Picture of Moab, Jordan.

Request for funds for follow-up day at Kericho Women’s Prison: On February 2, Resilient Woman of Africa plans a follow-up day with 15 released prisoners and 25 mentors who had previously taken the basic HROC workshop. The objective is to evaluate the Kericho program: What have the trainees done with the training? Has it been helpful to them? Have they identified new entrants from prison returning to the community? How are the existing mentor/mentee relationships? There will also be a discussion in partnership with African Gospel Church for evaluation and plans for a six-day Healing Companion training in March or April. The next day they will visit Kericho Women’s Prison to distribute clothes for children who are staying with their mothers in the prison. They need $175 for this follow-up. If you would like to contribute to this, please email me at davidzarembka@gmail.com and I’ll recommend the best way to get the funds to Kenya.

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The conventional wisdom is that Christianity is declining in America and Europe but thriving in other places such as sub-Saharan Africa. Many reasons are given for this. I would like to add another reason that might help to understand this: African culture today is much more similar to the conditions related in the Bible than those of modern capitalist consumer American/European society. In other word the Bible speaks more directly to Africans than it does to Americans/Europeans. I will take as my illustration the short Biblical book of Ruth. See https://www.biblestudytools.com/ruth/1.html for the text.

As a pacifist I find disturbing those parts of the Bible that speak of politics, kings, judges, fighting, wars, ethnic cleaning, and genocide (as we define it today). The story of Ruth, on the other hand, is uplifting and told from the women’s point of view. As I take you through the story I will highlight those passages where East Africans more closely relate than Americans/Europeans.

1:1. In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land. So a man from Bethlehem in Judah, together with his wife and two sons, went to live for a while in the country of Moab.

Africans are very used to famines, sometimes meaning that there is little or no harvest whatsoever. Almost all of them will know of relatives who at one time or another moved away from their home area to more fertile, well-watered areas. This kind of migration has not occurred in the United States since the 1930s dust bowl. Moab is on the east bank of the Dead Sea. In African terminology the Moabites are a different tribe with a different language, customs, and religion. Although in other parts of the Bible, the Moabites are considered enemies of the Israelites, Naomi and her family are welcomed and well received. Could an African who moved into an all-White neighborhood in the US these days, feel so welcomed?

1:3 – 5. Now Elimelek, Naomi’s husband, died, and she was left with her two sons. They married Moabite women, one named Orpah and the other Ruth. After they had lived there about ten years, both Mahlon and Kilion also died, and Naomi was left without her two sons and her husband.

Africans can relate to the fact that, when young men migrate to another community, they are likely to marry local girls. As the story develops, as in Africa, the wives from another tribe become assimilated into their husbands’ tribe.

 1:8 – 9. Then Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home. May the Lord show you kindness, as you have shown kindness to your dead husbands and to me.  May the Lord grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.”

At this point, Naomi has little prospects for taking care of her daughters-in-law and graciously allows them to return to their Moab homes with her blessings. Africans would certainly appreciate the nobility of her request.

1:11 – 13. But Naomi said, “Return home, my daughters. Why would you come with me? Am I going to have any more sons, who could become your husbands? Return home, my daughters; I am too old to have another husband. Even if I thought there was still hope for me—even if I had a husband tonight and then gave birth to sons – would you wait until they grew up? Would you remain unmarried for them?

When you read this passage, did you like an African, chuckle at the absurdity of this statement? To understand it properly, one needs to understand the concept of wife inheritance which was once common here in eastern Africa. When a husband dies, the wife is inherited by the oldest surviving brother-in-law so that she and her children remain in the family. Naomi suggests that she is too old to marry again and then have sons who, when they would grew up, would inherit her two widowed daughters-in-law. For this to happen, they would be a generation older than their new husbands and probably near the end of their child-bearing years.

1:16 – 17. But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.”

Here Ruth re-emphasizes that she has agreed to be assimilated into a foreign culture. I know many Kenyan women who have made this same choice.

1:20 – 21. “Don’t call me Naomi, [which means “pleasant]” she told them. “Call me Mara, [which means “bitter”] because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The Lord has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.”

Africans, particularly African women, can well relate to her great misfortune of losing her husband and her sons.

2:2. And Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, “Let me go to the fields and pick up the leftover grain behind anyone in whose eyes I find favor.”

“Picking the left over grain” which is called “gleaning” is still a common practice here in Kenya where poor people harvest for their own use any leftover grain after a field has been harvested. When we drive past the large farms on our way to Eldoret after the harvest, we can see a large number of people who are gleaning the fields.

2:8 – 9. So Boaz said to Ruth, “My daughter, listen to me. Don’t go and glean in another field and don’t go away from here. Stay here with the women who work for me.  Watch the field where the men are harvesting, and follow along after the women. I have told the men not to lay a hand on you. And whenever you are thirsty, go and get a drink from the water jars the men have filled.”

2:22. Naomi said to Ruth her daughter-in-law, “It will be good for you, my daughter, to go with the women who work for him, because in someone else’s field you might be harmed.”

Note the two passages which I have emphasized with bold print. Women in Africa, particularly those in crisis regions such as eastern Congo, well realize how vulnerable women are when the go out to collect firewood or work in their gardens. They can easily be attacked and raped. Naomi is vigilant in her cautious advice to Ruth.

2:14. At mealtime Boaz said to her, “Come over here. Have some bread and dip it in the wine vinegar.” When she sat down with the harvesters, he offered her some roasted grain. She ate all she wanted and had some left over.

One of the Kenyan delicacies is maize (corn) roasted over a charcoal fire.

3:15. He also said, “Bring me the shawl you are wearing and hold it out.” When she did so, he poured into it six measures of barley and placed the bundle on her.

This is the custom also here in Kenya. When a person comes for a feast, to be polite there must be mountains of food, much more than the guests can eat. Then leftovers are given to the guests to take home. In this case “six measure of barley” seems like a lot, but then Boaz was courting Ruth.

4:2. Boaz took ten of the elders of the town and said, “Sit here,” and they did so.

This is the custom here in Kenya also. When some important manner comes up, elders are invited to listen to the case and give their opinions and in this case their blessings. My late first mother-in-law, Priscilla Matete, used to sometimes complain that my late father-in-law, Wilson Malinda, spent too much time at these deliberations of elders.

4:10. I have also acquired Ruth the Moabite, Mahlon’s widow, as my wife, in order to maintain the name of the dead with his property, so that his name will not disappear from among his family or from his hometown.

This concern on family inheritance is also important here in East Africa.

5:15. He will renew your life and sustain you in your old age. For your daughter-in-law, who loves you and who is better to you than seven sons, has given him birth.”

In traditional society here a woman needs to give birth. A son (which is what happened in this case) is considered preferable because daughters will move away to live with their husbands while the son will stay at home and later be responsible for the care of his parents in their old age. This usually goes to the oldest son. In Gladys case there were only seven sisters in the family so Gladys as the eldest daughter, was the one who took most responsibility for her parents when they grew old.

5:16 – 17. Then Naomi took the child in her arms and cared for him. The women living there said, “Naomi has a son!”

This is very common in East Africa where the grandparents take responsibility for the grandchildren. Gladys and I are doing this now with one grandson, a second grandson where the mother is present (as one assumes was the case with Naomi and Ruth), two grand-nephews, and one grand-niece. Of the six surviving daughters in Gladys’ family five are taking care of at least one grandchild. I once saw a bumper sticker on a car in the US which said, “If I knew how much fun grandchildren were, I would have had them first.”

I hope that this explanation shows why East Africa culture is closer to the Bible than current culture in the United States or Europe. How much this explains the fading of Christianity in the US/Europe and the resonance it has with Africans is open to interpretation. My own opinion is that for American/European culture the Bible is “out-of-date.” I have no idea how this can be made more relevant in the US and Europe when many consider the Bible as set in “stone” and can’t be changed.

For a thought experience, how would the Naomi/Ruth story need to be re-written to reflect current American/European culture?

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From 1998 to 2016, David Zarembka was the Coordinator of the African Great Lakes Initiative of the Friends Peace Teams. He continues his peacemaking work in East Africa with Transforming Community for Social Change (TCSC) and Friends Church Peace Team (FCPT). He has been involved with East and Central Africa since 1964 when he taught Rwandan refugees in Tanzania. David is married to Gladys Kamonya and lives in western Kenya. David is the author of A Peace of Africa: Reflections on Life in the Great Lakes Region. He is an analyst on eastern Africa issues for TVC News in Lagos, Nigeria.

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David Zarembka

Transforming Community for Social Change (TCSC)

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Reports from Kenya: www.davidzarembka.com/

Email: davidzarembka@gmail.com

Webpage: transformingcommunityforsocialchange.wordpress.com/

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