When I am asked what is my favorite African proverb I usually answer with the
Sukuma, Tanzania proverb: I pointed out to you the stars (the moon) and all
you saw was the tip of my finger. In the history of the Sukuma people in
Tanzania in East Africa (and African people everywhere) there is a great
richness and wealth in their culture, language, traditions and customs (like the
vast richness of the stars). But people recognize, understand and use only a
very small part of this treasure (like seeing only the tip of one’s finger).
Similarly in the Bible and the teachings of Jesus Christ there is "the breadth
and length and height and depth" (Ephesians 3:18) (like the vast richness
of the stars). But people recognize, understand and use only a very small part
of this treasure (like seeing only the tip of one’s finger).
This Sukuma proverb also teaches that sometimes people can focus on the wrong
part or point of a particular subject such as African culture, that is, look at
the tip of the finger of the culture rather than its stars. The challenge of
inculturation and contextualization is to go beyond the superficial changes in
liturgy and religious symbols to an all-encompassing pastoral inculturation that
has African flesh and blood. Similarly, people can focus on the wrong part or
point of the Bible and the teachings of Jesus Christ. The challenge is to go
beyond the rules and regulations of the Bible to a complete transformation in
the Christian life.
This Sukuma proverb also hints at the vast treasure and many possibilities in
using African proverbs and other forms of African oral literature and oral
communication to preach the gospel and develop an inculturated and
contextualized African Christianity. This is one of the great challenges of
inculturation in the Christian Churches in Africa today: to make a correlation
between African oral literature and cultural symbols and Christianity and to
express this in pastoral theological reflections and actions that concretely
speak to people’s every day life. This task includes both theology and praxis in
developing a functional African Christianity and an applied pastoral
Like many African proverbs this Sukuma proverb has different wordings or
versions. One version has only all you saw was my finger at the end.
Once I used this version in a talk on Africa to an ecumenical gathering in
Islip, New York. There was a roar of laughter that I didn’t understand until
someone discreetly took me aside after the talk and explained the negative
cultural significance of “finger” in American society. Needless to say, I have
included the words the tip of ever since. This dramatically shows that
inculturation is just as important in the United States as in Africa.