Thursday, June 26, 2008

Project Kara Pokot

I am fond of telling my students “Learn the questions, before giving the answers. Too many times we are giving answers to questions people aren’t asking.” Part of the reason I am passionate about that statement is because in my preparation for ministry I was never taught the importance of learning the questions. I launched into ministry in Kenya believing I had the answers, having gone through Bible College and pastoring in Texas for five years. My denomination had (has) a mission philosophy, which in essences states, the primary importance in doing God’s work is (a) preach the word and (b) be faithful. After all, it’s His work, we just need to present His message and let Him use it as He sees fit. This philosophy of missions (wrongly in my opinion) is still prevalent among many mission organizations and missionaries today.

After my wife and I completed language school in Limuru we moved to the western part of the country. Though we were invited to work in Eldoret by two other missionary families, I was drawn to areas where there was little or no missionary activity (Rom 15:20). Eventually our ministry focus was among two semi-nomadic tribes of the northwest bush, the Pokot and Turkana. It was working with these people, who were animist, that I came to understand that, though I had the answers to their greatest need i.e., to know the true and living God, I didn’t know how to make the message understandable to them. It wasn’t until my second term in Africa before I heard the word “contextualization.” Their worldview of misfortune, family, values, life-after-death, was not anything I learned in my hermeneutics class in college or in my ministry in the Bible-belt of the US. Confronted with what I didn’t know I began the quest of learning the questions before giving the answers.

Learning the questions is not easy and in fact is labor intensive. The first place to learn the questions is through research. For me, in the late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s, before the Internet, it was reading books and journals. I learned about contextualization, syncretism, dynamic equivalence, the purpose of arranged marriages, polygamy, cattle worldview and the role of witchdoctor, initially through reading. Determined to learn more about the questions, my furloughs were dedicated to taking classes to help me understand what I didn’t know so I could better determine the best way to give the answer. In this process of discovery I spent a number of days, weeks and months in the bush of Pokot, living in a mud hut (picture above), formally and structurally considering a people that were totally different from what I perceive as norm. My pursuit of learning the questions continues today as I read and teach others on the process of mining the complexities of culture and religion.

In 2009, 18 years after the publication of my doctoral dissertation on the social organization of the Kara Pokot, I am making plans on moving back down to the desert for a few months to do a follow-up study of this pastoral tribe. Since nothing remains static, how have the Pokot changed since those days I first worked with them back in 1976?

More on Project Kara Pokot next time.