I’ve been thinking about a shirt I saw a couple months before I departed for Africa. I saw a man in a Starbucks wearing a t-shirt that said: “I need Africa more than Africa needs me.” It was a phrase I had seen or heard before, but given my scheduled trip to Uganda, it struck me with greater poignancy.
I need Africa
On the one hand the phrase speaks of the Western romance associated with Africa—the exotic continent that has long drawn adventurers. Foreigners have gone to Africa to claim her bounty and her beauty: resources, people, children, experiences. And even on our plane ride to Africa—crowded as it was with ‘Missionaries for Jesus’—I recognized the real temptation to use Africa (even if it be spiritually) for ourselves.
But there’s another way to explain how we Westerners need Africa. Our limited experiences, our narrow minded-ness, our jaded hearts need the awakening, the broadening, and the softening that Africa can produce. And the consequent benefit that a visit to Africa produces in me will far outweigh any benefit or blessing that I can offer to Africa. Interpreted this way, Africa works humility in me. It reveals my limits and my deficiencies. But it also reveals that a gracious and teaching Father is present everywhere—in Africa as well as in America.
Africa needs me
From still yet another viewpoint, Africa does need me. It doesn’t need me because I am rich and it is poor. It doesn’t need me to endow expert knowledge. It doesn’t need me as a paternalistic exploitative neo-colonialst. Africa needs me (and I need Africa) because we share in the same human existence. My trip to Uganda taught me that it’s not that some are rich and some are poor. We all are at once poor and rich, but the manifestation of that richness and poverty is strikingly different. As we live together we discover the contours of both our poverty and our richness.
Though not writing specifically about Africa, Bryant Myers, captures this dynamic well in his book, Walking with the Poor:
“The non-poor suffer from the same kind of poverty as the poor, only this poverty is expressed in the opposite way. The identity of the non-poor is also marred, but with a marring of a different kind. When the non-poor play god in the lives of other people, they have stopped being who they truly are and are assuming the role of God. Losing sight of their true identity leads to the non-poor misreading their true vocation as well. Instead of understanding themselves as productive stewards working for the well-being of their community, they act as if their gifts and position are somehow rightfully theirs, or earned by merit, and hence are solely for themselves and for their well-being.”
I need Africa and Africa needs me so that I (and Africa) might re-discover our true identity before our single heavenly Father.