internet?

    • 17 April 2009 5:48 am

      Justin

      That could be a possibility, though wikis are not so good for extracting statistical information – like the number of churches with “Zion”, “Apostolic” or “Ethiopian” in their names. Or, as someone has asked me, a lost of sabbatarian churches,

      A second problem is that very few people have been willing to contribute information to the existing database, though all it takes is a simple e-mail.

      They tell me they are doing research, and could IO send them information about churches in, say, Malawi. All I ask is that when their research has progressed they send me some basic information about churches they’ve investigated, to improve the database, but they very rarely do. Allan Anderson sent me some for a book he was publishing, but very few others.

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