In the 1990s, while I was still a seminary instructor in Canada, the Dictionary of African Christian Biography was an inchoate idea, little more than the agenda for a modest scholarly consultation convened from August 31 to September 2, 1995. Funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts and hosted by the Overseas Ministries Study Center, this invitation-only event explored the need for an International Dictionary of Non-Western Christian Biography, with Africa as the particular focus. From this consultation, the Dictionary of African Christian Biography was born. The initial website went online in 1998. Ms. Michele Sigg joined the work as part-time project assistant in 2000 and gradually worked herself into a full-time position as project manager in the following years. The support of the Overseas Ministries Study Center was crucial throughout this time, providing financial backing as well as logistical and administrative services.
In 1999, two years after my arrival at OMSC, I embarked on the first of what would become annual DACB-related trips to Africa. Since then, I have visited universities, seminaries, and research centers in Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, Zambia, Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, Namibia, Egypt, Malawi, Tanzania, and Mozambique. The goal of these trips was to enlist participating institutions–seminaries, universities, and research centers in twenty African countries–with designated liaison coordinators, in the task of creating biographical materials for the dictionary. For several years, biographers in Ethiopia competed to have their stories read publicly at the annual Frumentius Lectures in Ethiopian Church History. The top three researchers/writers were further honored with a gift of books. At a DACB training seminar held in the Democratic Republic of Congo in November 2005, seminar participants each produced one biography by the end of the week of classes. After a workshop in Uganda in October 2008, seminar participants organized themselves into regional writers’ support groups to carry the task on into the future.
Particularly heartening was the stimulus that the Dictionary of African Christian Biography became for generating similar data gathering initiatives elsewhere. The Centre for the Study of Christianity in Asia (Trinity College, Singapore) is using the DACB as a model to produce an Asian Christian biographical database, as are the Don Bosco Centre in Shillong, India, and the Trinity Methodist Church in Selangor Dural Ehsan, Malaysia. In September 2003, I was officially notified that an editorial team consisting of members of the Contextual Theology Department of the Union Biblical Seminary, in Pune, India, coordinated by Dr. Jacob Thomas and supported by an all-India Council of Advisors, has likewise embarked on a biographical project modeled after the DACB but focusing on the Indian subcontinent. At its quarterly meeting in June of 2005, the Global China Center Board of Directors voted unanimously to sponsor a Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Christianity (BDCC) inspired by and based on the DACB model. From September 2005 until May 2006, Dr. Yading Li, Managing Director for this ambitious undertaking, was at the Overseas Ministries Study Center, where he was mentored by DACB Project Manager Ms. Michele Sigg in order to lay the groundwork for the enterprise. The BDCC was finally launched in April 2006 and can be found at www.bdcconline.net.
Awareness of the Dictionary of African Christian Biography continues to grow. We are learning that the dictionary is increasingly utilized by instructors who require their students to get into the habit of using the database for their African Church History assignments. As virtually the only central source of information on African Christian biography, the DACB Web site experiences a steady amount of traffic, upwards of 500 unique visitors per day.
Among the several ongoing challenges facing the dictionary, an obvious one is the unevenness of country, language, and denominational content. It is readily evident that while the numbers of stories in English are relatively plentiful, with French-language entries lagging far behind, the languages representing the other three lingua franca of Africa are not represented at all. This is due to neither oversight nor neglect, but to the linguistic limitations of the principals involved and to the fact that the dictionary reflects only those stories that have been submitted. DACB facilitators in New Haven do not research, write, or commission the stories. Participating institutions and their designated liaison coordinators are the key to dictionary entries. In 2006 we received funding that allowed us to translate a modest portion of the database into French and into Swahili and Portuguese.
Added to this is the somewhat patchy quality of the stories. Anyone browsing the DACB will at once be struck by the unevenness of both the quality and consistency of the nearly one thousand biographies that currently make up the database. Some of the stories are a mere one or two sentences in length, while others run to several thousand words. While scholarly exactitude marks some of the entries, a large number have been contributed by persons who are neither scholars nor historians. The stories are non-proprietary, belonging to the people of Africa as a whole. Since this is a first generation tool, and on the assumption that some memory is better than total amnesia, the checkered quality of the entries has been tolerated and even welcomed. This being a first-generation attempt to ensure that there is some kind of memory to which scholars and leaders of subsequent generations will have access, it will be left for another generation to redress the weaknesses and deficiencies inherent in the present dictionary.
The stone scrapers and blades of our Paleolithic forbears, deemed to be functionally deficient in our age, were nevertheless the survival tools of their era. It is inevitable that any early tool should, by the standards of a later generation, be regarded as primitive and unsatisfactory. But lest this truism stifle the creative process, the reminder that it is often just such inadequacies which spark disgruntled users to develop better tools is reassuring.
Despite the DACB’s laughably meager financial resources and minimalist administrative infrastructure, those of us most immediately involved are encouraged and delighted by its growing recognition as a unique and impressively useful source of information on the church in Africa.
Jonathan J. Bonk, Project Director
- Go to Africa addresses for a list of Participating Institutions and designated Liaison Coordinators.
- This figure is only based on the numbers from November and December 2008. Stats for the other months are missing.