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Africa – Continent of Contradictions

Excerpt from Hans Guderian: Following God’s Steps Worldwide, p. 132-137

Ubangi River in the Central African Republic
Ubangi River in the Central African Republic

Cameroon, Sierra Leone, and South Africa – these three African countries have left an impression on me very much and have shaped my picture from Africa. Furthermore, I have also travelled, during the years of my service for the EBM, to numerous other countries of the black continent: to Equatorial Guinea, the only Spanish speaking country in Africa, a very oil-rich country where, however, the population doesn’t really benefit from this and only the big oil companies do; to the Central African Republic, this penurious country north of the Congo, without any reliable traffic connections, infrastructure, or industry; to Mozambique, a former Portuguese colony, beautifully located north of South Africa at the Indian Ocean, plagued by civil war, flooding, and natural disasters; to Malawi, a country stretching widely along from north to south, located idyllic at the eponymous Lake Malawi north of South Africa and west of Mozambique, a quite peaceful country with a stable government, acceptable life conditions, tourism is still undeveloped but a paradise for residents and visitors.

During my travels, I have been able to gather many enriching, and also some frightening, experiences. There are too many to them to possibly reproduce them all here. For that, there is simply not enough space. Instead, at the conclusion of my travel notes on the black continent, I want to include a previously unpublished presentation, which I had given at the end of my service as General Secretary to the inner circle of the EBM Executive, “Africa – Continent of Contradictions”.

The forgotten continent: For many centuries, Africa had been counted as the ‘black continent’. It was the home of the ‘heathens’, the ‘uncivilised natives’. It was only due to the encounter with the ‘white man’, with the higher developed culture and civilisation, that Africa received the chance to participate in peace and prosperity.”

“That’s, to a large extent, about the, still to this day, accepted view from the side of the Western world. From an African perspective, however, that all appears to be very different. For Africans, the encounter with the ‘white man’ meant war, conquest, abduction into slavery, colonialism, and economic dependency. The big powers at the Berlin Congress in 1884 divided Africa among themselves. The borders were drawn quite arbitrarily; spheres of influence were defined. A system was established, which is to a large extent still valid today: Africa delivers cheap raw material to Europe, and meanwhile also to America and Asia, which is going to be refined and processed further there and then shipped back and re-imported as relatively expensive and sophisticated finished products to Africa.”

“Only after the end of the Second World War could the different African independence movements prevail more and more. Since the beginning of the 1960s, a number of state foundings took place with great hopes. Nevertheless, many of these newly arisen African states are entirely artificial constructs: still oriented towards the former colonial motherland, economically totally dependent, ruptured inside by numerous tribal loyalties, and without any carrying and supporting middle class.”

“Today, Africa lives in the shadow of globalisation; it ‘becomes stunted’ as a slum dweller’s area, as a backyard of the faster and faster developing industrial and service-oriented societies of America, Europe and South East Asia. Here are only some drastic examples: in the whole of Africa, there are today not even as many computers with internet access as in only Berlin; in the Central African Republic, a country larger than France and Germany together, with about three and a half million inhabitants, there are today still only three factories in operation, no books are printed there any more, so nearly everything has to be imported from the former motherland, France, and the people here depend completely on deliveries from the international aid organisations.”

The Church of Jesus Christ in Africa: This desperate economic development stands opposite a more or less quite positive history of the ‘Christianisation of Africa’. Though it is also true that the gospel had been ‘imported’ as something strange from the outside in the beginning as it had been connected with Western civilisation and Western trade interests for a long time, the faith in the Christian God found surprisingly fast and wide spread acceptance here. The classical mission stations, with their frame structure of church, school, hospital, and agricultural counsel, contributed positively to the development of the rural life.”

“After 1945, in the context of the political independence efforts everywhere in Africa, there had also been a development of independent churches and congregations. Now, these African church unions, and no longer the Western mission societies, increasingly became the carriers of evangelistic and mission-oriented development. The European Baptist Mission had already adjusted itself at an early stage, and then it dedicated itself even more in the context of setting up a new Mission Statement for this new situation. Thus, the delegates of the African Baptist unions participated and still partake in the decision-making process. The mission strategy has been changed from a ‘paternalistic help and care for others’ to a ‘partnership-oriented mission work together with others’.”

“Today, we do not find such a strong church growth anywhere as we do in Africa. In 1900, there were approximately 9 million Christians living in Africa, 1.6 percent of all the Christians worldwide; in 2005, there are already more than 400 million, which relates to about 19 percent of all today’s living Christians in the world, and all of that continues with an accelerating tendency. We also experience this enormous growth in our Baptist denominational family. Thus in 1987, only 1.43 million African Christians belonged to the Baptist World Alliance, whereas today there are already more than 8 million; a growth of about five times in just a bit more than 20 years. However, not only statistics bear witness to this enormous Christian growth, but also personal impressions and experiences. Christians and Christian churches have an enormous influence on public life in Africa, in opposition to Europe, worship services are well frequented, often they are transmitted by radio and by television, and on Sunday mornings the streets all over Africa are full of well-dressed people with their Bibles under their arms walking to church to worship God. Africa more and more becomes the Christian continent.”

Disease symptoms of the African society: This strong church growth, of course, also has to do with the enormous general growth of the population. The high number of children today is no longer only seen as a blessing by the families, but increasingly also as a burden. Due to the strong population growth, resources become more and more limited, particularly in rural areas. This can be recognised rather clearly in the north of Cameroon for example, where people traditionally had a half-nomadic way of life. They would move from one ground to the other, pasture their cattle there, and then move on after a few years as the soil dried up. In former times, it had always been possible to find new land, so that the dried up soil could regenerate. Today, even the rural territories are overpopulated, so that the neighbouring pasture lands are also overgrazed and the soil cannot really recover.”

“As a tendency, there are better development chances in the cities than in the countryside everywhere in the world, and also in Africa. In the big cities, there will at least be some approaches at industrial development, for schools that lead on to other opportunities, a chance to find a place to work, a chance for a professional career, and often relatively good medical supplies. Especially the young people here, therefore, look for chances to find a better life. This, nevertheless, leads to a lot of follow-up problems: to the desolation and depopulation of large rural areas, to the separation of families as the industrial jobs are often only offered to men, so that the wives have to stay behind, and to the development of alcoholism, prostitution, and criminality.”

„In response to my question ‘What do you think might be the greatest problem in Africa?’, one of the leading workers of our Cameroon partner union said to me, ‘le tribalism’ (the tribalism). Everywhere in society, and also in the churches, the affiliation to a certain tribe plays a dominant role. When it comes to the allocation and the filling of an important post, the decision is normally made not so much in light of someone’s qualifications, but with regard to a person’s belonging to a certain tribe. If an ethnic group feels ignored for a longer period of time, then this may lead to extraordinary controversies, to tensions and separations, and sometimes even to a civil war. This tribal thinking is so deeply rooted in the African culture that it will certainly not be overcome from one day to the next, but at best it may be changed by great joint efforts.”

“This tribal thinking is very closely connected to a favourite’s economy, accepting incorrect personal privileges, and corruption which are to be found everywhere in Africa. Whether at customs, at the police, in the hospital, in the university, or regarding approval for a building project, everybody will expect that those who have to deal with a certain case as civil servants, officers, or staff have to be rewarded with a certain visible support or with some greater amount of bribe money for their gentle and benevolent services. This corrupt system that suppresses and paralyses the whole economic life has not only African roots, but is also a product of colonialism.”

“In addition to all these social and structural problems, Africa also has to struggle with very unfavourable climate conditions and the thus ensuing pandemic diseases, illnesses and epidemics. Not only the Europeans, but also the Africans suffer from the enormous heat in Africa. They are not at all immune to the dangerous illnesses. Malaria, yellow fever, typhus and Para typhus infest millions of human beings year after year. And for about twenty years, the HIV-AIDS virus has spread out more strongly Africa than anywhere else. The background reasons for this are manifold: the bad, unhygienic living conditions, the insufficient nourishment, the unconsciousness regarding the danger of being infected and the possibilities for prevention, and then of course the partially relatively liberal sexual lifestyles of many youngsters in Africa.”

Signs of hope for Africa: What can we do together in such a difficult situation? Are there signs of hope for Africa, too? I do think so, and thus I want to name them here, five such special signs of hope.”

“1. Mission of the Church of Jesus Christ in the city – The growing commitment of the churches and congregations in the big cities in Africa is a sign of hope. A growing part of the population lives in the mega cities of ‘Black Africa’. Here, the problems press against each other. Here, the challenge, the need, is extremely high. Therefore, it is really necessary and encouraging that African Christians, churches, and with them also the mission societies have begun to commit themselves to these mega cities. Also, the EBM is on the way to emphasising some new points, together with its partners in Africa: the inner city mission in Yaoundé, Cameroon, support for the Youth Centre and the street children missionary work in Freetown, Sierra Leone, and building up a new project for rehabilitating drug addicts and HIV-AIDS patients in the Social Centre in Thusong in the neighbourhood of Soweto, South Africa.”

“2. The extended family as space to live – The affiliation with certain tribes, clans, and family clusters has, in the past and in the present, often hindered economic development and led to nepotism and corruption. The structure of an extended family has, however, brought about not only bad consequences, but it has also turned out to contribute to a strengthening and a stabilisation of the social common life in crises situations. Differently from the situation in the Western world, Africans never live only as individualists. In their suffering, in illnesses, and during times of flight and displacement, they can always count on the help and solidarity of their family members. I have myself experienced this as an eye-witness to be something very beneficial during the time of the civil war in Sierra Leone. At the time of togetherness at night, it had been possible to jointly come to terms with the past and with all the frightening, traumatic experiences. There, the victims and the seduced perpetrators sat together; they all received a new chance and were finally accepted into the protection area of the extended family again.”

“3. Hospitality and love of life – In spite of all their suffering and pain, Africans remain positive and open towards their fellow human beings with wonderful hospitality and a sometimes even naïve warmth and friendliness. Again and again, we have experienced, as Europeans, how we have been welcomed by the very poor and have been showered with love, with simple but substantial meals, and with lots of care and lots of time for each other. Hospitality is something holy for the Africans. This heartfelt warmth and love of life, of course, also express themselves in many African worship services. There is a lot of laughing, clapping, singing, and shouting. This draws in many people who find a new home in these churches. The heartfelt naivety and openness are a treasure of actual humanity and can in this way become a reminder and a sign of hope not only for Africa.”

“4. The model of ‘South Africa’ – Everywhere in the countries of sub-Saharan ‘Black Africa’, people look towards South Africa with great expectations. For, there are many who have hope in connection with the ‘new South Africa’. There is hope that in this relatively highly developed, wealthy region it will be possible to build up and to further evolve a modern, efficient society and economy in at least one country on the African continent. The hope is to keep it in balance while preserving its roots in the African culture and traditions. This refers to many areas of ‘black’ and ‘white’ living together under the self confident lead of the Black African majority, to the development of a mutual ‘black’ and ‘white’ middle class that embrace each other, to the thus connected stabilisation of democratic structures, and to the surmounting of poverty, criminality, and diseases, including the scourge of the HIV-AIDS virus.”

“5. Cooperation in Partnership – As Christians, we do not close our eyes to the dramatic problems of the African continent, regarding the misuse of power, corruption, and the disintegration of entire states. But built upon our Christian hope, we cannot simply join in on the general ‘Africa pessimism’. Quite the opposite! When today even politicians come to the conclusion that ‘nothing may be more antagonistic regarding a country’s development than the implosion of a state due to the hopelessness of the population’ (Rainer Tetzlaff), then we, as Christians, are challenged to do everything to strengthen the hope for Africa, to give it new space to develop, and new energy to live because of our faith. We can and should no longer do this with the attitude that we are the patrons, smart alecks, the helpers, the ‘noble benefactors and donors’. We have to accept our African brethren as leaders with all their limitations and failings, and we have to develop and organise projects together with joint commitment, in joint learning, and with joint listening to each other as signs of hope from God for Africa.”

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