Unreached People Group Project: Fulani People of the Gambia

Introduction

The goal of promoting native missions is to propagate the gospel into regions that are yet to be reached. The Western part of Africa is concentrated by such unreached zones, waiting to hear the gospel. After the reconciliation of man with God upon the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Lord gave his disciples authority to make followers of God from all groups of the world1. However, a large proportion of the world’s population is still considered unreached. In the light of such huge gap, it is necessary for the true believers to design how to achieve the unfinished task of spreading the gospel. This paper seeks to generate a procedure to identify the needy unreached people. This paper examines the Fulani community in the Republic of Gambia. The Gambia has over 25 ethnic groups most of whom are Muslims. Even though converts from Muslims are few, the numbers are rising gradually. Islam is the prominent religion boasting about 96% of the total population. Nevertheless, the country remains fertile for the gospel.

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Based on the New Testament, church planting or reaching the unreached entails evangelism that leads to new churches (Acts 13-14)2. Evangelism occurs in the fields where people are transformed and brought together as churches. Although Christian missionaries are constrained to conversion programs, there is substantial freedom to spread the gospel. In a bid to understand how to reach the Fulani community, this paper will provide a brief description of the Fulani people by highlighting the background information including lifestyle, culture, religion, language, and economy. Besides, this paper will evaluate the ongoing missionary activities in the Gambia. This will entail the background of missions, the contemporary church, the barriers to missiology, and the future strategies. Lastly, with respect to this history and the status quo, this paper will offer viable strategies for reaching the Fulani people and the Gambians at large.

Background Information

History

The Fulani of the Gambia lives very similar lifestyle to most of the ethnic communities in western Africa. Even though the Gambia is one of the oldest democracies in Africa, religious freedom is yet to be exercised with ease. According to the Joshua Project, more than 96% of the entire population is considered to comprise Muslims3. The history of this community will help analyze why there is such variation and in addressing potential techniques that can be used to improve the evangelical presence in this community and the country at large. The Fulani community encounters daily challenges of famine and hunger, marginalization, poor health, and hopelessness. They are yet to hear of Christ’s hope and light, but these can be changed through missiology. These people need to be reached even if it requires the mission team to adjust or abandon conventional ways in a bid to connect in a manner that is more acceptable to the community. Earlier missionaries tried to promote Christianity, but there purpose failed to make substantial influence to the locals.

The Fulani of the Gambia is a group of people inhabiting central and western part of Africa. Given the Fulani’s facial characteristics and skin color, it is assumed that they have a Caucasian origin. Most of them are nomadic pastoralists and almost all of them practice Islam. The Fulani are grouped based on language, region, and occupation. During their movement towards the south and via Guinea-Bissau in the late fourteenth century, some Fulani people mingled with the Mandingo through trade and intermarriages. The intermarriages resulted to a group referred to as Fula preto. The Fulani of the Gambia are considered to have emanated from this intermarriage. Thus, the Fulani of the Gambia are the Fula Preto community.

Even though the Gambia is a small and relatively peaceful nation, they pose significant influence in international affairs. The country, as it appears in Fig. 1 below, is a narrow enclave within Senegal. Despite its small geographical size, the Gambia has 25 ethnic communities that are predominantly nomadic pastoralists. Even though the Gambia has had great influence from the British colony both culturally and spiritually, the Gambians remain one of the most homogeneous people group in Africa4. However, the Gambia’s small geographical size is a wonderful advantage that would someday help in religious advocacy.

Geopolitical map of the Gambia and its immediate neighbors.
Figure 1. Geopolitical map of the Gambia and its immediate neighbors.

Religion and beliefs

The Gambia is predominantly Muslim with more than 96% of its population adhering to the primary tenets of Islam. The remaining 4% is shared among Christians and other localized traditional faiths. Islam penetrated the Gambia during the second millennium and swiftly emerged as a significant influence with most of the ethnic groups converting. The Fulani of the Gambia are considered Muslims who adhere strictly to the doctrines of Mohammed. They believe in good morals including harmony, fairness, trust, honesty, peace, kindness, and patience. The Fulani view their society as a place of regulations and responsibilities. A village is a place for social conformity. The Fulani view the entire country as a place of freedom, where they can achieve their personal needs. The Fulani stay close to one another, and they have a great need for love and affection. This need is only expressed through songs.

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A critical difference and advantage to missiology in this part of Islam community is that there is no strict adherence to Sharia Law. While the vast population devotedly abides by the basic laws of Islam and do not drink alcohol, the Gambia remains tolerant of all religious faiths5. The Gambia is a nation that remains committed to its faith, but its beliefs are not a barrier to development. There are even breweries to cater for interests of tourists and the few non-Islamic communities. Nonetheless, the Gambians must be taught that Jesus can rescue them from the bondage of sin, and the Holy Spirit can guide them to eternal life.

Language and Culture

The widely accepted language in the Gambia is English, but the country has a host of other indigenous languages including Fula among others. Traditionally, the Fulani identity is not found in the individual but their family or community. Besides, the Fulani are expected to manifest oneness as they undertake daily activities. Children are raised in groups and are encouraged to practice communism as opposed to individualism. This cultural conservatism can be a barrier to gospel acceptance. For instance, Fulani people do not understand why an individual should convert to Christianity when all his/her peers and family are Muslims. The Fulani are more likely to stay as Muslims to sustain good relations with family, peers, and the community. While a good relationship with one’s family, peers, and society can be of great significance, the pressure to conform can pose adverse influence in social, economic, and political realms. However, the fact that most of the Gambians are fluent in English is an advantage to missionaries since they can succeed easily provided they are willing to invest their time and money.

Politics and Economy

The Gambia has a democratic form of governance. The Constitution allows free and fair elections after every five years. Even though the Gambia is a multiparty democracy, the ruling party remains virtually undefeated. This dominance shows the belief the Gambians has on their leader, thus suggesting loyalty to a new leader in Christ is relatively hard to believe. However, like many African states, the Gambia has many serious administrative problems that lead to major social challenges such as poverty, disease, and economic instability. The Gambia is a third world country with a relatively slow-growing economy. Their economy entails trade and farming. They are predominantly herdsmen and the number of cattle one owns serves as a measure of wealth. Apparently, shortly after the Ebola outbreak in the West Africa, the expenses used in combating this disease further crippled the country’s economy due to lack of effective disaster preparedness measures6. Besides, the Gambia’s geographical location exposes it to a few trade partners since it neighbors only Senegal. Even though the land allows the spread of the gospel, Christian missionaries are limited to development activities. Consequently, missionaries are discouraged to continue with their development programs when they realize that they are no incentive to advance the gospel.

Family

There are differences in the domestic organization among the ethnic groups of the Gambia. For instance, the social organization of the Fulani is classless as opposed to other Muslim groups in the Gambia. Due to the polygamous nature of the society, most families have a man as the head, wives, and children. The most ethnic groups in the Gambia are patrilineal. This tendency towards male domination is supported by the Islamic belief that men are superior to women. Religion has great influence in advancing the established patrilineal order. In most cases, sons associate with their fathers, while daughters are in close relationships with their mothers. The family is supposed to preserve the family wealth and pass them to coming generations. Despite the unparalleled efforts by the missionaries to introduce westernization in the country, the Fulani hold on the established order. Regardless, with the ongoing efforts to spread religious education all over the Gambia, there is hope that the Gambian family will morph into a more civilized nuclear structure.

Survey of Missions Work

History of Missions

The first recorded history of Christianity in the country involves Portuguese traders, who introduced the practice as early as the fifteenth century. Christianity did not last due to the strong belief on some animist practices. During the first half of the 19th century, Christianity re-established. Methodist, Catholics, and Anglican missionaries were among the first to minister in the Gambia. These missionaries ministered among many ethnic groups, but none was able to make converts. The early missionaries laid the basis for their predecessors who have made huge contributions to education and health sectors7.

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Mission activities gained momentum in the urban areas. The ethnic communities that have supported the urban Christian population include the Wolof, Karoninka, and Manjagos. Recent efforts by African missionaries have restored earlier efforts, but many effective strategies need to be applied to reach the Muslim majority. The other population including the Fulani is at least 98% Muslim. Efforts by early missionaries led to the establishment of several churches and religious education. However, there has been a tendency to wait for the lost to come to the church seeking repentance. This should not be the case since the unreached people might not even realize if they are lost or walking on the right path.

Status of the Church

Following the advancement in information technology and the high rate of globalization, it is hard to believe that there are regions in the world that are still spiritually blind to Christianity. Unfortunately, not many mission organizations are aware that the Fulani of the Gambia are among the groups that have not been preached to in the world. The background information has suggested that the Fulani of the Gambia remain in spiritual darkness since they belief in Islam and animalistic faith. The fact that most of the West African states are predominantly Islamic suggests that there is no immediate pressure for the Gambians to convert.

Christianity in the Gambia is considered to be below 2% of the entire population. The Fulani of the Gambia are Muslims, but they are not strictly tied to the Islam tenets as it is observed among other Islam societies in Africa8. Other Fulani people are comfortable not observing any certain religion on daily routine but only during ceremonies. Following the return of Christianity in early 19th century, there has been a close relationship between Christians and Muslims. While there is evidence of more churches and Christians emerging in the Gambia, Christianity never seems to flourish to convincing levels. Thus, missionaries must have the courage to reach the Gambia, and help the Fulani people relinquish the false beliefs and accept the gospel.

Challenges in the Region

Regardless of the recent efforts that have led to the development of churches in certain areas of the Gambia, the majority population is still stacked to the group mentality and seems unshaken in their spirituality. Current efforts to create awareness about Christianity have created a dilemma among the locals. Even though they reckon the validity of Christianity, most radically thinking people are afraid of acting against the norm and causing family breakups. The Fulani people acknowledge close relationships and nothing that seems to create differences is worth taking. The unity that Fulani advocates is a powerful sentiment that must be cracked. Apparently, no significant milestones have been attained. It is necessary to acknowledge that Islamic states are very closed and in most cases independent from Western nations. Therefore, missionary activities have to put this into consideration when planning to reach the Gambia.

Despite the worldwide campaign to eradicate illiteracy and ignorance, particularly targeting the third world countries, some of the Gambian communities remain uneducated9. Consequently, it has been hard to eradicate cultural pressures, misled faith, and an uninformed quest for harmony. The Fulani people still hold the notion that missionaries are agents of imperialism trying to exploit smaller states. The Fulani people need to be enlightened to drop this perception and build a bolder perception towards the gospel. Due to their relentlessness to shift to modern lifestyles, the Fulani have been a complex group to create rapport and minister. God understands the case of the marginalized communities and is ready to uplift them if they seek Him. Perhaps recent outbreaks and economic instability reveal the insignificance of the material world and false beliefs. On the positive side, the Gambian Constitution allows Christianity. In this light, Christian missionaries must keep on praying for God to shed light on the Gambian people and embrace the gospel. They should also target using the locals has the advocates of the gospel since success is more probable when discipleship is done by the Gambians.

The level of technology is still low to allow indirect evangelistic outreach. One of the prominent tools the 21st-century missionaries have is access to technology. Palmer and Burgess speak of Isaiah’s promise that the Spirit of the Lord will defeat the physical, ethnic, and modern barriers that missiology will encounter10. Unfortunately, missionaries intending to reach the Gambia via the internet have challenges due to the inadequate supply of technology. The fact that most of the Gambian can only communicate in their native languages makes outreach efforts futile. Currently, the Gambians, particularly the civilized are no longer satisfied with the low level of technology and local products that are of low quality. Materialism has started to invade into the lifestyles of the Gambians, albeit not on a similar measure as can be seen in the developed countries. This push for better quality goods brings a gap that missionary outreach can fill in the meantime.

Ongoing Approaches

Following the recent outbreak of Ebola in Western Africa, persisting poverty, and high level of illiteracy, the international community has responded with mission contributions. In various occasions, God used the effects of such terrific events to bring unity, compassion, and grace to the affected population (Rom. 8:28). The Ebola outbreak hit part of the Gambia that was already in distress due to poverty. For many decades, missionaries from all parts of the world have been visiting, living with, and sharing the word of God with the Fulani with insignificant progress. Therefore, the continued poverty and ongoing campaign to combat Ebola has offered missionaries a second opportunity to reach more people. Missionaries have swiftly reacted to the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of the Gambian people. Missionaries have been praying for many years for a moment of great breakthrough for the word of God. Consequently, there has been an outpouring of compassion, prayer, and unity.

In spite of the persisting history of indifference to Christianity, the outbreak gave the Gambian people a receptive mindset to international support. During this time, missiology activities rapidly sprang into the Gambia to offer medical services, food, create awareness and of great importance spread the gospel. Soon as Ebola outbreak was declared a national disaster in most of the West African countries, the Gambia became more receptive to missionary aid. This external aid had to have a foundation of operations. Before the outbreak, existing churches in the Gambia organized their congregations well, but there was no solid connection between the church and the people. The congregation remained uncertain of the church’s purpose. However, this help must not be used as a bait to win the Gambians to convert. Humanitarian support must only be issued on genuine course to support the Great Commission of Jesus. Just as Jesus healed the sick and fed the hungry, Christians should be generous to the needy both spiritually and physically.

Consequently, the existing Gambian churches turned into crucial assessment and holding centers for the infected people. The churches also served as distribution centers, provided food and temporary shelters. The mission did not only provide physical and emotional support but provided light, faith, and a better understanding of the Christian faith. This aspect turned out as a huge opportunity to share the gospel. Since then, there has been a feeling of fellowship building between the church and the locals as they begun to bond for the well-being of the larger society. The outbreak caused many deaths, but there is no need to worry since the Gambians have discovered the invisible mighty of God. Even though it has been a devastating moment for the Gambian people and West Africa at large, missiology has reacted kindly, local churches have acquired credibility and purpose among the locals. Besides, the gospel has reached those who otherwise would not have been accessed and the glory goes to God.

Proposed Strategies

Missionary Approach

In the books of gospels, God projects a picture of His love to all nations. God created man to oversee the entire universe and enjoy fellowship with him. Eventually, man rebelled and damaged that fellowship. Regardless, God responded with love and promised to restore what was lost due to man’s disobedience. This reconciliation with God is still absent in lives many people across the nations. The responsibility to spread this light has been mandated to His earthly advocate i.e. the church. Based on the Joshua Project, about 40.7% of the world’s population is yet to hear the word of God11. This project defines an unreached population as an ethnic group, for instance, the Fulani of the Gambia, which has less than 2% of gospel advocates and less than 5% of Christians. The Gambia as a whole falls into this category since Christians build to less than 1% of the population. Unfortunately, this country is primarily an Islamic nation.

To reach these communities better, it is necessary to re-examine the conventional missiology approaches. It is time to do away with methods that have failed in the past and seek out effective approaches that can pose a positive influence when reaching the Fulani of the Gambia with the gospel of Christ. However, there are limited techniques and resources for reaching the unreached particularly in the Sub-Saharan Africa where most people are Muslims. Nevertheless, there are missionaries who have been ministering to such regions giving hope to the upcoming missionaries. While their approaches and contexts might be different from the current situation, past attempts can teach new missionaries critical techniques in this region. While it is necessary to learn from available resources, church planting teams targeting the Gambia should learn to apply the Scripture and mission concepts linked to the gospel, discipleship, building the church and raising leaders from among the congregations. In the same manner, that Jesus came to earth in the form of man so that he could relate better, missionaries and evangelists must seek ways of talking with the Fulani in a manner that is effective.

It is important to understand and appreciate the cultural background of any ethnic group that evangelists seek to reach. The Fulani of the Gambia has a deep involvement into Islam traditions. The family remains a component of utmost significance. Thus, it is essential to promote the familial bond during missiology or risk being rejected as a stranger. A missionary who fails to maintain the family ties, and draws people away from their family traditions is viewed as trying to separate families and destroy the culture. Missionaries seeking to minister in the Gambia must realize that the Fulani put great value on the unity of the society and the country at large. Besides, the cultural pressure in the Gambia can ward off missiology at its preliminary stages. Thus, missionaries must reckon the brevity and validity of their claims. An open ground ministry is probably not an advisable approach to advance in the Gambia since it is highly populated by Muslims. Obviously, this would be taken as an insult to the underlying Muslim beliefs. Contrary, missionaries roam through villages, identify and train devoted Gambian disciples. Missionaries must believe that Lord will guide them to the right direction to identify a devoted Christian. The aim is to identify a follower who can serve as fishers of men. Ideally, a local Christian is more likely to have a greater impact at converting other locals compared to a European missionary.

Just as anybody visiting a foreign culture engrosses within the limits of that culture, missionaries must acknowledge the practices, language, and people. However, while observing the local religion and beliefs, the missionary should maintain their Christian virtues and seek guidance from God. Missionary work might be examined through three dimensions that include presence, proclamation, and persuasion12. Presence entails creating rapport by participating in local activities yet remaining biblical. In other words, presence entails giving physical, psychological, and spiritual support. Proclamation involves revealing the flaws hidden in the false faith and replacing the spiritual gap with the word of God. At this point, conversion begins to shape. Persuasion is the critical phase of missiology since it calls for the Gambian people to convert to devoted followers of Christ. Those who view evangelism as persuasion are more likely to be effective in a predominantly Muslim state.

Mission Organization Approaches

Mission organization targeting the Gambia has to face a huge challenge before reaching a vast majority since it is predominantly a Muslim state. The Gambia needs a mission organization to commit a huge budget, evangelists, and prayers. For instance, the Adventist Development & Relief Agency is a world-based Christian charity reaching the entire Gambia. The organization is a missiology group active in education, health, and natural disaster preparedness. While undertaking these activities, missionaries can move around the Gambia and create a network of churches, small groups, and mission teams. The Gambia has now created a higher tolerance for diverse religious faith.

Mission organizations can also collaborate with humanitarian agencies such as the World Relief to meet the needs of the lost, poor, and marginalized13. The World Relief in collaboration with churches continues to address the needs of the marginalized as part of the Great Commission. However, linking with groups such as the World Health Organization and World Relief would provide a breakthrough to the Fulani and other unreached people of the Gambia. Notably, it is necessary that these advances be offered out of goodwill to assist the needy. If by any chance, the Gambians develop the feeling that these overtures are intended to undermine their religion or convince them into accepting the gospel; it will possibly cause more damage.

Since the Fulani people are very tied to group mentality, this could be an opportunity to persuade them to join a new group in Christ. The Gambian people must be taught about the existence of one God, one family, and one group. Mission organizations must embrace and teach about goodwill in Christ. Mission organizations should be ready to involve entirely in the daily activities and the way of the Gambians. This goal can be achieved through schools, business, games, or voluntary-related activities. Currently, there have been many churches in the Gambia and mission organizations waiting for the lost to walk into to seek repentance. Unfortunately, this should not be the case in the Gambia. Christian organizations must organize and fund outreach activities and get involved in the daily lives of the Gambians to create rapport, trust, embrace unity, and share the gospel.

Sending the Church Initiative

The sending church strategy is essential in missiology. Those involved in the missiology must be sure of their inspiration to the great commission. They should manifest clear understanding of the role of the missionaries and the needs of the native communities. The sending church should be ready to persevere through prayer and fasting. Church planting in the Gambia is a big achievement that needs continuing prayers. The sending church must also be ready to avoid temptations and stay tied to the long-term commission. Patience is highly needed since churches take a long time to develop and mature spiritually. The sending church must be ready to serve the established church until they develop leaders who can sustain the church14. The sending church must be a source of inspiration to the missionaries and offer financial support to the mission activity. Financial support is important for a country that is still developing and facing an array of economic downturns. Ministers will need money and material supply since they have little or no time to seek employment.

The church’s goal today must be to break the group mentality and false religions as well as break cultural bonds to persuade people to convert and create one family in Christ. The church must build the winning spirit and speak in one voice to unreached people in the Gambia. Even though missionaries manifest the potential to win souls for Christ, it possible to get overwhelmed and simply focus on strengthening and defending their faith rather than winning souls. The church is the weapon God gave to man to attain His Great Commission. Thus, it is essential to make followers of Christ and develop them in His church.

Conclusion

Apparently, there has been a turn of events in the way that the Gambians understand Christianity. The perception that missionaries are agents of imperialism has started to shed off, particularly after the support that has been accorded by missionaries during times of diseases outbreak. Besides, the Gambian families are gradually abandoning the patriarchal group notion. This milestone may work in favor of missionaries since individualism might facilitate acceptance of the gospel without fear of contempt from the society. However, the survey of missions suggests a lack of commitment to mission activities in the Gambia. The number of mission organizations are too low and only concentrated in the urban areas. The level of awareness is low and too many Gambians are still comfortable with their false religions. The bright side is that the Gambians are tolerant to religious diversity yet not hard to convert. God has a love for all nations and is willing to facilitate reception if Christian missionaries are ready to fast and pray, contribute their material wealth, and take the time to make followers of Christ to all who are ready to reconcile with their Creator.

References

Hämäläinen, Arto, and Grant McClung. Together in one Mission. Cleveland: Pathway Press, 2012.

Krabill, James. Worship and Mission for the Global Church. Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2013.

Moreau, Scott, Gary Corwin, and Gary McGee. Introducing World Missions: A Biblical, Historical, and Practical Survey. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004.

Palmer, Michael, and Stanley Burgess. The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Religion and Social Justice. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.

Saine, Abdoulaye. Culture and Customs of Gambia. Santa Barbara, California: Greenwood, 2012.

Winter, Ralph, and Steven Hawthorne. Perspectives on the world Christian movement: A reader. Pasadena: William Carey Library, 1992.

Footnotes

  1. Scott Moreau, Gary Corwin, and Gary McGee, Introducing World Missions: A Biblical, Historical, and Practical Survey (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 93.
  2. Arto Hämäläinen and Grant McClung, Together in One Mission (Cleveland: Pathway Press, 2012), 44.
  3. James Krabill, Worship and Mission for the Global Church (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2013), 53.
  4. Ralph Winter and Steve Hawthorne, Perspectives on the World Christian Movement (Pasadena: William Carey Library Publishers, 1992), 570.
  5. Abdoulaye Saine, Culture and Customs of Gambia (Santa Barbara: Greenwood, 2012), 63.
  6. Winter and Hawthorne, Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, 576.
  7. Saine, Culture and Customs of Gambia, 35.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Michael Palmer and Stanley Burgess, The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Religion and Social Justice (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), 33.
  11. Hämäläinen and McClung, Together in One Mission, 23.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Krabill, Worship and Mission for the Global Church, 47.
  14. Palmer and Burgess, The Wiley-Blackwell Companion To Religion And Social Justice, 36.
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