Andrew  Guest, Ph.D.                                                                                              Home                 

Missionary?  Me?

Another Side of Africa

(Summer, 2008)


Africa fascinates me because of its seemingly impossible contradictions; immense wealth and overwhelming poverty, guileless warmth and heartless anger, intense humanity and gnawing dysfunction, lush green and dry red.  Since finishing my first graduate degree in 1996, I’ve spent almost three years of my adult life in Africa—over two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi and the better part of one year doing dissertation research in Angolan refugee camps.  And, although the contradictions I have felt there probably exist to varying degrees everywhere, something about Africa always forces me to think about the world, and about myself, in new and meaningful ways.  That reality is one of the reasons I was so excited when my work at the University of Portland took me to Uganda and Kenya in the summer of 2008 on an “educational tour” for faculty and staff from schools associated with the Congregation of Holy Cross.


Prior to this trip, I had never fully considered how odd it was that my past experiences in Africa had been almost entirely secular.  Sundays during those years were simply days to rest, to read, to re-charge.  My weeks were spent in and around church communities, but I never processed them as more than landmarks—part of the scenery.  It was, therefore, somewhat incongruous this May when I found myself going back to Africa with a group from the Holy Cross Mission Center flying on a ticket designated for a “missionary.” 


A missionary?  Me?  Without ever having given it much thought, I had always associated missionaries with inappropriate proselytizing, cultural insensitivity, and paternalism.  I implicitly understood missionaries primarily as not like me.  Unlike missionaries, I thought, I had no problematic agenda—I just wanted to do good work.  Only now, only after spending a brief few weeks in Uganda and Kenya with a group of academics from colleges and universities associated with the Congregation of Holy Cross, am I starting to realize how much I had missed.    


Although I still don’t know a lot, I feel confident in saying that the missionary world is extraordinarily diverse and vibrant—in a way, like Africa itself.  There are, I know, missionaries with tendencies toward imperial ambition and paternalistic motivation.  In our travels we saw advertising for evangelical gospel missions, proudly proclaiming themselves as “conquerors from USA,” and we heard stories of missionary malfeasance—abuses of power, bribery, fraud, and litany of other sins.  But the missionaries I met, and the Catholic communities we visited, were much more complicated than the caricatures of those stories.  They were, by and large, caring people trying in a wide variety of ways to make a difference.  They were, of course, first and foremost driven by faith.  But as part of that they were also engaged fully and deeply in the complicated endeavor of trying to live a good life.  They were engaged fully and deeply with the contradictions and challenges of Africa.  They were, I realized, a surprising lot like I aspire to be myself.


Take, for example, the young men we met at Lake Saaka Uganda at the Holy Cross Novitiate.  These were eight Ugandans spending the year as religious novices, discerning and engaging with their potential vocation as Holy Cross priests and brothers.  Their house for the year was a place of impossible beauty—a simple building of red brick overlooking a small, deep tropical lake ringed by bulbous green hills.  The novices worked during the week doing simple labor around the house, and doing service in nearby communities—counseling AIDS orphans, advising prisoners, advocating for the poor.  And, unlike so many Africans, they spent a great deal of time alone.

 “Have you,” I asked one, “ever before had a room of your own?”

 “No, and at first that was so hard.  The early months?  Oh no!” He shook his head with a resigned smile.  “Now, though, we have become used.  We have made our way.” 


Most of our conversations took place on a polished cement porch looking out over a rolling green lawn that spilled through reeds and palm trees into grey-green water.  We talked as a group while a lone steer grazed on the grass, occasionally taunted by three playful dogs roaming their domain.  Removed from family, village, and tribe it was, the novices told us, a time for wrestling with the contradictions and complexities of committing to religious life.  It was a time to think in new ways about all that surrounded them.  It was a time to confront the reality of a life without children of their own—without that which is for many Africans the most precious sign of wealth and status. 


It was a year during which, I came to realize over the course of the night, the young men had a chance to make meaning of their lives in the context of a church community devoted to something larger.  At points in the night, as our group splintered into individual conversations, the look in their eyes was pure searching—men who were, whether they knew it or not, finding a sense of purpose.  Though I know only some of the eight Ugandan novices will go on to take final vows, as they still have several years of discernment and education to confront, I was awed by the sincerity with which they were confronting with the challenges of Africa, and the challenges of solitude.  And I suspect that process, and their sense of purpose, will serve them well no matter what their final vocation.  I saw, in these Ugandan Holy Cross novices, the type of strength that is essential to the future of Africa—and the future of any community.


Or take, for another example, what we saw in the diocese of Kasese, in a Western Uganda parish periodically disrupted by rebellion and tragedy in nearby neighbor states such as Congo and Rwanda.  During our group’s visit to Kasese, after an extraordinarily pleasant dinner with the local Bishop, an entertaining visit to their new Catholic radio station, and an adventurous night at the ironically named “Executive Inn,” we were taken to see an internally displaced persons camp outside of town.  I’d been to IDP camps in Angola, but those camps were well-established and long-term; the people there were desperately poor but the communities were stable and reasonably functional.  This camp in Kasese, on the other hand, was new and excruciatingly raw.


The story, as best I could understand, involved a dispute between a group of “pastoralist” (herders) and “cultivators” (farmers) regarding local lands.  Decades ago the pastoralists had left their land in Uganda and roamed west to Congo.  During those decades Ugandan cultivators had settled the land with farms, schools, and shops.  In recent years, however, unrest in Congo had pushed the pastoralists back to Uganda—and the government agreed that the pastoralists should get their old land back.  But that meant herding thousands of cultivators, their community twenty-five years old, into a temporary settlement.  The cultivators were moved and condensed into a small remote space without ready access to water or land.  But they were told it would only be for two weeks.  Now it was nine months later.  No further arrangements had been made. 


As we approached the settlement the road become too muddy for our coaster bus.  We parked next to a herd of cattle lazily grazing under the eyes of two pastoralists with large sticks and curious faces.  As we walked, a crowd gathered.  Children came first, smiling and laughing at our strange appearance.  They were, sadly, the types of children so many media images falsely portray as being all of Africa: innocents with swollen bellies, dirty scraps of clothes, and hair tainted red by kwashiorkor.  At the first hut we passed, a tiny lean-to of hay-yellow thatch, several haggard adults sat around a smoldering fire—mourning, we were told, the death of a child the night before.  As we walked to a central space between moldering huts, the curious crowd grew in both size and in looks of desperation.  Later, one of the most well-traveled members of our group described them “as poor as you will find people anywhere in the world.” 

In the central space we sat briefly, taking cues from our guide and translator—a local diocesan priest named Fr. Remegius Thembo who connected with the community through the social services department of the Diocese of Kasese.  He explained to us more about the conflict between the cultivators and the pastoralists, about two men killed and many scared families, and he translated for a local community leader representing 2,300 people in this one settlement.  2,300 people who have no land to grow food, who have only distant access to a water source, who have been given nothing but empty promises from local authorities, and who see Fr. Thembo and his staff as their best hope. 


At most we were there for a half hour.  It was too short to get any accurate sense of their reality, but long enough to be gutted by the deep sadness that comes from confronting tragic inequalities in our world.  I felt as though I had been punched in my soul.  Among our group there was a frantic, confused sense of needing to figure out what we could do.  Could we leave the cardboard box with our lunch food—boiled eggs, loaves of bread, peanut butter?  No, we were told, it would do more harm than good: “It is too little.  It could only be cause for fight.”  Could we leave money—try to buy off our guilty consciences with whatever was in the wallet?  No, we were told, it is better to donate through the diocese and Caritas so that the money is not abused.  The best we could do at that moment was to offer a few brief words: “We have seen your hardships,” one of our American priests offered, “we have eyes and we have hearts.” 


When my heart hurts, as it did that day, I usually try to cope with my mind—I intellectualize, I debate, I critically analyze.  So while our bus negotiated the lumbering journey back to the tarmac road, my mind and my mouth were going at full speed.  I talked with anyone who would listen out of a desperate need to make sense of what we had seen.  How, I needed to know, could sense be made of bearing witness to such injustice?  How, I needed to understand, could such poverty exist amidst the wealth of our modern world?  


But that day, my mind was not up to the task.  None of my experiences and none of my education made any difference to the weakness I felt.  Although the residents of the camp had treated me as an honored guest, I felt a sense of utter and complete insignificance.  Ultimately (and here is a sentence I never though I would write with sincerity), my only solace was the church.  Amidst the hopelessness, I found myself thanking God for Fr. Thembo and the Catholic diocese of Kasese Uganda.  If not them, there was no one.  2,300 of the poorest people anywhere in the world, people of many religious flavors, with virtually no hope beyond the Catholic diocese of Kasese.


As a final example, take the Missionaries of Charity—the order started by Mother Theresa.  Prior to this trip, I had only known about their work because I once used a biography of Mother Theresa when teaching a personality psychology class.  I had no good reason for using her as an example, except that the biography was available in the library and she seemed like an intriguing person.  From that I knew that her care for the poor and downtrodden was unquestionable.  But I also learned that some critics argue Mother Theresa failed to use her status to address the larger structural problems that produce extreme poverty—corrupt governments, unjust international monetary policies, rigid dogmas applied in overly broad ways.  Mother Theresa had a moral authority that she wielded in very particular ways and, as many an intellectual critic will tell you, there are ways in which well-intentioned work can facilitate the maintenance of unjust social order. 


But the Missionaries of Charity I met in and around Kibera—an area of Nairobi considered one of the largest urban slums in Africa—put those intellectual critics to shame.  All the more because they were the only group we met that did not allow our group to take any pictures of their work.  They were the only group that called us on our poverty voyeurism; the only group that believed so strongly in what they were doing that they needed no vainglorious admiration.  So my only picture here is words…


We first visited their home on the border of Kibera for severely disabled.  In a simple walled compound women cared for women who could not physically or mentally care for themselves.  Though I know people with such disabilities exist in the US, in Oregon, in my own neighborhood, I do not see them.  In fact, I have never seen a group such as this.  These were women who could not walk, control their own bodily functions, or manage vocalizations beyond a constant howling noise.  These were women whose heads were too small for their bodies, whose legs were atrophied poles, whose hands could not unclasp bent fingers for greetings.  There were around 50 women with such disabilities in the courtyard, maybe five caregivers, and we visitors stumbling about in stunned confusion.  A few of the residents seemed to enjoy shaking our hands, but it was impossible to know for sure.  The only sure thing was the dignity required for the Missionaries of Charity to make this work their lives; to spend every day in an endless cycle of feeding, cleaning, touching, and caring for people simply because of their shared humanity.  And because of their grace.


These examples of mission work particularly struck me because of the vividness with which they presented both strength and vulnerability, but there are many more I could share.  Uganda and Kenya are vibrant and complicated places, full of examples and stories that can be marshaled towards many different conclusions.  But what strikes me upon reflection is how important it is to recognize that complexity, to approach Africa by accepting its contradictions.  In that vein, one particularly insightful moment for me on the trip occurred during one of our long bus rides, where periodic conversations ebbed and flowed with the curves of the road.  I was talking to one of the priests from Notre Dame leading our group, and telling him how interesting I was finding all the mission work.  He said to me, “you know, I guess I’ve never experienced Africa any way other than through the church.”  And I realized I had never experienced Africa in any way other than that outside of religion.  Despite my years in Africa and my years of study, I had never fully appreciated the contributions of missionaries to community life.    


Missionary work in Africa, I’ve come to think, is a potentially noble endeavor defined more by its diversity than by its archetypes.  I cannot deny that I still have problems with Euro-centric policies promoted to rural Africa, or with the evangelicals that preach a “prosperity doctrine” to take advantage of global inequity.  But the missionaries I met, and the men and women affiliated with the Congregation of Holy Cross in East Africa, mostly seemed to see the same types of problems I see—they were very aware of how missionary work can go wrong.  And ultimately that may be what I had failed to understand; that missionaries are forced to confront the same contradictions that I, or anyone one who wants to work in Africa, confront.  The types of contradictions and tensions that (maybe) face anyone challenged to think about the world, and about one’s self, in new and meaningful ways.