Intercultural Seminar

Être à l'Écoute – Listening

Intercultural seminar for African and European women theologians in Madagascar, September 17-23 2019

Report on behalf of the network Tsena Malalaka, by Christine Lienemann-Perrin

© Verena Muehlethaler

From September 17 to 23, 2019, the Tsena Malalaka network held an intercultural seminar in Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar, on the theme "Être à l'Écoute – Listening". Tsena Malalaka is a Malagasy expression for market place or an open space where everyone is welcome. The network became known to the public in 2015 through its first joint publication “Nous avons un désir - There is something we long for”. Usually the exchange only takes place in virtual space (telephone, email, Facebook, WhatsApp). From time to time, individual members meet while travelling through or on a longer visit to Switzerland, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Kenya, DR Congo, Madagascar, Togo or Bénin. The network has taken 10 years for the first meeting in a large group. For this experiment, 20 members (12 African women and 8 European women) met for a week in Antananarivo, from where an important impulse for the creation of the network had come. The seminar was preceded by a long period of common planning. The theme chosen for the seminar was based on the general orientation of the network (to learn more about the living conditions in the respective context, the special social challenges and the life and work in parishes, religious communities and at theological faculties) and to deepen these in a focal point: "Être à l'Écoute - Listening". [1]

With the topic "Être à l'Écoute - Listening" the network has taken up a concern that is in the air in practical theological circles, as e.g. German-language publications show. The topic is also being taken up in other theological fields; this is shown by the lecture series on the topic "Open Nothing but the Open Ear. Motives of a Theology of Listening " taking place during the spring semester 2020 at the Faculty of Theology of the University of Bern. Admittedly, the seminar topic owed itself to other impulses. They are related to the challenges of communication of the network across countries, continents and languages. "Listening" emerged as a thematic meeting place where the most diverse experiences from which the participants had travelled to "Tana", as the capital city of Madagascar is called, could come together. Listening, listening to each other is at the beginning and at the center of the Christian faith, and it runs like a red thread through the Old and New Testaments. It is inseparable from the courage to speak freely in public and the fearless utterance of the unspeakable, shamefaced, repressed. For this reason alone, it was obvious to combine the approach to the subject with Bible readings. But not only for that reason. According to Prof. Dr. Esther Mombo, theologian from Kenya, "feminism" in the Christian context of Africa means mainly to do Bible studies from the perspective of women and to deal primarily with violence against women. Key biblical texts are for example the story of Sarah and Hagar (Gen. 16 and 21) and the story of the woman with hemorrhage (e.g. Mt. 9:18-22). Mary's visit to Elizabeth in connection with the hymn of praise of Mary (Lk 1:39-56) encourages women to break through culturally determined and ecclesiastically legitimized limitations. Starting from this, conversations developed in small workshops about failed and successful experiences around listening, about communicating with and without resonance, speaking out openly and getting silenced into powerlessness in family, society, church and theology. It became clear that listening and listening to each other also has something to do with power structures that influence and often make difficult the dialogue at stake- this also in an intercultural context.

In the course of the week it turned out that the African and European women theologians are in very different worlds especially with the way they do their Bible readings. Paradoxes came to light - so e.g. the central role of Bible reading in African congregations in comparison to the marginal existence of biblical knowledge in the Dutch and Swiss secularized context. I have noticed the discrepancy between scarcity and abundance not only as an economic phenomenon; it is also evident in the absence or presence of academic theological publications, of church continuing education offers, of the possibility and time to reflect, research and write at leisure.

What have we learned from it? As to myself I can say: to examine one's own place of Bible reading, preaching and academic work in a new and self-critical way. To explore what there is in common with how Christians in the South and North read the Bible. Can the Bible be the common bond of world Christianity? If not, how could it become so? This addresses another field that was omnipresent during the week of the seminar: foreign language skills in intercultural communication. Officially, the network decided to hold a bilingual seminar: English and French, two languages that have been second languages for all participants. Informally, however, it was multilingual: Swiss German, High German, Dutch, Kiswahili, Lingala, Malagasy and other African languages. The foreign language-skilled participants were constantly busy with whispered translations.

It was inevitable that conversations were often misunderstood, only half understood or not understood at all. How demanding it was under these circumstances to make listening or reporting a subject of discussion need no explanation. While listening, I remembered that Christianity has always been a community among foreigners and that it had already in the first centuries begun to translate the message of faith into Greek, Coptic, Ge'ez (the language of the Ethiopians), Syriac and Latin. Even the New Testament is the result of a translation; for it conveys the work of Jesus and his followers in the Aramaic language area in Greek. It is not possible to go back to an original language of the gospel. There are always people who translate and interpret between the linguistic origin and a Christian faith community. With the multilingualism and interculturality, the network found its way back to the original Christian conditions of communication for a week, which in many places in today's Christianity have become the norm again.

The acquired competence of listening, pronouncing and understanding beyond linguistic and cultural borders could be further developed by the network in a future project, for example under three guiding questions: "How are biblical texts translated into the different languages of the world? What realities are created by this process? What communication problems are created by this process?" [2]

For the theological exchange of ideas in the network, it is important to learn from each other where and how we live, under what conditions we engage in church and theology and what is perceived as problems in the societies of our countries of origin. In the course of the seminar there were many opportunities to learn from one another about these issues. As a European woman I was particularly impressed by what the African colleagues reported about the often very difficult working and living conditions in their context. Would I have the strength to work in such contexts under similar conditions in a community, school or university? The simultaneity of unequal living situations in Switzerland or the Netherlands and in the respective countries of the African participants was something we faced every day - but this did not mean that the stirring reports of the African colleagues were accompanied by great resignation. On the contrary: reports of suffering, privations and worries went hand in hand with happiness, hope, confidence and light-heartedness. Did I listen to them long enough to understand this? What do I learn for my way of living and working in Switzerland? And what impressions of us European women theologians have our African colleagues gained? In what way have they experienced our being shaped by our respective life context? What did they perceive of our theology, of the "situation in the life" of our faith?[3]

Personally, the encounters in the seminar with the African colleagues and their life context have inspired me not to allow myself to go from (Swiss) abundance to surfeit. I am moved by the question of how it is possible, with a life of security and prosperity, and with the abundance of opportunities to study, research and develop something concrete, to deal responsibly with this privilege and to choose the right thing. Are we, in my Swiss context and we as a Christian theological community, committed to doing what is urgently needed in church[ and society today? Or are we wasting time and energy for superfluous commitments? I see intercultural encounters like the seminar in Madagascar as a chance to reflect on what I will be able to see as the right way forward in the future.

What does that mean e.g. in terms of ecumenism? Since the end of the 20th century the insight has been gaining ground that the ecumenical movement, as it has convincingly succeeded for many decades, is in crisis and in a state of upheaval. For the 21st century new ways are therefore being tried out from different sides. One such experiment is the 'Receptive Ecumenism', a movement which, starting from Great Britain, has meanwhile reached people in Europe who are interested in ecumenism, and in the meantime has also drawn worldwide circles. Rather than encouraging churches of other faiths to adopt our traditions, Receptive Ecumenism is about listening to them and asking what can be learned for oneself from others. In terms of content and methodology, the Tsena Malalaka network is close to this idea, although there are no links to this movement so far. Furthermore, Tsena Malalaka does not intend to become a large organization in the future, which would entail cumbersome structures. Especially in its present form, it is convincing in that it adheres to face-to-face encounters across the boundaries of language, culture, denomination, life situation and the political-economic context and practices spelling in intercultural communication. Developing this competence is important for an ecumenism of the future.[4]


For me it was the first time that I met so many members of Tsena Malalaka directly at once. For a long time, their names were only known to me through circular e-mails. Only the September seminar gave me the opportunity to get to know them face-to-face.

Elizabeth Vengeyi, Zimbabwe

For me the physical encounter with theologians from very different African countries was very valuable and enriching. I was especially impressed by their deep spirituality and how they shape church life with so few material resources or conduct their theological research.

Verena Mühlethaler, Switzerland

It was important at the beginning to visit different Christian communities and cultural places in Antananarivo. The challenge of communicating in different languages did not interfere with the encounters, but it helped to deepen the seminar theme of "listening".

Heleen Joziasse, Netherlands

The intercultural seminar opened my eyes not only to the extreme poverty in Madagascar, but also to the enormous social commitment of Malagasy women theologians.

Tania Oldenhage, Switzerland

We European women were in Madagascar 'dépaysées', foreigners. We had to get involved in other conditions of life. It meant listening and looking anew, and at the same time reflecting anew on our own life reality and the theological thinking connected with it.

Verena Naegeli, Switzerland

Personally, I was delighted with the friendship and the experience of 'giving and receiving' that we had during this memorable week, on both a large and small scale.

Yvette Rabemila, Madagascar

There was much room for exchange during visits to church leaders and women's groups and when we were guests of colleagues at their places of work.

Fidèle Gandonou Houssou, Bénin

Listening to the reports of the participants, learning about the difficulties they have encountered in their professional careers, or understanding what struggles they still have to face as women until a leading position is opened up for them in their field: all this was a source of encouragement for me.

Lalaina Rajaonah, Madagascar

[1] This project has also been made possible by various sponsors in Switzerland, whose donations have been used primarily to finance the air travel of the African participants. On behalf of the network, we would like to thank all the sponsors for their support.

[2] To this end, the network could build on the expertise of Dr. Brigitte Rabarijaona. She is pastor and theologian of the Reformed Church of Madagascar and has been one of the coordinators of the network since its beginnings. Not only that, during the seminar she translated in a virtuoso manner for many hours from French into Malagasy, from English into French - and vice versa. Above all, she has been gaining experience in translating the Bible into local African languages for several years now by advising translation teams in various African countries on behalf of the United Bible Societies. The "Theology in Dialect", with which African theologians are concerned, would be unthinkable without this translation service.

[3] In order to continue the discussion and the listening to each other, we are planning a new dialogue format: Via Internet we want to ask each other precise questions about our respective life context and about our theology. Two women theologians are in conversation with each other, then the dialogue stick is passed on (or: then two others take up the conversation). The dialogues will be published on our website:

[4] The following media reported on the intercultural seminar as well as on a public event of the network on the topic: "Women, Theology and Feminism in Africa and Europe", in cooperation with the Reformed Church of Madagascar (FYMCA): Radio Fahazavana; Radio MBS (Malagasy Broadcasting System); Radio Nationale Malagasy; Télévision Malagasy; Télévision MBS; Journal Marturia Vavolombelona; Journal Gazetiko. In Switzerland an article was published by Dr. Ina Praetorius, member of Tsena Malalaka, in the theological-feminist journal FAMA (2019/4).