The Tool That Is Transforming Africa

Father Mose Adekambi on the Bible as the Base of Social Change

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ROME, JULY 18, 2011 ( Many Nigerians can quote the Bible from memory — not because they’ve sat down with a Gospel and drilled the words into their heads. In a population that is only 68% literate, that is not the methodology for memorization.

So where do Nigerians learn the Bible? At Mass. They’ve heard the word of God proclaimed in their churches and retained it in their hearts.

There is a hunger for the word of God in Africa, says Father Mose Adekambi, a diocesan priest from the Diocese of Porto Nuvue in Benin.

Father Adekambi entered the seminary as a youth with dreams of being a simple diocesan priest.

But with time and the encouragement of his bishop he was sent to Rome and became a Biblical scholar. Today, this knowledge and education is serving him well as he is the director of BICAM, the Biblical Center for Africa and Madagascar.

He is responsible for promoting awareness of the Bible throughout all of Africa.

Father Adekambi spoke with the television program «Where God Weeps» of the Catholic Radio and Television Network (CRTN) in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need, about the Bible in Africa — and how it is bringing about social change.

Q: Father Mose, before we start talking about your work in Arica with the promotion of the Bible, tell us a bit about yourself. When did you have a sense of your calling to be a priest?

Father Adekambi: I felt my vocation when I was around 12 — in primary school. Like any other boys of my age at that time, I wanted to be many things in my life. I wanted to be a doctor. I wanted to be a judge. I wanted to be a teacher. I wanted even to be a priest because I would play pretend priest like many other boys of my age.

Q: Your parents had a background in traditional African religions. What was there reaction?

Father Adekambi: My parents became Catholic as adults. I was already born when my mother was baptized and was married in the Church. I grew up in a Catholic family because I received a Catholic education. One day I was wondering what I wanted to be and my mother said: «You do not know what you what to be exactly?» I think it was on that day that I decided to become a priest. Later on, during the last year of primary school, I had to choose whether to go to the secondary school or enter the minor seminary. I wrote to the first priest of Benin who is a cousin to my grandmother.

Q: The first native Benin priest is a cousin of your grandmother?

Father Adekambi: Yes, I wrote to him saying, «I want to be a priest like you.» He wrote back and said: «For this year it is too late for you to enter the minor seminary because the list is already closed and the exam period has passed.» Since I was a little bit stubborn, I then went to the parish priest and said I wanted to enter the seminary and he welcomed me and found a way for me to enter the minor seminary. I went then to inform my grandmother and told her that I wanted to be a priest like her brother. So these are the two figures behind my vocation. My mother who unwillingly pushed me to make a decision …

Q: … unwillingly, but when you made the decision there was joy in the family?

Father Adekambi: On the day of my ordination, Aug. 4, 1984, I publicly thanked my parents. And the reason is simple: I am the first-born and I am a man. I was aware that for them it was a big sacrifice, and I thanked them because they allowed me to be free. They never said, «Don’t do it.» They never said, «Do it.» I knew that if I had quit it probably would have been a joy for them, so that is why I thanked them publicly for allowing me to be free to follow my choice despite the pain, which I know they endured.

Q: What is the greatest challenge to your priesthood, to your vocation?

Father Adekambi: To be available. When I decided to become a priest and during my ordination, I used the symbol of raining water. In my language we have a saying: «Rain water is used carelessly and after that it is thrown away.» In Africa we use tap water and rain water. I wanted to be available, like rainwater, to God and to my fellow brothers and sisters to meet their needs — whatever that need may be. Rain water is used to water flowers, to wash dishes, for the farm, for drinking, it is used for whatever you want. So for me «availability» is a great challenge as a priest — doing what I don’t want to do but what people want me to do …

Q: … and what people will ask of you.

Father Adekambi: Exactly, because that is where they need me and how they need me. It is not easy to give up one’s desires, to give your liberty to others to serve in the way they want. I’m fighting to be available, and in reading the Church Fathers there was one who particularly affected me. I think it was Alexander of Jerusalem who compared the Holy Spirit to raining water that adapts to each creature. He said that raining water is not the same for a palm tree. It is not the same for the mango tree, but rain always adapts itself to each creature on which it falls. So it became a second challenge for me — to adapt myself to each person. I am of service just like Paul who said in 1 Corinthian 9: «To the Jews I became like a Jew to win over Jews; to those under the law I became like one under the law … » and so on, but it is not easy.

Q: Why the focus on the Bible?

Father Adekambi: The focus on the Bible is due to the fact that the Church, especially the African bishops, discovered that there is no evangelization without the word of God. It became very clear that the word of God was not known and the people have a hunger and thirst for the word of God. For example Nigerian missionaries, bishops or priests, tell me Nigerians can often quote the Bible from memory. They have such great facility and love for the word of God. When it comes to Africa I can even tell you that we are more oriented to the word of God than to the book of the word of God.

Q: Why?

Father Adekambi: Precisely because our culture is mostly an oral culture. Let us say a great part of the people cannot read. If you wait for them to know how to read and write before you proclaim the word of God — how will you do it? How long are you going to wait? So we need to consider that factor, the oral dimension of our culture. As I mentioned, people in Nigeria can quote the Bible precisely from hearing the word of God in the churches — most of them retain it in their memory.

Q: Because of this oral tradition …

Father Adekambi: … oral tradition and don’t forget that in the book of Deuteronomy, the word of God is supposed to be kept on the lips and then be kept in the heart.

Q: So why come back to the written word? Why come back to the Bible?

Father Adekambi: Somehow it is the visible word of God, in terms of sacramentality, it is the Book that is inspired. That is why the Book is important, but we should not emphasize only the Book because to have a larger meaning of the Word of God is even helpful in terms of theology; I always tell people that Chapter 6 is the last chapter preceded by five chapters on what I call the theology on the Word of God. So we need a theology of the Bible before a good apostolate of the Bible.

Q: Africa, as we know, has terrible social ills such as poverty, war, etc. Can the promotion of the Bible address some of these social ills and is this also part of your work?

Father Adekambi: The word of God can help a lot. Take the Letter of the Hebrews Chapter 4 in which it is stated that the word of God is a double-edged sword; it scrutinizes our inner thoughts. If you open yourself and are affected by the word of God, definitely your bad intentions are challenged and it pushes you to conversion. I think our stance may be wrong. To date, when we talk about social issues in Africa we always talk about things that go wrong: the problem with our leaders, hatred and violence. What we need is what I call an objective approach; an object-centered approach.

Q: … something in the heart.

Father Adekambi: Exactly, and to solve the problems of Africa we should concentrate on Africans, how they can change their hearts, their mentality. The word of God in that sense is wonderful for change precisely because it challenges us to conversion through many generations. In fact, in 2007, the biblical motto was: «Where is your brother?» Are we fighting against one another? Can we re-define in the image of God who is my brother? Only then do we learn a responsibility toward our brother. Then from this you move to Matthew Chapter 5, the love of enemies. This can help us in Africa. That is really our main concern. This is our workshop.

I would like to share with you what I saw following these workshops in Africa. When I visited Rwanda — I go around to know what is happening in the country as part of this apostolate — they told me: «Father, Bible sharing is good. The Bible helps us to reconcile.»

Q: After the genocide?

Father Adekambi: And we should never forget that. In fact, also in South Africa during apartheid, the Bible did a lot in terms of reconciliation and helping people address social issues including apartheid and after apartheid for reconciliation and for the reconstruction of the country.

Q: So, for you the Bible and the reintroduction of the word of God, is a foundation on which to build a new society?

Father Adekambi: Exactly, I believe it. I’m convinced. That is my hope for Africa. It is my hope. It is my dream. It is a realized dream because I saw it in Rwanda. I saw it in South Africa. I saw it in Zambia where they have a program where the small Christian communities, at the lowest level, are really trying to get away from their old mentalities and thus changing the world around them by listening to the word of God and the social teaching of the Church.

Q: And putting it into practice?

Father Adekambi: Exactly. The biblical meaning of listening is putting it in practice. Otherwise, if you remember James: «Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves.» So, we are supposed to listen, all of us.

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This interview was conducted by Mark Riedemann for «Where God Weeps,» a weekly television and radio show produced by Catholic Radio and Television Network in conjunction with the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.

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