It is hard to know what to make of an experience like living and teaching in Waku Kungo for four weeks. It is such a rich experience, so full of frustration, hope, guilt, inspiration, confusion, and clarity. I know myself well enough to know that it takes me some time to process the experiences of my life, to integrate them into the story of my life and my view of the world. Still, here are some tentative reflections on what this experience meant to me:
First, and perhaps most importantly, I deeply appreciated the opportunity to spend a significant amount of time in Angola in one place with one group of people. I know for me (and I think for many of us), Africa is a mysterious place. From childhood we carry exotic images of Africa: “big game” wild animals, people with strange body paint doing dramatic dances, people living in remote jungles cut off from “civilization.” As adults, those (National Geographic type) images of Africa give way to equally exotic, but more tragic images: starving children, mothers too weak to grieve, child soldiers. All of those images may be (or may have been) real, but they reveal African life at the extremes, not the everyday.
By spending time in one place with one group of people, I was able to get to know people and a little of the rhythm of their daily lives. Although I could not speak their language, still through interpreters and in other ways, communication happens. I could begin to see people in Waku Kungo as individuals, rather than as a group, as “Africans” or “Angolans.” Getting beyond the differences between life in the U.S. and life in Angola, I could begin to see the similarities between who I am and who they are – especially as followers of Jesus. Seeing anew in this way is wonderfully enriching – and troubling.
Second, why “enriching” and “troubling?” Well, that is because as you get to know people you learn a little bit about how they understand their own lives. It is inspiring and enriching to see the patience and creativity and determination of the people there – or more accurately, to see Benjamin’s creativity, Julio’s patience, and Josepha’s determination. Although the “human well-being” indicators in Angola are very bad (very high infant mortality rate, very low life-span, very high unemployment, very poor access to clean water, and poor sanitation), the people are not sitting around suffering and defeated. They are not merely acted upon by their difficult circumstances. They, like all of us should be, are the “actors “ in their own lives, the “drivers” in our their lives. I think it is an important transformation for us to see them in this way. It is the only way we can have real (non-condescending) relationships with them – even if we never meet them in person.
Coming to see our partners in Waku Kungo as individuals, however, is also troubling - because then I am changed by not simply having compassion for suffering (in the abstract), but for particular people who suffer, for particular problems. And that type of compassion hurts more. That type of compassion makes one (at least me) feel even more acutely how inconsistent it is with the Bible, the life of Jesus, and the nature of God, that Christians in this country live so comfortably that we are killing ourselves with too much, while Christians in some other countries (like Christians in Waku Kungo, Angola) are dying from too little. That’s the part of my experience that really takes time to process. May God help me integrate that reality into the story of my life and my view of the world in some faithful way, rather than in some way that simply maintains my comfort.
This quote poignantly reveals the struggle I feel after being in Waku Kungo (Stanley Cavell, in Must We Mean What We Say?)
If you would avoid tragedy (and suffering), avoid love;
if you cannot avoid love, avoid integrity;
if you cannot avoid integrity, avoid the world;
if you cannot avoid the world, destroy it.
God help us never so avoid.
(P.S. Part 3 to come next week)