The following post is duplicated from one that I wrote at choshenfarm.org, appearing here also since overlap of the readership of the two blogs is incomplete.
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Africa. The dark continent. The pitiable continent. Western news sources bring into our comfortable living rooms a constant stream of images and video out of Africa depicting drought, failed crops, blistering heat and parched lips, wars replete with child-soldiers, raped women, and dead bodies floating down the river, flies buzzing around the eyes of potbellied children, corrupt governments ruled by vicious dictators, remnants of failed colonial infrastructure. Africa is the continent where, in Western minds, people experience unrelenting and senseless suffering, and out of the West comes the singular cry: “We must do something!” Fueled by compassion and generosity, and backed by seemingly endless resources, the West endeavors to fix what ails Africa, but as H.L. Menken said, “For every problem, there is a solution that is simple, direct, and wrong.”
My wife and I spent most of June either in Africa, or traveling to and fro. We accompanied our daughter (Bethany), our son-in-law (Jeremy), and our brand-new granddaughter (Bronwyn) back to their home in Fimpulu, Zambia. The following narrative is not a travel diary. Rather, I want to write about some of the most significant things that we saw and heard, along with comments about what we took away from our experience. The most common question that I heard both in Africa and after returning to the States was, “What differences do you see between Africa and America?” In fact, as simple as this question is, it has proven to be a useful framework for making sense out of our experiences.
After 18 hours sitting in cramped airplane seats, we landed 7,000 miles and half a planet away in Lusaka, Zambia. You might be thinking that, upon deplaning, our first thought would be expressed by the immortal words of Dorothy, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” The skies were blue and nearly cloudless. The outside temperature was in the upper 70s and the humidity was 30-40%. Palm trees dotted the landscaping around the airport. We were certainly not in Kansas, but it felt very much like… San Diego.
A 12-hour, overnight trip in a 1997 Land Rover took us over 500 miles north and west of Lusaka to Luapula province, to a small village 11 degrees south of the equator called Fimpulu where we would spend much of our time in country. We traveled at night partly because there is less truck traffic after dark on the Great North Road, the relatively narrow, two-lane thoroughfare that runs north out of Lusaka.
Second, at night, the toilets are less crowded. This is the entrance to a typical rest-stop toilet, otherwise known as a stand of elephant grass, on the Great North Road. Not to worry: the grass is thick enough that the privacy of whomever is in there is guaranteed. Rest-stops in Zambia, other than the fact that they are strictly BYOTP, are far superior to those in the States. When someone in the vehicle blurts out, “I gotta go!”, the driver pulls over and, whatdoyouknow!, there’s a bathroom right there. In the States, you might have to suffer for the next 30 or 50 miles until a state-sanctioned rest-stop shows up.
Traveling at night is not a great way to see a country. On the other hand, there is no better time to see the night sky south of the equator than at night. Even though my home is out in the country where city lights are minimal and the night sky is beautiful, I did not know that there could be so many stars in the sky. As an armchair astronomer only, I could not predict what I would be able to see in the southern sky. The Milky Way galaxy was plainly visible, as was the Big Dipper. The North Star was below the horizon. I should have guessed that, but hadn’t.
Tourists do not visit Fimpulu. Tourists do not even visit Mansa, the provincial capital. Mansa is analogous to Albany or Boise or Concord. There is no reason to visit Mansa if you are a tourist. But, if you did, since it is the capital of a province, you might expect to see something like this:
but instead, this is what Mansa looks:
Contrasts, sometimes manifesting as cognitive dissonance, can often make a very strong impression that would not occur otherwise. When we arrived back in the states, we drove away from the airport in Washington, D.C. along Rt 267, the Dulles Toll Road, a well-maintained 4-6 lane highway flanked by large, beautiful buildings constructed of glass and steel and copper. Drivers in shiny, late-model Audis, BMWs, and Cadillacs made their way along the road. Only then did the meaning of the images of Mansa come to light:
In America, we hide the poor. In Africa, they hide the rich.
Look again at the image of the American shopping district above. So typical, right? What you can’t see is the young, single mother working in one of those shops whose minimum wage barely keeps her two children fed and clothed. She is one ugly misstep from destitution because she lives so close to the edge. For sure, America’s cities have poor sections, but there is a good reason why we refer to these areas as being “on the other side of the tracks.”
In America, we hide the poor.
In contrast, the Peace Corps, an arm of the Department of State of the United States of America, the richest nation on earth, maintains a house in Mansa. Do you see it?
In Africa, they hide the rich.
The rich are hidden for good reason in Africa: barbed-wire-topped walls protect life and limb and property. But, why do Americans hide the poor? Why do we flaunt our wealth so openly while pretending that poverty is not a big deal? What does our societal handling of wealth and poverty tell us about ourselves, our moral values, and what we believe is important and meaningful in life? Perhaps Africans, most of whom are poor, would do well to keep rich Westerners at arms’ length.
My general impression of Mansa is difficult to put into words. I was impressed (“Holy cow” would be the right expression), not so much with the level of poverty, as with the extent of the poverty. Mansa does not have a poor section of town. It is all poor. Almost everyone is in the same boat (save for Shoprite Grocery Market, Barclay’s Bank, and maybe a few other businesses). There are a few relatively wealthy people in town. You see the occasional pedestrian wearing a suit or a dress, complete with jewelry and coiffed hair, but far more people are dressed in shaggy, “whatever works” clothing that was dug out of a pile dumped from a semi- from Goodwill or the like. One bicyclist I saw was wearing a construction-worker’s hardhat that served no real purpose since it surely would have flown off his head in the event of an accident. The juxtaposition of the wealthy and the poor is a perfect setup, not for the racism that we see in the U.S., but for classism. Stratification of groups based on what are truly arbitrary attributes seems to be an inevitable feature of all societies.
Contrasting the poverty of Mansa with the opulence of Washington, D.C. is one matter. But, comparing Mansa to Fimpulu, surprisingly, is also an exercise in dissonance. If I were to caption the following image, it would be “Chaos.” There are people everywhere. Cars are parked seemingly at random. The parking area is rutted and uneven and “constructed” of dirt, destined to become mud in the rainy season. The billboard lacks an advert. Commercial business is occurring but it is difficult to detect in this image. In contrast to the third-world parking lot, note the first-world telephone poles and electric wires. A young boy near the center of the image walks with no shoes but there is a cell tower in the distance on the right side. Conflicts. Clutter. Confusion. Chaos.
Now, let’s go to Fimpulu, about 12 miles to the south of Mansa. No electricity, but no ugly telephone poles, either. No clutter. No chaos. No confusion. Peace. Calm. Ordered. Wonderful. Fimpulu is a different world, even from Mansa. What a difference 12 miles make! There is no commercial district in Fimpulu. What commerce there is occurs in and around homes like the one in the image. It is an agricultural community, almost self-sufficient. Global warming may well wipe out Fimpulu someday, but an international nuclear war will have much less of an effect on the residents of Fimpulu than it will on me, a resident of the first world.
Hilary Clinton made famous in the U.S. the saying, “It takes a village to raise a child.” With all due respect to the Secretary of State, even if she knew what she was talking about, Western civilization does not have the social infrastructure to attain “community” as found in an African village. Africans know “community” in a way that is unthinkable and unachievable in the United States. Families work together because their survival depends on it and their society is structured around community. It is “how things work.” In the West, we are far too individualistic to develop community as practiced in an African village.
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The observations that I have made so far may seem random and unrelated, but in my mind they contribute to a conclusion that I could not have constructed prior to my trip. I know that I live in a first-world, Western country. I know that Africa represents the quintessential third-world on another continent. But, I never really thought about what the differences between the two mean. I offer my thoughts on this question, knowing that I am not a social psychologist, a historian, a sociologist, or an ethnographer. However, in my opinion, my conclusions partially explain why Western aid struggles to be effective.
The fact that Africa is a civilization quite apart from Western civilization must have far-reaching consequences and implications. Any entity, political or otherwise, that intends to visit aid upon Africa, in whatever form, must take into account the differences between the Western and African civilizations. Governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) cannot march into Africa, pretend it is no different from the West, and go on about their business, expecting the same results as would be generated back home. Indeed, the African landscape is littered, literally and figuratively, with failed NGO projects. Even those NGOs that claim success do so on the basis of assessments that cannot say anything about whether or not aid reached the individuals targeted by the project. An NGO delivers a truckload of shoes to Village X. Success! But a more critical evaluation of the program may well show that few people on the ground actually benefited from all that effort. Data produced by NGOs prove success of their projects, based on rough metrics, and the resulting reports serve to generate donations from the West, often in large amounts. Meanwhile, the lot of Africans is unchanged, but that is of no consequence. Money flows to the NGOs and the American conscience is salved. All is right with the world from a Western perspective, the only one that really matters.
Christian mission is not immune from the same phenomenon. A Christian missionary from the West goes to Africa with grand aspirations for making a difference. Ignorance of the language, the culture, and the civilization fertilizes the soil for growing mistakes like weeds that choke the gospel. It is inevitable. Africa is not the West, but if all the missionary knows is “the West,” then optimizing the penetration of the gospel is nearly impossible since unanticipated roadblocks will occur at nearly every turn.
Western Christians, by and large, do not realize to what extent we have westernized the gospel. With hubris so typical of westerners (isn’t America the greatest nation on earth?), missionaries take the western gospel to Africa armed with western methods and western money. Based on the way Africans tend to interact with NGOs, the missionary’s contributions to a community will be soaked for all they are worth and then the community will spit them out. In line with the experiences of NGOs, the long term impact is virtually nil. Is that claim too grand? For all the billions and billions of dollars that have been poured into Africa from the West, there is precious little to show for it. “For every problem, there is a solution that is simple, direct, and wrong.”
So, what is the way out of this conundrum? The solution is simple, but not easy: put someone on the ground who will be in place long enough to become fluent in the language, learn the culture and customs of his neighbors, and grasp the nuances of the differences between western and African civilization. This is exactly what Bethany and Jeremy are doing. They know their neighbors very well. They hear and understand the rumors and the gossip that float around the village. Their neighbors have great respect for the amount of effort they expend to “become one of us.” They live the problems that people in their village face. They know the culture well enough so as to be able to predict the outcome of a given initiative. Will it work? What will the problems be? Whose input should we solicit? Whose feedback is meaningful and reliable? What are the rumors and what do they mean? What are people saying behind our backs? Answers to these questions cannot be gained reliably by anyone who has not been sufficiently immersed in the community.
The word that is used in missionary circles to describe this approach is “incarnation.” When we speak of Jesus being incarnate, we are often referring to the fact that he was “God in the flesh.” We do well to note also that Jesus was incarnate in the sense that he was steeped in Jewish society. Considering who he was (the third person of the Trinity), Jesus could have become anything he wanted to be when he came to earth. In fact, Jesus decided to come as a missionary to the Jews, living like a Jew, being a Jew. Looking at how Jesus went about being a missionary would seem to be essential for anyone endeavoring to do the same. The gospels were written, in part, so that we might know how Jesus went about his missionary activities. What motivated him? What methods did he use? The answers are clear and it is crucial that we pay attention to them because Jesus conceived a plan for conquering the world that would not fail. Only the most arrogant would think that their own ideas are better than those of Jesus Christ. Though hundreds, if not thousands, of people traipsed around Israel after Jesus, he never, ever played to the crowds. If we think his preaching had lasting impact, we need only read John 6. Indeed, Jesus’ key tactic involved twelve men and that unlikely approach, as Robert Coleman put it, “disclosed God’s strategy of world conquest.”
This is why I believe that Bethany and Jeremy stand a good chance of having a lasting impact on their village and, potentially, points far beyond Fimpulu. Except for the fact that they were born in a place different from where they serve, they are following hard after the method of Christ: incarnate ministry, living alongside their neighbors, investing deeply in a few lives, and thereby, contributing to Jesus’ aim of conquering the world. Nothing else works and nothing else matters.