catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 2, Num 19 :: 2003.10.10 — 2003.10.23


Commuting to Africa

Much of my adult life has been spent learning about, living in, yearning for or relating to people in Africa. Experiences related to work and friendships in Africa have provided the primary framework for the directions my life has taken.

Falling in love

At age 19 (1968), I participated in a study-work program called Service Education Abroad, sponsored by Mennonite colleges and Mennonite Central Committee. Originally designed to provide educational opportunities for young men doing their alternative service to the military, this program provided service opportunities and learning components for young adults from North America in what was then the Republic of the Congo (later Zaire, currently Democratic Republic of Congo).

I was placed on a Methodist mission station in the small town of Lodja, in central Congo, where I taught English and various other subjects. Having had all of one year of college, I was in no way prepared to teach anybody anything, but somehow we stumbled along. And the overall experience was incredible. The land itself was magnificent and beautiful, the people warm and accepting, the students funny and challenging. Life on a mission station run by southern Methodists felt like life on a plantation to this northern emancipated young woman, and I did not always show much grace in commenting on the mission lifestyle.

Two years of life in this beautiful, fascinating place; learning about the history of Africa and African culture during the school breaks when members of the program gathered for classes; observing the effect of a century of American mission involvement in a remote area of a huge country: I fell in love, and I fell into the depths of a lifelong struggle with guilt. What ever possessed my ancestors to think that they needed to change anything about the way African people lived or thought? Why did I have to belong to a rapacious race that strode across a glorious continent peopled by well-developed and intelligent cultural groups, wreaking havoc with their lives and pillaging their resources?

Thirty-five years later, I see a much bigger picture. But I still mourn the fact that Africa was not allowed to develop its cultures and relationships with the wider world without the ferocious onslaught of western capitalists and missionaries; and that it has had to carry the agony of losing a significant portion of its population to slave traders from the east and west.

The connection to the land and people which was nourished so richly during those two years has grown and intensified ever since.


I also fell in love with one of the conscientious objectors I met in Congo, and two years after our return to the U.S. we were off again, this time to Madagascar (1972). Tim was the director of the Church World Service (National Council of Churches) development program in Madagascar for four years. Although at first annoyed that the position did not include work for me, I soon began to enjoy just getting acquainted with this amazing country. We lived in Tananarive, in the central highlands of Madagascar, an area of red rolling hills covered with paddy rice fields and populated by people of Polynesian background. Such a different culture than anything I had been aware of in Africa. And all those plants and animals that don't live anywhere else except on this amazing big island! We traveled all around the island in crazy station wagon taxis, went to cultural events, tried to learn the Malagasy language, made friends with local people and some from the international development and diplomatic crowds. I explored the entire city of Tananarive on foot, all the seven glorious hills and endless rocky stairways of it. It truly was a four-year honeymoon of cultural, historical, political adventures.

Through Tim's work with well baby clinics in rural areas, and water supply systems for remote villages, we were introduced to the workings and issues of the "development" world. Questions abounded: Is it right to introduce western style "answers" to third world "problems?" How can technological improvements be introduced and implemented without disrupting life patterns and relationships? Are we merely participating in another form of colonialism and exploitation by encouraging people here to accept assistance from foreign governments and mission efforts? What does our faith have to say about how we interact with people whose world is so different from ours? Can we possibly follow Jesus and still be part of the advantaged western cultures we come from?

Facing the issues

Several years later (1978) we found ourselves in Transkei, one of the former bantustans which had become a so-called "independent homeland" in the eastern part of South Africa. Tim worked with the Transkei Council of Churches and I laid the groundwork for Mennonite Central Committee programming in South Africa, relating also to Lesotho.

Much of Tim's work involved helping to provide assistance to families of political prisoners, and much of my work involved getting acquainted with individuals, churches and organizations involved in anti-apartheid work. It was a sad time, when apartheid's rigid laws had totally undermined African culture and family patterns, and when homeland governments were cruel puppets of their apartheid rulers. But it was also an exciting time, because so much is always going on in Africa, no matter how tough times are. We became absorbed in the warm, courageous world of creative response to apartheid's suffocating system.

In Umtata, the capital of Transkei, where we lived, we met religious people who lived their faith with courage and good humor. Through our travels and inter-church connections we became involved in discussions about how best to oppose apartheid: boycotts, armed resistance, educating the rest of the world? We saw the church struggling with the apartheid of its own systems while proclaiming a religion where all are equal. We occasionally were challenged to break a law that was unjust in order to help someone in need. We saw the strong parallels between white South Africa and the United States, and were ashamed.

And again: the beautiful, beautiful land. The music; the dancing; the strong, strong women; the bright-eyed children. Our neighborhood was a place of vitality and friendliness, a wonderful place to raise the two, then three, then four children we accumulated. My sense that the African continent is my real home, that my spirit is nourished and guided there more than anywhere else, grew deeper and more certain during these years. Why that would be so is a mystery to me, but I accept it as a wondrous gift.

Team building

We returned to the U.S. in 1981. Then, after 16 years of work with Mennonite Central Committee and other Mennonite mission institutions, some focused on Africa from the U.S. and some on North American service programs, we headed for South Africa once again (1997). The four children who had started their lives in Africa were left behind to be independent young adults, but the two more recent arrivals went with us.

This time our assignment was in Durban, South Africa. I had the most delicious feeling of having come home the minute I stepped off the plane, and never lost it for the next five years. Now we were living and working in the ?new? South Africa; apartheid was gone and Nelson Mandela was president.

I was the administrator for Mennonite Central Committee programming in South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland. This meant working with North American volunteers who came to these countries for one month, three months, and occasionally longer terms of service with church-related peace, community development, or social service assignments. It also meant working with local staff and volunteers, who, together with the North American workers, formed a team to plan and evaluate what MCC should do in these countries. Working with this team of people from five different language and cultural groups (Swazi, Sotho, Zulu, Xhosa, U.S., Canada) was the most exciting and enriching experience I ever had in a work setting. The vitality, creativity and true desire to work as equals, plus the ability to have enormous fun while also expressing faith and getting work done was unmatchable.

Living in the "new" South Africa, where race is still the dominating factor in everything, but where people are free to talk openly about what that means for their lives, churches, employment and futures, was exhilarating. Durban is a multicultural city, with a large Indian population, and significant communities of Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Hindu believers. Mosques, churches, synagogues and temples are scattered all over the city. People of all backgrounds mingle at the beaches and on the streets in a wonderful array of clothing, skins colors, head gear, means of transport. I felt small and insignificant, unnoticeable and completely at home.


Now I am home here, in Michigan. It is always difficult to come back to North America after our terms in Africa. Perhaps I'm just greedy for diversity. Perhaps I am so privileged that I can?t understand the need people seem to have in this country for comfort and security, and bigness. Perhaps I like dealing with other countries? issues more than those in my native land.

Of course, those issues are not all that different. I now have interesting work with the Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Council of our county, and with our small rural congregation. The issues are not so different, and I continually meet people who are dealing with their life situation with creativity and vitality. The people in my church struggle to live out their faith in difficult settings. This is my "assignment" now, and I am grateful that I am still privileged enough to have work that I find interesting and useful. I try to keep in touch with friends in Congo, Madagascar and southern Africa. I am at home. But I like commuting, so . . . who knows??

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