Sunday, December 01, 2013

The Hippo's Creation: A Zambian Folktale


The following story was told to me while I was living in Lusaka as being an old Zambian folktale. The photos are from my trips to South Luangwa and Chobe National Parks

In the beginning, when God had finished making all the animals of the world, there was one lump of clay remaining. 

“Oh!” said the lump, “Please use me too! You don’t need much effort—just leave me as a lump, and I’ll be a hippo.”

“Hmm….” said God. “I don’t know. I have balanced the land and water animals perfectly. Where would I put you?”

“No problem. I could live in both the water and on land.”

“But you are so big,” said God. “You would eat up all the other animals.”

“No!” said the lump. “I could be a vegetarian, and I could prove to you every day that I have not eaten any animal.  I will open my mouth wide so you can check my teeth, and when I poo, I will spin my tail to show you there are no bones!”

And thus God agreed to create the hippo.



 





(I thought I'd share the story of the hippo since this video has been making the rounds)






Monday, November 25, 2013

When Parties Aren't For You

Early birthday cake with grandparents
Earlier this month, blogger Seth Adam Smith wrote a post about how marriage wasn't for him, and it went crazy viral. Many people loved Smith's father's advice: "You don’t marry to make yourself happy, you marry to make someone else happy." Others, however, hated it and pointed out that, among other things, such a belief is toxic when told to someone in an abusive relationship. As is so often the case, what is a curative for some is poison for another. 

I was thinking about this when debating discussing with my husband this weekend how to celebrate our daughter's 2nd birthday, which is just a few days away. My husband and I are deeply ambivalent about hosting parties. We didn't have a party for her last year, but considering how many she has now attended, it seems as if social reciprocity requires it--that a birthday party for a toddler isn't really for the child (who won't understand what is happening or remember it anyway); it is for the community. 

I used to love having parties. That is, I used to love it when friends came over and we had some laughs and there was minimal prep and clean-up work on my part. These parties weren't simply fun; they were reassurance that doggonit, people liked me. The only catch was that I wasn't allowed to consciously exclude anyone. If I invited girls from school, we invited all the girls in my class. If I invited friends from church, the youth group came. We took our Methodist rhetoric about the open table seriously; all are welcome.

This theology was hardwired into my operating system, and it confused and grieved me when I realized that others didn't share it. Mom would try to soothe my pain by making excuses for classmates who bragged about their parties that didn't include me: "Don't take it personally; it was probably just that their parents only invited families that they knew; maybe they all belong to the same club or something." I did take it as rejection, though, and it increased my desire to avoid inflicting on others the same feeling.

The 'ya'll come' approach worked well for me into my mid-20s. College parties were spontaneous and required little work. (When your furniture includes cardboard boxes draped with scarves and the meal consists of splitting a Papa John's pizza order, there is no pressure to keep up appearances)

That all changed the year Stuart bought a house, and we began hosting 'grown-up' parties--inviting his State Department colleagues and such. Suddenly, 'ya'll come' meant rooms so crowded with acquaintances that many guests never sat down, several hours of cleaning and cooking, and considerable thought and expense put into what to serve and how to serve it (since apparently it is gauche host a grown-up party and ask folks to pitch-in). By the end of the party, I'd be wiped out from my catering and small-talk duties and near tears at the sight of the mess in the kitchen. Parties weren't fun for me anymore; they were hard work. While we still fantasized about our party ideas (rooftop dances, antique sheet music sing-along, caroling, brunch & croquet, etc), we'd sometimes go a year between having one.
  
Now I'm sure some of you are thinking that the obvious solution for introverts like me is to eschew such parties and invite over a few close friends instead. Yes, that can work sometimes, but I think that assumes that a party is for the happiness of the one hosting it, which I'm not sure is true.  The big Denyer Christmas party, for example, has a been an opportunity to show all our friends in town that we care about them--to make sure they get to carol around a piano at least once that season, have festive foods 'neath holiday decorations, and renew and expand friendships. Yes, it's a lot of work for us, but when we consider trimming the invite list, the guilt of crossing out anyone's name is too great.

The added complication, of course, is that I am now married to a foreign service officer and switch countries every couple years. Have I told you about that terrifying book they provide to spouses that has several pages on party protocol in the foreign service (including seating rules so complex that they suggest investing in round tables)? Yes, I know I'm overreacting; most of those rules are generally ignored, but there definitely is a rather high bar in this world I now live in when it comes to what/how one serves guests--including the small gatherings--such that it is often hard to tell when you are at an actual party or a work function. After all, the guest list is going to be about the same regardless.

This brings hubby and me back full circle in our debate discussion. If parties are for the strengthening of the community, we should have them more frequently and invite all of our American embassy colleagues* to anything that's larger than having just a few friends over. Yes, this can mean quite a large crowd with many children running about.  This is partly why those in our community who believe that parties are for their happiness have trimmed their lists. We often don't make their cut (because we haven't invited them to anything this year?), and I confess I get a momentary flashback to teenage insecurities each time I see pictures on my newsfeed of what we missed.  I don't want to do that to others.  But, then again, considering how rarely I host anything these days, perhaps others assume that I already did!

What do you think? Should parties be for your happiness, and, if so, when?



*and this isn't even addressing the Pandora's box about how very few of the locally employed embassy staff (i.e. non-Americans) ever get invited to after-hours social events hosted by Americans.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

An Open Letter to Those who Suspect I Dislike Them

Glaring at hubby: a vacation photo tradition
When I was a kid I had a diary. Reading it, you might think I had a miserable childhood. The truth is just that I only wrote when I was sad or mad; I was too busy enjoying life the rest of the time.    

I got to thinking about this when my mentor reminded me to balance the tone of my social media presence. If I primarily blog my criticisms of the efforts of well-meaning people and repost social commentaries, a lot of the folks I'm trying to influence might dismiss me as a grump.

That’s not who I am—at least, not all the time. Idealistic, stubborn passionate, and opinionated pensive, yes, I’ll agree to those labels. And yes, that can result in such profound frustration that sometimes I feel flames on the side of my face (Mom jokes that I popped out of her womb screaming with righteous indignation). Frequently, though, it also manifests as playfulness, hospitality, and moments of serenity. Married life has put a damper on my flirtatiousness and I’m less likely to let loose at a party now that I’m a pastor and Foreign Service spouse, but I still can be a load of laughs in the right setting. I’m not half bad as a shoulder to cry on, either.

For reasons I don’t fully understand (Pro bono offers of psychoanalysis and behavioral modification therapy welcomed), it has been noted that I am socially awkward in some settings yet charismatic in others. This doesn’t seem to have any correlation with how interested I am in befriending the people in these settings. For example, a few years back I was excited to meet a colleague of my husband who, based on descriptions, sounded like she could be my next best friend. Despite my efforts, though, our conversations reeked of forced politeness; I concluded she wasn’t fond of me and stopped trying. About a year later, my husband decided to put an end to my “Why doesn’t she like me?”s and asked her directly if I had made a faux pas or somehow offended her.  He returned home with this shocker: She had been wondering why I disliked her!

I’d write this off as an isolated tragic-comedy, but anecdotal evidence suggests a pattern. I suspect there are others who have incorrectly assumed I disliked them just as I have discovered I have been wrong in such assumptions (and have obsessed about all the ways I can be off-putting).  Hence, this self-disclosing post. (Links to studies or articles about this phenomenon are welcome; I've never found one, but I hope they exist).  If I ever crack the code to what's really going on, I'll let you know.

In the meantime, I'll wrap up with this:

If we've met and you suspected I disliked you, chances are it was the setting putting me out of my comfort zone--or me struggling to find a conversation topic that seemed to interest you--or me wanting to share with you about one of my passions--or me thinking that you weren't fond of me.  It could even have been me trying too hard to fill the uncomfortable silences with chatter. And while yes, occasionally there are people I find offensive or hard to respect, the chances that you (someone who reads this blog) are one of them are rather slim.

So, if we happen to find ourselves in the same town, perhaps you would like to share a meal or a hot beverage?


Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Are we seeking the questions first? Mission Work and Jumping to Solutions (Part 1)

Birds for guests: the go-to gift-giving solution in Congo
I’ve been talking a lot lately about UNISA's doctorate in missiology program. The application deadline is next week, so it’s put-up or shut-up time if I’m really going to start this next year.

Updated resume?  Check.
Scanned academic records and passport? Check.
Completed research proposal outline?  Um… not exactly

As my advisor noted, I have some good ideas on topics to discuss in a dissertation; I even have some assertions to make.  I’m missing a vital element, though: the actual research question. 

My big question is way too broad:  “What are appropriate responses of Christians of a comfortable socio-economic status to the struggles of those of lower economic status?” How far shall I narrow my focus?  Perhaps “What are healthy responses of American United Methodists of dominant socio-economic status to the struggles of United Methodists in the North Katanga and Tanyanika Episcopal Area?” 

I laugh at myself that I started outlining what the content of my research would be before having a question. Typical American wanting to jump to the answers.  I’m forever catching myself doing what I lament that others do.

Middle-class Americans have a bad habit of latching onto solutions without first exploring the problem/question.  On multiple occasions Friendly Planet has had to decline offers from well-meaning friends who have come to us with their favorite solution (containers of donated items, funds for ‘appropriate technology,’ volunteer team of laborers, VBS instructors, etc.).  Like those gee-thanks gifts I used to receive from relatives each Christmas, just because an item is something someone out there could appreciate it doesn’t mean it is what the people you are offering it to really want or need.  And, just like those presents I regifted to Goodwill with the tags still on them, the amount of money well-meaning Americans spend each year on 'solutions' that aren't useful is tragic.

Together we can stop the insanity.  Let's start taking the time to truly get to know each other--our deepest longings and the complexity of our problems-- instead of wasting resources by rushing to solutions. Otherwise, our well-intended gifts will probably just lay an egg.    



For further reading on this topic, I highly recommend Sam Wells' brilliant piece on Rethinking Service (Read the entire piece; it starts slow with a powerful finish)


Monday, September 16, 2013

How to get smarter and do better mission work

Shipping shoes and clothing to Africa as a mission project? Not smart.
This year I gave blogging another try and have been surprised by the results. With so many visitors—especially friends-of-friends-of-friends, I decided to spruce up my digital house and start by pruning back some old posts. In the process, I depublished the entire first four years of this blog. This reminded me of the time my mother told my nearly-deaf great-grandma that she could trim about a foot off the overgrown bushes on the side of the house. You can guess the rest of what has become a classic family joke.


Some of my old posts were cringe-worthy. Not as painful as finding my high school essays or religious kitsch, but enough to remind me that I am evolving—that despite having earned an MA in International Development, I was still extremely naïve when I moved to Congo in 2005, and there’s a good chance that future-Taylor will say the same thing about the Taylor of 2013.

I actually find this reminder comforting. It reassures me that if I'm moving towards a healthier missiology (the science/art of do-gooding), then so are many others. The more the merrier in this club. Even newcomers can leapfrog into the conversation through reading, reflection and learning from the mistakes of people who have been at this for years.

I want to argue that rapid learning in the field of do-gooding/mission work is possible—that exposure to a few key books and blog posts on a subject can be transformative. On the other hand, there is something to be said for putting in the hours. Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 book, Outliers, examined numerous extraordinarily successful people. From athletes to academics to artists, his team found a common denominator between these 'gifted' individuals: they all had put in at least 10,000 hours of training/study in their field before becoming renowned in it.   

I thought about this when recently reading The Trouble With Bright Girls. At the heart of the article was this finding:
Bright girls were much quicker to doubt their ability, to lose confidence, and to become less effective learners as a result. Researchers have uncovered the reason for this difference in how difficulty is interpreted, and it is simply this: more often than not, bright girls believe that their abilities are innate and unchangeable, while bright boys believe that they can develop ability through effort and practice.
Here it was again in another form: Abilities, even those labeled as intelligence or cleverness, are developed through proactively putting in the hours of research, training and practice. 

Contrary to the widespread Western myth, love is not all you need--especially when it comes to effective do-gooding/mission work. Education and experience are essential too. Thinking that passion + a crash course makes one a skilled expert is an insult to those who have devoted their lives to the subject despite what films like the Karate Kid or Strictly Ballroom have led us to believe. I'm tempted to go off on my soapbox about the mission project failures that could have been prevented had churches done serious research and relationship-building before pouring thousands of dollars down a pit, but the professional anti-poverty organizations as a whole don't have such a great track record either. 

This brings me to the question posed in this post's title "How does one become savvier and more effective in doing good?" Here is my short answer:
  • Always accept the possibility that what you thought you knew about the problem is wrong, and the 'solutions' you've poured your heart into are harming those you want to assist. 
  • Question everything until you find a better answer, and once you find it, consider that it isn't right either. (If you were the one who came up with the answer, that's a major red flag; sustainable solutions require community ownership of both the solution and the problem)
  • Never stop trying to ask better questions. 
The real trick, then, is to not let the knowledge that your future wiser self will criticize your current self’s actions paralyze you into inaction. I'm still struggling with that one.
Donating pig stuffed animals to the Marine's Toys-for-Tots collection in Djibouti?  Not smart on so many levels.

Happy Learning! 




Friday, September 06, 2013

Africa, Reconciling Ministries, and The United Methodist Church

Winning over Shanti= serious reconciling work 
Last week was the Reconciling Ministries Network’s convocation (translation for non-United Methodists: the movement seeking full-inclusion of LGBTQ in the denomination), and one of the workshops there was titled “Will Africa Always be Anti-LGBTQ?” Not surprisingly, I found myself in an off-the-record conversation reflecting on the question and the mindsets of those who have been earnestly asking it.*

For reasons unrelated to where I stand on the debates around gender and sexuality, I have not been active in the Reconciling Network or the other side of the coin, the Confessing UMC Movement, despite having longtime friends involved in each. I’m not certain how many of those reasons I should share on this blog, so I’ll let those who can read between the lines do so.

I'm realizing, however, that it is time I stick my neck out and start going on-the-record in response to some misconceptions of many folks in both movements. Perhaps some talking points will suffice for now. Some of these may sound like common sense, but I wouldn’t be listing them if what was coming out of American U. Methodists suggested that these things were understood.
  • Africa is a huge continent. To say “Africans believe that…” or blaming something on “African culture” is even more ridiculous than saying “North Americans believe that…” or "North Americans are anti-gay because that is their culture."
  • In 1995, there was a missionary-pushed motion to have the Tanganyika Conference (part of the North Katanga Episcopal Area) vote to join the Confessing Movement. It didn't succeed. Again, just saying.

  • While googling “gay rights Africa” leads one mostly to stories of African gay rights leaders being assassinated, there wouldn’t be headlines like this if there weren’t also grassroots gay-rights movements that these martyrs were helping lead.
  • When you examine the places in Africa where homophobia and violence against those perceived to be homosexual or gender queer are most extreme, I suggest you follow the money to see who is funding these campaigns. It will often lead you back to the USA
  • Speaking of the growing reports of violence against suspected homosexuals across Africa, I'd like to remind readers that 


  • For much of rural Africa, 21st century "Western" understandings of the purpose of marriage and gender roles within it are relatively foreign, but in many places are being rapidly adopted (especially with the inundation of Western films and television shows). Congolese friends my age tell me that for their parents' generation and for many living in remote areas, a barren wife is viewed as defective and should be replaced. Polygamy is often used out of economic necessity.  A barren woman is worthless, and a man without children is doomed, for who will take care of her/him in old age?  You can imagine how crazy the idea of a same-gender marriage would sound in such a context-- especially when the American missionaries and televangelists have been saying that such things are an abomination. Again, not every African sees things this way, but this is often the basis of those notorious speeches from General Conference (which, FYI, offended many African delegates too).
  • America is adopting new cultural norms too.  How quickly some of us forget what our dominant culture recently was. My great-grandmother who helped raise me had 12 siblings. When she was growing up, women weren't allowed to vote. The options available for an abused wife? The social status of a childless woman? Yeah, not so much. As recent internet virals have reminded us, even the spanking of wives was socially acceptable in the 1950s. And the dominant American culture's openly expressed opinion of non-whites and homosexuals until very recently (and even today)? Oh, come on, do I really have to remind you? Please understand that while Americans are looking down their noses at the rest of the world, much of the rest of the world is looking down its nose at us for our backward behaviors (when they even think twice about us, which is another conversation). 
In my home conference of North Katanga (DR Congo), those leaders at the frontlines of human rights struggles are pushing back against mass gang rape, child abuse and massacres, and are calling for the access to public infrastructure (potable water systems, electrical grids, roads, schools etc.) in return for the billions of dollars worth of resources removed from their land by high-ranking government officials and rebel armies. The work of United Methodist leaders in North Katanga in the area of peacebuilding has been truly heroic, which is why I reacted with a strong "Oh no you didn't just say that" when I read Bishop Carcano's statement last year:
Delegates from Africa once again proclaimed that their anti-homosexual stand was what U.S. missionaries taught them. I sat there wondering when our African delegates will grow up. It has been 200 years since U.S. Methodist missionaries began their work of evangelization on the continent of Africa; long enough for African Methodists to do their own thinking about this concern and others. UM Reporter
Were there some General Conference delegates from Africa who I think are immature, ignorant and/or borderline sociopaths who obtained their delegate spot through unethical means? Yes, and I have African colleagues who would concur with this assessment. Now ask me what I thought about some of the delegates from the USA, and I'll give you the same response.

Among those African delegates, though, were people who I hold in such high esteem that to say they need to 'grow up' just because of how they voted on a controversial issue (especially when voting machines at tables didn't exactly give them privacy) is like trash-talking my mother. Anger surges up within me. 
   
Grow up, you say? Yes, next time I speak with my colleagues who have committed financial suicide by agreeing to serve in communities that have been burned down and covered in landmines-- or to those whose family members were gang raped, murdered or taken as sex slaves or to those who risked their lives by bicycling into the camps of warlords to negotiates peace accords, I'll pass along your advice, Bishop. Next time I speak with Friendly Planet's Country Director Rev. Mulongo, the pastor who was elected by his peers to lead North Katanga's delegation to GC, I'll ask him to put "growing up" on his to-do list.  He's a bit busy, however, what with building a nursing school, coordinating several grassroots development projects, and making pastoral visits into Mai Mai territory. If you don't read all my blogs, you might not be aware that the reason why there haven't been Mai Mai attacks in the Mulongo area in quite sometime is that Rev. Mulongo has become the pastor of Shanti (aka The Shooter), the #2 in Lord Venti's Mai Mai army but widely known as the brains of the organization. She has a reputation of being a vicious killer who 'emasculates' her enemies. She's the worst of the worst some say, and I've met her. She walked two days to Rev. Mulongo's house to see if she could be of assistance when she heard there was about to be a big church event. She hopes to enroll in the nursing school this year--just like Lord Venti's daughter. 

OK, so now that I've gotten that rage response out of my system, I'd like to give one more talking point that has been a major blindspot of both the Reconciling Ministries Network and the Confessing Movement thus far.
  • Instead of thinking of the African General Conference delegates as pawns in a political game that need to be manipulated, educated or won-over to your team, consider that they have more to offer you than just a vote every four years. Consider what they could teach you about confessing and reconciling strategies when the stakes are life or death. Many of the delegates from North Katanga, for example, know quite a bit about helping people confess their truly heinous sins against humanity and reconcile them back into the community, and they'd be happy if you came to visit them so that they may have a chance to teach you and perhaps even win you over to their movement.     
Let those who have ears hear.  Amen.

*Author's Addition: This post in NO way is intended to be read as a criticism of the folks leading the above-mentioned workshop. They chose the workshop title in order to bait people into attending it, and according to my friends who were there, they did a brave and honorable job at trying to raise attendees' awareness of many of the issues I touched upon in this post. My intention in this post was to extend the conversation beyond the confines of that room and add my additions/spin on the topic. Lots of Love!




Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Family Fun in Djibouti Part II: Decan Wildlife Preserve

In my last post, I completely forgot to mention another fun family outing in Djibouti: Decan Wildlife Preserve.  It's not far from town and an inexpensive way to spend an afternoon.  Below are some of animals you'll find there. Camels, on the other hand, require no special trips. You'll often finding them snacking on the few plants outside your gate or blocking the road on your way to work. (see my post on Camels)













Click Here for More Decan Photos

Family Fun in Djibouti

Since I've been writing heavy posts lately, I thought I'd switch gears and return to my quest to reform Djibouti's bad reputation with my "Djibouti can be a nice place to live" series. Today I'd like to debunk the myth that Djibouti isn't a kid-friendly post. True, even the posh homes have paving slabs for yards, but we also have access to swimming pools, sandy beaches with gentle surfs, playground equipment and a recently re-opened bowling alley.


Mosques are everywhere if you are a Muslim family. If you are a church-going family, the Catholic and Protestant churches in town have a children’s program, and there is a group of expats who have formed a “Monday School” that meets in the homes of English-speaking families.

For Americans coming to work at the US embassy, you’ll also have access to the embassy's fantastic Health Unit and swimming pool as well as many of the perks at Camp Lemmonier: air-conditioned movie theater, concerts and visiting celebrities, multi-faith chapel, shopping at the Exchange, affordable all-you-can-eat dinners at the galley, etc. There are also informal weekly playgroups organized by embassy families.

I'll let my pictures make my case.


With a day-pass at the Kempinski you can enjoy the large shallow pools

That entire rectangular portion of the pool is waist deep for my toddler!

The bowling alley welcomes families and even has high-chairs in its restaurant

Entrance to this playground is equal to $1.50 USD per child (adults free)







Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Tale of Two Novels: On belonging and being a White Friend Who Gets It

When your clothesline gets stolen, you improvise. 
I did something unusual for my birthday this month.  I ordered myself two novels. I’m normally a non-fiction gal, but I thought I should branch-out.  Besides, my husband had been teasing me about my choices in beach/pool-side books (and, yes, a book on prison ministry or A Year of Biblical Womanhood is light reading compared to The Women’s Bible Commentary, which is my current heavier reading).  I just finished both novels and realized that juxtaposing my reactions to them was quite self-revealing, so here I am blogging about it.

I started with Christopher Moore’s Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff. It came highly recommended by some nerdy clergy colleagues—all of whom (I suspect not coincidentally) fall into the demographic of white liberal American males. I really wanted to love the book too—to join the club of those who discreetly exchanged its inside jokes, but I found all the crass sexual comments/objectification of women off-putting. I simply didn’t share the author’s sense of humor, and the anachronistic story left me feeling like I hadn't learned anything either. I’d put the book in the category of flicks like Talladega Nights except without as much clever theological commentary  (Am I reacting too harshly? Maybe, but I’m feeling emotionally charged having just read some commentaries on the VMA scandal and Blurred Lines)

Sigh. Not enjoying Biff was particularly disappointing because ever since I was old enough to understand the difference between the American definitions of ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ (particularly with the word ‘Christian’ tacked onto them) I’ve found myself feeling not invited to the clubhouses. Conservatives believe I’m a closet heretic and the liberal clubs generally don’t like that I don’t wear every cause I support on my sleeve and I critique their paradigms. Then there are the rebels who think I’m too straight laced to party with them and the folks who are leery of church-going-folk altogether. And, of course, I’m too white to gain full entry into any social club that is explicitly for non-whites. Perhaps that’s part of why I reached out early on to social misfits and international students. It's been told to me that despite feeling that I didn't belong anywhere, I have in fact been de facto president of a rather large association over the years.  

This brings me to the second novel: Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah. A glowing review of it caught my eye in Ethiopian Airline’s in-flight magazine, and I later listened to an NPR interview with the author. It was described as a story about a Nigerian woman who moves to the USA for college and years later decides to return home. It addresses issues of race, class, identity and belonging.  I was intrigued and quickly devoured all 477 pages. Her astute observations resonated with me, and I wondered how closely the author resembled her heroine in personality and worldview. I fantasized about meeting Adichie socially someday—perhaps at a State Department function. Would we hit it off? I'd like to think she'd view me as a kindred spirit, but I fear I'd seem like another Kimberly, a character in her novel—an elite white woman who overtries at being sensitive, describing every black woman she sees as 'beautiful' and misting over with pity whenever she meets someone from Africa. Even "poverty was a gleaming thing; she could not conceive of poor people being vicious or nasty because their poverty had canonized them, and the greatest saints were the foreign poor.” (151)

I’ve seen too much to view the world as Kimberly does, and I’ve been away from America so long that I now look back at it from a distance, frequently shaking my head in bewilderment or facepalming at the demographic of my birth. And yet, I’m self-aware enough to know that there are others who roll their eyes at me—finding my attempts to navigate issues of identity and belonging cringe-worthy, and I thank the few along the way (shout out to Stephanie Matthews) who have called me out bluntly when I needed to be set straight. 

In Americanah, the heroine Ifemulu becomes a professional blogger on issues of race in America and explains unwritten rules about being an American black person to non-American blacks. One such post is about the “White Friend Who Gets It.” 
Sadly, this is not as common as one would wish, but some are lucky to have that white friend who you don’t need to explain s#*% to. By all means, put this friend to work…. They can say stuff that you can’t… Let your white friend say it. If you make the mistake of saying this, you will be accused of a curiosity called “playing the race card.” …Here’s to all the white friends who get it. (361) 
Am I such a white friend (WFWGI)? In the American context, I'm not sure, but I'm trying and still learning. Many Congolese friends have told me that I often play that role for them, though--especially when it comes to speaking up for them among United Methodists in the USA. Over the years I've called out folks for treating African United Methodist friends like they are intellectually or morally inferior or for flat out objectifying or ignoring their struggles. I've even given geography lessons to general agency staff--like why purchasing someone from Kamina a plane ticket 'home' to Kinshasa is akin to buying a person from Florida a ticket 'home' to Alaska. (and, yes, the friend was stranded in Kinshasa, getting desperate and asked me to intervene since she had traveled as one of the invited token Africans at their event)

I've discovered that the other responsibility of a WFWGI is to generally keep quiet on issues that would reinforce negative stereotypes. No matter how good of a friend you think you are, you don't have the right to air other people's dirty laundry to people who won't understand the context.

It took me a bit of time to understand the 'laundry' rules. When I first started spending time in Congo, I hated the 'curtain' tours (as in don't-look-behind-the) the local church would take me and other visitors on. "How gullible do they think I am?!" I wanted to rip open the curtain and see the whole picture. I didn't yet understand the rules of the game or that it is played universally. What company, congregation or do-gooder organization is going to show an outsider (especially a potential investor) anything other than an idealized version of itself?

I had to prove myself as someone safe to tell--someone who could get it--before real candor began--before my Congolese colleagues would start coming to me when they needed somewhere to vent or advice/sympathy on dealing with Americans who didn't understand.

Now I gladly play along with the curtain tours. I occasionally get to help lead the tours myself all while knowing that there are still some curtains that are closed to me and might always be so. And that's ok because, as I learned working at the US embassy, some issues are highly sensitive and I'll only be told if the ones dealing with the issue think I can be trusted and I need to know about it.

That said, I still have mixed emotions as I play the game. I function as the useful white front for Congolese friends' projects, and I usually bite my tongue when Americans (primarily white) boast about their partnerships or rant about lack of accountability/transparency with partner conferences in Africa.  What I want to say to all of these Americans is that you are blind to the game you are playing. That, no, of course you aren't being told the full truth because your 'partners' don't trust that you can handle the truth.

There, I finally said it aloud. Furthermore, the American church needs to remove the plank from its own eye and realize that it is the one that isn't trustworthy. We have consistently behaved as selfish fair-weather friends, only caring when our ego is being stroked, when our 'partners' shower us with compliments and treat us deferentially. We abandon our colleagues when they dare to disclose that their poverty hasn't made them saints or when the next shiny charity catches our mission committee's attention. In their greatest hour of need, we not only weren't there for our Congolese colleagues, we didn't even didn't even notice that their world was engulfed in horror.

American (dominantly white) churches continue to systematically engage in condescending treatment of our African colleagues, and most of our attempts to correct this come across as ignorant as Adichie's Kimberly (which then feeds the problem by reinforcing the pressure to close all the curtains). I'm not saying there hasn't been progress--there has--but it is hard to remedy the problem of our racism when we try to deny its existence.

It is highly unlikely that our Congolese colleagues are going to say any of this to you. Even if you serve on the same committee or work in the same building they will continue to play the game. They dare not disclose what they really think for they do not trust that you would remain 'partners' if they did. But, as the white friend I can say such things to you without fear of grave consequences, and thus the more I think about what Adichie writes, the more I think I have a moral obligation to do so.

It seems the least I can do on this the 50th Anniversary of Rev. Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Why I Love Congolese Scouts

Our official escorts in Mulongo
It’s no secret that back in high school I had crushes on boy scouts (particularly Eagles and rugby playing scouts). There was just something about hanging out with guys with survival training and chivalry. I listened to so many of their stories about camping adventures at Philmont it was if I’d been there too. How wild and exciting they made it sound! Of course, Mom teased that when they’d all come over to our house it was like watching Wendy and the Lost Boys interact.

I, myself, hadn’t lasted long in our local girl scout program. A couple years of selling cookies and decorating cakes was enough for me, so when we moved I wasn't interested in finding another troop.

It came therefore, as both a surprise and a laugh to me when I moved to Kamina, DR Congo in 2005 and found out that my neighbors and new best buds were active scouts. Weren’t they a bit old to still be scouting?  What exactly was the point of it when everyone there already knew as a matter of daily survival how to live off the grid and Macgyver random objects?  How do you talk about allegiance to God and Country when your government is so broken?  I had much to learn.

I was shocked when I began traveling with the bishop into even more remote communities—ones that had been directly impacted by the war—that there were always scouts there to meet us upon arrival. They not only would help transport the luggage and equipment, they’d form a human line around the visitors and escort them safely to their lodging. They then took shifts guarding the compound 24/7 and would act as runners for supplies. Scouts, it turned out, are the go-to crew for hospitality, crowd control, security, protocol, and important event set-up (sound system, outdoor electrical, etc)—not to mention their other do-gooder projects like assisting widows and orphans or mobilizing community clean-up efforts. I also noticed that the deeper into the war zone we went, the more disciplined the scout troops seemed to be. This was no coincidence.

At first it disturbed me how much these scouts resembled young soldiers as they marched in their lines. Then it hit me: for these young men who knew the face of war and been recruited (often forcibly) by armies and warlords, the decision to join the scouts—the community’s unarmed peacekeeping force—was a bold act requiring the resolve of a patriotic soldier.

The United Methodist Church’s North Katanga Conference alone has 4,807 (as of August 2013) active scouts. They are planning to hold a jamboree next summer in Tenke, DR Congo and have invited scouts from the USA to join them. Dr. Art Collins, president of the National Association of United Methodist Scouters and pastor of Ellettsville First UMC is heading the recruitment and registration for Americans interested in attending or underwriting this event. I encourage you to contact Art for details.    
  
scouting in Kalemie, DR Congo

Scouts in Tenke, DR Congo welcoming the FPM bike team

Scouts in Kabongo assisted local police with crowd control at annual conference

Scout troop that guarded our guest house 24/7 in Mulongo this summer

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Plan

Having a plan is a good idea (except when it's not)
When I was just 15 years old my father took me on my very first trip to Zaire (now DR Congo). This trip sparked in me an obsession to understand why there was so much poverty in world, why it didn’t feel like go-gooder efforts were getting anywhere, and what the anti-poverty experts knew that I could then take back and share with folks in the church pews.  Thus, over 16 years ago (was it really that long ago?!) I enrolled in American University’s BA/MA program in International Development.

My plan seemed so simple:
  • Step #1: Learn everything that is known on the causes of and solutions to poverty.
  • Step #2: Use this knowledge to critique dominant do-gooder/mission models and offer an alternative path of action.
  • Step #3: Introduce new model to the masses.  Do this through writing a book, becoming a traveling keynoter/consultant, be elected/appointed to a leadership position, etc.
  • Step #4: Be happy in the knowledge that my work had made a difference in this world.
If only changing the world were as easy as it seemed back then. My plan was based on numerous naïve assumptions. For example, it turned out that anti-poverty experts knew a lot more about projects that have failed than they did about formulas for success (I spent five straight years analyzing countless failed development initiatives---what that did to my mental health is another conversation). It also turned out that when you try to explain to folks--especially church folk--that they are using antiquated mission models, their predictable response is not one of appreciation and requests for your advice on how to change. In fact, this is an easy way to quickly make yourself persona non grata in both ‘conservative’ and ‘progressive’ religious circles. There aren't many returned phone calls or consulting contracts for the nerd who dares to suggest that a congregation/conference/agency overhaul its beloved mission program.  

Needless to say, I’ve been somewhere between steps #2 & #3 for several years now, and I often think of the old plan as a bad joke. At times I suspect that what I thought was my call was simply me listening in on the party line. There are, for example, a handful of recently released bestselling books that say much of what I've been trying to explain (Toxic Charity, for example). Change seems inevitable even without my voice in the mix, although I don't think we've reached a tipping point yet (perhaps in secular society, but the church is more resistant).

I've yet to find a book that covers everything that should be said on the topic, but I'm pretty pumped about the progress my father is making on his book. I've put him on a 1,000/words/day minimum regime and he's been sending me his daily updates for accountability.  At this rate he'll be ready to send the manuscript for professional editing by September. The book's format is heavily influenced by Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, so for those of you who have been hoping for a step-by-step how-to manual on mission work, this won't be it.  It will be, however, a journey into the heart of DR Congo and the ramblings of a mad man on a bicycle. Some of you will find it profound; others will be confused. If you've been following his blogs for awhile, I suspect you will find it enlightening and challenging. It has potential to become a classic, or, at least a cult classic. Of course, Mark Twain defined a classic as "a book which people praise and don't read," so I'm hoping that it gets read before that happens. There is already serious talk of an indie film (not of the book itself, but of one of the stories of heroism told in it); the filmmaker is currently seeking investors for the project.          

The deal Dad and I made was that I'd manage Friendly Planet Missiology this year so that his only professional responsibilities would be to ride his bike (where he does his best thinking) and finish the book.  Who knows--maybe next year will be the year of The Plan.  ;)


Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Something About Mulongo

Kitchen conversations in Mulongo
Alright, so I promised to tell you about what I was doing in Congo last month (beyond getting ordained), and since the U.S. government in an ‘abundance of caution’ has said I should avoid leaving the house this week, now seems like a good time to write.

To start off, let’s clear up a common cause of confusion about where exactly I went and who is in charge of the programs I’m (via FPM) assisting. Imagine, if you will, going to a big church event and meeting a Rev. Joe Monroe. Rev. Monroe inspires you with stories of the struggles and initiatives in the town (coincidentally named Monroe) and district (also called Monroe) that he oversees. You’d love to visit Monroe someday, but you doubt you ever will since it is in such a remote place. Soon after you get a call from Denver, an acquaintance who met a Dr. Ivan Monroe and was inspired by Dr. Monroe’s sharing of the unmet health needs in the community where he was serving as head medical doctor and of how he had recently started a nursing and midwife training program there. Your acquaintance is seriously considering making a large financial contribution to Dr. Monroe’s ambitious project and wants to know if you could do a site-visit and give him your professional opinion first. Where is this school? Monroe, of course.

Now replace “Monroe” with “Mulongo” and you’ve got the start of the story of how FPM ended up having Mulongo as its DR Congo headquarters with Rev. Joseph Mulongo as its Country Director and a nursing school headed by Dr. Ivan Mulongo as its first major bricks&mortar partnership project. The story has a lot of twists and turns—some of which you can read about in Dad’s old posts --and a lot more will be told in Dad’s book.  

Last month, I traveled to Mulongo not only with my family but with Denver’s wife (Robin) and their pastor Deanne. We wanted Robin to witness how her contribution had been transformed into cement and roofing sheets for a fully accredited nursing school--the only one in the region. The faculty and students—especially those receiving scholarships from her family—wanted to testify to the many lives being saved because of the education received at this school. Robin was overwhelmed by what she saw and has decided to take the lead in the state-side efforts to raise support for scholarships, construction materials, and equipment for the nursing school. (Dr. Ivan, now a congressman, continues to be the main contributor and fundraiser for it in DR Congo.) She’d be happy to speak with your group about the school and ways you can get involved.


While in Mulongo, we stayed in Joseph and his wife Mary’s beautiful home. (Have I mentioned that Mary was one of the first graduates of Ivan’s nursing school and that she now teaches there?) As you can imagine, there is a very good story behind how a United Methodist pastor built such a nice house when most of his colleagues’ parsonages threaten to collapse with every rainfall. It starts with a laptop he received when visiting the Indiana UMC’s conference office and a desktop printer he bought with his personal savings. Mulongo used them to open the region’s only printing station. With those profits he made thousands of bricks—half of which he sold, and half were for his house. We figured that a pastor who is entrepreneurial enough to turn a budget laptop into a 4 bedroom house (with indoor plumbing!) all while leading several community development initiatives is exactly the sort of person who should be vetting and coordinating FPM-funded projects. 

Thus far FPM's decision to put Rev. Mulongo in charge of the programatic-side of operations has been successful beyond our wildest dreams. Now he's proposing some ideas of income-generating projects that could fund FPM programs and salaries (If the Catholic Church has its own gas stations and hotels in Congo, why couldn't we start a business?). We believe strongly that FPM should walk its talk by leveraging local assets to fund its work, so we plan to give at least one these ideas a try in 2014. We're not ready to broadcast all our plans just yet, but if you are interested in investing, please let us know! 
     
There are plenty of rooms at Joseph and Mary's house

Joseph and Robin by the Nursing School's sign

Meeting with some of the nursing students


The Nursing School


The school's maternity wing under construction

Nursing students at the celebration for the completion of the first building

Words of appreciation to Robin for financial support

Want to see more photos of Mulongo?  Check out the public album's on Bob's Facebook page.

Monday, August 05, 2013

Missiology 101, Session #1b: Feeding Other People's Children

Don't judge too quickly; Alpha is well-fed.*
So much is swirling in my brain right now (Peter Capaldi as The 12th Doctor, our embassy closed, FPM initiatives, etc.), but I promised I’d get back to you about last week’s mission trip flyer thinking exercise.

Interesting thing about it, my readers generally fell into two distinct categories: those who were instantly horrified by my example, and those who weren’t sure what I was getting at. More interesting, the less exposure the reader had to ‘mission culture,’ the more objectionable s/he found the flyer I described. I lift this up because I’ve found the same phenomenon true about explaining the work of Friendly Planet Missiology (FPM). With rare exceptions, there is an inverse correlation between how much involvement one has had with mission programs and how easy it is for one to intuitively grasp FPM’s approach and see how it is different from the dominant model. I’ve got some fuzzy ideas on why that may be, but I’m sure one could write a dissertation on that question alone. 

So let’s get back to the mission trip flyer that advertised an “opportunity to feed [insert nationality] children.”  What’s wrong with feeding children? Nothing at all. My husband and I feed our toddler multiple times a day, and occasionally we ask someone we trust to do so on our behalf. I would never consider feeding someone else’s child, however, unless the child’s caretaker requested it, and even then I might refrain (but that’s another conversation). What if the child had a dangerous allergy or other medical food-intake issues? How would I feel if a stranger fed my daughter without my explicit permission?  How would I feel if their manner of doing so showed that they thought I was failing at my parental duties or that they didn’t even recognize my parental role?  American parents warn their children about strangers who hand out candy, so why do so many of them then think it’s ok to be the stranger passing out treats in someone else’s neighborhood?

For decades now, countless do-gooder organizations have launched successful fundraising campaigns in the USA that tell middle-class and wealthy Americans that they have a moral obligation to feed hungry children in faraway places. I distinctly remember in the ‘80s and early ‘90s watching the images of unwashed emaciated barefoot children on my television screen as Sally Struthers stood next to them and pleaded that we give up our morning coffee habit and instead purchase sponsor our very own needy child. Some programs even promised that “your” child would send you thank you cards and pictures. For those exposed to such commercials, the guilt trip was put on so thick that it didn’t occur to most of us to question whether such ‘solutions’ to childhood hunger were even appropriate or what the parents of the children in the commercials thought about all of this! I’m not going to go too deep today into why child sponsorship programs are fundamentally unhealthy (the few that are halfway decent aren’t actually child sponsorship programs; they just do bait&switch fundraising), but I encourage you consider that there are healthier and more effective ways to help children. 

The underlying reason why child sponsorship commercials and mission trips to "feed hungry children" are unhealthy is the same. Both ignore the fact that children don’t fall from the sky, and they don’t survive for long outside of their mother’s womb without at least one person who cares feeding them. Any ‘solution’ to childhood hunger that doesn’t play a support role to this person is offensive and unsustainable. “What about orphans?” you ask. Even most orphans have relatives or community members looking out for them the best they can. Yes, there are situations where children are torn out of a nurturing social fabric and are trapped in abuse, de facto slavery or crime networks, but even then for an outside group to create a ‘solution’ that ignores that the hearts of adults from the child’s home community are also breaking is dehumanizing on one of the deepest levels.

Speaking of dehumanizing thinking, the very semantics of getting to feed local children conjures up memories of going to the petting zoo and, for a few coins, getting to feed the cute baby animals. Despite what generations of traveling sideshows and television commercials have programmed deep into our subconscious, children living in far away places are not objects that God placed on Earth to entertain us nor are they there for us to hand-feed or adopt like an exotic pet. If you don’t feel the least bit uncomfortable when a choir of young orphans performs for you on their USA tour, I suggest taking some time to think about those children not as adorable entertainment but as impressionable kids whose visas will soon expire and will soon be thrust back into their barely functioning orphanage. What kind of psychological damage do you think that will do to them, and what kinds of cruel jealousy backlash from other children and adults will they face when they return home? (but I digress)

Now that I’ve scratched the surface on common blindspots relating to hungry children, I'll try to offer some practical advice.

If you are currently in charge of leading/advertising a mission trip that will include interacting with malnourished children, consider the power that semantics and mindsets can have both before and during your trip. For example, instead of advertising a chance to feed children, talk about an opportunity to meet with [insert nationality] community leaders and spend a day at the neighborhood nutrition and tutoring center they created to assist street kids and latchkey families. Be sure that your team members don’t forget that the social taboos concerning stranger-child interaction at home most likely will apply on your trip too. Make sure they also understand that children aren’t puppy dogs in the pet store. Lavishing a struggling child with attention for a few days and then disappearing often does more long-term psychological damage to the child (warped understanding of love and reinforced abandonment issues) then it helps. Don’t tell a child how much you love her/him if you aren’t going to back it up with actions and a lifetime commitment! (and never tell a child that you want to take them home with you---they could hear it as a promise, and you may find it an impossible one to keep even if you were serious about your intensions to adopt her/him)

Now please don’t interpret this blog as a blanket condemnation of child-focused nutrition centers (or food banks or soup kitchens for that matter). They have their place as a stopgap measure until a sustainable solution (living wages for all) is reached. For example, my mother, a public school teacher, is active in a program in her town that provides sack lunches, books and positive social interactions for at-risk children during the summer holidays. Through this program, she interacts with many of her past and future students, encourages them in their reading habits, and fills the nutrition gap normally covered by the free/reduced school lunch program. This program is led by folks who have a holistic view of the problems faced by the children and parents living in the low-income housing sections of their town, and thus it is proactively done in a way that does not dishonor the families that allow their children to participate in it. Do you see the difference between this program and the mission trip as it was advertised?  If not, please don't give up on me yet.  These are hard conversations, and we'll keep on exploring. 


The daily ritual at the Methodist Children's Home in Kamina, DR Congo.


 *Alpha has been living at the Methodist Children's Home in Kamina for several years now.  His caretakers give him plenty of nutritious food, but his body doesn't absorb it. Local hospitals lack the diagnostic equipment to determine the cause and possible solutions.  

Author's addition:  I realized after posting this that I didn't offer any practical advice for folks who are already involved in a child sponsorship program. Since such programs vary greatly in their implementation model, I suggest by looking into your organization's approach.  Read their website and see if they talk about working alongside grassroots leadership structures. Is there any mention of the children's families? Are they working on projects that address the underlying causes of poverty? Do an internet search on criticisms of your organization and see what pops up. Prayerfully decide your next steps from there.  You might decide to stick with the organization, but if you do, please do so because you respect their methodology--not because you've been guilt tripped into thinking a specific child will go hungry without your intervention.