African cultures value the lasting memories of those who have passed on as evidenced by John Mbiti’s famous documentation of the African philosophy of “the living dead,” which immortalizes the legacy of ancestors. The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews provides a striking analogy that enriches this traditional African concept. Like righteous Abel, who “still speaks, even though he is dead,” the departed heroes of the Christian faith also “speak” for they constitute a “great cloud of witnesses,” urging on those who are still running this pilgrim race (Heb. 11:4, 12:1 NIV).
Africa, with its diversity and rich cultures, has benefited a great deal through the labors of Western missionaries and educators, especially in the 19th and 20th centuries. We still have lasting memories of the explorer and medical missionary, David Livingstone, and of pioneering anthropologists such as Geoffrey Parrinder and Edwin W. Smith, who have left behind numerous writings on Africa and her peoples. Their work has shaped prominent African thinkers from key centers of higher learning throughout the continent.
Another group has left their mark in a different way. Although professors like Ted Ward traveled to Africa from time to time as consultants to build up African educators and to visit their protégés on the field, they largely operated from key centers of higher learning in the West, where they developed new generation of mentor-educators for the Evangelical movement in the Majority World in the latter half of the 20th century.
A Cascading Legacy: Ted Ward’s legacy on the African continent will continue to “speak” for a long, long time. His impact could be categorized into two broad areas. First, he ventured into East, Central, and West Africa as an educational consultant, introducing the value of not only formal, but also nonformal education for addressing Africa’s unique challenges. Second, he directly mentored key African leaders and Western missionaries, who would serve in vital educator roles across Africa, for four decades at Michigan State University (MSU) and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS). While writing this piece, I counted offhandedly, with the assistance of a colleague, well over three dozen key educators across Africa who were Ted’s direct mentees. Over the years, these educators have in turn impacted numerous other educators, who may be considered as Ted’s indirect mentees. As can be seen, Ted’s infl uence has multiplied exponentially.
It is therefore quite fitting that in 2004, the leadership of the Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology (NEGST) invited Ted back for what would be his valedictory lectures on theological education in Africa. On that visit, Ted, like an African patriarch, reconnected with a number of his direct mentees, whom he referred to on that occasion as “my children” (although he had been fond of referring to each of them during their time at MSU and TEDS as “my African brother/sister”). To his delight, he also met a core group of educators who have been built up through the service and ministry of his direct mentees. These younger leaders he described on that occasion as “my grandchildren.” These designations are especially poignant in the African context, where the honor of a traditional African patriarch is tied to the number of surviving children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren. By the mercies of God, Ted lived to see his intellectual and spiritual descendants during that last visit to Africa, and he returned home with deep satisfaction.
The Power of Story: Ted, in typical African pedagogical fashion, loved to employ vivid anecdotes from personal experience in his teaching. One such story was from a much earlier visit to a rural part of Central Africa, where he had spoken on theological education. Ted noticed that whenever he used the term “seminary” during his presentation, the translator would go on in what seemed to be circumlocution. At the end of the presentation, Ted asked his translator about the word for “seminary” in the local language. The translator chuckled, saying, “You don’t want to know, or do you?” That response only stirred Ted’s curiosity further. Finally, Ted was told that in the local context, the elders referred to “seminary” as “the place where little boys go to get big heads”!
In Africa, Ted’s memory lives on among his African “children,” “grandchildren,” and future “great-grandchildren.” Memories of Ted’s personal touch and concern for his mentees, his deep listening abilities, his teachings and transformative pedagogical style, and of course his many formal writings, as well as his many off-the-cuff nuggets of wisdom scribbled on scrap paper, remain and “still speak.”
Mbiti, John. Introduction to African Religion. New York: Praeger, 1975.