RESEARCH FINDINGS OF A ON-SITE STUDY OF THE
AJA PEOPLE OF BENIN AND TOGO
AFRICAN MISSION FELLOWSHIP - STRATEGY GROUP
Oyetunde Ajai Evangelist, Lome, Togo
Greg Bailey Doctor of Veterinary Medicine Graduate student in Mission (Abilene Christian University) Campaign experience in Swaziland and South Africa Internship Shakawe, Botswana Research Makua (Mozambique)
Sherry Bennett Graduate Missions and Greek major (Abilene Christian University) Internship France
Jana Treadway Graduate Missions major (Abilene Christian University) Internship Zomba, Malawi
Andrew Wilson Senior Missions Major Internship Sotik, Kenya
Richard Chowning Missionary In Residence (Abilene Christian University) Sixteen years as church planting missionary in Kenya Research trips to Fon (Benin), Mossi (Burkina Faso), Senoufu (Ivory Coast), Kabiye (Togo), Sukuma and Pare (Tanzania) and several ethnic groups in Kenya.
The primary goal of our research was to assess whether or not the Aja ethnic group should be a priority target for a future team of missionaries. The assessment was conducted through interviews and observations. Tested interview schedules and receptivity instruments served as the guides for the field research. Books, articles, missions reports and news stories were studied in the States before departure to Benin.
A secondary goal of the research was to investigate the logistics associated with moving missionaries to work among the Aja people. This part of the research was conducted through interviews with missionaries and government officials. Forms were specifically designed to record prices, government requirements, health and education matters.
A corollary to the above goals was the goal of learning better research techniques. The field research was preceded by two months of orientation and reading. The on-site study lasted one week.
The Government is Open to New Mission Agencies:
The governments of Togo and Benin allow registered missions to plant churches and buy property. The churches of Christ received registration in both of these countries in the summer of 1992. Missionaries now have permission to file for work visas under these registrations. In fact during this research trip the team members were inadvertently issued work permits in Togo, even before the registration was finalized. Congregations have been meeting in both countries for more than four years. The congregation in Lome', Togo received some persecution from the government three years ago, but the congregations were basically allowed to carry on without official recognition.
Security in Benin is Excellent, But Togo is Much Less Secure:
According to the Carter Center, Benin is a model in the democratization movement that is sweeping across Africa. The transition from Marxism has been very smooth. The country seems to be flourishing. The team did not experience any harassment nor were they even questioned for conducting interviews or moving about the country. The Beninois people spoke of peace and a new freedom.
Togo, however, is experiencing some unrest due to an attempt to move toward a more democratic form of government. A National Constitutional Convention was held in early 1992. As a result a transitional government was installed and military power was to be given to them. President Eyadema has so far refused release his authority over the military. Public officials and most of the population, except Eyadema's own Kabiye ethnic group, are upset at his intransigence. Violence has erupted in Lome' on several occasions, two politicians and many civilians have been killed in the past twelve months. The research team was interrogated by military police and prevented from carrying on with research until permission was granted from the Ministry of the Interior.
The Aja people straddle the boarder between Benin and Togo from approximately fifty miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean to eighty miles. Tropical tress and ferns thrive in the sandy soil. The rolling hills are covered with crops in most places.
Their are 500,000 Aja people and they are wedged into an area thirty miles long and twenty miles wide. The high density of population struck the research team as soon as they entered the Aja homeland. The markets were packed with people. Women carried wood and produce on their heads and men harvested vegetables in the fields.
Sixty-five thousand more Aja live in Tahoun District of Togo. Another 35,000 lives in districts to the west. Four hundred thousand of the Aja live in Benin. These Aja in Togo do not have as productive of farms nor are they as densely populated as their Beninois brothers. Those who live along the banks of the Mono River are fishermen.
The square and rectangular mud huts are often thatched with grass, but about twenty percent have tin roofs. The huts are in a circle, but there are no walls connecting them as is normal in many parts of West Africa. The schools are mostly open air brush arbors.
The Aja Are Historically and Linguistically Linkage:
The linguistic complexities of the Aja are still a bit unclear. The S.I.L. has a project underway to determine the relationships among various Be' speaking groups (Fon, Wachi, Ewe, and Mina). The work among the Aja, who are Be', is still incomplete.
The Broyles, a Baptist couple, working among the Aja at Ontivou in Togo, have just begun to learn the language. They are under the impression that their are seven Aja dialects. They differ in sentence structure and accent. Four of the dialects were reportedly spoken in villages within a five miles radius of Ontivou.
Aja is not yet written and therefore no scriptures are available. To complicate matters for missionaries, in the rural areas, there is very little comprehension of French or Ewe, the major tribal language of Togo. The Broyles believe there is a mere six percent French literacy on the Togo side.
Aja-hounme is the seat of tradition Aja culture and religion. While visiting in Aja-hounme the villagers told us that the differing accents were the result of a other tribes being brought into the Aja tribal area as slaves. The Mina, Anago, and Waci brought a change in accents and some vocabulary. The original Aja which came from Tado is spoken at Aja-houmey, Houeganme, Djakotome, Aplahou and Azovie. The southern accents are Dogbo, Lalo, Shigby, Hlassame and Agame. These accents came about by contact with other ethnic groups such as the Mina. According to our informants, in large towns one can hear, and understand, many accents.
The Aja border the Fon and seem to have a similar culture and language. This similarity might provide an excellent opportunity for mutual support among missionaries and the churches in both ethnic groups. Two teams from the Church of Christ background, one from the Churches of Christ and the other from Christian Missionary Fellowship, will be located as church planting missionaries among the Fon by the summer of 1993. If there is a strong similarity between the Aja and Fon, this would be a very strong case for placing the Aja near the top of any African ethnic priority list. The research team studied the seeming similarities between the two ethnic groups.
Ascertaining the similarities between the Fon and Aja languages was not an easy task, opinions varied widely. Linguistic understanding or lack of it, when expressed by a member of the language groups understudy, is not always to be taken at face value. There are several factors which may play on the response that is given to "do you understand each other."
An example of problem occurred two years ago when a research team studied the Senoufou speaking people of Ivory Coast. The various clans said they did not understand each other. It was not an accent or vocabulary problem, but a social factor which made the difference in this relationship. An animosity had developed over land and migration rites decades ago. For this reason, they would not attempt to nor admit that they understood each other.
Another factor could just be the lack of exposure the groups have to each other, in that case the response to the question may not be based on fact, but rather on perceptions and presuppositions.
There does not seem to be any animosity between the Fon and Aja. They intermarry and have mutual respect. The Aja speak of themselves as being the group from which the Fon were given birth. Despite the lack of animosity, most of the rural informants said it was difficult or impossible for them to understand the Fon. Not even all urban Aja affirmed an understanding of Fon. The Assemblies of God congregation in Dogbo disavowed the ability to understand Fon.
For those Aja who said they had little difficulty understanding each other, they added that it is easier for the Aja to speak Fon than for Fon to speak Aja. This is probably an ethnocentric statement. They assume they speak Fon well, but they do not think the Fon reach the proper standard in Aja. No one understands each other, they say, unless they have visited each other. This, too, seems an obvious response.
The Aja and Fon claim to be related. The Aja-houme villagers say that the Fon made the separation from the Aja.
Ethnologue includes the two groups in the same listing. S.I.L. translators have assumed a close link between the groups. There is presently a translation assessment being conducted from their base in Cotonou.
In summary, it seems there are close historical and cultural similarities between the Aja and Fon. Even if the linguistic similarity is yet unclear to the researchers, there is mutual intelligibility in some areas. There is a close enough linkage between these groups to make this communality a weighty factor in placing Aja near the top of a priority list.
The Land of the Aja
The terrain of the Aja homeland has two basic variations. The flatland north of the Lokossa - Azoove road is a bit less developed agriculturally and not quite as densely populated as the south. The majority of the people live in the rolling hills and lush farmland on the south.
PRINCIPLE CITIES: TOGO
Tohoun is the largest city of the Aja in southern Togo. The research team was not able to properly study this area because they were detained by government officials and forced to return to Lome' for further government documentation and approval.
Ontivou is not as densely populated as the Ewe area to the south and west. There is a steady drop in elevation from Atakpalme to Ontivou. The road is worse shape than the Notse to Tohoun stretch, but it is motorable.
Five miles outside of Ontivou the road crosses a huge dam. The people wore western clothes, except for the women who were topless, even younger ones. The men wore trousers and button down shirts. Huts were clustered, but the huts in the compounds were not connected together with walls. Sheep and many pigs and a few oxen roamed the roads and fields. Brush arbor schools were evident in most villages.
When approaching the Aja homeland from the south, Dogobo is the first major city on the road from Lokoso. It is in Dogbo that the increase of population density of population density is first noticeable. The town has a large market, small shops, and several churches. Dogbo sits at the junction between two paved roads which circle Aja.
The major town of Aja is Azove'. It is not large, possibly thirty thousand people, but it is complete. Most of the stone structures are new. Construction continues is much of the town. A small mall is being built near the center of town. A large modern hotel was about completed on the northern edge. The shops were fully stocked. There is a large and prosperous city market.
Electricity and water are reliable and inexpensive. Phone were to be installed by August 20, 1992.
There is a small Roman Catholic clinic in town and a hospital two miles out of town. There is a pharmacy which had a wide variety of medicines.
Fetish paraphernalia was plentiful in the market. Much like that found in Boichon in the Fon ethnic area.
The dirt road from Azove to Lokossa was in excellent shape. We traveled down it at high speed in a Pugoet.
The name Ajahoume means "the place of the Aja. This village is the seat of traditional Aja culture. The king of the Aja lived here and it is reported to be the birth place of the Fon ethnic group.
Some people refer to Ajahoume as a city, however there are no major shops nor daily city market. There is a Catholic Church and an Apostolic Church, as well as a primary school. However most of the dwellings near the junction of the Dogbo-Abomey Road are mud huts.
The road from Dogbo to Ajahoume bisects very densely populated farm land. The road is narrow in some places, but motorable at moderate speeds. Crops of tomatoes and sweet peppers were being harvested in great abundance. Once the border with Fon was reached the population dropped off drastically.
There is Easy Access between the Aja of Togo and Benin:
There is easy access from Tohoun, Togo to Dogbo, Benin. It is only twenty-seven kilometers between the towns. Workers often pass between the countries without trouble.
Rental housing is available in Azove. If a family decided to build, there are contractors and building supplies. Rent would be around $400 for the three bedroom house.
Food is plentiful. Fresh fruits, vegetables and meats can be purchased cheaply in the city markets of all the towns. Price lists are available from the African Mission Fellowship - Strategy Group.
STATE OF RELIGIONS AMONG THE AJA:
African Traditional Religion
In an interview with the village chief in Toviclin, the research team WAS INFORMED that the entire village believed in and followed Voudoun (Voodoo). There were several shrines in front of houses and one communal shrine hut. Other overt signs of traditional religion were scars across forehead, chest and forearms. Amulets were worn on the arms or around the waists of children. These signs were evident in most villages and when the people were asked their religion they responded that they "practice Voudoun."
Detailed information concerning the Aja traditional religion and history can be obtained from the African Mission Fellowship - Strategy Group.
Islam is basically non-existent among the Aja. There are mosques in some of the cities (i.e. Dogbo and Azove), but few, if any, of the members are Aja.
Christianity has minimal influence among the Aja, however it is present and the numbers of followers are increasing at a modest rate. There are several denominations and African independent churches present.
Assemblies of God:
The Assemblies of God are the strongest Christian denomination among the Aja in the southern region of Togo. The AOG mission has been in Benin for 47 years but it has had very little work among the Aja. In Dogbo there is a three year-old congregation with twenty-three members.
The Baptists have a mission in Ontivou (northern Togo) staffed by the David Broyles family. They spend at least half of their time on development projects, namely agriculture. They do have thirteen congregations with a membership of less than five hundred. Among the Aja of Benin, there are very few Baptists.
Eglise Christianisme Celeste:
The Heavenly Christian Church is the strongest Christian denomination among the Aja though they number less than eighteen hundred. There is a congregation of two hundred in Dogbo. This African independent church was founded by a Nigerian in southeastern Benin thirty years ago. A more detailed study of this denomination can be secured from the African Mission Fellowship - Strategy Group.
Apostolic Church Ajahomey:
The Apostolic Church is the second largest denomination among the Aja. It, too, is an African independent church. The church has its origin in Ghana. Unlike the more orthodox looking Celeste church, the Apostolics are more evangelical in structure and form. Some of the pastors among the Aja are not Aja. The largest congregation is in Aja-houme.
The Catholics do have churches in most of the towns, however the membership is primarily non-Aja people. Other pentecostal groups are present, such as the Four Square Gospel Church and the Pentecostal of the Faith. There is another growing independent revival movement called Renaissance (they were banned in early 1993). There are a couple congregations of Eckankar and Amorc, which are more New Age than Christian.
The growing Christian groups have a strong emphasis on healing. The Aja have a traditional religion that is centered around a pantheon of Gods who wield various powers. The Pentecostal groups and independent churches emphasis on the power of God over other spiritual powers has had great impact. However, the independent groups are syncretistic in some of their practices. There are signs of syncretism among all of these Christian groups.
The research team interviewed Aja diviners, village chiefs, and Christian leaders.
There are very few Christians, therefore most of the interviews were ascertaining the Aja's receptivity to the gospel by administering a receptivity scale to the non-Christian population. The questions on the scale were to determine the degree of worldview dissonance. The questionnaire is available from African Mission Fellowship.
Five villages, consisting of a total of eighty-three participants, answered questions on the scale. The results show that the Aja compare in receptivity to the Fon, of Benin and Mossi, of Burkina Faso. This ranks them as a priority target area according to criteria of the African Mission Fellowship - Strategy Group.
Although the Aja seem to still feel that their traditional religion, its pantheon of gods and regular sacrifices, is meeting their needs, they do not attempt to stop people from becoming Christian. In fact, we met in homes of diviners where Christians were also present.
Another sign of receptivity is the way in which they are so extremely open to showing foreigners the intricacies of their traditional religion.
It is recommended that a team be formed to begin a church planting mission among the Aja. This recommendation is made on the basis of the probable receptivity and unchurchedness of these people. Such a team of missionaries would have fellowship and share common work with the team which will be settling among the adjacent Fon ethnic group in 1993. The town of Azove would be the most centrally located town for settlement of the team.