Sunday, May 31, 2009

African Utility

In our last week of classes we reviewed African culture as a whole and the Tonga culture specifically. Nearly all aspects of African culture revolve around survival. Technology bridges the gap between survival and convenience in developed nations, eliminating the fixation on such basic needs. Here in Africa anything that is not fitting for some purpose is quickly fazed out. An illustration of this is in the bodies of the Zambians I’ve seen. They are cut and muscular but not bulky and have no excess fat. Villagers walk kilometers every day just to do more manual labor in their fields. The large muscles found in our workout crazy culture could not find the calories needed to be sustained in the villages. I once read a book about the US Marine Corps and the author said that Marines aren’t tough, they’re ‘hard’. I finally understand what he means. Tough means you can withstand discomfort for a certain period of time. Hard means that prolonged exposure to such harsh conditions makes your body and mind accept them as normal and they adapt accordingly. Many of our team members are these big guys but a wiry Zambian woman could carry a load of water or maize farther than all of us without complaining. It makes them able to withstand living apart from conveniences we deem necessary. My uncle once told me that the human race has starved its way into existence, and that is more or less the case I’ve seen in the villages. This knack for survival, for utility, is seen in many aspects of the culture.
A large part of this is the concept of power. Power is important above all else. Without power you are nothing, say our Zambian friends. Power is good, which leads to survival. Whatever means one takes to obtain power is more or less overlooked. At the risk of making a gross generalization about the continent, this is true in the political history of most African countries since the era of independence.
This pursuit of power and survival is reflected not just in the political history but in the spiritual climate as well. Everything in life is connected to the spiritual fabric that is unseen. When someone dies or gets sick or an object breaks the questions isn’t ‘how did it break?’ but ‘who did this? And why?’ Witch doctors aren’t just things from folk lore, they exist. In fact they are a registered part of the Zambian government. Witch craft is a common practice in the village. The predominant spiritual climate is one of fear: if you don’t appease the ancestors or if you fall on the bad side of a witch doctor bad things will happen to you. Rituals and legalism structures daily life. Control, and therefore power, is obtained through fear. Power comes when a person knows how to manipulate the spiritual powers around them. Again, these concepts are foreign to those of us who grew up in the West but they are everything in much of the developing world. They are definitely foreign to me, but the more time I spend here and as I begin to see the world in this spiritual context the more that the actions of Zambians and greater Africa make sense to me.
Early Observations and Unfinished Thoughts
Most of us in the West think we can come in and make a difference in the developing world, but the majority of people take little time to understand the local culture; how you’re message, whatever that may be, is internalized by the receiving culture depends entirely on their world view, not on the world view we want them to have or think they should have. Does that make sense?
The history of the West and the developing world is one of miscommunication. NGOs, governments, and missionaries have stumbled about Africa for a significant amount of time at this point in history and the fruits of their actions are telling. Just look at a news paper or take a two week trip to any country on the African continent. And I am not saying the end goal of every country should be to be as rich as the U.S., the earth couldn’t sustain it (nor am I saying that we are the saviors riding in on a white horse, Africa’s problems are going to be solved by Africans). I’m talking about attaining a certain level of sustainable independence; in governance; in health care, in education, as well as economic prosperity. Why have we messed up for so long?
Well, much brighter minds than mine have pondered that question for years and no clear answer has emerged. As stated, I think the underlying problem has been one of miscommunication. Plans are made oceans apart from realities on the ground by people who have never lived the experience they are trying to solve. This is compounded by the ineffectiveness in which the well intentioned plan or message is communicated to the recipient culture. Words and phrases mean drastically different things when translated into another language. I am no expert, and I mean that with all sincerity, but the underlying motivations and cultural paradigms for why people act the way they do need to be measured up against the potential plan and evaluated. Is this actually going to work? Do the people need this? Do they want it? I digress.
And with that said, there are many people and organizations who have gotten it right over the years and have made a positive difference in the world around them.
Less Serious Things
We started our diesel mechanics course this week and I flippin’ love it. I never really had an outlet to learn about such things while growing up but I am taking advantage of it while I can. Coming here I really only knew how to change a tire and check the oil on a car. Now I am learning the basic workings of an engine and how to trouble shoot when something goes wrong. In the past I would have used the terms “crank shaft” and “overhead cam” in some sort of crude joke. Now I can use them semi-intelligently. You learn the most just messing around and asking questions. People here on the base are more than happy to help you learn which has been a real blessing.
Also, our PT sessions in the morning have been great. One day we learned how to play rugby from Mark who played semi-pro in England. Another day we wrestled and were taught by Derek who had an open door to wrestle at Purdue. Needless to say he wasted all of us. It was great!
We took a short trip to Victoria Falls. I have seen the falls four times now and this was the most impressive. The water was the highest its been in twenty years. The spray from the falls is like being under a high volume shower head. You literally can’t see 10 feet in front of you because the water pouring over you is so dense. We hiked across this narrow foot bridge and noticed that it was covered in a thin layer of algae. So we turned it into a massive slip and slide. We were running and sliding along the bridge, suspended over one of the seven wonders of the world. Of course the loud and boisterous Americans drew a crowd. And of course everyone else wanted to do it. It was sweet until we wore away the layer of algae and were sliding on straight metal. By the grace of God I still have nipples.
One of the more impressive experiences of my life came last September when I visited the falls in dry season. At that point there is little to no water flowing over the falls and you can hike your way across the rocks, just at the point where the water goes over the edge. The rocks form natural pools of water and we jumped in one that still have a mini water fall feeding the pool but did not reach over the walls of the rocks to go over the edge. So there we were, just climbing and swimming around the rocks and then peaking over the side and looking down the 400ft. drop. Unreal.
This next week we are finishing up our diesel mechanics course and starting our welding course. Also something that will be highly useful in Africa and fun to learn.
My current life goals: learn French, learn to ride a dirt bike (and possibly buy one for Burundi).
Send me your love!


  1. very cool man... i can see you now, looking like a strung out johnny depp riding a dirt bike in Burundi. sounds like things are going well. tell pete and jj i say hello.


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  3. Dave, you are a stud. Exciting to hear what the Lord is teaching you. Give JJ and Pete my love. And I think you need a dirt bike, sounds sweet.

  4. Dear Dave,

    I could have told you long ago that roosters don't crow only at dawn, you know, growing up on a farm and all. I hope all is well :)