Book review: The Surprising African Jesus

Anvil journal of theology and mission

Afua Kuma, The Surprising African Jesus, (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2022)

reviewed by Rosie Hopley, CMS MA student

The Surprising African Jesus is an illuminating read, and a book I am grateful to have encountered. The purpose of the book is to bring to light the lost prayers and praises of Afua Kuma (1908–87), a rural and illiterate Ghanaian woman (p. 1), reputedly from a royal lineage (p. 4–5). Through the dogged translation work by Jon P Kirby and transcription by Joseph Kwake, the reader is immersed in a world where we see Jesus being given wondrous praise through the inspired prayers of Afua Kuma, a theologian whose work is oral, contextual and deeply embedded in its African grassroots (p. 1).

The Surprising African Jesus is well worth reading, especially if you are interested in cross-cultural ministry and want to learn from a woman enthralled by the majesty of Jesus. Afua Kuma’s prayers and praises kept drawing me back to the wonder of Jesus, who he is and how he is deeply committed to making himself known. She is a pioneering African theologian whose work deserves a wider reading. Kuma’s language is vibrant as she intercedes for those who go to Jesus. She does not shy away from the visceral, pointing to the all sufficiency of the blood of Jesus: “I want to find shelter in him – to bathe in the blood of Jesus and be saved by his sacred blood” (p. 111).

For anyone who wants to understand the importance of local theology emerging from people in their own tongue, customs and culture (in this case Twi, spoken in Ghana), this book is a good primer. It will give you valuable insights, an understanding into many of the local mores and customs, so ably illuminated with the footnotes and glossary terms.

Another reason this book should be read by scholars, mission partners and students is that it is a reminder of the treasures that God places in the most unassuming of vessels. Of royal blood but “not raised in a chief’s court” (p. 4), Afua Kuma employs the language of royalty, using this to glorify Jesus. Speaking in the Twi language, her words point heavenward to God and hark back to Scripture, as these prayers illustrate (p. 76, p. 78):

“Jesus listens with patient ears,
He judges not us but our deeds.
Go and tell him all of your cares…

“But he has tied his cloth to mine
and lifted the weight off my chest.
These things weighed heavily on me.
I have carried them on my back.
But he has tied his cloth to mine
And has taken them off my back.”

This is a wonderful echo of 1 Peter 5:7 “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” and illustrative of so much of Afua Kuma’s oral works.

If you are interested in reading the words of an oral theologian, deftly captured in this translated and transcribed work, I would commend this book to you. Afua Kuma’s words bring Christology to life, and are an important contribution to the African recording of praise, prayer and contextual theology. They also bring a welcome and expanded global sense of God’s missio Dei, since Afua Kuma’s prayers and praises paint a vivid picture of Jesus who speaks to, cares for and deeply loves his African children. Read it and be empowered and strengthened!

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ANVIL 39:2, November 2023

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