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Community of Life: Ecological Theology in African Perspective

by Harvey Sindima

Harvey Sindima, a Presbyterian minister, was born and raised in Malawi. He graduated from the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Blantyre, Malawi, and did postgraduate work at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, and at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta. His Ph.D. in religion and society is from Princeton Theological Seminary. He is author of Community of Life: Foundations for Religious and Political Transformation (forthcoming) and Drums of Freedom: African Theology (forthcoming). This essay originally appeared as chapter 10,pp. 137-147 in Charles Birch, William Eaken and Jay B. McDaniel (eds.) Liberating Life: Contemporary Approaches in Ecological Theology, published 1990 by Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York 10545. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.

That Christian theology throughout its history has been transformed by sources outside of Christianity is a well-known fact. That it should be open to transformation through the insights of the various traditions, that it should be open to the possibilities of creative transformation by contact with the wisdom and vision of other sources, is highly controversial. Many of the authors in this book, however, are committed to such openness as an essential part of their own Christianity. Moreover, most would argue that we must repent of some aspects of the Christian experience that have been exploitive or destructive to peoples and to nature. In this essay African theologian Harvey Sindima proposes a traditional African view of life and community, which opposes the mechanistic world view that has so dominated Christianity in the West since the Enlightenment. It is the mechanistic world view, imported to Africa, which has been largely responsible for many eco-crises faced by Africa and which has led us in many ways to the global crises we face today.

How we think about the world affects the way we live in it. In particular, our understanding of nature -- our cosmology -- affects the way we understand ourselves, the way we relate to other people, and, of course, the way we relate to the earth and other forms of life. For some time the people of Africa have been influenced by a cosmology inherited from the West: the mechanistic perspective that views all things as lifeless commodities to be understood scientifically and to be used for human ends. Yet these people have an alternative way of looking at the world, an alternative cosmology, which can better serve their needs for cultural development and social justice in an ecologically responsible context. This alternative way might be called a life-centered way, since it stresses the bondedness, the interconnectedness, of all living beings. In what follows I will (1) examine the sort of cosmology imposed on African thinking by the West and (2) explore the traditional African view of creation and life as a healthy alternative to this vision. The chapter is divided into two sections corresponding to these aims.

The Problem

The Mechanistic World View

The problems that are arising from a misuse of science and technology -- our loss of ecological balance, for example -- demand that we look seriously at different ways of thinking and living in the world. The present ways of understanding the world and the models of living informed by these views are leading humanity to self-destruction. The African concept of the bondedness of life, to which I will return in the second part of this chapter, is a viable alternative that could provide a foundation for a doctrine of creation and for the transformation of society. If a vision of the bondedness of all life informed and regulated the structures and actions of government and church, it would transform the way socio-political, economic, and ecological decisions were made. The ministries of the church -- preaching, pastoral care, and the church’s general involvement in the life of the people and nature -- would be transformed.

What prevents the traditional vision of the bondedness of all things from influencing government policies and church ministries in Africa? The answer to this all-important question obliges us to analyze the last two centuries or so of Africa’s socio-political biography. During that period the West intensified its contacts with Africa because of the growing demand for African resources and labor overseas. The early titles of the African novelist Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart and No Longer at Ease, capture what happened in the two centuries following this intensified contact. Achebe’s novels show the African attempt to fight against European domination of thought and values.

The West introduced a system of thought and a manner of living new to Africa. This system of thought manifested itself in various ways, particularly in a cultural imperialism, which was taught in schools and preached in the churches. Any system of domination uses three modes of control: coercion and reward; dependence; and thought control (Baker). The last mode is the most subtle of all forms and is a technique that seeks to uproot a people and impose on that people a value system different from their own, doing so until the people become obsessed with the values so imposed. The higher one’s education, the greater his or her disorientation. This disorientation process begins with corrupting thought and language, for people interpret and understand their experience or reality, that is, their cosmology, through these media. Consequently, people’s emotions and relationships become conditioned by a new "reality." If a people’s thought system is corrupted, their value system is destroyed; the "world" or cosmology that informs their way of life has been ruined. This corruption continues as long as the people do not come to a realization of who they are. Without such self-consciousness a people cannot reject the disorienting language, that is, the process of alienation becomes total. This is what Western cultural imperialism sought to do to Africans.

With the imposition of Western cultural views, the African hermeneutical process -- the process by which African people appropriated their own heritage -- became so impaired that the Africans ceased to understand their world through their own cultural system or through the symbolic interpretation given by their cosmology. Today this impairment prevents the traditional concept of the bondedness of life from being an organized logic informing African life and practice.

In this chapter I use the word mechanistic to refer to that view of the world and its attendant manner of living that informed the thinking and behavior of the Westerners who brought this impairment. The mechanistic view takes the world to be like a machine with many parts, each working according to the laws of nature. To understand the world, one has only to know these laws. Society, as well, is conceived as a megamachine1 in which nature and people are objectified. The model of living in this megamachine is accordingly mechanical. People are seen as atomistic individuals whose interactions and interrelationships are valued according to function and utility alone. Feelings and emotional needs are not important. Hence, concern and care do not enter everyday living. Moral conduct in a mechanistic society is often guided by self-interest, and often there is no agreement on what is "moral." Mechanistic society undermines the ties that bind persons and their communities to one another and to the cosmos.

The mechanistic perspective which has now shaped Africa itself has a history, originating in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries with work in philosophy and science by thinkers such as Descartes, Bacon, Newton, and others. In this era, nature was reduced to mathematics or transformed into quantitative physical phenomena which could be grasped by rationality. Nature was purely other and merely material to be subjugated and manipulated. It had only instrumental value, determined by the extent to which people could use it. With this vision of nature in place, the stage was set for the rise of materialistic philosophy and its attendant manner of life. This way of life has captivated much of Western civilization ever since, and has been exported to all places this civilization has gone in its quest of material resources and to fulfill its expansionist philosophy.

Part of the mechanistic perspective involves adherence to the myth of progress. For Descartes, Bacon, and Newton, science implied unlimited growth. Technology became the application of the rules of nature established by science to specific needs for human ends. Through science and technology, human mastery over nature seemed complete and progress assured.

The notion of progress has been very compelling in Western civilization. Many believed progress was the way in which misery would be eliminated in the world. However, as the centuries have shown, the alliance of progress, science, and technology has not eliminated misery. On the contrary, destitution has emerged and the future of all creation hangs in the balance. Progress through (industrial) technology creates exploitation of resources and people and has often damaged the ecological balance and threatened the livelihood of those who depend upon that balance. This alliance of progress, science, and technology has led to social, ecological, and spiritual bankruptcy.


Let us consider some examples of this exploitation. First, the ivory trade. The demand for ivory abroad is the reason for the large decrease of elephants in Africa. But elephants play a very important role in the ecological balance. They contribute significantly to the welfare of other animals. Elephants are the only animals with an extra sense to locate water in the ground. With their tusks elephants make a hole in the ground to get at water as deep as three feet below the surface. Elephants drink about sixty-five gallons of water at a given time. They also like mud because they play and bathe in it. Furthermore, mud serves as moisturizer for their unusually dry skin. Because of this great need for water, elephants make a hole in the ground large enough for their massive bodies. In the process they make a pool from which other animals find water they need. This explains why many animals are found in areas where elephants are in large numbers. Kill elephants for their tusks to satisfy aesthetic beauty abroad, and many animals will die of thirst at home. The ecological balance to which elephants have contributed is destroyed.

Ecological balance is also destroyed when people want to take more from nature at one time than nature’s internal mechanism allows for the balance of the system. Science has the ability to promote life when rightly applied, but its potential to destroy ecological systems is great. Informed by marine biologists, an effort was made in the 1960s to increase tonnage of fish caught in Lake Victoria, Africa’s largest lake. To increase tonnage, marine biologists recommended introduction of Nile perch, some of which grow to be six feet long. The perch took to the lake with a vengeance and have destroyed scores of all fish. Once again, the ecological balance was changed. It does not take much thinking to know that the introduction of the perch into Victoria had a negative result for the people who depend on the lake for their livelihood and protein. The desired increased tonnage is still in the future!

Attempts for high productivity may be appropriate, but the price and who will pay the price must always be taken into account. Usually it is those already struggling to make ends meet who pay the price for national gambles. Science, or at least its technological application, has much to answer for in Africa in this respect. In the name of high productivity Africans were encouraged to use fertilizers. Most of these fertilizers were not tested for the particular soils in which they were being used. This resulted in the use of the wrong types of fertilizers. Consequently, soils were burnt with the wrong salts applied to them and made unable to produce as much as had been hoped.


Malawi, my own country, provides a more specific example of some of the problems identified above. In Malawi the staple diet for a large population of the country is made from corn flour. In an attempt to increase production of corn, agriculture experts recommended introduction of a hybrid corn, Malawi Hybrid, commonly known as MH 12, 15, or 32. The numbers stand for specific hybrid categories. This corn grows two to three long cobs with big ears on one stock, and it grows faster than the traditional corn. Its big ears, however, are softer and therefore absorb water much more quickly than the traditional corn. Because of its softness and quick absorption of water, MH 15 and the others get rotten very fast. Insects quickly infest the ear. To preserve it for some time, even for a few months, insecticides have to be used. For reasons best known to agricultural "experts" in the country or because of economic considerations, the insecticide commonly used by farmers or stocked by local farmers’ clubs is dichlorodiphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT). How safe is DDT for human consumption? Furthermore, this breed of corn is unsuitable for the tropics because of the high rainfall these areas get. The corn begins to rot even before it is harvested. For Malawi, the problem is compounded by the fact that rain water permeating through the walls of traditional granaries gets to the corn. The walls of traditional granaries are made of bamboo or twigs and their roofs are thatched grass. A roof on top of the granary prevents the corn from direct exposure to rain but does very little to keep it from getting rotten. Thus a family that worked very hard for months may find it has less food to carry it through to the next harvest because all its corn is rotten. Worse still, the family will have no money, yet it has to pay back a loan from the local farmers’ club from which it got the MH 15 seed. All this, for high productivity!

The result of these and other examples has been suffering on the part of people and other creatures. Until people learn to be responsible in their relations with nature, until people realize that they are a part of nature and that nature is part of them, unnecessary suffering will abound. People need to learn to take care of nature.2

The Responsibility of Experts and of Western Christianity

The examples I have given above indicate what happens when moral responsibility is replaced by greed, and when the mechanistic perspective prevails. Over the past two centuries the mechanistic concept of the world and its attendant manner of living, a manner of living inundated with greed, has destroyed the African system of thought and values; it has ruined our vision of and interaction with nature. Our ability to interpret the world as we understood it and live accordingly has been weakened; not only has our sense of basic values been affected but our very vision of life has been undermined. Our very identity has experienced a crisis.

Illustrative of this identity crisis has been an overreliance on mechanistically inclined "experts" at the expense of trusting in the intelligence of traditionally minded African people. For example, in the last few decades the crisis has been compounded by the recommendations that Africa has received from the "development experts." Indeed, the very concept of development has its roots in the notion of progress and is essentially a materialist philosophy bent on unlimited growth of exploitation and accumulation. The African bureaucrats and political elite who operate within the Western vision of the world continue the philosophy of accumulation under the heading of development. This explains why politicians and the bureaucratic elite are unable to draw on our concept of the bondedness of life as they decide on national policies.

Even Christianity cannot be excused. Christianity, though a Middle-Eastern phenomenon, came to Africa in the last century as part and parcel of Western culture and civilization. That being the case, Christianity only compounded the problem of the crisis of values for Africans. Through preaching and education churches changed traditional value systems. As traditional values crumbled, the hermeneutic ability of our people became deeply affected. This is to say, Christianity weakened or impaired our ability to interpret and reconstruct systems of values and norms that give meaning to our lives. All the more important that Africans, particularly African Christians, rediscover traditional African values and rethink Christianity in a non-Western, African way. As we will see, this envisioning process may have relevance to people in other parts of the world as well.

The African Concept of Creation

The African understanding of the world is life-centered. For the African, life is the primary category for self-understanding and provides the basic framework for any interpretation of the world, persons, nature, or divinity. For Malawians, life originates in the divine Moyo. Part of the very process of life involves a tendency toward self-transcendence, which itself aims toward umunthu, or the fullness of life. In the human sphere the process of life achieves fullness when humans are richly connected to other people, to other creatures, and to the earth itself. Humans realize their own fullness by realizing the bondedness of life.

To reclaim this notion of life, of life as characterized by a deep and thorough bondedness, is to find a correction to the mechanistic view which has been imposed upon African thinking, and which has led to the exploitation and suffering of humans and other creatures alike. In what follows, I briefly explore (1) Moyo as the foundation of life, (2) umunthu as the aim of life, and (3) notions of justice and community which are entailed by life itself.

Moyo as the Foundation of Life

In a Public Broadcasting Service documentary series titled The African (1986), Ali Mazrui, one of the leading African political scientists, finds an example of the African vision of interrelatedness and bondedness with nature in the way Africans think of the forest. Mazrui pointed out that the forest provides the African with all basic needs -- food, materials for building a home, medicine, and rain; it also provides a sanctuary for religious practices as well and a home for the fugitive; in addition, it serves as a cemetery and the abode of ancestral spirits. In short, the forest is everything for the African.

In so many ways nature in general plays an important role in human life and in the process of human growth. It provides all that is necessary for a person to live and develop. This means that nature and persons are one, woven by creation into one texture or fabric of life, a fabric or web characterized by an interdependence between all creatures. This living fabric of nature -- including people and other creatures -- is sacred. Its sanctity does not mean that nature should be worshipped, but does mean that it ought to be treated with respect. John Mbiti comments on this vision of nature as follows:

It emerges clearly that for African peoples, this is a religious universe. Nature in the broadest sense of the word is not an empty impersonal object or phenomenon; it is filled with religious significance. . . . This is one of the most fundamental heritages of the African peoples. It is unfortunate that foreign writers, through great ignorance, have failed to understand this deep religious insight of our peoples; and have often ridiculed it or naively presented it as "nature worship" or animalism. . . . The physical and spiritual are but two dimensions of one and the same universe. These dimensions dove-tail into each other to the extent that at times and in places one is apparently more real than, but not exclusive of, the other. To African peoples this religious universe is not an academic proposition: it is an empirical experience, which reaches its height in acts of worship (Mbiti, 73-74).

For the Malawians the universe is full of sacred life, full of life that transcends itself through fecundity, that in its abundant creativity continues to cross frontiers and break forth into new dimensions, always recreating itself and presenting people with ever new possibilities.

Moyo is the Malawian word for such life. Moyo, written with a lower case m, is both physical and spiritual. In part, moyo is life as it is manifested in biological existence. As such it is shared by, and bonds together, all living things. But moyo is also spiritual and sacred: even moyo as it is manifested in biological existence is rooted in the Mystery. Divine life, signified by the capitalized Moyo, is the source and foundation of all moyo. All life -- that of people, plants and animals, and the earth -- originates from and therefore shares an intimate relationship of bondedness with divine life; all life is divine life. Mulago speaks of this vision of life as follows:

It is a whole of life, individual inasmuch as it is received by each being which exists, communal or collective in as much as each being draws from a common source of life. . . It is life as it has been derived from the source of "power," as it turns towards power, is seized by it and seizes it (Mulago, 138).

Holding that human life is inseparably bound to nature, and that both human life and that of other creatures are one with the divine, the Malawians find it alien to objectify nature as the other or to see nature as having only instrumental value. The African notion of the bondedness of all beings in sacred moyo, in one texture of life, fosters a sense of care for all of creation. It entails a manner of living guided and enriched by respect, by a stance that allows the rhythms of life to flow.

Nature has rhythms and patterns through which moyo flows. It is our responsibility to keep ourselves from interrupting the flow of moyo; it is imperative that we avoid changing or reversing these rhythms and patterns. The future of a people depends upon how that people relates to nature and exercises its human responsibility.

Umunthu: The Aim of Life

For the African, human life is a fiber in the fabric of the totality of life The phrase "being-in-plenitude" best describes the African notion of persons because it emphasizes the unity or connectedness of persons to one another and to nature. We cannot understand persons, indeed we cannot have personal identity, without reference to other persons. Nor can we understand ourselves without reference to nature. People understand themselves and gain identity only in a total framework of life. They are defined as they engage in work, ritual practice, and symbolic activities. But they must also understand themselves as belonging to nature, as living the life of nature. It is through their relationships with nature that people discover their identities and approach the possibility of living life fully. As nature opens itself up to people, it presents possibilities for experiencing the fullness of life, possibilities for discovering how inseparably bonded people are to each other and to all of creation.

Furthermore, when traditional Africans think of creation they think of the relation between human life and nature; a world without people is unthinkable to them, for it is an incomplete world. Moyo continually breaks frontiers and reaches superabundance. It continuously transcends itself as it aims at greater and greater fullness of life. Human life completes the picture of this process of creation. Through their rich relationships with life, with nature, and with one another, individuals give themselves new meaning and achieve umunthu, fullness of life. Similarly, creation achieves new meaning through these persons. In many ways, moyo transcends itself as the possibilities for the realization of umunthu are created.

Community and Justice

In the African view of the world, the word community refers to more than a mere association of atomic individuals.3 The term itself suggests bondedness; it refers to the act of sharing and living in communion and communication with each other and with nature. Living in communication allows the stories or life experiences of others to become one’s own. The sharing of life’s experiences affirms people and prepares them for understanding each other. To understand is to be open to the life experience of others and to be influenced by the world of others. In community, we share and commune with selves who are other than ourselves and yet united to us by both moyo and Moyo. In being open to the other, we are given possibilities for transformation and for reaching umunthu.

Persons are not individual entities or strangers to one another. They are nature itself seeking fullness in the actuality of present life. Since people belong to the fabric of life, their life -- like nature -- must be respected. This call for respect is also a charge to the community to create possibilities for persons to realize full personhood. In a community of life where all are bonded together, everyone is responsible for everyone else:

What falls on one, falls on all. In such a relationship, the issue is the re-establishment of community, the re-establishment of the circulation of life, so that life can go on transcending itself, go on bursting the barriers, or the intervals, the nothingness, go on being superabundant (Boulaga, 81).

A community of life emphasizes being-together for the purpose of allowing life to flow and for the purpose of creating possibilities for achieving umunthu. The notion of being-together is intended to emphasize that life is the actuality of living in the present together with people, other creatures, and the earth. Justice in such a community must be based on a sense of the bondedness and oneness of life:

We must repair every breach of harmony, every wound and lesion. We must demand reparation for ourselves because we are not merely ourselves, and for others because they are also ourselves, the what-and-who of our pre-existence and survival, the what or who of some manner of our "presupposing" ourselves (Boulaga, 81).

Justice is how we live in the web of life in reciprocity with people, other creatures, and the earth, recognizing that they are part of us and we are part of them.


As we see, moyo, umunthu, community, justice, nature, and the power of life are inseparable. Together they represent the bondedness of life. This notion of the bondedness of life has informed some African Christian thinking where that thinking has attempted to transcend the mechanistic views imposed on Africa by the West, where that thinking has drawn upon the rich heritage of Africa itself. But such life-centeredness could also serve as a vital basis for all Christian thinking and action, as a guide and an empowering vision for the Christian movement to alleviate the suffering and exploitation of living creatures worldwide.

And there is urgent need to consider a model for the transformation of society, a model which will take bondedness and the relationship between people and other creatures seriously.4 Social structures and policies must find a basis in life itself, and in the notion of justice as it is entailed by the life we creatures share with each other and the divine. Community must be based in a consciousness that all creatures are part of all others, that humans share a common destiny with nature. Community, and the vision that puts forth that community, must be dedicated to the fullness of life for people, for other animals, for plants, for the Earth, indeed for all expressions of the divine Moyo.



1. This is a term Lewis Mumford has designated in describing the differences in visions and ways of life of Western and other societies.

2. There are a few examples where projects exhibiting care for nature have been embarked upon in Malawi. The restoration of the country, which begins every year In December with the tree planting day, December 21, is a good sign of care for nature. The project is done by all Malawians. The Ministry of Forestry through its nurseries throughout the country sells the seedlings at a cheap price, about three cents a seedling, cheap enough for most people to afford. Game parks are another sign of hope, especially when attention is given to animals that may soon be endangered species, such as the twenty-four hundred elephants now under special protection in the Game Parks. In an attempt to preserve nature, Malawi in 1982 became the first country in the world to create an underwater national park designed to protect fish. According to ichthyologists, Lake Malawi has nearly a thousand species of fish, many of which exist nowhere else in the world. But what will happen to this park if Malawi follows the UN. proposal to introduce fresh water sardines into Lake Malawi? According to UN. marine biologists, these sardines could produce as much as ten thousand tons of protein. At what price will that be in terms of the ecological balance of the lake? What will be the future of the sixteen thousand Malawians whose livelihood depends on the lake?

3. The differences between African and Western concepts of community are well-argued by Menkiti (Menkiti, 179).

4. I have described the question of transformation in another work, Community of Life: Foundations for Religious and Political Transformation.

Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. London: Heinemann, 1962.

_____.No Longer at Ease. London: Heinemann, 1963.

Baker, Donald. Politics of Race: Comparative Studies. Westmead and Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath, 1975.

Boulaga, F. Eboussi. Christianity Without Fetishes: An African Critique and Recapture of Christianity. Trans. Robert R. Barr. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1984.

Mazrui, Ali. The Africans. A Public Broadcasting Service television series, 1986.

Mbiti, John S. African Religions and Philosophy. New York: Doubleday, 1970.

Menkiti, Ifeanyi A. "Person and Community in African Traditional Thought." African Philosophy. Ed. Richard A. Wright. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1984.

Mulago, Vincent. "Vital Participation: The Cohesive Principle of the Bantu Community." Biblical Revelation and African Beliefs. Ed. Kwesi Dickson and Paul Elingworth. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1971.

Mumford, Lewis. The Myth of the Machine, Part Two: The Pentagon of Power. A Harvest Book. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970.

Sindima, Harvey. Community of Life: Foundations for Religious and Political Transformation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Forthcoming.

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