Saturday, May 28, 2011

Africa Redux

Several months ago I had a thought about how to judge success in personal character transformation and put together this rather choppily written post which criticizes conventional aid strategies in Africa, fingers African culture as the culprit responsible for undermining those conventional strategies, and briefly suggests an alternative strategy. 

A very thoughtful friend of mine often repeats the mantra "address the cause not the symptom" and I'm afraid that in my first "Africa" post I didn't clearly drill down to the real cause of the problem, while I've no doubt that African culture is the problem, that culture stems from human nature, which is why the problems in African culture are endemic to all poor countries not just those on the African continent. Fortunately human nature does not enjoy uncontested authority over human thought and action; because we can take information from exterior sources, and because we have the capacity for metathought, we can establish patterns of thought and action that avoid or partially avoid the disaster that our unaided nature would lead us to. 
Assuming that what I have written above is correct, the real problem with Africa is reducible to the base problem of human nature, therefore the solution must be one that addresses that nature. If true this provides an elegant theory of why conventional aid has failed in Africa, it has failed because it does not focus* on the human nature that is the cause, but rather on infrastructure and immediate physical needs (food, healthcare etc.) which are the symptom. With all this being said, I spent a week and a half in South Africa earlier this month and I built... infrastructure. Or more specifically a team of eight other ERAU alumni** and I built (the walls and roof of) a house.

Was this project a continuation of the failed infrastructure-building strategy? By itself the answer is certainly yes. The only thing that made the project worth attempting is that it will enable an old lady who has been making a difference for decades without the aid of infrastructure. Agnes is a sixty seven year old South African who has been making a difference for a long time, she has always been poor, even by South African standards, she was horribly abused as a child and adult, and she is making a difference. Though she does not have a place for herself, she feeds sixty street orphans every day by cooking soup over a scavenged-wood fire. Agnes is making a difference because she has positioned herself to make a difference, by filling the needs of orphans, she is able to build relationships with them, by building relationships with them she is able to be that external source of information that can draw away the dross of human nature and replace it with virtuous character. I use the word character here to describe the nature of an individual whereas when I use the term human nature I am referring to the default character of human's in general. While it may be possible to clearly articulate exactly how relationships shape character... I'm not up to the task, so instead I'm going narrate how I think my character was impacted on the South Africa trip. 

Kevin MacFee, the leader of the trip to SA and my mentor of half a decade or so, asked all the members of the team to think of two things that they wanted to accomplish externally in South Africa and two things that they wanted God to change in their hearts. When I say "heart" I mean "the seat of character and emotion" which is an inadequate definition, but I'm going to leave it there before I get too distracted. Anyway, one of the things that I hoped God would change in my heart was the way I naturally view people, by default, I should view everyone I meet as a valuable individual worthy of being loved and aided in any way possible but I have a horrible habit (actually I think it's deeper than habit, it is a component of my character) of assigning value to people based on their attributes.
Is Tommy smart, athletic and selfless? If so I'll mentally assign him a higher value than someone who does not have those attributes, is Susie highly educated, beautiful and a good communicator? If so I'll assign her a higher value than someone that does not have those attributes. At root, this mercenary view of people is wrong in a moral sense as well as a factual sense, the value of an individual does not stem from their attributes but from their identity as a person made in the image of God... Which to my knowledge is the only good reason to consider people equal, the modern idea of equality is widely celebrated but is now rarely substantiated, people are certainly not equal in terms of size, speed, contribution to GDP or any other empirical metric and I wonder if today's elite don't consider it a useful fiction rather than an actual fact. Anyway, the point here is that I knew my default mode of valuing people was wrong, and I wanted it to change. The first day on the job site a barefoot South African man walked by muttering loudly to himself in an unbelievably nasally voice and wearing (I think) this hat. "hehh! I am a king!" he muttered to himself "what are they doing here?! hehh, they will not mess with me again! hehh... I am a king!"
I was clearing out the trench which would later become the foundation of the building as the barefoot mutterer walked by, after he passed I gave the coworker ahead of me a knowing grin and quietly mocked the muttering man: "hehh, I am a king" I said sarcastically. The guy working behind me was our host, an American who had been living in South Africa for two years and he continued working with his head down as he came to the barefoot mutterer's defense by describing how difficult it was to get an education and a job in SA and how the guy in question was likely a product of circumstances that weren't the least bit funny. I felt ashamed, my actions were an expression from exactly the part of my heart that I'd made it my goal to change, later I thanked the host for calling me out. While not earth-shattering by any measure I think this experience will ultimately nudge my character at least a little bit in the right direction as will this next experience. 
I've always tried to be realistic about distinguishing needs from wants and I'm openly critical of people professing to have needs that I think fall clearly under the banner want. "Momma Agnes," the woman we were building the house for, knows all about needs and there is something about living in a context where genuine needs are common that strips away the sophisticated structures that we build as false fronts on our hearts. When we finished putting the roof on Agnes' house she asked if she could pray for us, we stepped inside the new living room and Agnes prayed a long and beautiful prayer, her voice cracking as she recounted being mocked for spending her time feeding other people when she didn't even have a roof to call her own. She'd prayed for a house for twenty six years and her son, who had promised her one, had been murdered before he could make good on his promise. As she prayed her voice carried no pretense and it struck me that she was so full of hope. She's an abused sixty seven year old South African single women with no education and no paying job but her character is such that she remains full of love for the people around her, full of faith in a transcendent plan and thus full of hope for the future. Listening to her pray I knew my effort to distinguish needs from wants was a shallow charade. 

The fact is, that I've never tasted desperation, I barely know what a "need" is; the fact is, that while Agnes has been dealt no advantages, I have been dealt every advantage. I was born to great parents in a great country, I've always excelled academically and athleticly, I'm just starting a career and I just finished a masters degree. In every metric of empirical resource and positional promise I've been given at least ten times what Agnes has and yet I've no doubt that she is accomplishing far more when it comes to things that really count, when it comes to changing the hearts of men. I agree with MLK when he says that the "content of [our] character" is the thing that really matters, it's not a measure of our value, but a measure of our progress toward a standard, I think it is the character of Jesus that is the standard, a standard always out of reach, and always worth reaching for. when Paul says "be imitators of Christ" I don't think he means we should move to the Middle East and get crucified, I think he means we should be imitators of Christ in character
In general reflection it seems clear to me that the character of an individual is the cause whereas actions are merely symptoms, I guess that means Heraclitus was right when he famously stated that character determines destiny. I think what this means on a larger scale is that the development of a citizen's character is always the best economic action plan, the best R&D strategy and the best insurance policy that a country can have, that's why what Agnes is doing counts. My brief stay in SA and the house we built do not have the power to help Africa, but if what we did there helps Agnes reach and change children, then it was worth every cent and second. On top of that there's something healthy about working hard for the benefit of another person, as I crossed back over the Atlantic I literally fealt cleaner, at the risk of exceeding some unpublished limit on touchy-feely language in this post, I felt like a layer of filth had been lifted off my heart, call me crazy but it was a very real sensation.

*The conventional aid strategy also includes education which I think can be effective in certain contexts.
**One of the members was a current ERAU student, one was a Prescott College student, and one was a Yavapai alumnus.

"I don't want a lion in here!" -Olivia Simpson

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