The Fate of Africa

When Jesus Comes

IMG_1727If you have wondered where Outwalking has been, it's absence has been due in part to the fact that I was in southwest Uganda from June 16-30, serving as part of a mission to churches in that area with Amazing Grace Adoptions and Orphan Care.  It wasn't that I didn't blog, because I did, writing here on the official mission blog.  I hope you'll visit the blog to see what we were up to there in the Kisoro District.  But just in case you don't, I'll share some excerpts here.

The Kisoro District of Uganda is far from the capital city of Kampala, about a 10-hour bus trip, and thus far from the minds of the government officials there.  As a result, government support of the community is lacking.  Poised as there are on the border with the Congo, a resource-rich if troubled country, and Rwanda, a comparatively better off and yet still troubled country, they have seen their share of refugees.  Add to that a drought that has affected them for nearly a month, and the material poverty is palpable.  And yet material poverty is the good soil of spiritual wealth

For eight days we followed Pastor George to eight of the 16 churches he has planted.  George and his wife Rubina have no salary, no bank account, and no other stable source of income.  Nevertheless, they have several children and have managed to take in orphans to raise as their own.  Like nearly all Ugandans in rural areas, they "dig," as they say, providing for themselves by planting and harvesting their own crops from small plots of land.

One day at breakfast, Pastor George says this: “When I walk to visit the churches, I sometimes don't know where I will sleep. Sometimes I sleep outdoors. Sometimes I sleep in a church with no windows or doors. When I lay down, I don't know if I am going to wake up. Then, I find myself moving, and I am up. I do not know how God will provide, but I know that He will.”  I do not even know how to think in this way.  Like most people from the West, I have multiple safety nets to fall back on should trouble come - savings, insurance, family, and government.  Most Ugandans have nothing --- nothing but God, that is.  How can God grow the kind of faith in me that I see in this man?

One day we drove to the end of a rutted dirt road, finally disembarking to walk the rest of the way to a church because the bridge was impassable.  It was like following the Apostle Paul.  The road teemed with people walking.  Women carrying baskets of fruit, beans, or rocks on their heads; men pushing bicycles laden with bamboo, mattresses, a bed frame, potatoes; and children staring and waving from doorways and dirt yards shared with goats and chickens. In the fields, women slung hoes, digging at the rich earth, babies strapped to their backs.  They flocked around us.  They all know Pastor George.  That night I recalled the words of Frederick Buechner from The Magnificent Defeat: “Jesus is apt to come, into the very midst of life at its most real and inescapable. Not in a blaze of unearthly light, not in the midst of a sermon, not in the throes of some kind of religious daydream, but… at supper time, or walking along a road.”

So, out walking He comes.  Walking along a road.

So what did we do?  Pastor George asked for nothing but one thing: that we come and encourage his people.  So, feeling our weakness, our inadequacy, we came.  We taught Bible study to men and women over half of whom lack a Bible but who are adept at listening, eagerly absorbing the Word.  We prayed for people.  We heard of their difficulties.  We sang. They sang.  We ate the lunch they prepared for us: beans, rice, Irish potatoes, cooked cabbage, and tough sinewy beef that proved too tough for most of us.  We loved on the children, played games, enacted parables, heard sad stories of sexual abuse and what seemed like demonic visitation.  Powerless, we called on the omnipotent One to help them, the Father to the many fatherless, to a people adopted and made co-heirs with Christ of spiritual riches unencumbered by material wealth.


Many times I thought surely there are people who can teach Bible study better than me, who know the Bible better than me.  And yet I was reminded that those people were not there, and I was.  So I just opened my mouth and prayed to God that He would fill it.  And something came out.  We began and ended our days in weakness. For a devotion after breakfast our first day, we read II Corinthians 12:1-10, and considered Christ's words to Paul, his answer to his plea to have some ailment of mind or body removed from him: "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness."  The words stood up on the page and walked with us for two weeks, taking life in the life we lived.

Standing outside a church one day, within sight of Congo, Pastor George told us how the grandmother of the pastor used to walk all the way to Kisoro to come to his church, nealy 25 miles. One day she offered to give him the land for the church. The church members then built the church, rock by rock. Each one gives. “If you can't give money, bring a rock to church,” George says.

Rock by rock. That's how it goes there. That's how they live out the gospel. That's how we have to live out the Gospel.  That's how the Kingdom gets built.


A Promise for Exiles

DSCN0156 At the corner of my desk, just beyond the edge of my computer display, sits a digital photo frame.  Every day when I come into the office, I turn it on.  Almost 300 pictures scroll through its slide show as I work, practically all of them of the orphaned children of Kaihura, Uganda.  Mostly I do my work, focused on the screen, the lives of these children playing out on the margins of my day.  Occasionally, however, I catch a child's face and eyes out of the corner of my eye, and I stop and look at him, for a moment remembering what it was like to be in the midst of so many of them during trips there the last couple of years.

There are two "tough" guys, arms around each other; an older sister holding her infant sister; the black faces and dark probing eyes of four school friends staring back at me; a crowd of faces, some smiling, some steely, some inquisitive, some impassive; a grassy plain of elephants not more than 100 miles away from the village that most of the children will never see.  I can hear their laughter and chatter in Rotoro, their broken English, and their questions, feel the touch of their hands on my white skin.  Soon, however, I turn back to what I am working on, the words on a page, the faces relegated once again to the margins.

One of my favorite verses of Scripture is that contained in Jeremiah 29:11, where the prophet quotes God in a letter from Jerusalem to the exiles of Babylon, as saying "For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, to give you a reason and hope."  It's a verse of assurance, one I have often quoted to myself or an anxious friend to provide comfort that, despite the confusion of life at times, God is sovereign and has a plan, to "prosper," "not harm," to "give. . . reason and hope."  When I think about these orphans, however, the verse begins to lose its easy quotability.  What, after all, would it mean to say to an orphan that God will prosper him or her, give them reason (to live, to work, to become educated), and give them hope?  The average life span in Uganda is 43, so many of these children will die at what is for us an early age, either from cholera, malaria, AIDS, or some other opportunistic disease. Many will not complete secondary school, lacking funds to pay the school fees, and only a handful, if any, will make it to university.  And yet, even with such prospects, many have faith in the God of Jeremiah, the one who will prosper.  What can that mean?

Verses of Scripture, like newspaper quotes, soundbytes, and memories, need context to be understood aright.  Jeremiah said these words to a people in captivity, exiles who longed for the familiarity and freedom of their homeland.  However, the promises he gave them were not of immediate deliverance.  It would be another generation that would be delivered from captivity, as he told them it would be 70 years before they would see their homeland: "This is what the Lord says: 'When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise and bring you back to this place'" (Jer. 29:10).  He gave them a very practical message, telling them to live where they were, to commit themselves to life in the present: "Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. . . . Marry. . . . [and] find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage" (Jer. 29:5-6). Far from segregating themselves from the time and place in which they lived, simply getting by until their deliverance, He told them to "seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile" (Jer. 29:7).  And he told them not to listen to the pipe dreams of false prophets, people who made promises that could not be kept and gave false hope.

So what does Jeremiah 29:11 mean for the orphans of Uganda?  It means the same thing it does for all of us exiles in a foreign land, who long for a homeland where things are set right, for people who  sometimes cry out like Habakkuk, asking "how long shall I cry for help and you will not hear?" (Hab. 1:2).  For those who believe it, the promise is not that you can be whatever you want to be if you just work hard enough, or even that God will give you money, health, or recognition if you seek Him. Rather, it is the voice of a Father telling his children that they are not on the margins of his work but at the center of his mind and heart.  He's saying: "Live here.  Settle down.  Commit to the future of life here.  Work for the good of your community.  Wait for me, children.  I will deliver you, if not in life, then in death.  Much is at stake, more than you realize, but I will never forget you.  I will come for you."

One of the songs the orphans sing, in Rotoro and English, is "God is so good, God is so good, God is so good, He's so good to me."  I think it's the song of God's exiles, singing their way back home.  If they can sing it, so can we.

The Poison Fruit of Aid: A Review of Dambisa Moyo's "Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa

DeadaidAfter the elections of 2006 in Uganda, it came to light that millions of dollars in aid given by the Global Fund to fight malaria, tuberculosis, and aids had been stolen, some to buy votes, some to line the pockets of aid bureaucrats.  The Fund requested an investigation and gave the government of Uganda money for the investigations and prosecutions.  Then came the revelation that even that money was stolen.  The scenario would be laughable were it not so serious.  As Charles Obbo opines in an article in Uganda's Daily Monitor, the entire aid bureaucracy is itself corrupt, with many aid workers complicit in kickbacks for projects they manage or outright pocketing funds.  Little aid money actually makes it to the people it is intended to help.

None of this would be news to Zambian-born economist Zambisa Moyo.  In the recently published Dead Aid, she makes a convincing case that the more than $1 trillion transferred from wealthy countries to Africa over the past several decades has not improved the lives of Africans but actually led to increased poverty, corruption, and dependency.  At the same time, nations that have ultimately rejected a dependency on aid --- like South Africa, Botswana, and Ghana --- are better off, seeing a reduction of poverty, less corruption, and better and more transparent governance.  Moyo argues not for a change to the aid regime but for its death.

The statistics are compelling.  With 700 million Africans living on less than $1 US per day, poverty has increased to the point where sub-Saharan Africa has over 50% of the world's people living in abject poverty.  Life expectancy has stagnated.  One in seven children die before the age of five.  Adult literacy has plummeted below pre-1980 levels.  Fifty per cent of the continent is under non-democratic rule.  The continent seems locked into a cycle of dysfunction.  While one might point to localized examples of change, on a macro level the aid model is an abysmal failure.  And while President Obama has paid lip service to the idea that, in his words, "the purpose of aid must be to create the conditions where its no longer needed," a sentiment often expressed by world leaders, the recent pledge of yet more aid by the G8 --- $20 billion dollars to help third-world farmers --- does not radically alter the fundamental assumptions of the aid model.

Moyo takes aim not at emergency aid or charity (though she notes that even they can be criticized as having unintended, harmful consequences) but at the large, systematic cash transfers from rich countries to African governments, whether concessional (below market rate) loans or grants.  Along the way, she provides an enlightening history of aid and its various foci over the years.  In the end, however, she concludes that while aid remains at the heart of the development agenda, there are compelling reasons to show that it "perpetuates the cycle of poverty and derails sustainable economic growth." With compelling anecdotal and statistical information, she demonstrates how aid is one of the greatest facilitators of corruption, reduces economic growth, leads to more poverty, and then leads to more need for aid.  Corruption analysts estimate that at least $10 billion --- nearly half of Africa's 2003 aid receipts --- departs the continent every years, stolen by corrupt leaders and funneled to private accounts.  She also shows how aid reduces savings and development, leads to inflation, chokes off the export sector, and creates dependency.  In short, with aid money flowing, African leaders need not look elsewhere for development strategies.

Having made her case for the negative impact of aid on development, Moyo devotes fully half of her short book to a prescription for a world without aid.  Her proposal envisions a gradual (but uncompromising) reduction in systematic aid over a five- to ten-year period.  First, she proposes that African governments access the international bond market, noting that the money is available and investor interest in emerging economies high, but simply awaits action by governments to secure appropriate credit ratings and woo the investors.  Uganda, for instance, is in a position to issue bonds (it has a credit rating), and yet thus far has failed to do so.  Why?  Likely because aid money is freely available and more easily misused without serious consequence.  A default on a bond issue can zap your credit rating and, at least for a time, have a chilling effect on investor willingness to lend.

A second opportunity is for African governments to open themselves to foreign direct investment, as in roads, railroads, power plants and other lasting investments, something the Chinese have done well.  But as long as aid is at the center of development strategy, few governments have the political will or incentive to take the steps necessary to improve the regulatory and infrastructure environment such that conditions will be friendly to such investors.

Third, Moyo suggests that trade should be a critical component of development, facilitated by better transportation infrastructure and western countries that will open their markets to African goods.  Exports increase tariffs and tax income, leading to a better stream of revenue for government.

Entrepreneurs will flourish, says Moyo, increasing trade, only when they have access to credit.  She advocates microfinance as the means by which people without assets (the unbankable) can obtain the small loans (not handouts) to finance their raw materials and tools of trade.  She notes that the default rate on these small loans (generally less than $100 US), is less than five percent.  Unlike aid, which either comes with no strings attached or with conditions that recipients know are often overlooked, nonpayment of these loans is rare because borrowers know that if they don't pay back the loans they have today, their lender will blacklist them, and they won't be able to borrow more tomorrow.  In addition, there is a community interest in ensuring repayment: loans are made to members in a group, and when default threatens, members of the group often repay the loan (with the idea that they will recover from the borrower later) in order to keep loans flowing to other members of the group.  This Grameen Bank model (pioneered by Nobel Peace prize winner Muhammad Yunus) has been very successful and yet awaits more widespread implementation.

Two other stimuli to develop are remittances (money sent home by Africans living abroad) and savings (money saved by Africans and deposited in banks or invested).  She says that remittances tend to be relatively stable sources of income that play an important role in paying for imports and repaying debt.  In addition, they are even used by some banks to securitize loans, thus expanding access to credit.  However, middleman tap these funds, often taking up to 20%, making it important for African governments to find ways to facilitate cheaper ways to send money home.  As to savings, Moyo argues that there is a lot of untapped capital in the hands of Africans, often hidden and not banked where it could finance development and bring greater financial stability.

Thus, Moyo argues for an end to aid as we know it and a multi-pronged, market-based development model, something South Africa and Botswana have already embraced.  Given that most African countries have already hit "rock bottom" (her words), she questions:

Isn't it. . . likely that in a world freed of aid, economic life for the majority of Africans might actually improve, that corruption would fall, entrepreneurs would rise, and Africa's growth engine would start chugging?  This is the most probable outcome --- that where the real chance exists to make a better life for themselves, their children and Africa's future generations, Africans would grab it and go.

Rather than giving something for nothing --- an approach that has bred corruption and a coterie of profiteering elites, isn't it time for something more radical, something based on proven market forces?

I recommend Dead Aid as an informative, illuminating guide to the existing development model and a stimulus to thinking about what will really help the poverty stricken millions of Africa.  At 154 pages, it's a quick read, not laborious but sufficiently illustrated by anecdotes that the non-economist can follow it. 

It's not enough to want to do good.  We have to know what in the long-term will lead to a sustainable good.  We have to be wise and discerning do-gooders.  Hopefully Moyo will follow this book with a second where she offers a critique of the work of charities in Africa and a prescription for a charity that will build sustainable communities that rarely if ever need charity but, rather, are able to help others.  Regardless, her book will hopefully provide fuel for lasting change in Africa.

Home Again, Again (Part Four): Disappointment and Hope

DSCN1230 Hannington, our driver, embodies so much that is good about the Ugandan people.  He is resourceful, hard working, unfailingly polite (“yes, please), and of good humor --- all characteristics that generally apply to the people we encountered on our trip.  And yet as humbled as I was once again by the generosity and hospitality of the people we met in Uganda, this was a sobering trip for me as I became aware of their failings, individually and socially.

In the village of Koreng, what began as a fairly orderly distribution of school supplies and shoes ended in a lot of pushing, shoving, and grabbing as needy kids and parents realized that there would not be enough for everyone.  In Kampala my wife and I witnessed the pride of two African men --- both concerned with position and status and self.  And while most people are kind, sometimes I do not know whether the kindness extended is fully genuine or whether we muzungus (foreigners) are viewed as a means to an end --- gifts, sponsorship, or monetary support.  On a larger scale, the system of government and of justice in Uganda is thoroughly corrupt, from side of the road bribe solicitations for traffic fines to payoffs to legislators and judges to double invoicing and other unethical practices by private contractors.  As one man told me, the roads in Kampala remain pothole-ridden not because there is no money to fix them but because two-thirds of the money “stays on the table,” that is, lines the pockets of government bureaucrats and contractors.  Christian law students I spoke with at Kampala International University struggle to understand how they are to survive with faith intact in such a corrupt system.  And if you turn the clock back a bit, these are the same people who produced killers like Idi Amin and Milton Obote.  You only have to go next door to Rwanda to discover what evil neighbors are capable of. 

The Ugandans are, after all, human.  Surprise!  It was a healthy disappointment to learn that in many ways they are just like me, just like us all, a mix of good and bad motives, subject to the same temptations and failings.  I say a disappointment because we tend to idealize a place and people when we first encounter it, because in its newness we are overwhelmed by its contrast to the familiar world we know with all its failings.  I say healthy because when you can see a place and people more realistically you are better able to know how to assist them and encourage them in the good without, hopefully, serious and ill unintended consequences.

Yet my disappointment is no deeper than my hope.  Our house mother at Agape Children’s Village, Mama Christine, served us with, it seems, no concern as to what she might secure from the relationship.They were many children who seemed simply to enjoy our friendship while expecting nothing in return --- no gift, no money, no sponsorship --- though they have great needs.  It’s encouraging to go to a law school where I can speak about my faith openly and be warmly received by students, faculty, and administration in a way that would not happen in most law schools here.  It is encouraging to worship in a church where no one is watching a clock, where a three-hour service is not only normal but relished.  While traffic in Kampala is as bad as that of Los Angeles, drivers are much better mannered and accidents fewer.  Headmasters take on the jobs of running schools where there are little to no facilities, no books, and intermittent pay with a dedication that they often describe (as one did to me) as “a calling from Almighty God.”  And while structural problems like corruption and government ineptitude do not lend themselves to easy solutions, I am thankful that electricity has come to Kaihura, somehow, that there are some good roads on which to drive, and that  in a city as large as Kampala anything at all works.   Last but not least, there are people here who love God, serve others, and seek the good of their communities.  Faith Kunihura saw the “image of God” in the orphans of Kaihura and, with little resources of her own to begin with, has done a great deal to help them.  Pastor Michael Okwakol and the people of Agape Baptist Church are serving the orphans of Agape Children’s Village and even reaching out to the remote community of Koreng.  Thus, my disappointment with the Ugandans is no deeper than my disappointment with myself, my neighbors, and my own country.  We are all thoroughly tainted by sin and yet, knowing Christ, are being renewed every day in His image.  There is hope for Uganda just as there is hope for the United States.

We tried to teach Hannington a good Southern expression like “ya’ll come on,” maybe as a help to getting people back in the van so we could travel on.  After a few minutes, he mastered the expression, albeit a very British-sounding version of it, but he would not use it.  He said it wouldn’t be polite.  He gives me hope.

[I’m glad to be safely home from Uganda and back to blogging.  It was a rewarding if sobering trip.  I hope to post some pictures of the trip soon, and will be back to blogging more regularly.]

People v. God

Why god "How long, O Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, 'Violence!' but you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds. Therefore the law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails. The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted." (Hab. 1:2-4)

It may well be that we are to be content in our circumstances, that life itself is grace, but apparently that does not mean that we cannot complain and cry out honestly to God. The Psalmist repeatedly asks why and how long, and not always with affirmations of love or sovereignty. But it is in Habakkuk, a short Old Testament book, that I find something astonishing: an indictment of God. The prophet is saying something like justice delayed is justice denied, not mincing words but speaking forthrightly to God. And God answers.

I recently read a letter written by a Zimbabwe pastor that updated praying friends on the situation in his country. A once reasonably prosperous country is in the midst of complete disintegration. Their currency is worthless. As many as 90% of the people are unemployed. Teachers are leaving the schools as no one is providing their salary. The infrastructure is decaying. Medical clinics and hospitals are closing. Civilization hangs by a thread that is slowly unraveling. Why? Why doesn't God uproot greedy, corrupt, and self-aggrandizing leaders who have led the country into such a state?

Having been to Uganda, I can appreciate the semblance of civility and infrastructure that exists there compared to a place like Zimbabwe. And yet even there you find greed, corruption, tribalism, and violence. People are murdered over land disputes. Roads are blockaded and money demanded from travelers in exchange for safe passage. If you are able to help some people, others become envious. For every adult there may be 100 children --- orphans living in the bush or together in makeshift huts. Warfare and disease have taken so many of the parents that the children have been left alone. Why?

God's answer to Habakkuk goes like this: "For the revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and not delay" (Hab. 2:3). In the end, Habakkuk's indictment is withdrawn, muted by the revelation that God is sovereign over all things, that the "Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to go on the heights" (Hab. 3:19), implying that God will sustain and even grow you (take you higher) as a result of the hardship you endure. As the Zimbabwean pastor says: "God is refining the faith of His people so that they would trust Him, no matter what, when He seemed uncaring, when He seemed silent, when He seemed inactive." Even as he sees fellow believers leaving his country, leaving an already weakened church, he is able to see how God is pointing "around the world at other places of spiritual need," sending those Africans who leave to extend His Kingdom in other needy places.

Last weekend Patrick, one of the Ugandan orphans I met last summer, came here for a heart operation. (Read about it here.) His Aunt Elizabeth, a pastor herself, came with him. I reminded Elizabeth that while they have little in material goods to give us, they have much to give us in their testimony of faith and in their prayers. In the midst of abundance, we have less opportunity to trust God. The Ugandans have to trust Him every day --- for food, water, and clothing, all of which we take for granted. Aid may come, or not; Westerners like us come, and leave. But God is constant. They know the answer to why and how long. It's simply trust, and obey, and wait. God is on the move, but all in His time.

Truth, Forgiveness, and Reconciliation: A Review of As We Forgive, by Catherine Claire Larson

51o9--zWwpL__SL500_AA240_ Most of us likely recall the 2006 shooting spree by Charles Roberts in an Amish schoolhouse.  That part we understand and lament.  However, doubtless most people regard what happened after that as a curious anomaly.  The Amish forgave Charles Roberts.  They set up a fund for the education of his young children.  And then they returned to their community to grieve and go on living as they always have.  Can their actions be excused as an oddity, unrealistic for normal people?

Catherine Claire Larson doesn’t think so.  In her recent book, As We Forgive: Stories of Reconciliation from Rwanda, she recounts not simply the horrors of the genocide committed by the Hutu against the Tutsi in 1994, when over 500,000 Tutsi were hacked to death by their Hutu neighbors, people they had lived beside, worked with, and played with for years, but the profound reconciliation that is occurring between survivors and killers, many of whom now walk among the family and friends of those they killed.  Indeed, it’s not an anomaly but a common feature of Rwandan life.

Based on original interviews and research, both her own and that of Laura Waters Hinson, whose documentary film of the same title inspired the book, Larson tells the stories of both survivors and former killers. What these potent stories reveal is the power of forgiveness to change lives and communities.  It’s not easy.  She details the struggles that survivors have with feelings of revenge, of the process through which forgiveness comes.  She also looks at the killers’ struggles to come to grips with the truth about themselves, to confess and tell the truth, and to forgive themselves, of the day-to-day sadness that lingers but the joy that can break through as people forgive and attempt to make some restitution.

One story Larson tells is of a woman named Rosaria and a man named Saveri, who pummeled Rosaria’s sister, Christine, and her two small children with a spiked club.  Saveri is imprisoned, but when he confesses to his crime, he is released to the community.  Coming to faith in Christ, he eventually seeks out Rosaria, asking her forgiveness, confessing precisely what he had done. 

“I forgive you, said Rosaria softly.”If you have confessed your sin before God and truly changed, then I forgive you. 

Saveri searched for words, opened his mouth to speak them, but none came, only tears of relief.

“How can I refuse to forgive you when I did not make you?  Your crime” --- she paused, forming her thoughts carefully --- “your crime was against God, who created the people you killed.”

Saveri goes on to build a house for Rosaria and her child, a small measure of restitution for what he had done.  That’s just one story of several that Larson recounts.

Interspersed with the stories are short interludes that probe the meaning and process of forgiveness and reconciliation, truth telling and restitution.  She moves from atrocities like those experienced in the genocide of Rwanda to something as personal (and yet relative to genocide) minor as having your home broken into.  She’s hopeful about the possibilities of reconciliation, and yet sober in her assessment of the human capacity for evil and for rationalizing that evil.  She unfailingly finds the hope for healing in the Christian belief that God first forgives us and gives us the power to forgive others.

“Pain does not have to have the last word.  Forgiveness can push out the borders of what we believe possible.  Reconciliation can offer us a glimpse of the transfigured world to come.”

As We Forgive is a difficult book to read at times, and yet I recommend it.  We have all been wounded by some offense against person or property, some more than others.  If Rwandans can forgive neighbors who acted like beasts, killing friends and loved ones, perhaps we can forgive each other too.  Perhaps we can even forgive ourselves.

The Tragedy of Zimbabwe: A Review of “When a Crocodile Eats the Sun,” by Peter Godwin

croc In Peter Godwin’s memoir of Africa, When a Crocodile Eats the Sun, one image serves as a potent metaphor for the political, economic, and social meltdown of Zimbabwe. Godwin’s aged parents, who lived in a house on the edge of Harare, had carefully cultivated a hedge around their home that shielded them from the hawkers, homeless, and thieves who plied the road in front of their home. One evening, after retiring to bed, he is awoken by the smell of smoke. The bougainvillea hedge surrounding their home is burning. As the fire engine takes more than an hour to arrive, the hedge is destroyed and, along with it, their cultivated privacy and sense of security from the near anarchy outside. As Godwin says: “[A]s the day lightens, we see that we are completely exposed, looking directly into the hawker’s camp and the busy throng of curious passersby beyond. . . . My parents have spent the last fifteen years tending this barrier against the huddled masses outside, reinforcing it until they have judged it impregnable, and it has been incinerated in an hour.” The barrier is gone, and with it the illusion of security. They are exposed.

Better than anyone I have yet read, Peter Godwin is able to vividly and personably record the sights and sounds of an unraveling civilization, of the impending collapse of a society. An African-born white Zimbabwean, Godwin grew up in a white-ruled Rhodesia under siege from guerilla forces. After white Rhodesians conceded to majority black rule under still governing Robert Mugabe, it initially seemed as if a multi-party, multi-racial democracy might work. Soon, however, Mugabe began “awarding” productive white-run farms to “wovits” (war veterans) and party loyalists. Productivity came to a standstill and, by some accounts, because of famine and oppression, over half the population left the country. Infrastructure fell into disrepair. Opposition political groups were targeted. And while Godwin’s account ends with his father’s death in 2004, we know that nothing has improved since that time.

Godwin is able to document this decline well, but more than serving as a political history, the memoir is also a family history. He comes to grip with a secret his father has withheld from him that deeply affects his own identity. He portrays how his parents coped with their decline in status in a society that no longer wanted “colonialists” around. Ultimately, he records his emotional journey to exile from his own country, a sense that his country has been stolen from him and he can longer live there and yet never feel at home anywhere else.

With all this misery, there’s not a lot of hope available, particularly for someone who does not embrace Christian faith. Yet, even here, there are both white and black people who demonstrate hope and heroism. In a grocery store line one day, his father finds that he is short of cash. As he begins to give the clerk items to put back on the shelves, a black woman he does not know that is farther back in the line pays the remainder due, something he had done for other black Africans in better times. Faced with an epileptic homeless man outside the gate to his parents’ home one day, Godwin himself sets aside the real danger of AIDS and reaches in the man’s mouth and pulls out his tongue, whereupon his fit settles. There are more such examples, and yet all this is like a narrow crack of light in darkness. The overwhelming emotion that can overtake you in reading such an account is deep sadness over the inhumanity of man, of his great capacity for evil, and of the awesome challenge of bringing hope to a place so charred by despair.

While there may not be a prescription here for how to effect change in a country and continent racked by disease, warfare, and corrupt and inept governments, it is a reminder that individual acts of love and charity matter. No amount of financial aid will cure Africa’s troubles. They are desperately in need of not just revival but of a deep and wide reformation that will extend to family, social, economic, and political life. This book is a compellingly human, richly detailed, deeply personal, and richly informative account of a world gone wrong. Yet for hope and salvation, one must look elsewhere.

Warchild: The Testimony and Music of Emmanuel Jal

warchild Even if you’re not a huge fan of rap or hip-hop music, it’s likely you’ll be blown away by the music and testimony of Emmanuel Jal.  One of the lost boys of Sudan, an AK-47 wielding child soldier, Jal was rescued from horrific circumstances by aid worker Emma McCune, taken to Kenya, and after McCune died in a tragic auto accident, eventually ended up in London.  He’s a young man of extraordinary faith who feels called to tell his story in music --- rap music no less.  As he says in the album’s title track, “I believe I’ve survived for a reason/ To tell my story, to touch lives.”

The testimony he gives is captivating, yet not all of it makes for easy listening.  For example, in “Forced to Sin” he speaks of the loss of his friend Lual, and of being so hungry he was tempted to (but did not succumb to) cannibalism.  In another song, “50 Cent,” he critiques the lifestyle of the popular rap singer in language appropriate for the context but difficult to play around young children.  In “Vagina,” he likens the continent of Africa to a repeatedly raped woman --- not just by developed nations by by their own native, Big Man leaders.  Strong imagery, strong message.

But these are the raw songs.  There are also songs of pure joy and praise, of claiming the promises and protection of God in all circumstances.  One of my favorite, “Many Rivers to Cross,” is a celebration of God’s protection and of the need to persevere in the face of hardship.  “Emma McCune” is a tribute to the woman who saved his life.  “Shadow of Death” is as you might expect --- a paraphrase of Psalm 23.

It wasn’t Emma McCune who led Jal to faith.  That faith came from his mother, but he was discipled by Josephine Mumo, a woman who led a home for street kids in Nairobi.  Mumo  not only fed and housed Jal, but she took him to church where he discovered the transforming power of God’s love and music --- gospel music.

Jal has quite a platform for his testimony.  His story is told in a documentary that premiered at the 2008 Berlin International Film Festival, and an autobiography is due out later this year.  But he seems unfazed by the trappings of success, focused on his singular calling to tell the world about Sudan and Africa, to tell his story.

Read more about Emmanuel Jal here.  Buy his record, Warchild, here.  Listen and he’ll get under your skin.  [Use some discretion in playing the album around children, however.]


Africa_3I'm always glad to see some good news out of Africa, when so much is tragic and sad.  Today's News and Observer carried a somewhat hopeful article on Africa, entitled "Africa Opens Classes."  The article reported the good news that many Africa countries have eliminated fees for primary education.  In the past, fees were only averaging $12/student a year, but this amount was beyond the means of many parents, keeping children out of school.  Now, children flood the schools, and a new problem has been created: they have no room, not enough teachers, and certainly not enough books and supplies.

Two children were profiled.  One, a 12-year old Kenyan boy had a father who was an alcoholic and a mother who died in childbirth.  His goal is to become a lawyer.  Read his story here.  He shares a one-room shack with his father and a dog in Kibera, a squalid "suburb" of Nairobi.  He perseveres.  His name?  Job.

Since I visited East Africa with my wife in 1987, I have tried to keep abreast of what is happening there.  I have found that one of the best things is simply to read their newspapers; it's so much more representative of reality than our Western newspaper's reports of how things are.  The best way to track the news is on, a blog you can find here.  It allows you to search for stories on topics or by country.  I enjoy seeing stories of everyday life, sports competitions, concerts -- things which peer into "normal" life.  Some newspapers are government-controlled (Zimbabwe comes to mind), so consider the source, but others aren't.  Reading these stories gives me hope.  There are positive things happening.  There are many Jobs in Africa.

The Fate of Africa (Part III): Finding Hope

Africa_2Martin Meredith's almost 700-page book on modern Africa is exactly what its subtitle promises: "from the hopes of freedom to the heart of despair."  By the end of the book one does despair that anything good can come out of Africa, that anything can be done to lift it out of poverty, corruption, famine, drought, and a host of other problems.

The focus of the book is on a number of African leaders who assumed leadership after the independence of most African countries in the Fifties and Sixties, looking at the profound (and generally disastrous) consequences their exercise of power had on their countries in the decades they were in control.  Martin notes that despite the oppressiveness of the colonial powers, they did bring order and a civilizing influence to Africa --- Christianity, literacy, education, and health care.  They built roads, schools, and hospitals, and generally left African countries better off than before they came.  Despite this beginning, and then the billions in foreign aid made available after independence, much of Africa is worse off by every measurement today than at independence approximately 50 years ago.

While the author makes no apology for colonialism or white racism, he also does not lay the blame for Africa's troubles on the colonialist.  Rather, he puts the root cause in a failure of African leadership:  "[F]or the most part, Africa has suffered grievously at the hands of its Big Men and its ruling elites.  Their preoccupation, above all, has been to hold power for the purpose of self-enrichment.  The patrimonial systems they have used to sustain themselves in power have drained away a huge proportion of state resources."  Indeed, their record is one of indifference to the suffering of the people, of squandered capital (and stolen capital), and of horrific and inhumane torture and oppression of their enemies.  For example, Robert Mugabe still rules over Zimbabwe after 20 years and has made a country once known as the breadbasket of Africa into a food importer.  He is a virtual dictator, insisting on a one-party system (as did almost all other African leaders).  He is only one example of the many African leaders who have behaved in much the same manner.

Even with oil (as in Nigeria) or other resources (like diamonds, as in Angola), revenues have been wasted.  Corruption is endemic to most governments.  It's no wonder that hope is lacking.

Which brings me to a critique of the book.  No doubt things are bleak in Africa (with the exception of South Africa and Botswana), but there is little hope or any prognosis for change in this book.  One has the sense that the author has no hope.  He spends less than a page on Botswana, which has had good leadership, a lack of corruption, and multi-party democracy since independence.  And while he spends considerable time on South Africa, where Nelson Mandela emerged as a voice of hope, one has the sense that what success has been enjoyed there may not be translatable to other countries.  Finally, this is not a record of the church in Africa, either, so we do not have a picture of hope that might otherwise emerge from the Church's work.

The sense I am left with is that Africa needs not only a revival of Christian hope (it has had revivals and has a strong Christian presence) but a revival that leads to a reformation of their culture.  The latter has not really happened.

Meredith begins his book with a quote from Pliny the Elder: "Ex Africa semper aliquid novi (Out of Africa always something new)."  We can hope and pray that Pliny is right.

The Fate of Africa (Part II): Men Who Play God

Africa I am only 186 pages through Martin Meredith's massive 706 page history of Africa's last 50 years but already the weight of sin and its consequences in that far-off land lays heavy on my heart.  It is a story of dreams frustrated, promises broken, greed and pride run amok -- not by the white man (at least not in these years), but mostly by Africans.  That is what is so sad.

The Fate of Africa is, thank goodness, readable and engaging history, and it's a good thing, as otherwise I would not have the heart to bear with it.  I'm tempted to read the last chapter, hoping that the author will offer a twelve step program for a renewal of Africa, but I know better than to think there is any panacea.  The book is subtitled From the Hopes of Freedom to the Heart of Despair, so that summarizes where this is going.  There is hope, but it has to be rooted in changed hearts, in revival and then cultural reformation, and that takes a Transcendent work.

Thus far, one chapter in the book brought into sharp relief how pride and greed have robbed the new African countries of public "servants," civic minded men and women who truly seek to better their countries, serving rather than lording it over their people.  The founding fathers of the newly independent African countries, almost to the man, used their fame and prestige to swiftly consolidate control.  As Meredith notes, "[f]rom the outset, most sought a monopoly of power; most established a system of personal rule and encouraged personality cults."  Probably the epitome of this was Ghana's Kwane Nkrumah, whose aspiration was to to create a united Africa as powerful as the United States with himself as ruler.  His egoism even led him to create an official ideology, calling it Nkrumahism.  He thought himself to possess unique talents and ability  Like Nasser in Egypt, Nkrumah ruled by decree; for all intents and purposes, these men were the Government in their domain.  They set themselves up as God.

Nkrumah's story is repeated in country after country.  One-party legislative systems are favored; minority parties are banned or, even worse, have their leaders imprisoned, all in the name of unity.  They came to power promising to uphold constitutions, only to abolish them or amend them such that they had no meaning.  Patronage was used to ensure loyalty; bribery and corruption became the norm for behavior.  Within a year of independence, most of these one-party dictatorships utilized methods even in excess of those employed by the colonial powers to maintain order -- arrests, detention, torture, killings --- meanwhile lavishly displaying their own wealth while most of their countrymen lived in grinding and deepening poverty.  Then, as corruption increased and unrest grew, military interventions became commonplace.  Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe is only the latest example of this system of dictatorial rule and oppression --- a man who has single-handedly turned the breadbasket of Africa into a food importer.

All of this is like a broken record, I know.  And it makes me wonder: given the vast missionary enterprise, the Christianizing of much of Africa, why did all this happen?  Why so little change?  You even see the perversion of Christian belief, as, for example, in Nigeria's Lord's Liberation Army who have the goal of imposing a ten-commandment theocracy on Nigeria, who utilize young boys as soldiers, who wantonly kill women and children.  Why?  Why so little impact?

I'll keep reading.  I know there is hope.  I know there are pockets of peace and moderate tranquility in Africa.  There are people of peace.  I'm hoping to read about some of them --- soon.

The Fate of Africa (Part I): What Went Wrong

Clip_image002_11Sometimes when you understand why something has gone so wrong, you can begin to see the outlines of a solution, complicated though it may be.  Perhaps that is the case in Africa, a continent rich in resources and with many resourceful and generous people, and yet a continent beset with difficulties, whether political corruption, dictatorship, racial injustice, poverty, or environmental ruin.  That's why I am reading Martin Meredith's very large history of modern Africa, The Fate of Africa, to get some sense of what has gone wrong and, maybe, some sense of what to hope for.  As Martin says, the book examines "the reasons why, after the euphoria of the independence era, so many hopes and ambitions faded and why the future of Africa came to be spoken of only in pessimistic terms." 

Though I am not too far on in the book, already a couple of threads emerge.  First is priority of tribe resulting in fervent nationalistic movements.  These are the same ones that led to independence but also the ones that threaten the viability of these same independent countries.  Nigeria is a case in point.  A resource-rich country, it was seized almost immediately after independence with struggles between the Muslim Hausa and Fulani of the North, Yoruba of the West, and Igbo of the East, as well as 250 other ethic minority groups. 

Second is the ability for good men to do great evil.  As Russian dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn once said, "The line between good and evil runs through the human heart."  So true.  There is Hastings Banda, for example. Hastings was educated in England and remained there for a long time.  An elder in the Church of Scotland, he was conservative, known for his generosity, and a respected medical doctor.  He tended toward respectable positions in politics, and he did not smoke, drink, or dance.  At 60, he left his English wife and returned to his native Malawi (then Nyasaland) to lead a violent and bloody campaign for independence.  Capable of great good, he was also capable of great evil.

Finally (for now) is the well-known observation that power corrupts.  Nationalist leaders who were swept to power as heroes, as saviors of their people, ended up consolidating their power, murdering and imprisoning their opponents, and living lives of luxury among the poverty and squalor of most of their people.  Case in point: Abdel Nasser, "liberator" of the Egyptian people, who came to power promising reform, consolidated his power in his presidency and made liberal use of a repressive security and intelligence network to eliminate all his foes.  He was regarded as almost god-like, a miracle worker, his likeness displayed in cafes, taxis, and shops throughout Egypt and Africa.

I need some hope for Africa.  The little bit of history I have cited seems to be repeated over and over again.  Robert Mugabe's destruction of once prosperous Zimbabwe (or Rhodesia) is only the latest reminder of what corrupt leaders can do.  I want to see the Africa that Alexander McCall Smith so wonderfully describes in his fictional stories of Botswana, The #1 Ladies Detective Agency.  Is it really there?