Viking in West Africa

  • This is it!

    Less than month before I leave West Africa to rediscover life in the USA. My goal to post last thoughts is being thwarted by failing internet service, but I'll try to write more.

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      The number of people in need of emergency food aid in Burkina Faso has tripled to more than 3.2 million – some 11,000 of whom are suffering from “catastrophe” levels of hunger – as the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic hits a country already engulfed by violence. */ The latest data – which includes famine conditions in a part of the country for th […]
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A Long Way Gone

Posted by viking in west africa on May 31, 2011

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah is a difficult book to read.  It’s an easy read in as much as the story is captivating and the language is fluid.   With fairly large print and only 200 pages,  it won’t take long to finish.  But the book will leave the reader with a need to re-explore assumptions and learned understandings about human nature.

Read a Review from the New York Times

These memoirs of a boy soldier in the Sierra Leone War, 1991-2002, vividly recount the horrors of a war that left 50,000 dead and shocked the world by its degree of human degradation.    Because thousands became victims of amputation, the war gave the world  the question “Short sleeve or long sleeve?”  as a new metaphor of human depravity.

When I finished the book and closed the cover, the phrase “a long way gone”  impressed itself on me.   How could this level of cruelty happen ?  Why here?  What was it about this time and place ?  Who were these leaders who ordered villages to be massacred and limbs  to be amputated ?

Then I opened  King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa !!!!!   In this book, Adam Hochschild recounts another story of human depravity that showed a similar cruelty, but one even more frightening, at least to me.  What seriously freaked me out about the greed and terror in the Congo was how the actions were masked by a narrative of beneficence.  (That will be the subject of another blog.)    If we talk about “the horror” to describe the killing and maiming in Sierra Leone, we should, like Joseph Conrad in his book The Heart of Darkness , say “the horror, the horror”  to describe what happened in the Congo.   Hochschild’s book helped me remember that cruelty is not unique to any time or place, that what happened in Sierra Leone wasn’t different in essence from what happened in the Congo a century earlier.   Hochschild writes his book in part to battle against the “amnesia” of the human mind that enables our depravity.

Though the world would like to put such events behind, do we really want to forget what happened in Sierra Leone or the Congo or in other places where the meaner, horrific side of humanity has shown itself ?  As Sierra Leone progressively moves past this horrible event in their history , the use of  children as soldiers continues as part of our 21st century reality.   By offering a graphic first hand look at what is happening to children who are used as soldiers, Ishmael Beah’s book will move you and give you a better understanding of this important issue of our day.

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The We before the I

Posted by viking in west africa on May 19, 2011

A comment on approaches to community development

I have never forgotten a question someone in Senegal once asked.  After working for 5 years in the ELCA mission in Senegal with half a dozen colleagues from the USA, someone who had come to know me and some of the other missionaries asked me if I had known my colleagues before coming to Senegal.   It wasn’t so much the question but rather his look of surprise and quasi-disbelief when I said no that caused his question to stay with me over the years.   My first thought was that my new friend didn’t understand the size of the USA or that the ELCA has 4.5 million members.  But as time went on and I grew with experiences in community building in Senegal, I learned that the question exposed an important cultural difference in what sustains community cohesion .

Building community

I can't imagine a better symbol of African community than meals taken from a shared bowl. The picture was taken in Senegal in 2010 during the Interfaith Immersion Journey organized by the ELCA Task Force for the Decade for Peace and Non-Violence.

We know that “American” individualism contrasts significantly with “African” attitudes toward the relationship between the individual and the society.  The use of quotes denotes “generally” given that there is a continuum of beliefs on this subject in both places.  The American educational system helps children develop unique skills, interests and beliefs presuming that greater individuality will lead to a stronger society.   Subsequently, people who join a community out of a similar interest can be quite diverse; example, though our mission community in Senegal was comprised of individuals with unique histories and different areas of expertise and training, we worked well as a community gathered around our belief in God.   “Know thyself” and “develop your potential” are western mantras, something required before healthy engagement in a community.

In African society, the “we” comes before the “I.”   The “I” needs to understand the “we” before exploring how the “I” can or will be part of the community.   The extended family becomes my first identity so much so that, for example, in Senegal, people greet each other by repeating each other’s last names, not first names; in order to integrate a stranger into a community, a local name with all its social implications is given to the stranger; members of the Sufi tarika, the Layenne, all take the name “Laye” as a surname.  The solidarity of ones primary group, the “we,” affects all aspects of life including one’s trade, religious affiliation, political parties, social authority, etc.   Without belonging, the “I” can’t really exist.

All too often, western-based development programs find that once all the paper work on goals and strategies and all the investments in training are done, individuals fail in their commitments and the community falls apart.   This is because of western assumptions that by creating goals/strategies, teaching skills and attitudes to individuals, that community will automatically follow.  The exception to this kind of failure is where community development is envisioned by a community that still has a primary “we” in tact.  However, with globalization of communication, urbanization of economic opportunity and human migrations due to political unrest or war, development agencies are often working with a community without a “we.”

Community-building has to be done before community development can take place.  Some strategic planning spends time exploring commonality historically and contextually and defining common identity.  This is well worth the time, though, of course, writing a text on common identity academically is different from feeling a common identity socially.  Either finding the primary groups that already exist or taking perhaps years to develop belonging are essential to development.   Years sounds pretty bad, but it’s true.  Discussing this with a friend of mine, he warned that too much community building activity could cause a loss of responsibility to those beyond the community and the society at large.  A question of balance, I guess.  In the future, I’ll try not assume that by defining a direction for a community, that the community will automatically move in that direction; rather, I’ll count on the idea that if individuals understand they belong to the “we,” then they will automatically move the community forward.

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A time to unite

Posted by viking in west africa on May 3, 2011

Taken at Elmina Fortress in Ghana. Also a place of human suffering, a room that needed to be closed.

Taken at Elmina Fortress in Ghana. Also a place of human suffering, a room that needed to be closed.

I guess healing is good anytime, but not every time is the time for healing.  With the risk of making too much of Bin Laden’s death, the event is an invitation to us all to at least move toward healing.   My first reaction to the news was to reign in the celebration I saw on the TV and on Facebook.   As a matter of principle, enjoying someone’s demise, no matter who it is,  isn’t cool.    “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles.” Proverbs 24:17.   (Thanks Brian.)  And though closure isn’t as simple as closing a door, perhaps the best consequence of this will be that those who were hurt because of Bin Laden’s rhetoric and plotting can now step out of the room where the wallpaper and furniture were all branded with the politics of his capture.    The reason not to be over elated is that there are still two very different narratives in conflict, and the world has not seen the end of this battle for the right to write history.

My second reaction came when I saw partisan comments on Facebook.   Also not cool.  Obama’s administration has completed a mission that the Bush administration began and one that even the Clinton administration had committed itself to after the bombings in Kenya  and Tanzania in 1998 that killed more than 200 Kenyans, 12 Americans and injured 4,000 people.   Whether you agreed or disagreed, see this partnership of sequential administrations as a partnership in crime against international law or a partnership for justice, this was a an event in American history that Democrats and Republicans pursued together.

My third reaction came as I thought about my upcoming trip to Senegal to participate in the orientation of Wartburg College students who are coming to Senegal to explore and learn about Christian Muslim relations.   That orientation, the entire May Term study will be shaded by the death of Bin Laden.   With the reasonable assumption that supporters of Bin Laden will retaliate in order to show strength and not lose the political battle, it isn’t clear how this will play out in Senegal or in any country.   What is clear to me, is that despite whatever attempts to promote discord might occur, this is a time for Christians and Muslims to unite and move forward.  Just as silly as it is for Republicans and Democrats in the USA to miss this opportunity for strengthening their country politically, so it would be for Christians and Muslims to miss this opportunity to strengthen the world on a spiritual level.

This week, I hope that people through out the world will invite Muslim neighbors  to eat with them and to discuss what this event means for the world and in particular for Muslims and their relationships with non Muslims.   What will the next room look like, what brand of furniture and wall paper?   Will the conflicting narratives move toward mutual understanding?   This is a room we can create together!  Or, people can debrief this world event each in his or her own camp, building on the going narrative and imagining a room very pretty for one’s self, but not accessible to the other.   I think it is a time to unite, a time to invite someone from another faith community to dinner.

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Honor your father and your mother

Posted by viking in west africa on April 9, 2011

… so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.  Exodus 20:12


Honoring your father and mother should be one of the highest principles of Christian witness to people of other faiths.  This is a commandment loved by Christians and it should not be ignored in the context of conversion to Christianity in the African context, in fact it should be lifted up!

This is especially true in the African context where respect for one’s elders and obedience to one’s family elders is highly valued.   In its original context, too, the commandment to honor one’s parents was a life long commandment having as much to do with adults caring for the elderly as small children and infants obeying their parents.  It isn’t a commandment that stops when people cross a “legal” line at the age of 18.  In the African those who are under 18 are really considered children more than youth.  Youth organizations are made up of people 18 to 35 or more.

Of the people who come to the church to convert, in Muslim communities, I have met in the West African context many young single men in their 20s and 30s or 40s.  These young men are seeking to succeed in a very difficult economic situation, seeking to establish themselves financially so that they can begin a family, seeking independence in many ways that are not financial.  At the same time, they are people who are still under the authority of their fathers or mothers who are still living.

Christian leaders should remind such young people of their obligations to their parents.  Insisting on this would be an invitation to the family to accompany the young person in his or her discovery of the Christian faith.  Parents would not see the church as a threat to their families.  If the parents are willing to explore Christianity with their child, the possibility for the entire family to come to faith in Christ is there.   If the parents are not willing, so be it.  We trust the Holy Spirit.

Not to do this is to sow disharmony in families and antagonize people of other faiths.  It isn’t difficult for Christian parents to imagine who they might feel if their child would convert to another faith and then reveal this much later.   It is painful to see young converts disowned by their families and again painful to watch a young convert grow in duplicity as family and social realities cause converts to hide their new faith.  In the end the majority leave the new faith or compromise it, some leave their families forever,  and but rarely, some will be able to retain both.

If the 10 commandments are as descriptive of the community of children of God as prescriptive, what kind of Christian community would be comprised of people who did not honor their father and mother when they became Christians?  Let young people who are considering conversion be honest with their parents and dialogue with their parents before conversion, not after.

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