Romance – For a Nation

Usually, I feel as if when I blog, I have had ample time to process and come to grip with certain concepts in order to write about them – not this time.

I have been battling for nearly a month with this one. It is something that the more and more I think about it, the more complicated it becomes and seems to further unravel my experience here in Africa this year. I believe I could summarize and tie back, everything which I have learned, experienced and changed back to one concept – perspective.

Africa, the word stems from a Greek word meaning “Beautiful”. I find that ironic, because originally it probably was because the first explorers were overcome with the natural beauty of the continent. What is ironic now though is how a new type of beauty or in my opinion “ROMANCE” towards Africa is forming. Before I first really “lived” in Africa, I was caught up in this same wave of romance. Now after being here for awhile I see it also in so many of the temporary volunteers. It is not a bad thing, but rather something that must be mitigated with reality.

For instance, so often when we dream of going to Africa we have this romantic ideal of how we will change the place, how we will impress ideals upon this land and be inundated by the wild, adventurous and unpatrolled land. We have this “PERSPECTIVE” which we romance about regarding what we think Africa really is. Movies like “The Constant Gardner”, “Blood Diamonds” and “Lord of War” play a huge role in shaping this perspective. However, I think more than anything it is actually I Evangelical roots which play the biggest part.

The problem with perspective is that in North America, as Evangelicals we are brought up and taught that we have the right way, the truth and have developed in the right way. Our minds are taught to try and change others and their thinking, to convert them, to show them the “right way”. When we go to Africa on our romantic journey we cant escape this governing perspective. It influences all that we do. It is the medium that encases all of our ideals which we use to make others see – the right way.

Personally, I know that before coming to work in Africa I was a young, ambitious, even naïve “agent of virtue” who had many “academic” ideals of how to change Africa. I believed it an injustice to pay someone only $3 for a days hard work; I believed it was only right that in our organization that all new management positions were filled by local Swazi’s; I believed that to shove 20 orphaned children in a foster home with foster parents was inhumane. But all of these ideals were founded on a Western ideal, which created my perspective. I have to confess that many of my ideals have been smashed with a hammer of reality and been re-shaped with a different perspective. By no means do I feel though that I have lost any substance of values, rather they are lived out in a different “perspective”.

What I have learned though is that it is not that simple. Everything here works differently and is founded on different principles. Communication is done completely different, relationships are formed in other ways and trust is garnered through other means. So, as I have tried to watch and observe, releasing myself from my ideals I have noticed that those who continue to try to change this culture, they will only frustrate themselves and damage more than they help. But, rather, we in the West need to embrace the culture here, change our perspective and hold our ideals with a very open hand.

There is no way that I can actually see the changes which have occurred within me – it is like a frog in boiling water. However, I know that in just a few weeks upon arriving back in the West, the changes and ways which my perspectives and ideals have been altered.

In many ways, the perspectives and ideals of Christianity have also been imparted on African culture. When Christian culture was first formed in the first century, it was “translated” into Judaic – Roman culture. Rather than being translated into African culture it has only been placed upon. There is a translation which needs to take place. I am not talking about Syncritism, which has widely been the case with Catholicism in South America, but rather a process where culture interacts and participates with the translation of Christianity.

In many ways any modes of development or work in Africa is the same.

Romance is a wonderful ideal and is necessary. But the reality is that romance wears thin and fades away in time. But that is not to say that we shouldn’t still try. A friend of mine encouraged me a few weeks ago saying “under the surface of militant altruism there needs to be a sheen of realistic understanding with regards to how much will change in the time of one person’s lifetime.”

Africa is wild, dangerous, beautiful, full of novelty, everything to create romance, but it is a place that will change you more than we can ever romance of changing it.