By James E. Copple
As Kenya Airways made its descent into Nairobi, the rising sun colored the eastern sky bright orange. Enveloped in morning fog, the beauty of sun-on-clouds painted an endless, boundless horizon — it’s a continent so rich in diversity and history, and I am thankful this place has been part of my work, my life, my journey.
Along with millions of other white Europeans, I came to Africa with the idea that we might “save” it. In that quest, we brought disease, frustration, and an arrogance of power and greed that subjected large populations of people to our control. We thought they would love us for our salvation. Instead, they tolerated us and embraced our cultural norms to spare themselves from our intolerance.
It would take a century for Africans to grow weary of being saved.
In the mid-20th Century, they would launch a series of revolutions seeking to jettison colonialism’s control. They would hang onto many of the cultural niceties brought by benevolent and compassionate people, but benevolence and compassion could only go so far.
Along with our water-wells, clinics, hospitals, churches, schools, and businesses, came an impatience for the African way. Africans would bristle at our efforts to control their thinking and their need to have a voice in social, economic, and cultural transformation. We came to Africa with short-term interventions for long-term transformation, and we would leave with our stories and pictures, feeling good about ourselves and our works.
Beyond the dependence we would create, we did save some lives, but the narrative of “saving Africa” began to ring of chauvinism, paternalism, and a host of other ‘isms that would keep us from the heart and soul of Africa.
Cottage industries would emerge, teaching us to be sensitive and culturally adaptive — what more do we need for a mission trip? We would wear our touring T-shirts and proudly boast of our excursion to the Dark Continent. Our hosts were always gracious and, once we boarded our plane home, would wonder if we would return (good question). And if we returned, how would we return? They would want us to bring “things.”
After securing funds for a major water project in drought-stricken Turkana, a group of the faithful were praying for me, and to this day, their prayer haunts me — that I would live 20 more years, so I could continue to “bring them things.”
They had an awareness that part of my identity had become “saving them,” and the idea that bringing them things would somehow save them. I’m not sure they wanted to be saved, but they knew I wanted them to be saved. And my “stuff,” packed tightly into suitcases and shipping containers, would somehow elevate Africa and emancipate them from poverty, disease, and war.
I stared once more out the plane window at the expansive, beautiful horizon, and my heart felt broken. So many trips; so many wonderful people, and we did so many incredible things.
The legacy of Africa, the birthplace of civilization, is a continent so diverse and so rich that it moves forward from sunrise to sunrise without my helping hand. It embraces a destiny that reflects the will of people whose future is in their own hands, as it has always been.
In the end, I have not saved Africa – not even close – but Africa may have saved me.
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