Journal

For the World

Into Africa…Again. Lord Have Mercy.

I’ve been to Africa more times now than I can remember.   And getting ready to go again brings back a familiar feeling, of a heavy dread mixed with a lot of hope.  Ten years ago, almost to the day, Tara and I were about to arrive for six weeks in Nairobi, and the words I wrote then I feel once again as we get on the plane to fly east.

“Near the coast of Kenya there stands the baobob tree.   It is not unusually tall, but it is unusually stout and strong.   The trunk of this mythic tree normally reaches a circumference of thirty to forty five feet, with some large specimens reaching up to seventy-five feet around.   On the squat platform spreads a leafy canopy barely overreaching that same trunk.

“Trying to get your head around Africa is like trying to get your arms around a baobob tree.    One’s introduction to Africa on the first visit is overwhelming.   When you come back a second time and actually begin to understand the contours of the complexity of this continent, the realities are paralyzing.   This is my third trip, and so far I still feel paralyzed….

 “I am reminded of a form of execution from my own country, practiced in our early days.   In seventeenth-century New England, men and women sentenced to death were often sentenced to “pressing.”  The sentenced man would be stretched out on the ground on his back, while a wooden platform was laid on top on his chest.  Then, one by one, large stones were placed on the platform.  For the first several stones, the strength of his ribs and muscles could withstand the pressure, but as more stones were laid, the strength to hold the weight would give out.    Each stone placed on the others brought him closer to death, and eventually the weight was too much and the man suffocated from the inability to breathe.

“Living in Africa with eyes wide open is like being pressed.   The heavy stone of pervasive corruption is first laid on, then the heavy stone of poverty is placed, then the heavy stone of infant mortality, then is added the heavy stone of AIDS, then the heavy stone of easily preventable diseases that the West won’t help prevent,  then the heavy stone of the evils of the Big Men, then the heavy stone of the slums, then a heavy stone for every street kid high on glue that begs from me, then a heavy stone for the leprous beggars and the beggars who have lost limbs from land mines, then a dozen heavy stones of the real stories of real people you meet.

“Some days I can’t breathe.

“On this, my third visit to Kenya, I aim to dive deep into this dark madness and come away with a better response than the title for the cover story in The Economist two years ago about Africa:  “Beyond Hope”.   But hope that is real must first meet reality face to face.”

On this, today’s trip to the rape capitol of the world (eastern Congo), a new country emerging from decades of civil war and the Lost Boys (South Sudan), and a country still recovering from a diabolically fast genocide (Rwanda), I expect to feel pressed again.  In fact, I want to feel pressed, so that I can also feel the power of God in the midst.

On that trip to Africa, 10 years ago, there were indeed many signs of hope, powerful stories of God’s people doing God’s work in God’s world in God’s power for God’s children.  I expect on this trip to see both things again:  Brokenness that makes it all seem black, and rays of Christ’s light piercing the darkness.  The world needs more light.

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