by Daniel E. Fountain
The root of development failure in Africa is a faulty world view.
Scene 1: The city of Kikwit, of recent Ebola fame, stretches along the top of a gradually rising ridge in central Zaire. One paved road links one end of the city with the other. In heavy rains, this road becomes a river, and streams of water cascade down gullies on each side. In one extra heavy storm some years ago, at a low place in the road, torrents of water plummeted down the gully on each side, transforming them into deep ravines which nearly cut the city in two.
Early the next morning, the chiefs of each sector were ordered to assemble at the ravines, each bringing a sack of rock salt. In a traditional ceremony, these sacks were solemnly thrown into the two ravines. With the ancestral spirits thus appeased, the mayor then began the difficult task of finding funds for cement runoffs. Now in heavy rains, the torrents of water flow harmlessly down these two cement drains while elsewhere water cascades down unprotected gullies that threaten other parts of the city.
Scene 2: Sixty village leaders, men and women, sat in a circle in the Mayoko church as we discussed sickness in general and intestinal parasites (worms) in particular. For two hours we explored their belief that illness comes from an angry member of the family or clan, through a curse, a fetish, or a magical potion. Faced with their premise that social or spiritual disorder is the primary cause of disease, I struggled to explain the importance of physical means of disease prevention, such as latrines and clean drinking water. If stomach disorders come from disgruntled uncles, how could a pit privy prevent them?
The pieces fell into place, however, when, after a bit of reflection and an urgent silent prayer, I perceived the personal element in our modern concept of disease transmission. A person who “went potty” in the bushes could infect any number of other people with his worms or diarrhea. With appropriate visual aids and a bit of a demonstration, I showed them how it works. The real “sorcerer” in the village is the person who has no latrine. I was pleased to see they seemed to understand this, and they participated actively in the next phase of the dialogue on privy engineering. All was going well, so I thought, until a bearded village elder asked, “But, Doctor, why try to get rid of sickness? We’ve always been sick. It’s the will of God.”
WHAT IS THE REAL PROBLEM
For a century, missions and development agencies have established hundreds of health and development programs in Zaire. Many have disappeared, and the fruits of others have been disappointing at best. Is development even possible in African countries like Zaire? As my colleagues and I have struggled for more than 30 years to develop an effective church-based, nationally run health service, we keep asking, “What is the real problem?” My friend the village elder succinctly answered that question.
The root of development failure in Africa is a faulty world view. Spiritual vitality and sustainable growth and development are incompatible with an untransformed world view. The African god, Nzambi-Mpungu in our language, is dualistic. Good and evil alike come from him. He has created everything, is all-powerful, and can do as he wishes. We are his creatures, entirely at his disposal, and are therefore victims of his will.
A widespread African proverb puts it this way. “When Nzambi-Mpungu wants meat to eat with his gruel, a child dies.” So why weigh children or vaccinate babies if this god will eat them when he wishes? Why dig privies if god wants us to have worms?
In African thought, nature is unpredictable and often violent. Spiritual forces, including spirits of ancestors, pervade nature and live in trees, rivers, rocks, ravines, forests and hills. No manipulation of nature, such as erosion control, can be done without first dealing with the indwelling spiritual powers. A natural disaster such as the erosion in Kikwit is a sign of spiritual disfavor and must be dealt with spiritually before any physical measures can be assured of success. The African reacts tonatural disasters. Preventing them is foreign to the African world view.
For more than 30 years my wife and I have trained African health personnel: nurses, primary health workers, and now resident doctors. We teach much information and transmit much technology. Yet so often we see no real understanding of the whys and wherefores of what we teach.
Under the mattress of the delivery table we find dried blood from yesterday’s deliveries; it doesn’t matter because no one can see it. The waste buckets in the laboratory are full of last Saturday’s swabs, but they are out of sight. Is the Ebola virus in that bucket? Who knows? Dirty bandages from the wards, instead of being burned in the incinerator, wind up in a nearby fly-filled shallow pit.
In spite of highly successful evangelism and church planting across much of Africa, dualistic fatalism is still at the core of the world view of most Africans, including many church leaders. Planning? No, god will show us the way. Resource development? No, god will provide. This sounds highly spiritual, but it is thoroughly nonbiblical. It is passive acceptance of whatever they think this god wills.
DILIGENT PARTNERSHIP REQUIRED
However, small but growing numbers of transformed Christian leaders across Africa are struggling with us to make disciples and to bring about world view transformation. These brothers and sisters know that God is good, that the world he created is good, and that with him we can make it better.
Yet they need our ongoing partnership and will continue to need it for many years ahead. Sadly, we face declining interest from churches and development agencies in North America and Europe in continuing the work of transformation. They have failed to understand the depth of the transformation process necessary to build adequate foundations for church growth and development. We have erroneously assumed we could “train and turn over.” But without inner transformation, this does not work.
Have we forgotten our own history? Moses wrote Genesis more than 3,000 years ago, laying the foundations of science. Medicine, technology, and development have appeared only in the last two centuries. Jesus treated women and men as equals, but we in the West are still struggling with that. Paul wrote that God judges and rewards masters and slaves according to the same standard, but it required 1,800 years for us to abolish slavery. If it has required thousands of years to bring basic biblical principles and values into our own incompletely transformed culture, can we expect full transformation in Africa in only four generations?
The Good News of Jesus Christ has to do with body, mind, spirit, and all of life’s relationships. This Good News is only beginning to penetrate the depths of hearts, minds, spirits, and relationships in Africa. We, as partners with our African sisters and brothers, continue to have much to share. We bring our science, our technology, and our resources. Much more than that, we need to share our understanding of the biblical roots of science and technology and our wisdom in their practical application in operating theaters, reforestation projects, and water development. So we appeal to our supporting churches and agencies to stand firm in our partnership with the body of Christ in Africa to extend the sovereign reign of Christ over all aspects of life there, including even erosion control. Abandoning our African partners now would leave them vulnerable to the untransformed culture around them and to immense pressures of family and clan to return to traditional ways.
GENESIS: THE KEY DOCUMENT
The most important document in all of literature is Genesis 1-3. Without a fundamental understanding of who God is, who we are, the nature of creation, what sin is, and the disordered relationships it causes, we can never grasp the real nature of the gospel. Without these 80 verses, John 3:16 becomes only a pious platitude, an entrance into an organization that may provide certain benefits but does not change lives.1
What we call “Western” development is not Western at all. The roots of science go back to Genesis. A fundamental order underlies the immense diversity we see in nature and the seeming whims of natural forces. God created all things according to laws, and natural law is an essential part of the physical world. Nature thus is predictable, worthy of study, and capable of being understood at least in part.
Two Hebrew words in Genesis 1:28, radah and kabash, are translated as “have dominion over” and “subdue” or “rule over.” In other words, God told man to take charge of nature and control it. In the West we have made considerable progress in obeying this command.
But Genesis does not exist in tribal African tradition. Studying nature, taking charge of it, improving it, and preventing disasters are concepts absent in African culture. Taking charge of our environment is hard work, much too hard without a thorough conviction that it is important and possible. This conviction comes only from a transformation at the very center of beliefs, values, and world view, a paradigm shift from the African view of nature to the biblical one.
The God of the Bible, Mfumu Nzambi, was present that morning in Mayoko directing our thinking and conversation. We turned to Genesis. As we read over and over in Chapter 1, “And God saw that it was good,” interest became visible on the faces of many in the circle. When I asked if hookworms, mosquitoes, or scorpions were in the Garden of Eden, several animated discussions broke out, punctuated by laughter and vigorous gesticulating. They had never addressed such an issue before. I had to admit the Bible gives minimal details about Eden, but we all agreed that malaria, tuberculosis, and dysentery were not in the Garden because they are not God’s will for us. God is good, totally, essentially, eternally good. His will for us is life and health, not disease and death. Many eyes grew big as this truth began to sink in.2
MUCH HOMEWORK TO DO
So we have much exciting, transforming homework of our own to do. With the Holy Spirit as our teacher (1 John 2:27), and as our guide the Lord Jesus Christ, who dealt dualism its fatal blow on the cross (Col. 2:14-15), we can discover the depths of wisdom in Genesis and all that follows. We find there an adequate basis for development as well as in-depth evangelism. Then the desert will blossom as the rose, and, my goodness, behind those lovely flowers, is that really a pit latrine?
What finally happened at Mayoko? Four months later, a village of 110 homes had 110 latrines, a clean water source, and a development committee. A second village did the same thing, then a third, and now more than 300 have followed suit.3 The church is growing spiritually, because God’s word is indeed quick and powerful, and it is the only means to make his ways known on earth and his saving health among the nations (Psalm 67:1,2).
1. Schaeffer, Francis A., The God Who is There (London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1968), pp. 99-104.
2. Gilkey, Langdon, Maker of Heaven and Earth (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1959).
3. Fountain, Daniel E., Let’s Build Our Lives (Brunswick, Ga.: MAP International, 1989).
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