The African Diaspora (Part 1): A Brief History and Lessons
We live in a world where emigration is an option for many people. For some, persecution or famine in their own country causes them to flee their homeland. Many of us know people who have felt forced to emigrate. For others, the promise of a better life for their family is hard to resist. Still others move to another country for an education or a job opportunity and never return to their homeland. Many of us emigrate to Europe or America, but the African diaspora is worldwide. For instance, a large African community lives in Guangzhou, China.
Diaspora means the dispersion of people from their original homeland. There were two examples of a diaspora in the Old Testament—the voluntary immigration of the Israelites into Egypt and the forced immigration of the Jews to Assyria and Babylon.
The people of Africa have been dispersed throughout the world perhaps more than the people of any other continent.
Thirteen hundred years ago, Arabs took Africans from their homelands in East Africa to the Middle East to be slaves. Three hundred years ago, Europeans took Africans from West Africa to Europe and the Americas for the same purpose. Today, many Africans emigrate voluntarily. Do Africans living in other countries have to renounce their faith, their origins, or their culture? How can they have a positive influence on their new country? What are their responsibilities to their home country?
We can learn from stories in the Bible about those who have emigrated from their homeland. Most of these stories involved forced immigration (although Jacob immigrated to Egypt voluntarily), but they still show us how believers should or should not act in a new land.
Learning from Joseph
Sold to Ishmaelite traders by his jealous and bitter brothers, Joseph was taken to Egypt, where he was a servant in government official Potiphar’s house. Even though he was falsely accused, convicted, and imprisoned in Egypt, Joseph remained faithful to God. Through a series of events arranged by God, Joseph rose to second in command. Answering directly to pharaoh, Joseph was “in charge of all Egypt” (Gen. 41:43). In that role, he prepared Egypt for a devastating famine and saved his own family. Joseph’s story is told in Genesis 37 and 39–50.
There are many Africans in the diaspora who have been falsely accused or even imprisoned for crimes they did not commit. Following the example of Joseph, they should remain faithful and wait for the Lord to vindicate them and restore their freedom. Many people who went to the West as slaves have descendants in positions of great influence today. God can turn an ugly situation into one of beauty and celebration. Joseph also blessed his own people by providing food in famine, and some in the diaspora can provide needed assistance to their family or community.
Learning from Daniel
The king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar, besieged Jerusalem and, after his victory, brought many captives back to Babylon. He then took the most promising of Israel’s youth—including Daniel and his three companions—to his palace to train them. Daniel and his friends’ faithfulness to God was vindicated, as shown in three of the Bible’s best-known stories. While in Nebuchadnezzar’s court, they refused to become ritually impure by eating the king’s rich food.
After the training was completed, they looked healthier than those who ate the king’s food (Dan. 1:3-20). When Daniel’s three friends refused to worship a gold statue the king had set up, Nebuchadnezzar “flew into a rage” and threw them into a blazing furnace. But God protected them and they were unharmed (Dan. 3:1-30). When Daniel prayed to God, in spite of a law banning prayer to one’s own God, Daniel was thrown into a den of lions. But, like his friends, he was unharmed (Dan. 6:3-28).
When living in diaspora, our culture, food, clothing, worship, prayer life, and integrity may all be challenged. Daniel and his friends faced those challenges by living in and with their new culture—they did agree to work for the king while remaining faithful to God. They were dependable to their employer (the king), skilled in their work, and worked hard to bless their new land (Dan. 6:3). In this way, they proclaimed the name of the living God more effectively than any sermon.
Learning from Esther
Esther was a young, orphaned Jewish girl. She and her uncle Mordecai lived with those Jews who had been taken into exile from Judah by Nebuchadnezzar. Mordecai and Esther lived in Susa during the reign of King Xerxes. Through a series of providential events, King Xerxes chose Esther to be his queen. At the right time, Esther revealed that she was a Jew, and she played a decisive role in protecting her people.
Under the protection of her uncle, Esther, an obedient young woman who feared the Lord, was still a virgin at the time she met the king. Unfortunately, many women who emigrate to other countries lose their virginity. Men and women in the African diaspora do not need to compromise their moral values by becoming sexually promiscuous to survive. Keeping oneself pure and maintaining honour and dignity will be a great asset to thriving in a new land.
Learning from Nehemiah
Like Esther before him, Nehemiah lived in Susa, where he was the cup-bearer for King Artaxerxes. During a conversation with men who had come from his homeland of Judah, Nehemiah learned that the wall of Jerusalem had been torn down and the gates had been burned. Nehemiah asked the king for permission to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the wall and the gates. The king gave his support, and Nehemiah successfully (though not without considerable opposition) completed the formidable task in just fifty-two days.
Nehemiah’s responsibility was to be sure there was no poison in the king’s drink. If the king suspected foul play, he might make the cup-bearer take the first sip from his cup. Nehemiah had the king’s complete trust and respect, perhaps because of his lifestyle and character. Africans in the diaspora, like Nehemiah, must earn trust through their honesty, integrity, and hard work so they can become leaders of influence.
In addition to being inspiring and motivating, these four stories illustrate biblical principles that apply to all who live in the African diaspora. In Part 2, we will go into those.
Dr. John Jusu, Africa Study Bible Supervising Editor, was born in Sierra Leone. He earned a master’s degree in Christian Education, master’s degree in Philosophy, and PhD in Education. He has served as Dean of the School of Education, Arts, and Social Sciences and teaches in the Educational Studies Department at Africa International University in Kenya. John also works with Overseas Council as the Regional Director for Africa. He and his wife, Tity, have three children, plus 24 children rescued from distressed situations for whom they offer full-time care.