One powerful voice resonates through the air. A few tentative voices join in, but by the end of the first line we have all found the chord and are singing, some loud, some soft. This is Africa however, and it isn’t long before a voice breaks off into a harmony. Then another confident alto echoes the refrain, leading several voices into a completely new part. By the time the song draws to a close I am surrounded by a chorus of harmonising voices, all woven together into joy-filled praise. Never before has the simple melody of ‘What a friend we have in Jesus,’ filled me with such a sense of awe. Never before have I felt more united with those around me, even as each of us sang different notes and words.
For me this one song, shared during our devotions, became a powerful illustration of why I was in Kenya last week. Yes, I was here at the invitation of MAI Africa, attending training to equip me to run writer’s workshops in South Africa…but that was not the only reason. I was also here to add my voice to those of my fellow Africans: men and women from Kenya, Uganda, Cameroon, Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Ethiopia. Among us were storytellers, editors, publishers and journalists. We were united, not only by our faith, but also by our love of words and books.
Moreover, I was here to listen to their voices. Over the course of three days, we shared our lives with each other, talking about our countries’ histories, politics and accomplishments, about our children, hopes and dreams. I discovered that Ethiopia’s first bible dates back to the 9th century, and that the country has ancient churches carved into stone cliffs. I learnt that a Portuguese explorer, who laid eyes on the mountainous terrain and heard the ominous thunder reminiscent of a lion’s roar, named the land he saw ‘Lion Mountain’ or ‘Sierra Leone’. For the first time I heard of Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian author and Nobel Prize winner, and felt a tinge of shame at my ignorance.
Africa, with all its beauty and potential, sorrow and joy, opened up for me as I listened to the stories around me. Therefore, when Wambura Kimunyu, chairperson of the MAI Africa Board, shared the ministry’s vision of equipping writers and publishers so that local voices would be heard, and culturally significant Christian literature produced, something resonated within me.
In that moment I understood that just as we–a small group of trainers–had shared our stories with each other, we would now go to our home countries and begin giving a voice to others. And I dream that over time, these unique voices will grow in number, strength and timbre, producing something beautiful—a harmony of literature that will bless our continent and world.
Photo: Christian Matthew (Nigeria), Joan Campbell (South Africa) and Buma Kor (Cameroon)