Reflections from South of the Sahara
Lent Lecture, 27th February, 2013
From the time of David Livingstone, Africa has always captivated and enthralled Europeans. The size of it, the mystery of it, the beauty of it and the fear of it have had a significant hold on our imagination. It is associated with great joy and exuberance and also with great suffering and death. We have loved and been puzzled by the people of Africa. Over the years, we have exploited and tried to tame this huge continent and its inhabitants. We have also tried to help and support its development. Over more recent times, European influence has waned and Asia, particularly China, has tried to engage and gain influence in parts of Africa. I suspect that in future years, the world’s political focus and concern, currently on the Middle East, will turn south of the Sahara to parts of Africa where extremist groups inimical to western interests are keen to expand their influence.
My reflections on the question, ‘What future for Africa?’ will be drawn primarily from my own experience and conversations with the people. I am not setting out to map the political and social trends except those which naturally arise from my own experiences and reflections. Before I was ordained, I taught in Lesotho. I was a parish priest in Zambia, I have visited various African countries in the service of the Church and latterly I have had a great deal to do with Zimbabwe, particularly Harare, and two dioceses in Tanzania, Mpwapwa and Kondoa. I want to give some pictures/snap-shots of parts of Africa and I want to draw some conclusions at the end. But first a health warning: the title can be misleading because Africa is not homogenous. There is a huge variety of people and conditions in Africa and so what I say are trends and tendencies which will not be true for whole of the vast continent.
First snapshot is a sculpture which I saw some time ago at an exhibition in London called Africa Remix. I choose this because it touches upon number of points I want to make. The sculpture was a bench, similar to a garden bench. But close inspection revealed that this was no ordinary bench, but was made of discarded weapons. Parts of a kalasnikov rifle, blunted knives and asagais formed the seat, and the arm rests were topped with 4 hand-grenades (defused, I assumed) which looked like small pineapples. And all of this for the joy of sitting on and enjoying the view. That bench reflects so much of Africa. Africa’s ability to adapt and use, for their own, purposes, something originally made for others. Africa’s ability to adapt and use what others discard. It was a reminder of wars that have torn through Africa over the years. It shows the way that death (as seen in the weapons) and life live close together and how weapons of death can be used for life and possibility. The bench reminded me of the passage from Isaiah where a sign of God’s rule would be when the people beat their swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks.
Second snapshot is of life and death in full view living close together, like a married couple. One report that nearly everybody brings back from Africa is an experience of energy, enthusiasm and joy, even, perhaps especially, among poorer communities. I suspect one reason for this joy is that many in Africa live life on the edge, teetering between life and death. Death is frequent visitor to many communities and one does not have to be in Africa for long before encountering a funeral. When I was a parish priest in Zambia, I conducted as many funerals of children as I did of adults and most of those children would have died from a malnutrition-related disease.
When I was visiting a drought-ridden Kondoa in Tanzania last summer, I saw people drawing water from wells dug in a parched river-bed. The wells were 50/60 feet deep and each year at least one or two women die as they fall into these wells while trying to draw out water. What a terrible paradox, finding death when seeking life. Living so close to death means that you appreciate life and live it to the full when you are able to do so. This is true for us as well: we often value life when we know death is close.
Death in Africa doesn’t just come from malnutrition, it also comes from violence and over the last 20/30 years there have been wars during which there has been some gruesome, merciless violence. In Zimbabwe, people have died during election campaigns because they have not supported the right party. So, second snapshot is life and death living side by side: the bench represents that.
Third snapshot: Africa is a slow place because people always have time. That famous comment from an African to a European is so apt. The African says to the European, ‘You have the watches, but we have the time.’ There is always time to talk. When you meet somebody in the street, you always ask first of all how they are and how is the family. Before any business is exacted, there are enquiries after a person’s well-being. This helps to assess the person’s mood and condition which will help us speak to the person in the right way. It says, I am interested in you as a person….you are more important than the business I wish to transact.
Again, I want to go back to death and funerals. A funeral is a big social and public occasion – not the often quiet, sometimes embarrassed occasion it is in the West. In Africa, you always attend the funeral of a friend, colleague and particularly of a relative, even if it means travelling from the other end of the country. This can play havoc with the economy…..but so be it. One needs to make distinction between funeral and burial. A funeral is the gathering around the house of the deceased and spending the night there, supporting the bereaved, usually singing hymns and saying prayers. The tradition is that the body has to be buried within 24 hours of death especially if there is no way of refridgerating the body. The burial is, of course, laying the body to rest in the ground. Even if it means travelling very far or losing day off work, you take time to show you respects and attend a funeral. Again, it’s people and family that are very much at the heart of African cultures. Going back to the bench, there are reminders of death in its construction.
Fourth snapshot is that beneath the surface of Africa’s relatively weak nation states -states whose boundaries have frequently been artificially drawn with a ruler, regardless of tribes and local identities – lie traditional cultures, societies and communities and a deep sense of spiritual power. It is these cultures, societies, communities and this spiritual power which are frequently the driving force behind so many decisions and actions. They always come to the surface, especially at the milestones of a community’s life. Let me give some examples. I have already mentioned how the death and funeral of a relative or friend will always take precedence over everything else, showing the significance of familial and tribal ties. Church and civic leaders are given the honours of traditional tribal chiefs, asked to sit in places of honour and surrounded by the elders of the community. While these are features of Africa, I would also want to say that not far below the surface in our own country are traditional cultures, societies and communities which can be a driving force for what we do, though we don’t always recognise them.
The fifth snapshot is the significance of religion in Africa. Those who have visited Africa, and this will be particularly true of our links, will know the significance of religion. Religion impinges on many parts of life and, of course, is seen in all its fullness at the lively and long worship full of singing and dancing. Christianity is growing exponentially in Africa in many forms and it is often practised in ways which are authentically African.
But Christianity is not the only religion. Islam is also growing. Kondoa, our link diocese, is 95% Muslim. There are generally good relations between Muslims and Christians. Indeed, when I was in Kondoa last year, the Sheik (leader of the Muslim community) made a point of telling me that there were good relations between Christianity and Islam in the area and he asked me to take this message home with me. I have conducted worship in some of the more remote communities and Muslims have come and joined in the worship. Having said that, there are some communities where relations are strained, but religion is the external identifier rather than the reason, that is, there are not theological reasons for the strain, but people are seeking those who think, look and dress differently upon whom they can shower their negativity. There are also areas where African Traditional Religions are practised. These are the religions where the ancestors are venerated and African Traditional Religions still hold sway over the actions of the communities.
My sixth snapshot is the problem of corruption in some places – but, of course, we know from our part of the world that corruption is not a phenomenon restricted to Africa. In Zimbabwe, rich diamond fields have been found and mined near the border with Mozambique, but it appears that relatively little is finding its way into the government’s coffers for the use of the people as a whole, but is being siphoned off. In Tanzania, the Bishop of one of our link dioceses says that there are sufficient resources in Tanzania for everybody to have enough – nobody need go without. But it is the way that resources are managed and distributed that cause the problems. He points the finger at those in power.
My seventh snapshot is provided by a quote from the Roman author Pliny the Elder: ‘There is always something new in Africa.’ Africa appears to change constantly, but not always in the way that outsiders expect or want and certainly not when they want. New things brought in by outsiders, such as new ideas, objects and language which maybe adapted to the African world. One small example is names. It is not uncommon to hear an English name alongside an African one, maybe in memory of a friend or a figure respected by the parents. Often a name is chosen to reflect some experience that the birth of a child would bring. So, the names Thank-you, Joy and Grace are common. I heard in Zambia of father who had great respect for Anglican church and wanted to give his son a name which would remind him of the Church and so he called him Committee.
Useless things are gratefully received, but then left to fall into disrepair. Some great imperial projects are examples of this. Useful things are used and re-used until they break and are repaired only to be used again. An example of something that has been very useful and taken off very dramatically is the mobile phone. One reason for its popularity is the general unreliability of land-lines and the fact that buying mobiles is relatively inexpensive. The remotest places are now accessible. I have seen Maasai tribesmen, wearing their traditional dress with their stick for controlling cattle in one hand and mobile phone in the other. I have been to places where there is no electricity-but you can get a signal with a mobile phone. The mobile phone has political significance. In 2008, the elections in Zimbabwe revealed how quickly news and election results spread around the world from remote rural areas. The true election results were posted at polling stations and transmitted instantly by mobile phone: the government’s attempt to suppress the results because they were not favourable backfired. Hence the political impact of the mobile phone in the spreading of news so quickly.
Eighth snapshot is the change of demographic make-up. When I left Zambia twenty-five years ago, an African middle/professional class was beginning to emerge, but only slowly. Now it is very significant. Their activities were apparent in Harare when churches forcibly taken away from Anglicans by the police under the instructions of former Bishop Nolbert Kunonga. Anglicans able to afford it, started buying land in other parts of parishes for churches. Now that the churches have been returned, the funds set-aside for the new churches are repairing the old churches, offices and clergy houses, some of which were in a dreadful state.
Looking across the continent – and this was certainly true in Zimbabwe five years ago – when there is conflict these professional classes leave the country with the tragic result that Africa is being deprived of its most precious resource – its people and these are usually young, ambitious Africans. Nevertheless they do not forget their home, but send substantial funds back to their families. One of the best signs of the improvement of African countries is when its professional classes are prepared to live in them, bring up their children and invest their money there.
My final snapshot is the gap between rich and poor. As it is the case in the UK, so it is magnified in Africa. The middle class is undoubtedly growing, but so too is the number of poor. The poor are to be found in the rural areas when food and rains are scarce, but they are always to be found in slum areas. Drive into Dar-es-Salaam and before you hit the city, you are confronted by slums where people live in poor conditions, often far away from the support-system of their extended family who will be in the rural areas. They are drawn towards the city by the hope of prosperity and they will usually struggle to make a living. These are often places of violence and disease and are to be found not far from any African city. Such areas are in contrast to the relative wealth of the growing middle classes with their well-paid jobs and cars.
Looking towards future, what do I see?
I see western influence waning as more investment is coming from Asia, particularly China.
I see extremist groups, currently focused in Middle East, expanding activities south of the Sahara. Recent events in Somalia and Mali show this happening.
I see three Africas living side by side. First, I see something that is confidently African. Smartly dressed young professionals adapting what they want from other cultures. They operate in significant positions in America or Europe and then return home to eat local food in the traditional way, continuing to respect their elders. They have integrated two cultures. They respect their elders and traditions and are not held back by them.
Secondly, there are Africans in the slums, living in a one room shack on one meal a day. They are likely to be dislocated from their cultures and support systems. They will be poor and threatened by disease and violence.
Finally, there are Africans in remote villages. Traditional in many ways but Western ways (including the mobile phone) have infiltrated even here. You may see solar panels standing outside a home providing electricity. In Kondoa, I frequently went to Churches with loud sound systems and electric guitars powered by generators (because there is no electricity). When the generators are turned off there is traditional singing and dancing. These three Africas live together.
There is, indeed, a significant future for Africa, but, if the past and the present are anything to go by, despite all that’s happened to Africa, it will never lose its distinctive identity. The soul of Africa is too strong and too deep for this. It will always be authentically African. And I thank God for that.
Acknowledgements: I am particularly greatful for the analysis of Richard Dowden (Africa, London, Portabello, 2008) which helped in the formulation of this lecture.