Africa in Crisis
Finding Hope in the Midst of Tragedy
Somewhere in the world, in the last week of October, a baby was born who tipped the human population over the 7 billion mark. Statistically there is a high probability this baby is an African. Statistics also tell us this African baby will need to fight for survival, facing the highest child-mortality rates in the world. Such is the irony of Africa: the most likely place, and at the same time the most dangerous place, for a young person to grow up.
By the end of the century, Africa will climb from its current population of 1 billion people to over 3.6 billion, an increase from 15% of the world’s population to 30%.1 While the rest of the world’s population is slowing down, Africa’s is accelerating. This rapid growth combined with Africa’s current development state has produced a human tragedy on a scale almost impossible to comprehend.
In the last thirty years, over 100 million Africans have died from wars, famine, malnutrition and preventable diseases.2 This ongoing tragedy is compounded by the reality that most of those dying are people who bear the name of Christ. Even more unthinkable is the fact that such tragedy has occurred at the height of Christian power, wealth and influence in the world. But here also is another part of the irony that is Africa. Though billions in aid has been sent from the West, the aid itself is now seen as part of the systemic problem that keeps Africa from moving forward.
While all this has been happening to Africa, a quiet but steady invasion has come to the continent—an invasion not of guns or foot soldiers, but of ideas and missionaries. Capitalizing on Africa’s crisis, oil-rich Muslim countries have themselves been pouring massive amounts of money into sub-Saharan Africa—building mosques, establishing schools, and setting up an economic infrastructure for the specific purpose of converting the entire continent to Islam. (The now deposed Libyan leader Gaddafi pledged last year to invest 97 billion dollars in sub-Saharan Africa in order to “free the continent from the West.” 3) There is compelling reason for this interest. The vast majority of Muslim converts in the last thirty years have been black Africans.
In the last century, the percentage of Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa has more than doubled (from 14 to 29 percent). 4 Though this growth has been largely incremental, in a few places it has been dramatic. The nation of Rwanda, which saw 800,000 Christians massacred in 1994, now has over half-a-million Muslim converts from a Christian background. 5 Many of these converts have the same story to tell. They testify how Muslim Hutus and Tutsis protected one another during the crisis. In contrast, many of their fellow Christians were engaged in brutal ethnic-cleansing.
Rwanda is not the only country where Muslims have a powerful story. In South Africa, the stain of apartheid has made for fertile evangelistic soil in a place where the perceived brotherhood of Islam stands in stark contrast to a historically segregated Church. Black South African converts to Islam are estimated to have grown six-fold since the 1990s.6 The Islamic stance against alcohol, immorality, segregation and usury has attracted many who see the religion as holding answers for the holistic problems facing the nation.
In Northern Africa, the battle lines between Islam and Christianity are literally battle lines. The North is almost entirely Muslim and the South is majority Christian. In the middle region known as the Sahel, Muslims and Christians have been clashing for over a century. In Sudan, two million Christians have been killed by the Muslim dominated North, resulting in this year’s referendum to divide the country in two. This unprecedented event has left many wondering if a similar separation may take place in Nigeria, a land where continual clashes between Northern Muslims and Southern Christians have left thousands dead on both sides. 7
In the Ivory Coast, the current civil war is based as much on religious factors, if not more, than political or economic ones. Muslims now have the numbers to install their own president. Though the incumbent Christian president technically lost the election, he refuses to step down in spite of great international pressure. The prospect of Muslims ruling in the Ivory Coast for the first time in its history has many local Christians very concerned. When the Muslim general Idi Amin took over Uganda he intentionally persecuted and weakened the Church, and tens of thousands of Christians were martyred. Generally speaking, controlling the powers of government in Africa has meant those who supported your ascension will prosper, and those who didn’t will suffer.
Today’s Scramble for Africa
The failure of the world to intervene in Rwanda unfortunately didn’t end with Rwanda. The same militias that murdered so many with impunity in their own country took their guns into the heart of Africa. Once again, the world looked on from the sidelines. The result was a civil war that left six million people dead in the Congo—six million Christians, murdered, raped, and starved in almost systematic fashion. Even after the war officially ended, an estimated 45,000 Congolese Christians continued to perish every month, several years later. 8 Today, the country’s rich mineral resources have made it a potent incubator for rebel groups which have exploited the chaos to take control of the nation’s mining industry. While the world has rallied to stop the flow of blood diamonds from Africa, the truth is much of every mineral coming out of the Congo is now suspect.
What this means is very plain, and yet many outside of Africa are slow to get it. Africa’s problems are as much a result of Western tribalism (corporate and national) as they are African. Before we get too carried away in pointing the finger, we should first do so in front of a mirror. Where does Africa get the guns, bullets, land mines and mortars used in these wars? They don’t come from Africa! They come from the very same nations that are benefiting from Africa’s instability. And where do corrupt African politicians put the billions they steal? Right back into the Western coffers from which they came.
Congo has one of the world’s greatest depositories of a mineral called Colton, an essential raw-material used in manufacturing cell phones. Like many industries caught up in Africa’s mineral wars, complicit Western partners often stand to gain when rebels take over a mining region. Without a central government to negotiate and control prices, the “divide and conquer” strategy which colonized the continent is still as profitable today as it was then. Unfortunately, without anyone to stop them, rebels are free to use slave labor to increase their profits. They then use those profits to buy still more weapons and expand their powerbase.
With a continual stream of bad news pouring forth from the continent, it is difficult to stay positive amidst growing crisis fatigue. From civil war in Libya to famine in Somalia to one million AIDS orphans in Zimbabwe, the year 2011 was not short on overwhelming humanitarian disasters. If any of the problems Africa routinely faces were to happen in a particular area of the United States, every government agency would be mobilized and a state of emergency declared. Yet at any given time, Africa has multiple “states of emergency” and there is no foreseeable end in the decades ahead.
Even so, what is often missing in our response to Africa is a long-term strategy, the lack of which usually renders our short term aid more problematic than helpful. In 2005, Niger’s president went out on a limb to accuse Western agencies of corruption. Though shocked at the accusation, his point was eventually received as a timely rebuke. From the African perspective, Western NGOs appear quick to jump on a crisis, raise tons of money, take their cut and then dump the rest on the problem, moving on as quickly as they came to the next event. Unfortunately, in their wake, when food aid from outside of Africa pours into a drought-stricken region, it completely alters the economic system. If emergency aid is mishandled, it can put local farmers out of business for good, resulting in a mass-exodus to the cities and increasing Africa’s systemic malnutrition crisis.
Today, there are over 165 million urban slum dwellers in Africa, almost all of which were once farmers. 9 Such a trend means less overall food is being produced, while the number of people without the ability to feed themselves increases. This is the most serious ticking time bomb Africa faces in its near future. Though it gets the least amount of attention in our event-driven press and media, Africa’s greatest long-term need for development is in its agricultural sector. Much of the topsoil in Africa’s farmlands is being lost from overuse, which decreases yields as well as the nutritional value of what is produced. 10 This scenario does not bode well for one of the world’s fastest growing populations. The result is predicted to be increased famines, and crushing inflation throughout the coming decades. In Mauritania, food prices have more than doubled in the last few years. As a result, Mauritania has one of the highest child-mortality rates in the world—the inevitable effect of chronic malnutrition.
So what can outsiders do to help? Though the situation is incredibly complex, the following are a few general recommendations that are beginning to gain consensus:
Recognize that we in the West are part of the problem in Africa. Though we can’t exempt ourselves from being part of the solution, we need to come as servants, not saviors to the African people. Let’s begin by asking what’s needed, and let’s be willing to get out of the way.
Recognize that aid must not come at the expense of long-term development, and we should focus more of our energies and resources on the latter rather than the former.
Recognize that what’s already there is more valuable than what is not. The usefulness of foreign imports should be very carefully studied and monitored for long-term sustainability.
Some of Africa’s most persistent problems are actually very solvable. For example, according to the World Bank, malaria itself costs Africa over 30 billion dollars annually and slows down economic growth by 1.3% a year.11 That means Africa’s GDP would be 30% higher today if malaria had been eradicated in the 1980s. So what keeps this from happening? Malaria used to be widespread in the United States a century ago and so was Tuberculosis. Concerted efforts by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) virtually eradicated these diseases. According to CDC records, malaria affected 30% of the population in the Tennessee River Valley just 60 years ago, resulting in 15,000 cases each year.12 Why are there almost none today? Two simple reasons: more screens and drainage. The mosquitoes are still there, and there are even more people, but malaria is gone.
In many localized places throughout Africa, foreign-initiated screen programs have significantly reduced the number of malaria infestations. While this is a good step forward, such programs have only begun to scratch the surface. So why not consider building screen-making factories in Africa rather than importing the screens? And why not use indigenous raw materials to make them? These are the kind of long-term questions well-intentioned outsiders need to begin asking about every problem they are seeking to tackle. Certainly it takes more work and greater up-front investment, but in the end, placing the means of production in the hands of locals has always been the long-term pathway out of poverty.
Finding God in Africa
According to the Hollywood film Blood Diamond, God apparently left Africa a long time ago. Another recent film on Africa, Tears of the Sun, had its lead make a similar remark. But unlike Hollywood’s depiction of the hopelessness of Africa, the truth is quite the opposite: God is alive and well, and moving everywhere on the continent. Africans are beginning to come together in a spirit of unity that may soon become a model for the whole world, and the Church is leading the way.
If 20th century missionaries did one thing right in Africa, they planted churches—a lot of them. Africa has over 175 million evangelicals and 1.5 million churches.13 Whatever may be its deficiencies, Africa’s churches are thriving and poised for action. Most importantly, they are actually beginning to work together, side by side. Today, Africa is the one region on earth where you can find Evangelicals, Protestants, Catholics, Pentecostals and everyone in between working harmoniously together in multiple networks and projects. Perhaps it takes a real crisis to bring about real unity.
One of the most successful church-led initiatives in Africa today is the Rwandan Peace Plan—the very place where Christianity seemed to fall flat on its face just over a decade ago. Though initiated from the outside, it has become owned by the Rwandan Church. When an American consultant came to investigate the progress of the Peace Plan, he asked the committee of African leaders running it, “What makes this work?” They replied, “Because it’s ours.” Nothing happens in the Peace Plan without the leadership of the indigenous church. When a UN-affiliated delegation learned of the success of the Peace Plan volunteer program, they approached the leaders and asked if they would be willing to reproduce it throughout southern Africa. They had just one condition: leave out the Christian orientation. The Peace Plan declined. “It is the volunteer’s commitment to Jesus that makes this possible!” explained the Rwandan leaders.
Another significant move of God on the continent is MANI (the Movement for African National Initiatives). MANI is an outgrowth of the AD2000 movement in Africa, the only region which continued to build from the momentum stirred up during the 1990s. The goal of MANI is to mobilize and equip the African church for completing the Great Commission in this generation. And they aren’t just thinking about Africa. Some are actually thinking about how to bring the gospel back to Europe. Indeed, the largest Pentecostal church in Europe is now led by a Nigerian, and the congregants are not Africans! They are Ukrainians, many of whom were former drug addicts and criminals. Not only is Europe in the sights of African Christians, but in the sovereignty of God, doors are opening to reach into Asia as well. For various reasons, India has taken an interest in improving the educational system of Africa. The result has been that African Christian students can now be found studying in many universities in India. As you might expect, they aren’t keeping their faith to themselves! They are actually leading Hindu students to Christ through demonstrating the power of Jesus to heal the sick. Fellow students have remarked, “The African God is very powerful!”
Last September, leaders gathered from all over Africa to talk about how to finish the task of reaching the remaining unreached peoples on their continent. The country of Kenya has led the way by becoming the first country to engage all its unreached peoples with national missionary teams. It is very likely that based on the momentum we are seeing in Africa, all of the unreached peoples on the continent will be fully engaged and reached in the next decade. In spite of all they have been through—in spite of wars, plagues, famines, and natural disasters—the gospel of the Kingdom is being preached to every ethne and the finish line is well within view. For the first time in history, this generation of Africans will actually be able to say, “every nation, tribe, people and language” on our continent has been reached. Does this sound familiar? Like something straight out of the Bible! Jesus said it was going to be like this, and if Africa has given the world one thing to remember, it is this—whatever you are going through, as dire as it may seem, God’s purposes will stand. He will accomplish His work, because it’s His work. He will build His Church, and His Church will prevail.f
Gillis, Justin. “U.N. Forecasts 10.1 Billion People by Century’s End”, New York Times, May 3, 2011.
This includes an estimated 15 million deaths from war/genocide, 15 million AIDS related deaths, 15 million tuberculosis deaths, 25 million malaria deaths, 15 million deaths from diarrhea/intestinal parasites, and 20 million deaths from famine/malnutrition. Sources: UNICEF, WHO, and AU.
“Libyan Aid and Investment Projects in Africa,” Reuters-Africa, Nov. 24, 2010.
“Islam and Christianity in Sub-Sahara Africa,”
www.pewresearch.org, April 15, 2010
Emily Wax, “Islam Attracting Many Survivors of Rwanda Genocide,” Washington Post, Sept. 23, 2002.
Nicole Itano, “In South Africa, Many Blacks Convert to Islam,” The Christian Science Monitor, Jan. 10, 2002.
“Sectarian Violence in Nigeria Leaves 200 Dead,” Associated Press, March 7, 2010.
Heidi Vogt, “45,000 people dying a month in Congo,” Associated Press, Jan 22, 2008.
United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, www.uneca.org, Water and Urban Environments report, 2006.
“Barren Future for Africa’s Soil,” BBC News, March 30, 2006.
“The World Bank and Malaria in Africa,” http://www.worldbank.org
“Elimination of Malaria in the United States,” www.cdc.gov
Global Mission Database, USCWM Research Dept., http://www.uscwm.info/gmd