We spent four days in Gaborone, Botswana, from 8-11 June. The purpose of our visit was to participate in a review of the work that Mennonites have been doing with African Initiated Churches (AICs) in Botswana for more than thirty years. In the past, Botswana was home to a large contingent of Mennonite workers. At present, one worker remains. The present is thus a time of taking stock of where we have been and where we should be going with regard to Botswana.
It was clear from the review process, consisting mainly of extensive interviews and conversations with both church and civic leaders in that country, that Mennonites have left behind, in words we returned to many times, “a significant deposit of goodwill”. One thing which has not yet developed, however, is a viable structure which can ensure that the ministry of biblical education and leadership training in seTswana, the local language, will continue to serve the AICs without a future, long-term Mennonite presence in the country.
In light of this, the primary route that the review team explored in conversation with AIC partners was that of housing the Bible-teaching ministry under a local theological college. Doing so would benefit the AICs in terms of providing their pastors with an accredited certificate in a seTswana program (the college is currently working on its own accreditation), with the possibility also of moving into a diploma track in English for those who are able. Doing so would benefit the theological college in broadening its base even further within the AIC community/communities. Although the college is from a mainline denomination, already 40% of its students come from AICs in a country in which AICs have become the majority expression of Christian faith.
The rub in all this for AICs is that the college is mainline. In our meeting with AIC leaders, they expressed fears that the joint AIC-Mennonite legacy would be “swallowed up” by the mainlines. One man, the most forceful exponent of this position, suggested rather that the Mennonites “build your own institution” which would continue to serve the AICs “just like you are now”. His suggestion might be attractive if Mennonites did not find themselves in a situation of want in both human and financial resources for mission and, more crucially, if the AICs envision a future in which the academic training for their church leaders comes from among their own ranks.
In the end, the AIC leaders were not completely opposed to a collaboration with the mainline college. Given that the proper safeguards and institutional organs would be put in place, and with the assurance that this would not move forward if their interests were not being served, they could begin to see how such a move could benefit them.
It seems also, then, that the role Mennonites have still to play in Botswana is assuring, encouraging, sitting with these two groups, AIC and mainline, as they come closer together through theological education.