Billy Graham book inspires Masai warrior

Canadian Press
May 21, 2006

Josiah Ole Kirisuah was raised a Masai warrior on the sun-parched plains of east Africa.

He lived in a hut of dried cow dung and drank his milk warm with cow's blood. He hunted jackals and warthogs, then zebras, wildebeests, buffalo, rhinos and lions.

''It is the tradition of the Masai. You grow up to be a warrior, always ready to fight,'' says Kirisuah, who on Sunday was making the first of three appearances in Calgary to talk about how he became a Christian Bible translator.

''We were brought up in a spirit of excellence, of tremendous pride. To us, Christians looked like weaklings, always ready to cry.''

Kirisuah, 51, now works in Nairobi, Kenya, for Bible Translation and Literacy, an African partner of Wycliffe Bible Translators of Canada.

In 2005, his daughter Neema, a gospel singer, won the KORA all-Africa music award as best female vocalist.

And now father and daughter are in Canada on Wycliffe's 12-city Spear and Song tour, which combines Kirisuah's story of African Christianity with his daughter's Afro-gospel fusion music.

Sheila Rowe, Wycliffe Canada's board chairman, calls Kirisuah an example of both the post-colonial African church and Wycliffe's own "new paradigm," which supports African Bible translators rather than doing it for them.

"In the colonial church, you had to choose between being Christian and being African," Rowe says. "But Josiah is 100 per cent Christian and 100 per cent Masai. The goal is new Africans, not remade Europeans."

Before Christianity, the Masai had a strong belief in a god who created all things, explains Kirisuah. In particular, the god Ngai created cattle and gave them all to the Masai. From time immemorial, they have waged war with their neighbours to regain ''their cattle.''

Kirisuah went to an Anglican school because the Kenyan government insisted his father educate at least one of his 22 children (by four wives). But Kirisuah didn't take Christianity seriously until he read evangelist Billy Graham's World Aflame at age 25.                                                                                                                                            
"I'd always awakened each morning happy with the exploits of yesterday, but I always felt empty in myself, as if something was missing," he says.

"When I read that book, tears came to my eyes, and that surprised me."

When Kirisuah, then a schoolteacher, married his wife five years later, he was the only Christian in his village. Risking ostracism, he would not inflict circumcision on his four daughters. He also has a son.

But there were issues with his new Christian life as well. Old colonial missionaries were "completely ignorant of the Masai" and made them do "things repugnant to them."

They assumed wrongly that warrior beadwork was magical and insisted converts discard them. But the Masai remove beads from their people only at death, as part of a funeral, "so the gospel meant to bring life was made to look as if it brought death."

And while the African church needs to resist traditional polygamy, Kirisuah says, colonial missionaries insisted extra wives be sent away, a cruelty to them.

Kirisuah points out his own family was able to balance the two.

"My father has been married to my mothers for 50 years, but they have now become Christian."

The translator has seen Christianity flourish in his homeland in the last decades. He was the only Christian 27 years ago and now three-quarters of the people in his eight surrounding villages are Christian.

Neema, 21, says it is an age of "new evangelization in Africa."

She knows westerners view Africa as a "diseased and dying continent," but Africans see westerners as "overweight, depressed and suicidal."

Both must see they have "a lot of struggles and a lot to celebrate."

BBB My Hope with Billy Graham

The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association of Canada

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