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 na├»ve 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 Chatty= 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 United 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 POCs and GBLTQs 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 Chatty (aka The Shooter), the #2 in Lord Nvwendi'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 Nvwendi'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)