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Reaching the Sahel through indigenous art

By Kate Azumah

A crowd has gathered in a small Mandinka community in West Africa. The village griot is narrating a story as Oluwaseyi serenades along on his kora, a local 21-string harp. On a mounted screen, images drawn by a local artist depict the griot’s recital. The audience, one of Africa’s unreached people groups, is engrossed in the Bible story of the Good Samaritan. The griot is speaking their language, the characters on the screen look like their own neighbours, and the kora’s tunes have been familiar to their ears since childhoods. That’s the power of indigenous art for the Gospel.

Oluwaseyi (Seyi) David Ige is the Director of Declare Global Outreach Mission, a Nigeria-based ministry with the vision to produce 1000 indigenous worship songs, 300 indigenous music videos, and 100 evangelistic films for unreached people groups in the Sahel region. His interest in the arts started at a young age with his love for music, and accompanying his evangelist father on church-planting trips to remote villages lit in him the spark for missions. It was no surprise then, when he was appointed outreach coordinator for the Nigerian Christian Corpers’ Fellowship while doing his National Youth Service in Nigeria’s Delta State.

An attempt to organize an outreach to one of the islands backfired, however, when the community mistook his team for spies and threatened to kill them. As they fled by boat, the Lord told Seyi, “I have many such communities in this area. When you finish with your service, I want you to come back and work here.” Seyi resisted the call and had no peace until he gave in and returned to serve as a missionary.

Fascination and questions

Seyi had learned to play the guitar, keyboard, and drums before his missionary posting to Delta State. Whenever a local community held a festival, he would go and watch. “I’d see people singing local songs, playing local drums, and doing the local dances. It captivated me so much and I loved it, but a nagging question lingered in my mind, ‘Why should the Devil have the best of our local instruments and dances?’”

The question bothered Seyi, until he came across a 2014 issue of the Mission Frontiers (https://bit.ly/3wQJyeq) that focused on ethnodoxology. “It was then I caught the connection between the arts and missions. Eureka! This is my passion; this is what I want to do!” he recounts. Right away, Seyi formed a church group that employed local instruments and dance in their music.

“Whenever we went on outreaches to show the Jesus Film, we started with local music and dancing. Everyone got excited; and they came, both the young and old. They had never seen Christians doing their local dances before. We had many breakthroughs using this method.”

Seyi stayed in the area for eight years and planted churches among the Itsekiris, Nembes, and Ilajes. He eventually moved to The Gambia to work with Youth With A Mission (YWAM).

The process

Seyi explains, “Art is a special kind of communication. Just as we learn a language in order to understand it, we must do the same with art. Music is not a universal language. A form of music may be universally accepted, but it is defined locally. For example, in western music, playing a minor scale communicates sadness, but for others, it communicates joy. It’s the same with dance.”

“Before producing anything for a people group, we first go to the community and research their artistic genre—their music, dance, drama, oral arts, etc. We listen to their stories and proverbs, inquire about their meanings, and then search for Bible stories or concepts that communicate a similar idea. Critical contextualization is crucial, because we are careful not to adopt forms or expressions that conflict with the Gospel. Our findings inform the lyrics and type of music we write for the songs. We incorporate elements that resonate with the people and preserve their cultural heritage. In one of our Songhai songs about Mary and Lazarus, the youth wanted to add a rap. We fused that with the traditional elements, and it’s now one of our most-watched videos.”

“There’s a technical side too. We hire professional audio engineers to mix and master our music, and we shoot our videos in 4K. This ensures a quality production that can be broadcast anywhere on radio and television. We give our work back to the community at no cost to them.”

It works

In one country where conversion is punishable by law, a missionary played one of Declare Global’s recorded songs about Jesus to a group of university students. The students said, “This is our tribe. We like this song and the story in it.” The missionary invited them to listen to more songs, and through that, started a Discovery Bible Study. After a few months, four students became followers of Jesus and got baptized.

“We go to communities where the Gospel is resisted; yet, they welcome us when they hear their

Map of the sahel

local songs and see their own people acting in our films. People reject the Gospel not because they don’t want it, but because of the mediums used to communicate it. When the Gospel wears a local dress, it travels faster and penetrates deeper,” Seyi explains.

Artists as missionaries

For Christian artists who don’t see their role in missions, Seyi offers this encouragement, “Your art is a great tool in your hand. Don’t say it’s an ordinary guitar or paintbrush. Go for a short-term mission. Talk to artists in that context and value their art. Learn how to play an indigenous instrument in your locality. Volunteer with organizations that are producing local content for missions.”

He cautions African missionaries: “Your culture is not superior to that of those you are reaching. Don’t repeat the errors of Western missionaries who tagged our art forms as demonic because they didn’t engage to know their meanings. Allow people to be culturally authentic. Christianity can find expression among any people group, and the arts are a non-threatening way to reach anyone with the Gospel.”

Patrick Johnstone, author of Operation World, described the Sahel as “a most challenging and spiritually needy area of Africa.” Could the arts be God’s vehicle, at last, for traversing this terrain with the Good News of joy and abundant life in Christ Jesus?

www.declareglobal.org

www.worshipfromthenations.com

PRAY FOR:

• The Holy Spirit to bring conviction through every production by Declare Global.

• God’s provision and open doors for their work.

• God’s protection as they travel and minister.

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