The Stories We Tell Ourselves About Africa

by Editor on April 25, 2018

by Arthur Davis

A friend of ours once likened South Sudan to Tanzania. He had visited South Sudan for a construction project, and looming large in his experience was the constant presence of armed men. As he spoke, he seemed to be describing a potential failed state, a hive of barely contained conflict, always on the brink of chaos. And he spoke as if I would naturally recognise this because I live in Tanzania.

Tanzanians are proud of their peace, and I can only say it is robust. But as far as ‘Africa’ goes, the prevailing narratives are those of poverty, dispossession, and strife.

The ‘Africa Rising’ narrative is more positive: surely a middle class, mobile phones, and economic growth point to a bright future. However, this likewise fails to do justice to the complexities of 54 different nations. (It also ignores the ways in which Africa’s riches are being skimmed off by the rest of the world.)

The problem here is ‘the danger of a single story’. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie points out, ‘The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.’ Probably the supreme example is the failure to differentiate Africa even at the geographic level.

Speaking as an Australian Christian, I think we have our own stereotypes about Africa: persecution and heresy.

The heresy narrative portrays ‘Africa’ as overrun by false teaching in the form of the prosperity gospel, and sometimes liberal theology to boot. Online, the most overt promotion of this idea can be found under the banner of ‘theological famine relief’. Suffice it to say that the reality in Tanzania is more complex.

The persecution narrative portrays Tanzania as a hotbed of anti-Christian forces. In 2015 some Australian friends wrote to us with concern over a report by a persecution watchdog organisation. These friends had lived and worked in Tanzania for many years, and the report of danger for Tanzanian churches must have seemed quite unprecedented to them. The report turned out to be more alarmist than alarming. More recently, the persecution narrative shows up in the 2017 World Watch list, where Tanzania is listed at #33, tagged for ‘high’ persecution.

No doubt these two narratives have some power in drumming up prayer and donations in Western nations, and it’s not that they’re flat-out wrong – it’s just that they do little to bring us closer to African communities. Like ‘poverty’, the rubrics of ‘persecution’ and ‘prosperity gospel’ just don’t say enough to sum up entire communities and societies.

These two narratives are circulated and sustained by Christian communities. On the face of it, our interest in Africa seems as likely to confirm stereotypes as to counteract or complicate them.

More disturbingly, this raises the question of whether our interest in Africa is in fact reliant on these narratives. If Christian organisations are the prime movers of these narratives, then do we need Africans to be poor, persecuted, or deceived in order to relate to them? If Africans were not poor, persecuted, or deceived, would it impinge on our sense of calling or the legitimacy of our initiatives?

Perhaps at the centre of all this is the stance we have adopted in relation to Africa: that of providers, helpers, and teachers. Our view of ourselves as ‘helpers’ fuels certain narratives, which in turn fuel the call for further ‘help’. What is lost in this cycle is not only a more honest encounter between African communities and Australian communities, but also the possibility of a full-orbed gospel partnership.

So then, does the fact that Australian (and other Western) Christians can adopt the role of ‘helpers’ mean that we should? What other roles might be available to us? What reasons might there be for adopting an expanded role, or even a qualitatively different one?

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Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania with his wife Tamie and two sons. They partner with Tanzania Fellowship of Evangelical Students (TAFES) and write at meetjesusatuni.com.

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