Lamin Sanneh’s Summoned from the Margin: Homecoming of an African (Eerdmans, 2012) is a wonderfully evocative memoir of moving from childhood Islam in Gambia to a faith in Christ that many churches feared to recognize.
Sanneh, born in 1942, is now a Yale history professor who studies world missions. He describes how parts of Africa suffer from “a state of general resignation that the collective imagination attributes to the will of God. … Being unemployed is the will of God.” Sanneh describes the consequences of foreign aid: “The expectation of financial gifts from America created something of a feeding frenzy. All stories had the mercenary ambition of establishing relationship. … The closer the relationship with a would-be helper, the higher the sense of entitlement, and the more readily aroused the spirit of resentment.”
In a sense, the hope of Western help brings out the worst tendencies already present in the culture: “Although people value relationships, they are not much curious about personal details and experiences. In fact, their interest seems to be motivated by hope of reward. Someone will greet you or offer you a gift only to turn round and ask you to do them a favor. … There is no word in the language for thank you.” Instead, people commonly say “a-baraka, derived from the Arabic, [which] means ‘may you be favored,’ in the sense of ‘may you do me more favors.’ Separately and together the terms are fundamentally terms of self-interest.”
Sanneh corrects cultural misunderstandings: “What to a Western eye looks like childhood of deprivation, is to the African a stage of life brimming with assets of childhood enrichment. The African child lives in a close, crowded world, a world teeming with faces and sounds and movements.” But he doesn’t defend his buddies who grew up to “understand religion as what is useful … a charm of good fortune, the sacred text a tablet of manners, customs, and duties, and blessing is material benefit, what people call nafaa. You have children so they may be an answer to prayer as nafaa to you, as ‘a bar of soap’ to you, not so that they may fulfill themselves in their own right.”
Since America may be on its way to legalizing polygamy, men would do well to remember Sanneh’s description of the results: “the husband’s weakened influence; individually or in concert, the co-wives are the prime movers in the domestic sphere. … At any given point in the week or month, the man is on a time ration in the house of one wife or another … a gypsy conjugal life. … It is rare that a father would know the birthdays of his children, let alone be at home to celebrate them—which home, exactly?”
Once Sanneh becomes an adult believer in Christ, his memoir has a pathetic side: No church wants him, because the rare Christian converts in Muslim communities “keep their faith quiet. … This arrangement gives Muslims the confidence that they hold the high ground vis-a-vis Christians; after all, only an inferior religion would agree to such terms. … Churches were required to collaborate with Muslims in maintaining the sealed borders with Islam, and even to turning a blind eye to Christians crossing over.”
In the United States during the 1960s and 1970s many churches also were reluctant to have him: Since Sanneh took the physical resurrection of Jesus seriously, one minister “appeared to bristle at the thought that I did not seem to be completely reconciled to the modernist project in theology.” Sanneh wanted to study theology, but liberal churchmen told him he should learn about feeding the hungry—and some conservatives were racist.
Recently, when Muslim friends asked Sanneh about conversion, he replied, “You must be out of your mind to contemplate such a thing. … I would not wish on anyone the exposure of conversion compounded by the ambivalence of church and Christian groups.” Why, then, did Sanneh become a Christian? “Because I was out of my mind.” Amen.