by Heather Jamison
I didn’t know who was going to win the 2004 Athens Olympics marathon. I did know, however, who wouldn’t win.
I didn’t know who was going to win the 2004 Athens Olympics marathon. I did know, however, who wouldn’t win. And I knew this because I understood the training environment of the Kenyan, Paul Tergat, who was in the lead. Most of the commentators detailing the race assumed this man would win. Yet, they didn’t know Africa; they didn’t know the climate Tergat had trained in. Do we, as missionaries, seek to truly know the mission field that God has placed us in? Are we guilty of placing our pre-conceived Western ideas onto those we are seeking to serve? Watching the marathon made me rethink my own approach to ministry, that’s for sure.
The commentators mentioned how strong Tergat had looked in the first half of the marathon. They also noted that he was the world-record holder for this event. Yet as the race continued Tergat showed signs of tiring. This didn’t surprise me. After all, he was a Kenyan who was running in Greece. It was August. It was hot and it was humid. There was no way he was going to win.
The commentators had one significant disadvantage in their assessment of the field that day: they didn’t know much about Africa.
Several times they had said it should be a race for Africans. They made this judgment for two reasons: (1) past results in marathons and (2) weather that was excruciatingly hot. They expected the African runners to do well in hot weather. And why wouldn’t they? African runners come from Africa and everyone knows Africa is nothing more than a desert.
Thus, the commentators and cameras focused nearly all of their attention on the runners from Kenya, Ethiopia and South Africa. Yet as the race wore on the Africans tired. First, two runners from South Africa wearied. Next, runners from Ethiopia dropped off. Finally, even Tergat couldn’t keep up with the Italian and the American who broke away. He was left broken and breathless in Athens. He finished tenth. So why did the commentators pick the Africans? Perhaps it was because Africans have dominated distance running for the past four decades. Based on statistics, this wasn’t a bad call. It’s just that the commentators forgot one small but very important element, namely, the elements.
Most distance racing takes place in cool weather; the summer Olympic marathon is the occasional anomaly. And, as with any sport, environment greatly affects endurance. Tergat might have looked like a favorite; he was the fastest marathon runner in the world. But he is Kenyan, which means he probably comes from the Nilotic tribes, which are characterized by small muscular frames and long limbs. If he is a Nilot runner, he probably comes from the hills of Kenya where most of these runners live. Here, runners train in very brisk, cool weather at an altitude of twelve thousand feet.
The commentators have probably never slept huddled under blankets in an African hut near one of the major racing institutes in Kenya. Perhaps they’ve never breathed the frigid air of the African mountains which flows freely not only in Kenya but in South Africa and Ethiopia as well. If they’ve never done that, how would they realize that Africa is more than just a desert?
Yes, Africa is more than many people imagine it to be. It is more than just AIDS, orphans and starving children. It is more than huts, diseases, corruption and drought. It is more than just a far-away land filled with confusing worldviews. It is more than tall people who are placed on a track, pointed in a direction, told to run and highly encouraged to win.
If the commentators really don’t know anything about the training patterns of African runners, I can’t blame them for choosing Tergat as the favorite. On paper he should have won. Unfortunately for him, the race didn’t take place on paper. Unfortunately for most Africans, neither does life take place on paper.
So the world goes on speaking of Africans as if they know them, yet all the while ignoring the true essence of their plight, oftentimes contributing to their trials in an uninformed way through handouts, subsidies and paternally-induced missions. Under the cover of ethnocentric stewardship we have removed African Christians from the climate of their culture and told them to run in ours. We have told them to sing our songs, wear our clothes and replace their superstitions with our own. By snatching them from a community of dispersed cooperation, we are plunging them into a hierarchy of affluent separation.
Rather than attempting to work within their forms, worldview, values, culture and elements, we rush them through short-term sprints toward a premature finish. We race them to get buildings built and programs started. All the while we forget that discipleship done well is nothing less than a full-blown marathon.
Billy Graham once said, “Salvation is free, but discipleship costs everything.” In the case of long-term workers, this means years of little return, financial struggles and the humility to unlearn preconceived notions. All the while long-term workers must seek to discover a method which actually works in the African world, in the African race, on African turf.
Had the race in Athens been run at midnight when the air had cooled, perhaps the commentators’ choices to win would have been correct. But it wasn’t run at midnight. And their choices weren’t correct. Which causes me to wonder: In our Western-minded missions, are we correct?
Heather Jamison and her husband Brian have been serving with East-West Ministries in Kenya since 2000. Heather has written two books. The Jamisons have four children.
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