I’ve been in Kibera for about a week now, and honestly have been too busy to write up to this point. I was terribly sick yesterday, but fortunately had a lot of people praying for me, and I recovered very quickly. Thanks to everyone who was praying. The trip is still ongoing, so there will not be much in the way of reflection. That will undoubtedly come later. I can say that I have learned a lot this week, and have more questions than I started with. They are not bad questions though, and I’m sure they will lead to growth and a bettering of my understanding about how to partner with the church in Africa. For now then, here are some pictures from the trip. When I get home and I have had time to ponder, I will write more.
For those of you following this blog for the photography aspect, all of these pictures were shot with my small Canon G1X. The large SLR frankly was just too conspicuous and risky to pull out. U til next time.
In eastern Ethiopia is a small and ancient walled city called Harar. It was founded sometime between the 7th and 11th centuries, depending on whom you talk to, and it is Islam’s fourth holiest site. One of the things Harar is known for is the nightly feeding of the hyenas. The people of Harar and the hyenas have an “arrangement” if you will, where the hyenas come in at night and clean up the trash. There is actually a small gate in the city wall for the hyenas, known appropriately enough as the hyena gate. Though the hyenas will eat out of a person’s hand, they are by no means tame, but it makes for a great show for the tourists every night. Hyenas are known as scavengers, but I think a more accurate description of them would be that they are opportunists. If hunting is easier, they’ll do that. If intimidating a lion out of its kill is more convenient, or if taking food from a willing Ethiopian works best, then that’s what they’ll do. But the fact is that they are wild animals with no loyalties, and if ripping your face off works for them, so be it.
A couple days ago, I read a simple phrase that said, “The devil is an opportunist”. My thoughts were immediately brought back to the hyena gate. What is the purpose of a wall, but to keep things out that are dangerous to life and limb? Every walled city has weak points, but the people of Harar have made an “agreement” and purposely allowed something unsavory into the city. Yes, attacks are rare, but it remains that at any time that arrangement might no longer be considered convenient for the hyenas, and at that point, it’s too late.
This works for people as well. After considering this, I had to ask myself, “are there things in my life that I have made agreements with that have the potential to destroy me?” Have I told myself that having the hyenas inside my city wall is ok because they clean up for me? Have I learned to trust them? How many of us have gone so far as to install a hole in the city wall? The devil is an opportunist. I’ve heard lots of people say in one way or another, “the devil made me do it”. This is nonsense. He doesn’t need to. “But each one is enticed by his own evil desire. When desire is full grown it gives birth to sin. And sin, when it has reached completion, gives birth to death.” The devil has only to wait and see where our weak points are and exploit them, which is why it is so important to be vigilant and to daily put on the full armor of God. What are the gates we have installed? They’re different for everybody. “I have to drink after work or I can’t wind down.” ” “I know I shouldn’t look at that, but I’m not hurting anyone.” The list is almost endless, and if you think you have no gates, I can almost guarantee that pride is your gate.
The news recently has been full of people who had everything going for them, but had made agreements in their life they thought they could control. They were wrong. Their agreements were found out, and their lives were destroyed. It’s time to take inventory of the gates we’ve installed, and ask God where the weak spots are in the city wall. It’s time to get a pile of stones and some mortar and fix those spots, before the hyenas grow tired of our arrangement.
There’s been a lot of talk lately about “privilege”, especially when talking about subjects dealing with the poor and with social justice. I’ve had some thoughts on the subject I’m going to write about for a while, but I’ve really had to take some time to formulate my opinions on this. I knew from the beginning that there was something that rubbed me wrong about the whole concept of “check your privilege”, etc, but it took my a while to work out in my mind why. I think after a couple months of thought on the subject, I’ve figured out the whys of this enough to write it down, and I doubt it’s what you think.
There are two sides to this whole equation, the side as seen from the “haves” and the side seen from the “have nots”. I’m going to start with the side of the “have nots”. The idea of privilege basically says that there are certain things endemic or common to a certain group of people that makes it difficult if not impossible to get ahead; that you will never be able to battle against the “haves” who have had everything handed to them. The idea that “I will never get ahead because I’m the wrong gender or the wrong race or I was born in the wrong country or my parents were from the wrong societal class, etc, etc, etc.” My main gripe with this mode of thinking is that it automatically relegates entire groups of people to victim class. Let me start by saying that there are classes within society that generally speaking have a harder time getting ahead. Now that I’ve aired that fact, unless someone is blaming themselves for things beyond their control, the worst thing you can do for someone having a hard time in life is to tell them they are a victim. People who see themselves as victims tend to give up. They see life as something that is beyond their control, and any effort to improve themselves or their situation will be met with failure, because the system is against them. People who see themselves as victims also see anyone better off than themselves as the enemy, and frequently demand their pound of flesh, even if those people grew up in the same circumstances that they did. I’m reminded of the Lakota Reservation near where I used to live. The conditions there are deplorable, worse in fact than those in some of the developing countries I’ve worked in. There was a Lakota man who bought a house to fix and live in. Right after he replaced the windows in the house, his neighbors thought he had “sold out”, and threw rocks to break all the new windows in the house. This is what happens when someone takes ownership of the victim mentality, and there is no profit to anyone in driving that idea home. Some of the people I respect the most started out with the least. Some of them still have very little monetarily, but they are tremendous stewards of what they’ve been given. The difference is that they are not unaware of the difficulties, but they do not see themselves as victims.
The other side of this equation is from the perspective of the “haves”, if you will. This side of the equation bothers me even more. Lately a common way of thinking has been that there are certain people who just by who they are and where they are born, are more likely to be successful than other people. They will have less difficulty in life and more success in what they do. While in a large number of cases this is true, the conclusions drawn from this are what bother me. The conclusion is that one should feel guilty about this and hold yourself back from the benefits of this because someone else did not have the same opportunities you did. Does this make sense? Well, I guess that depends entirely on how you see yourself. Do you see yourself as the final recipient of all the blessings you’ve ever received? Do you see yourself as the ocean into which all blessings flow? If you do, then feeling guilty about how you got where you are makes some sense. But in this line of thinking, it’s still all about self, which is in fact the root of the problems we’re talking about. The unfortunate result of this is a twisted line of thinking by which your feeling guilty about your own success in life somehow absolves you, and by feeling guilty you actually feel better about yourself. It’s as if staring at the severed finger of Saint Guilt in it’s golden box absolves you of your sins. It’s truly an indulgence for narcissists. No matter how guilty you feel about yourself, if you see yourself as the final recipient of all good things that have happened to you, your focus is still on self, no matter how much you say it’s about the less fortunate. Remember, a lake with no outlet is usually a stagnant pond. In some ways, thinking like this actually allows you to secretly feel superior to the less fortunate so long as you feel guilty about it.
The other way of seeing yourself is that if you receive a blessing, it is a gift from God. But it doesn’t end there. If you receive a gift, it is just that; a gift, something given to you because of the generosity of the giver and not because of the virtue or deservedness of the receiver. Gifts, then, are something to be shared, and not something to be hoarded. If you are given good things, whether they are talents or money or favor, these are things to be shared with those who did not receive them. Feeling guilty helps no one and does not help you to be a good steward. If you are not the final recipient of a gift, you are more like a lake through which rivers flow both into and out of. The constant recirculating of fresh water in and out keeps the water clean.
The parable of the talents in Matthew comes to mind. It talks about three people who are given different amounts of money (talents).
“For it (the kingdom of heaven) will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property.To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more.So also he who had the two talents made two talents more.But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money.Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them.And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more.’His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me two talents; here I have made two talents more.’His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed,so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed?Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest.So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents.For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
The two things I notice here is that first, the master (God) gave different amounts to different people, but it was not FOR them. It was given to them so that they would make something of what they had been given for the benefit of the master. The second thing is that the one who was scolded and punished at the end was not the one given the most, who should naturally feel guilty about all he’d been given, but rather the one given the least, because he was not faithful with the little he’d been given.
We are given what we are given to make the world a better place, to bring a piece of the kingdom of God to Earth. If we are given much and spend it on ourselves without regard to those around us, who are made in God’s image, then it doesn’t matter whether we are given little or much. We are still being unfaithful. The book of James sums it up very well. “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.” God does not give to us because we deserve anything, so let us treat his gifts as such, and be good stewards with what he gives us. Guilt has nothing to do with it.
When I was a small child, I remember my grandfather, who was born in 1910, telling me stories he’s heard over the course of his life. They were always riveting for me to listen to, because they were like nothing I heard elsewhere. I always assumed as a child that they were stories he’d made up, until as an adult I was able to find them on the internet. Many times they were old folk tales going back centuries. One of these was the story of the old woman and her little pig. This is how it goes.
ONCE there was an old woman found a sixpence while she was sweeping, and she took it to the village and bought a little pig with it.
She got part way home, and she came to a stile, and the pig wouldn’t go over the stile.
So she told her little dog to bite the pig, and he wouldn’t.
Then she went along a little way, and she came to a stick that was lying by the side of the road. And she said, “Stick, stick, beat dog, dog won’t bite pig, piggy won’t jump over the stile; I see by the moonlight ’tis half-past midnight, time pig and I were home an hour and a half ago.”
But the stick wouldn’t.
Then she went along a little way, and she came to a fire that was burning by the side of the road. And she said, “Fire, fire, burn stick, stick won’t beat dog, dog won’t bite pig, piggy won’t jump over the stile; I see by the moonlight ’tis half-past midnight, time pig and I were home an hour and a half ago.”
But the fire wouldn’t.
Then she went along a little way, and she came to a puddle of water in the road. And she said, “Water, water, quench fire, fire won’t burn stick, stick won’t beat dog, dog won’t bite pig, piggy won’t jump over the stile; I see by the moonlight ’tis half-past midnight, time pig and I were home an hour and a half ago.”
But the water wouldn’t.
Then she went along a little way, and she saw an ox standing in a field. And she said, “Ox, ox, drink water, water won’t quench fire, fire won’t burn stick, stick won’t beat dog, dog won’t bite pig, piggy won’t jump over the stile; I see by the moonlight ’tis half-past midnight, time pig and I were home an hour and a half ago.”
But the ox wouldn’t.
Then she went along a little way, and she came to a butcher standing in the door of his shop. And she said, “Butcher, butcher, kill ox, ox won’t drink water, water won’t quench fire, fire won’t burn stick, stick won’t beat dog, dog won’t bite pig, piggy won’t jump over the stile; I see by the moonlight ’tis half-past midnight, time pig and I were home an hour and a half ago.”
But the butcher wouldn’t.
Then she went along a little way, and she saw a rope tied to the limb of a tree. And she said, “Rope, rope, hang butcher, butcher won’t kill ox, ox won’t drink water, water won’t quench fire, fire won’t burn stick, stick won’t beat dog, dog won’t bite pig, piggy won’t jump over the stile; I see by the moonlight ’tis half-past midnight, time pig and I were home an hour and a half ago.”
But the rope wouldn’t.
Then she went along a little way, and she saw a rat. And she said, “Rat, rat, gnaw rope, rope won’t hang butcher, butcher won’t kill ox, ox won’t drink water, water won’t quench fire, fire won’t burn stick, stick won’t beat dog, dog won’t bite pig, piggy won’t jump over the stile; I see by the moonlight, ’tis half-past midnight, time pig and I were home an hour and a half ago.”
The rat said, “I will if you give me a piece of cheese.”
And the little old woman gave the rat a piece of cheese.
So the rat began to gnaw the rope, and the rope began to hang the butcher, and the butcher began to kill the ox, and the ox began to drink the water, and the water began to quench the fire, and the fire began to burn the stick, and the stick began to beat the dog, and the dog began to bite the pig, and the pig began to jump over the stile, and the little old woman got home that night.
It’s a fun story, but what does it have to do with Africa or missions? Frankly, a lot. The preceding story is a lot like trying to get things done in Africa. You try to get something done, but there’s always someone waiting for someone else to do something first, who in turn is waiting for someone to do something else, and by the time you get to the end of the line, whatever it is you are trying to do never gets done. This finally gets to the rat, who had to be paid a bribe to do what rats normally do anyway, but that’s a subject for another blog post.
There are certain cultural things that need to be understood before we rush to judgement about why this is the way it is. Africans value family and time building relationships far more than cracking the whip and getting things done. There is nothing wrong with this, up to a point. We on the other hand, especially in New York where I’m from, value getting things done more than family or relationships, and many times are willing to sacrifice the latter for the former. This is not ok.
The other thing to understand is that many times the things we think are important to get done are not important to them. Just because westerners thought of it doesn’t make it better, and many times they see problems with what we’re trying to do that we don’t see. That’s why we go to Africa to learn as much as we go to teach. We help each other through our respective brokenness.
There are times, though, when we’re asked for help on a specific issue, and things just need to get done. Often there are volunteers who have donated their time and resources on this end of things who are waiting for something from the receiving end so they can do what they’ve been asked to do. Often these volunteers don’t understand the way things are done in the non-western world. Both those asking for help and the volunteer’s time needs to be valued. This way mutual respect can be shown to all parties, and the things that really need to get done can be finished.
The thing I’d like to see come out of the relationships we’ve built in Africa, and I say this with the utmost respect for all parties, is for many of the Africans to learn to be stewards with resources, and for the westerners to be better stewards with people and relationships. This way we can all grow.
Back in November of 2014, on my first trip to Ethiopia, I met a woman who had either never seen her face or had not seen it in a very long time. I had gone out walking through the countryside one evening and came across a woman with incredible character in her face. She was standing in front of a simple hut that was no more than ten feet by ten feet, made out of sticks with mud packed between them to keep the breeze out on the cold nights up in the mountains. She smiled at me as walked past, and I simply had to get a picture of her. As a courtesy, I showed the image to her on the back of the camera. When I did, the reaction was not what I had expected. Usually it’s either joy or embarrassment, but in this case, she just looked at the image and began to touch the parts of her face. Evidently what was on the screen was not how she pictured herself. I also found this to be the case with some other people I have taken pictures of since then. I took pictures of a pastor on my most recent trip in April of this year, and after seeing it, he indicated that he had not known that his hair was gray. I think there are just not very many mirrors around, and not a lot of standing water for people to see their reflections.
When I come back to an area in Africa that I’ve been to before, I try to bring pictures back of the people I’ve either stayed with or who I plan to visit again. I simply had to give this woman a picture of herself. On the last evening I was in the village, I went out walking again, hoping to find her. Just as before, she was sitting outside her simple home, looking out over the beautiful view of the farm-covered mountains of Ethiopia, making a grass basket. I greeted her, and even though I had a heavy beard this time, she recognized me. I have her the picture, and here are the results.
Here’s a reference to my previous blog post about my first experience with the woman who had not seen her face. https://southsudantraveler.wordpress.com/2014/11/18/not-seeing-yourself-for-a-very-long-time/
I haven’t written much since getting back from Ethiopia. It’s not because I don’t have a lot to write. Frankly, it’s because it’s hard to put it all together. It’s hard to describe the things I’ve seen and make it seem relevant or even believable to western readers. There’s a point where you no longer are able to convey the amazing things that happen somewhere because you cross the line where people simply dismiss what you’re writing as fanciful drivel. So today I’m going to try to convey what “kingdom” is, and I’m going to quote such seemingly unrelated sources as Nate Saint and Douglas Adams.
Nate Saint, who was martyred by the Huaorani people in Ecuador in the 1950’s, said, “People who do not know the Lord ask why in the world we waste our lives as missionaries. They forget that they too are expending their lives… and when the bubble has burst, they will have nothing of eternal significance to show for the years they have wasted.” While Nate himself was not able to personally bring the gospel to the Huaorani people, his courageous wife went into the lions den, to the people who had killed her husband, and brought the gospel of Jesus to that tribe. The consequences were staggering. The tribe was on the verge of extinction because they lived such a violent lifestyle. There was no word for “grandfather” before the gospel came, because no man lived long enough to become one. All that changed because of people who believed in kingdom. So what is kingdom?
In the “Lord’s prayer” Jesus teaches us to pray, “Our Father in Heaven, Holy is your name. YOUR KINGDOM COME, YOUR WILL BE DONE, ON EARTH AS IT IS IN HEAVEN.” So what does he mean by that, and what does “your will be done” have to do with kingdom. Well, imagine it this way. To an earthly ruler, anywhere that ruler’s will is done is their kingdom. Consequently anywhere where God’s will is done is his kingdom. I think this is where Christians in the west have gone completely off course. We’ve been taught that kingdom is what we experience when we die. Consequently, following God becomes a set of rules we follow as we go about our business with the final goal of going to heaven. It becomes a very inward-focused faith that doesn’t touch the world around us. It leads to such statements as, “my faith is a personal issue”. Imagine if you started working for a company, but you were only there for the retirement benefits, and never intended to actually do anything during the 30 years or so you were there. This is what kingdom looks like if you see it as only heaven when you die. If, on the other hand, we recognize that kingdom is not only what is to come, but what is also here now, our focus changes from the inward to the outward. In Colossians 1 it says, “all things have been reconciled through Christ, whether on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of his cross.” How long have we ignored the part where “all things on earth have been reconciled” and just moved on to the heaven part? Admittedly, it’s easier to ignore that part because it takes work, and it takes faith.
Douglas Adams in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy states that there are three kinds of people. There are thinkers, doers, and everybody else. I believe this is true, to an extent. Ideally I’d like to be both a thinker and a doer. When you take prayer, and add thinking and doing, that is where visionaries come from. Many of the people I met in Ethiopia are visionaries. Being either one or the other frequently causes problems, but there are too many of us content to be the “everybody else”, neither a thinker or a doer, especially when it comes to our faith. Let us be the visionaries, the thinkers, and the doers, not the spiritual equivalent of a forty year old living in his parent’s basement playing video games.
I got back from Ethiopia about three weeks ago. While I was there, I was able to see kingdom in action. 175 church planters were there for training, but the great thing about being with these people is that we truly learn from each other. Two or three of them weren’t able to make it because they were in prison for preaching the gospel. Several people from their churches were also in jail for being Christians. We interviewed every one of those pastors, and every one of them faces persecution. They’ve been beaten, had their lives threatened, had stones thrown at them when they’re preaching to their churches, had their families attacked when they’re away to keep them from leaving, and had phone calls in the middle of the night threatening to kill them. The sobering thought is that it is very likely that some of the church planters we send out this fall will be killed for their faith. I am not exaggerating at all. These men and women understand kingdom, and if you told them your faith is a personal thing, I think they’d look at you dumbfounded, because where they are coming from, that is not even possible. In their prayers, and in the way they speak, and in their entire demeanor, it is evident that they are all in. And this is what kingdom is all about. It is about expending yourself to make the world the one God intended it to be; one where the gospel is preached to the poor, where the brokenhearted are healed, where the captives are set free, where the blind are given their sight (both literally and figuratively), and where the oppressed are liberated. That is what kingdom is about. I see a movement coming in this country (we’re rather behind the much of the world here) where people put the old “fire insurance” version of following Christ to bed, and start recognizing that kingdom is not only coming, but is now.
Recently a public campaign came out called “Ban Bossy”. I am all for empowering girls and women, but in my opinion, this is one of the most misguided public campaigns since margarine was pushed as heart healthy food. The basic idea is that when girls do something others consider “bossy”, it should be seen that they are displaying leadership skills, and no one should call them bossy. Here’s the big problem with that; bossiness is a leadership skill like cruelty or manipulativeness is a leadership skill. Don’t believe me? Last time you filled out a resume, did you list bossiness as one of your skills? If you did, you didn’t get the job. The reason is that people are bossy not because they have leadership skills, but because they have a need to control, and feel that they lack it. No one wants to follow someone who is bossy. If your boss is bossy, he/she is a lousy boss, and a lousy leader. Just look around at our elected “leaders”. There is a tremendous leadership gap in this country, not because we have a shortage of people who are bossy, but because we have a shortage of people who know what leadership skills actually look like.
A good leader has traits that make other people want to be like them. On the other hand, a great leader brings out the best things that are already inside of other people. None of this comes by brow-beating or yelling or imposing their will over people. It comes when other people look at a person and say to themselves, “I want whatever they’ve got”. Leaders are great when other people WANT to follow them, not when they demand that others do what they say. So if you want to raise up the next Caligula or Hitler, by all means go with the whole “ban bossy” thing. If on the other hand you want to raise up the next Abraham Lincoln or Mother Theresa, then instill in kids character traits like selflessness, hard work, respect for others and themselves, compassion, and wisdom. Great leaders are the first ones to jump in when something needs to be done. They don’t just dictate from on high. They inspire people to be their best. A bad leader rules through fear and manipulation, and they are quickly abandoned when someone better comes along.
This brings me to Christians. Many Christians feel that our witness is best expressed by loudly proclaiming our beliefs, without love or respect for whomever it is we’re proclaiming at. When others push back, we stand on our rights to say whatever it is we want to say. “We have our first amendment rights”, don’t we? Essentially, we’re saying “ban bossy” will work for us. But it works the same for Christians as it does for girls. If you want someone to follow Christ, act like he did. Don’t just yell about what he did. Once again, you are far more of an influence because of who you are than by what you say. Saint Francis said, “Preach often, and if you must, use words.”
Whom did Jesus oppose more than anyone else? It was the Pharisees, not because they were any worse than anyone else, but because they saw themselves as superior and let everybody know it. Matthew 23:15 says, “What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you cross land and sea to make one convert, and then you turn that person into twice the child of hell you yourselves are!” If we don’t think this applies to us, we are sadly mistaken. We must constantly be in a state of asking ourselves, “Is the man (or woman) that I say I am the same one that everyone else sees?” If we’re not, well, then I guess we could always go back to “ban bossy”.
The first time I saw Africa was not looking out the window as I flew into Nairobi. It wasn’t when I got off the plane in Jomo Kenyatta Airport late in the evening to the cool air and the smell of charcoal smoke. It wasn’t the next morning waking to the cawing of the large ibises that are ubiquitous to Kenya. It wasn’t even the next day when I stepped off the next plane into the suffocating heat of Juba, South Sudan. The first time I saw Africa was several days later.
In the book, “Heart of Darkness”, Joseph Conrad writes of nineteenth century travelers, “Most seamen lead, if one may so express it, a sedentary life. Their minds are of the stay-at-home order, and their home is always with them-the ship… In the immutability of their surroundings the foreign shores, the foreign faces, and changing immensity of life, glide past, veiled not by a sense of mystery but by a slightly disdainful ignorance… A casual stroll or a casual spree on shore suffices to unfold for him the secret of a whole continent, and generally he finds the secret not worth knowing.”
I believe this to be the case as much today as it was in 1899. People like the idea of seeing another culture, but would rather do it as one looks at fish in a bowl. This is why cruises are so popular. Go to a new place every day, take the sanitized, expurgated tour designed to solidify preconceptions and stereotypes you came with, and at the end of the day be safely back within the insular confines of familiar comforts.
This is why the first time I saw Africa was several days after I got there. It was when everything familiar was left behind that I really saw Africa, and it was a day I will never forget. It was the day that I realized this was not a one time event, but something that was to become part of me. It was the day it occurred to me (because it hadn’t yet) that I would be back many times.
The day I’m referring to was about my fourth day in South Sudan. We originally had no plans to go where we ended up going, but the pastor we were there to visit arranged for us to go and visit his home village, about a three hour off-road drive from Bor, where we were staying. That day I saw things I never imagined I would see. The cattle herders herding cattle with horns so immense it’s hard to imagine how something could carry something that large. The grass fires rolling across the plains, set by people deliberately to renew the land with fresh grass for the next season. We met the chief of the village of Liliir, a man with three wives, seventeen children, and I’m not sure how many grandchildren. He had been the chief of this village of 60,000 for fifty years, and ruled not with an iron fist, but with wisdom and respect. I met a man who was 110 years old that day, and who could remember when the British colonialists came. His wife was much younger, and when I asked to take her picture, she hurried into her hut to put her best clothes on. As we traveled back that day, by chance we came across a gathering of two cattle camps. They were there for South Sudan’s favorite sport, wrestling. We asked the driver if we could stop and watch, and the cattle camp got the first foreign audience they had probably ever seen. It was absolutely amazing. That was the day I became immersed in the culture; where all the familiar was left behind and I was able to experience Africa as part of Africa, and not through the glass. It was a turning point for me, when the foreign became not so foreign, and my worldview changed. It was the reason I write this blog today, and the reason I’m going back to Africa in less than two months.
There aren’t a lot of places like Juba, at least not that I’ve experienced. If you fly in, generally you either come from Addis Ababa or Nairobi, and the first thing you notice is the shock of the first blast of heat as you step onto the tarmac, especially after the cool temperatures of either of the previous places. Many things in Juba are just like other cities in Africa; the dust, the ubiquitous Toyota Land Cruisers and motorcycle taxis, the smell of diesel and wood smoke. But other things are distinctly different, namely the tangible sense of desperation. It’s hard for me to describe to someone who hasn’t been there, but I’m going to try. After that, I’m going to try to do an even harder task, and that is to explain why.
The first thing is to describe the conditions on the ground. Juba went from a town of 115,000 in 1993 to a city of somewhere between 500,000 and a million in the past couple years. Obviously there was no way for infrastructure to keep up with that kind of growth. Since the oil shipments into Sudan stopped a couple years ago, there is no functioning power grid in the entire country, and you only have electricity if you have a generator. There are some paved roads through town, but almost all roads are just rutted dirt tracks that become very hard to travel if it rains. Juba’s dirt turns into a slick mud you could almost skate on, so driving is quite a challenge. Copious amounts of garbage is burned because there is no other way to deal with it, so it occasionally rains black ribbons of ash, and smoke sits on the city. There is no central water supply. All water is trucked to individual water tanks from the Nile, which runs through the city (and is quite beautiful). Consequently waterborne disease is a major problem. None of these things on their own really explain the sense that comes over you in Juba, though. I believe the reason for that sense is the same reason the city has grown so fast in the last fifteen years.
Traditionally, the South Sudanese have lived in villages in the scrub forests and grasslands. They live in traditional thatched huts in family groups, among a larger village. Some villages are extremely large. They raise cattle with enormous horns, and do some farming with very basic methods. They have very tight family and community ties. One of the reasons westerners (especially Americans) have a hard time understanding Africans is because of the way we see time and the way we see our role within a community. We see time as a finite thing to be planned out and quantified, divided and packaged. We have day planners and use phrases like, “time is money” or “how am I going to get that hour back?” Africans largely see time (or don’t see time) more as somewhat of an unlimited resource, and if something doesn’t get done now, that’s ok. The focus is more on relationships and community. Church doesn’t necessarily start at such and such a time It starts when the pastor is ready and the drum beat starts to signal for everyone to come. There are advantages and disadvantages to each way of seeing time. In the first way, time can be used more productively for producing goods or services, but the other way people tend to have closer relationships and a stronger sense of belonging and community. Villages truly raise the children, and the elderly are not abandoned to nursing homes.
So what happened? Well, in a nutshell, the war happened. South Sudan was at war with northern Sudan almost constantly from the 1950’s through 2011, when independence was finally declared (though some level of war still goes on with north Sudan.) Even when there wasn’t all out war, there was oppression from the Arab, Muslim northern government against the Black Christian and Animist south. Decades of war caused people to flee to wherever they could find safety. One of these places was Juba. The choice was to stay and raise cattle and be killed, or head to the relative safety of a large group of people in Juba. This desperation along with tribal division (which is a subject worthy of a book more than a blog) caused violent cattle raids and the abduction of children. This was another reason to leave the villages and head to the city.
So people left their villages. The lucky ones could take their families with them, the unlucky ones either had lost their families to the war, or had been separated from them in the diaspora. Community was lost. The cattle were raided, which is currency in South Sudan, so they no longer had assets. From a distance, Juba looked pretty good as the promise of a job and security called. Juba has now become the African version of a gold-rush town in the American west. People come with hope of a new life, security, and a way to take care of their families.
This is where those two different ways of seeing time come in. There are a certain number of South Sudanese and a lot of foreigners that run businesses in Juba. They understand that time is money, They are also more individualistic people who are driven personally to succeed rather than seeing themselves as much as part of the community. They are there to make money, not build a community. It’s a very western way of thinking. It’s good for running a business, but not good for building lives, and it’s not the prevailing way of thinking in South Sudan. These people naturally become successful as business owners, but people coming in from the villages don’t think this way, and are quickly exploited by those that do. Making this situation worse is that in Juba, all the tribes have been thrown together, and there’s always that tension under the surface. Consequently you have a high capacity for violence. You have a large number of people who came looking for a better life and didn’t find it. They’re alone, their community is gone, everything that is familiar is gone, and they have no money. The only thing worse than having no hope is thinking you had hope and then finding out it was false. All of this together is what creates that tangible desperation I was speaking of. Juba is a place where I always feel like I have to look over my shoulder.
I might try to write later on what might be done about this, but I really don’t know if I’m up to the task. My goal today was really to try to bring some understanding to this subject. There are of course more layers to this, as nothing with people is simple.
A couple of years ago, I was in Juba, South Sudan. I heard of a recent ‘event’ that had happened in the city. The story was, that there was near panic in part of Juba, because a woman had reportedly turned into a snake. How this was supposed to have happened and why, I don’t know, but the fact was there that in addition to the panic, there were apparently a large number of people that came out to see the snake woman. Ridiculous we would say. To add to it, we’d probably go on to say that it was simple-minded people believing in superstition, if we were to speak out loud what was going on within our heads before we remembered it’s not politically correct to pass judgement on what anyone believes.
Now let me tell you another story. The same year, there was a semi-homeless man that I would run into frequently as I’d walk my dog in my hometown. I would occasionally speak to him, and got to know him a little. One day, I saw that he had a patch over one of his eyes. I asked him what had happened. He said that his retina had detached, and his doctor told him he was losing his vision. I asked him if I could pray for him, and he agreed. I prayed that God would restore his vision to him and heal his eye, and we both went on our way. About a week later, I saw him again, and he was no longer wearing the patch on his eye and could see out of it. I asked him about his eye, and his response was, “My doctor says he misdiagnosed it.”
One culture believes in all things spiritual, the other believes in nothing spiritual. While faith is the evidence of things unseen, what do you call it when you see something with your own eyes and still manage to rationalize it away? We in the supposedly Christian west write off all things spiritual as superstition or the figments of simple minds. The fact is, that in my experience, it’s only in the caucasian west that we manage to convince ourselves that all things spiritual are such figments of a desperate imagination.
Go to Africa, and you’ll find that even the educated believe not only that God is able, but that he WILL intercede if we pray and act on the authority given to us in the Holy Spirit. Most of the book of Acts, and a good bit of 1st Corinthians deals with the subject of spiritual gifts. Jesus says in the gospel of John, “Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves.Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.”
“Greater things than these” are the words used. So as Christians, do we believe this, and if not, why not? I’ve seen things that would blow the minds of such deniers. We don’t believe, because we don’t want to believe. We would have to live differently. We would have to take God at his word on a lot of things we currently ignore. I hear the question a lot, “How do you know which religion is correct?” When an entire Muslim family in Ethiopia is instantly and miraculously healed, they know what is correct.
When a doctor tells a man he is going to lose his vision, the doctor has to be pretty sure about his diagnosis. When I see a man’s vision restored anyway, I know what’s correct.
If we profess to be Christians, it seems to me that there is the choice to take the whole package or nothing at all. Why would we want to follow Christ if what he said was a lie? There’s any number of liars I’m free to follow, and most of them don’t require such things as abasing the human nature and pride, or putting others before yourself, or any of the other myriad of unpalatable things Christians are called to do but rarely do. In fact, most of them tell you to follow your heart and do what feels good. The book of Proverbs speaks directly to this and says, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.” On the other side of things, if everything Jesus said is true, then why WOULDN’T we want to follow him? Yes, it requires a lot of you, but it’s so much better a way than the half-hearted, half-believing version of following that the church generally does now in America. Jesus says in Matthew 10, “As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.” That is the version of following Christ that I want.