06 Developing Unifying Narratives

At the heart of this report is our call for a new, generative Abundant Africa story that places power and agency with all the people of Africa. Movements are united and motivated by resonant stories, which can be woven into unifying narratives. These narratives can help role players align their values and strategies, even if they don’t directly work together. This helps with communication, reduces competition, increases alignment and creates opportunities for work on joint ventures.

American activist and writer Jim Wallis talks about how a narrative is like a flag. The flag must be pulled to the top of the flagpole and then everyone who can see it and owes allegiance to that flag will leave their own spaces, and gather at the base of the flagpole. There they meet together and can start to build relationships, expand their vision and take action together.

Sharing the narrative is the first step in building a community of like-minded people. This community doesn’t have to always work on the same thing, but should at least be strategically aligned – like when Nehemiah sought to build the Jerusalem wall by asking people to work separately on their distinct sections.60 To inspire this common dream we need to figure out how to design our flag (identity and vision) and then how to build the flagpole (messaging platforms) on which to fly the flag.

2.1 A new collective identity
The stories we share will explain our vision and be infused with our values. The stories we tell ourselves both reflect and shape who we are. With God we establish our identity in light of his story to create a larger understanding of “us” and to help us corporately throw off the shackles of past slavery.

When Joshua led the Israelites over the Jordan, before they could possess the Promised Land, they had to spend time in Gilgal where the male members of the community were circumcised – confirming the entire community’s common identity as God’s people and as a reminder of their foundational covenant with him. This removed the reproach of Egypt, after years of slavery and walking in the wilderness. Reaffirming their common identity was essential to remove the mental barriers of the past and forge the unity needed for the complex and disciplined strategy required to take the Promised Land. The forming of this identity delayed their taking of the land and was extremely intimate and painful, but it was an important step of sacrifice and obedience.

The church can help call out the true identity of Africa and wrestle with our identities and loyalties, allowing us to see our broader communal identity as we choose to obey God and unite around shared values expressed in our stories. This larger sense of identity can and should include Africans of other faiths. It should also engage deeply with political ideologies such as Black Consciousness, Pan-Africanism and decolonialism. While our faith plays an important role in shaping our identity, it’s essential that our broader identity as Africans should be able to include as many people of goodwill as possible.

The church can lead in creating intimate spaces that include all citizens and institutions and where we can make the sacrifice of time and pain as we wrestle with our identities. This could include: theological seminars to discuss identity in the context of biblical and cultural values and stories; Bible studies and discussion spaces in every congregation; the inclusion of identity narratives in rite of passage celebrations such as baptisms, confirmations, marriage ceremonies and funerals; and engaging other faith groups, cultures and institutions in dialogue to ensure that African
Christian narratives and identities can form part of a broader African identity.

A contextual biblical theology is the essential foundation for African churches to develop an authentic African identity, vision and praxis. Consequently contextual theological education and training, that meet the needs of communities in Africa, have become a priority for many churches and denominations. Theologians gather at the 2019 Consultation on Theological Training in Africa.

2.2 A common vision for an Abundant Africa
“Where there is no vision, the people perish” — Proverbs 29:18 The consequences of a lack of vision are shown powerfully in the Exodus story when only Moses, Joshua and Caleb were able to see the value of entering the Promised Land. The lack of shared vision among the Israelites led them to walk in circles in the desert for 40 years. When building a movement, without hierarchical power to coerce people’s behaviour, a common vision, alongside shared identity, is what can hold diverse people together. This shared vision will become a key part of the Abundant Africa stories we tell one another.

If the church is doing discipleship well and building relationships as part of its ministry of reconciliation then, by listening to God and listening to other leaders, it can start to play the role of creating space for discerning and articulating vision. We are often focused on the near future, but it’s important that we also begin to consider a vision for different scenarios for at least 30, or even 100, years into the future.

Common vision has the powerful effect of aligning different parties into a space where collaborative synergistic action is possible. But shaping nations is a political and contested space that requires massive relational capital and wisdom to hold together. God is giving pieces of the jigsaw puzzle to different people and organisations and they need to find a space where they can place these down and together link the pieces until a larger picture emerges. The church needs to step into this space to serve and help bring disparate parties to a place of possible alignment. When small fires
are brought together they can burn with a raging ferocity.

Future scenario thinking can help churches plan and strategise together to have an impact on broader society over the long term. Future scenarios take key information about a region or sector, use computer models for analysis, and then predict several possible long-term scenarios depending on the environmental variables or choices made by people in the system. These scenarios are high-level and academic, but can be communicated in ways that connect with the popular imagination in order to give some evidence-based insights to broader social conversations. They can be strengthened using information gathered from church knowledge and research structures.

The roll-out of vision development processes in communities and institutions will be crucial to help citizens understand their purpose and to motivate them to organise. These processes can often emerge from peacebuilding processes; once a pressing crisis has been dealt with, the urgency for change can motivate communities to create and pursue a longer-term vision to deal with the underlying problems that caused the crisis. Where institutions, cities or regions have found a common vision, these processes can feed into multi-stakeholder organisational change processes. Skilled facilitators need to be identified, and others trained, so that these processes can be scaled as key drivers of the Abundant Africa movement.

A couple in Malawi planting a tree during their wedding day as part of the Green Anglicans one tree, one couple holy matrimony campaign. Planting trees has been incorporated into a variety of life rites of passage celebrations such as marriage, baptism, confirmation, birthdays and even Valentines day! Credit: Green Anglicans

2.3 Preparing prophetic voices
If we are going to see a movement of a million prophets and storytellers rising up to contribute their voices to the Abundant African narrative, we will need to draw together different types of leaders from all walks of society in order for a well-rounded voice to emerge. Each of these groups will need unique support to hone and amplify their voices.

Artists are the vanguard of all the great movements in history. They are able to communicate ideas directly to people’s hearts. Artists can’t be told what to do, but will end up shaping and influencing the narrative as much as institutional or local leaders. Their mandate won’t come from who they represent, but rather from who they end up drawing into the movement.

Thought leaders are informed opinion leaders in their field of expertise. Their mandate comes from their specialisation. They are trusted sources who move and inspire people with innovative ideas; turn ideas into reality; and know and show how to replicate their success. Over time, they create a dedicated group of friends, fans and followers to help them expand their ideas into sustainable change, not just in one company but across an industry, niche or entire ecosystem.

Community narratives emerge from grassroots organisations. The stories and desires of grassroots communities can influence thought leaders and artists to communicate more representative ideas. These stories can shift the societal narrative when community leaders are given the right platforms to speak from.

Marginalised voices often are able to speak truth about the real impact of policies and actions on society. They experience the pain first-hand every day. By providing training on how to engage media, offering protection from retaliation and opening access to media platforms, leaders from marginalised communities can be significant in reshaping society in a way that benefits all.

The Tree of Life sculpture was made from decommissioned weapons as a prophetic artistic statement for peace. In the mid-90’s Mozambicans were encouraged to hand weapons over in exchange for items like ploughs. Artists include: Cristovao Canhavato, Hilario Nhatugueja, Fiel dos Santos and Adelino Serafim Mate. Credit: David Rose/Christian Aid

2.4 Messaging platforms
We live in a world of increasing media complexity as the transition to digital platforms and the rise of social media changed the world forever. This communication revolution has had a huge impact on movements: it has facilitated leaderless movements like the one that led to the fall of governments in the Arab Spring; it has allowed minorities and subcultures to organise around previously unacknowledged issues; and it has amplified the voice of younger generations able to bypass the formal media. It has also led to the increased polarisation of ideas and a resultant rise in extremism and anger. Our movements need to learn to use these social media platforms to mobilise people, while also cultivating complementary organising capacity in the physical world.

Media platforms provide a specialised communications space curated by a movement. Digital media platforms allow for conversation and narratives that are not just told from the top, but which are enriched by the voices of people from a variety of contexts. The media helps form a story and bring communities together to effect change.

Media coalitions are made up of organisations set up for general media work serving particular audiences, but find some resonance in a mutual primary narrative. They can share content and push it out to audiences who wouldn’t normally engage with movement media platforms.

Community mobilising, even in the era of social media, is often still the best way to spread a message. Trusted community leaders, like church pastors, and organisers talking to neighbours and friends can have a huge impact.