Relationships, Money and South-West Interaction

Jeremiah Agbeshie | July 2023

Ever since the South and West came into contact, there have been various interactions and relations which have had both positive and negative consequences. These interactions continue today in various forms. Two spheres of this South-West interaction dating back to the first contact are Christianity and commerce. While both parties have developed significantly in both areas, independently and cooperatively, there is still room for improvement, especially when Christianity and finance merge in Christian missions.

It is, therefore, expedient for both parties to understand the foundational perspective that the ‘other’ has on human relationships and financial resources. In particular, foreign Christian organizations interested in partnership with African Christians and communities must be acquainted with African perspectives on approaches to relationships and money, both in Africa and in the West.

Common in African mythology is the belief in a shared ancestry, a man and a woman created by the Supreme Being and from whom the whole human race emanated. This is the basis for the strong communal ties among African clans and ethnic groups as well as the continued veneration of ancestors and consultation of deities and spiritual media. Human relationships in Africa are usually classified as horizontal and vertical – with fellow humans and physical entities and with divinity and spiritual entities (Elizabeth and Nwadialor, 2013). Human relationships are regarded as one of the most important needs of Africans. What it means to be human is not merely based on the value of the individual, but related to a communal network expressed in responsibility and obligations in a community. This is well captured in the philosophy of Ubuntu “I am because we are; and since we are, therefore I am.” Human relationships are expressed in many ways which include, but are not limited, to the family system, cooperative obligations, solidarity and hospitality. Communal relations also extended to personal and communal economic development. For example, friends and relatives come together to help with work on one’s farm without any form of payment. Similarly, individuals pool their resources together to help each other.

Before the introduction of money there existed forms of economic engagement within African communities. Barter trading was the common mode of doing business. It involved exchanging both goods and services. Africans were introduced to monetary currency by Arab merchants and later by Western traders. Cowries gained purchasing power before the introduction of coins and notes. Money also began to imbibe power because of its universal purchasing ability. This is reflected in the words for money and proverbs in various African tribes. Sika ye mogya is an Akan saying that suggests that money is blood (life). Among the Ewes in Ghana and Togo, the word for money is egá, which means chief. Thus, the holder of money is a ruler over those who do not have it. Africans are known for beseeching God and spiritual entities for prosperity and wealth. Since money has replaced their traditional economic entities, money is understood as a resource received from God. This gives money a spiritual dimension. In African Christianity money plays a major role in carrying connotations of sacrifice. Amongt the Akan, the Twi word aforebo denotes sacrifice and is used to refer to money given as an offering in church. This is at especially the case in African Pentecostalism in which money is seen as an indicator of divine blessings in what is termed ‘the prosperity gospel’ or ‘prosperity theology’. Regardless of its spiritual dimension, money is seen as foreign and an imposition on Africans which has replaced traditional entities and structures in Africa, such as authority and exchange in the barter system, with a positive effect on economic life and a negative effect on human relationships. Money has become the measure of things instead of humans, and the elders keep warning the younger generation of this fact. In the Akan community there is a saying which depicts the limitation of money: onipa na ohia: mefre sika a sika ngye so; mefre ntoma a ntoma ngye so; onipa na ohia, which loosely translates as “humans are important: if I call money, money will not respond; if I call cloth, it will not respond; humans are important.” This saying is a caution that nothing should replace humans and human relationships.

Africans have also developed perceptions of the West and its culture. They see the West as characterized by secularization, which means the decline, relegation and differentiation of religion. As a result, the significance of a vertical relationship is downplayed. From an African perspective, human relationships in the West are individualistic compared to the communal one in Africa. Values are personal and not necessarily determined by a community. This does not mean the West is less humanistic or has little regard for human values. No community has promoted and legalized human rights in the world more than in the West. The challenge, as seen from an African perspective, is that in the West a person is as valuable as what they can offer. Therefore, value diminishes with age. Thus, while elders are celebrated and properly cared for by their relatives in African communities, elders are of less significance in Western communities. Individualism is characterized by the pursuit of success, personal choices and no strict obligation to the community unless specified by law. Thus, in the West, one's obligation is more to the self than to the community. These African perceptions may not be entirely true and the West may have tangible reasons for this way of life.

I draw largely from Jim Harries’ experience in Africa, which shows how money and human relationships merge (Harries 2017). Jim Harries, who has spent decades in a number of African countries, shares his personal experience on relationships, money and Western-African Christian missions. Harries notes that since money is God-given, a person with money to give is God-sent or God-like. Africans are likely to see rich foreigners as God-sent, and as they seek to enter a relationship with Africans, their communal obligation to supply financial sources is desperately needed in African communities. This also means that refusing to give or share is another way of saying no to a relationship. This also makes Africans dependent on Westerners and foreign aid in ways that can be unhealthy. Again because of this African perception that money is given by God, the search for money in the form of donations and gifts is prioritized over working for money. Therefore, the African, as noted by Harries, has an unapologetic habit of constantly asking for aid, which among some African Christians is a sign of faith and trust in God. It is obvious that both Africans and Westerners are naive about each other's perspectives on relationships and money. I agree with Harries that Westerners should make an effort to understand Africans once they assume the position of donors. Therefore, any collaboration and partnership must be preceded by ample interaction and dialogue. Westerners should not only send aid or visit when a project is about to commence. Rather they should build relationships with the community ahead of time. Dialogue with Africans will open lines of communication. This will allow Westerners to explain their background and expectations while learning from their African counterparts.  Through this, Westerners can also adopt African ways such as limited disclosure, non-verbal ways of saying “no”, and avoiding direct confrontations, among others.

Reference List

Ezenweke, Elizabeth Onyedinma and Loius Kanayo Nwadialor, “Understanding Human Relations in African Traditional Religious Context in the Face of Globalization: Nigerian Perspectives,” American International Journal of Contemporary Research 3, no. 2 (2013): 62.

Harries, Jim. “The Place of Money in Mission between Africa and the Rest: A Personal Theological Narrative.” In Wealth, Health, and Hope in African Christian Religion, edited by Stan Chu Ilo, 181-200. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2018.

Jeremiah Agbeshie is a doctoral student in Intercultural Theology at the Protestant Theological University in Groningen, the Netherlands.

(This blog is based on a contribution to an NZR Round Table Conversation on Mission and Money, which was held on 26 April, 2023. A longer version can be found on the NZR website here.)

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