Spiritual Growth and Christian Living Resources

The Challenge of Africa

  • Regis Nicoll Freelance Writer, Speaker, Worldview Teacher, Men's Ministry Leader
  • Published Sep 20, 2006
The Challenge of Africa

"Countries like Rwanda face political and social problems beyond the reach of even the most earnest and popular humanitarian efforts." -- Sociologist and author, Alan Wolfe


A dying continent?
It seems that each week there is news of a new humanitarian crisis in Africa. While world attention has recently focused on Darfur, where the effects of ethnic cleansing have claimed the lives of 400,000, sadly, Darfur has no monopoly on misery.


The tragedy in Darfur is a gruesome replay of the 1994 Rwandan genocide in which 800,000 Tutsis were massacred by Hutu rivals. Lesser known is what has happened in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In a country of 63 million residents, 4 million have died from war-related causes since 1998. It is a conflict rightly called by some, "The Deadliest War in the World."


Then there is the ongoing 20-year reign of kidnapping, rape, and murder in Uganda by the "Lord's Resistance Army" (LRA)--a terrorist group claiming adherence to a strange brew of Christianity, Islam and witchcraft. Appallingly, ninety percent of the LRA murder squads are made up of children kidnapped from villages for which the LRA claims to be fighting.


Over and above the immediate loss of life, these atrocities have exacerbated the effects of drought, famine, disease and homelessness in a major swath of the continent. Unspeakably, over 8 million people face starvation because local officials withhold food aid for political leveraging.


These conditions have created a continent in which the average life expectancy is less than 50 years and where one in five children dies before the age of five. Of those children that do survive, 34 million are orphaned due to war, disease, and poverty and 42 million have no access to primary education.


With a mortality rate over twice the world average, Africa appears to be losing its fight for survival despite billions of dollars of international aid. This has led critics to conclude that the "compassion industry" has failed, functioning under a paradigm that is not only incapable of solving social ills, but contributes to them by increasing dependence on foreign aid.  


A long view needed
Granted, the compassion industry has provided some limited, short-term relief over the years but, as Boston University scholar Alan Wolfe observes, "there is a limit to the good that can be done until such countries alter the basic structure of their societies, eliminating corruption, curbing the abuse of power, setting up an independent judiciary and allowing a free press."


In other words, the solution to Africa's woes is not in the temporary alleviation of symptoms like AIDS and hunger, it is in the creation of a just and free society. Unfortunately, such changes do not happen overnight; they take decades, sometimes generations of focused and sustained commitment.


But even if every weak or corrupt African government were magically overturned and replaced by a democratic one, present conditions would largely persist without a concomitant uplifting of the African spirit--confidence in the knowledge that, as a creation of God, each person has meaning, purpose and dignity.


Here at home in our media-saturated culture, where the thorniest problem is solved in 30 minutes or less, the long-term resolve needed for Africa will be a significant challenge for those who have been content to write a $100 check for the latest world crisis. 


Warren's PEACE
One person who has studied the African situation and invested his efforts to address it is The Purpose-Driven Life author, Rick Warren. 


Warren patterns his strategy after the ministry of Jesus. Noting that Jesus planted a church, equipped leaders, assisted the poor, cared for the sick and educated the people, Warren aims to do likewise, calling his plan PEACE for Plant, Equip, Assist, Care, and Educate.   


Central to Rick Warren's strategy is the involvement of the local church.   Pastor Warren understands that the solution to Africa's plight rests in bottom-up rather than top-down change. Accordingly, Warren calls for the local church to channel and export expertise to African communities to help them set up and operate clinics, businesses, churches, and schools.


The idea is to facilitate the move from a subsistence economy to a market-based economy,  enabling the African people to manage and maintain their own infrastructure for spiritual, material and intellectual well-being.


A bishop's vision
I recently had the privilege of spending an afternoon with Tanzanian Bishop Philip Baji, along with several other local Christians. During the afternoon we had the opportunity to ask Bishop Bali about the challenges of his country.


Unlike many sub-Saharan nations, Tanzania has been politically stable with an elected government since 1961 and a multi-party system since 1995. Although Tanzania has not experienced the tragedy of genocide and ongoing war, it is the home of hundreds of thousands refugees from neighboring countries like Uganda, Burundi, and the Congo.


Globally, Tanzania ranks fifth in AIDS deaths, fourteenth in infant mortality with major health risks from malaria and typhoid, and has one of the world's lowest gross domestic products at $700 per capita.


With 58 parish churches, Bishop Baji's diocese operates several hospitals and clinics, two secondary schools, and one bible school. It is also involved in agro-forestry and nutrition improvement programs aimed at improving the health and economic status of the poor. In the near term, the diocese also has plans to open several new churches and support other dioceses in the region in the start up of an Anglican university.


In consideration of these bold, holistic initiatives I asked Bishop Bali what one thing would provide the greatest benefit to his countrymen. His answer: An income-generating enterprise that would enable the diocese to build needed facilities, as well as, maintain and repair existing ones.


You see, unlike churches and ministries in the developed world which are sustained by member contributions, churches in impoverished regions largely depend on support from church and parachurch organizations from outside their country.


Bishop Bali said that while outside support is essential to meet the current ministerial needs of his community, he wants the need for that support to diminish. Emphasizing the industrious and dedicated character of his countrymen, the Bishop said "We are a proud people. We don't want the carrot stick; we want the dignity of being self-sufficient."


A common vision
Common to the vision of Rick Warren and Bishop Bali is that Africa is not a vast region hopelessly held the orbit of First World benevolence; it is a continent of diligent people who want independence both politically and economically.   Achieving those ends will require long-term partnership with overseas churches to provide interim financial support, ongoing spiritual nurture, as well as, business and marketing advice to help African communities establish trade networks for indigenous products and services. 


A small example of what is possible is in Rwanda. There Bishop John Rucyahana and his wife have helped a group of widows from the Rwandan genocide become independent coffee growers. For every bag of coffee sold through the Land of a Thousand Hills Coffee Company, $3 goes directly into the Rwandan economy and $1 to coffee-growing families to help them earn a living wage. The company has its own website and offers a ministry kit for churches who want to become marketing centers for Rwandan coffee.  


Then there is Benita Singh and Ruth DeGolia, recent Yale graduates who are bringing the benefits of global entrepreneurship to another war-scarred country: Guatemala. By organizing village cooperatives, establishing U.S. market outlets and publishing a product catalog, Singh and DeGolia project $600,000, this year, in sales of hand-crafted ceramics, jewelry and textiles produced by women widowed from the Guatemalan war.


Why the church
Some may question the suitability of the local church for this daunting challenge, especially in the area of business acumen.


First off, the local church is uniquely positioned to generate change at the grass-roots level. Worldwide, there are an ample number of congregations so that every African church, village or community could be partnered with a church abroad.


Next, like the ambient culture, the church has members with a rich array of "tentmaking" talents, skills, and expertise. While many congregations lack some of the resources and experience needed by their African counterparts, they can network with other churches to fill the void.


Lastly, because of the Cultural Commission: to care for and enrich creation, and the Great Commandment: to love others, the church is the only organization with a history of long-term devotion to the least and the last. It is a quality that has not gone unnoticed, even by some of its critics.


Months after the Katrina disaster, U.K. Guardian columnist Roy Hattersley observed that nearly all of the unpleasant work in alleviating the continued suffering of victims was being performed by groups having a religious association. Hattersley commented, "Notable by their absence are teams from rationalist societies, free thinkers' clubs and atheists' associations--the sort of people who not only scoff at religion's intellectual absurdity but also regard it as a positive force for evil."


After wondering why his non-Christian comrades did not respond more christianly, Hattersley went on to say,


"The only possible conclusion is that faith comes with a packet of moral imperatives that, while they do not condition the attitude of all believers, influence enough of them to make them morally superior to atheists like me."


For Further Reading:
A Purpose-Driven Nation?  Alan Wolfe, Wall Street Journal

Purpose Driven in Rwanda, Timothy Morgan, Christianity Today

Faith does breed charity, Roy Hattersley, UK Guardian

The World Factbook--Tanzania, U.S. Central Intelligence Agency

Land of a Thousand Hills Coffee, homepage

African Orphans, homepage

Missionaries Of Africa, homepage

View the most recent entries on Regis' blog.

Regis Nicoll publishes a free weekly commentary to stimulate thought on current issues from a Christian perspective. To be placed on this free e-mail distribution list, e-mail him at: centurion51@aol.com.