Thought for the Week
Thirty years on Band Aid is back, and Bob Geldof has not changed his tune (or largely his lyrics).
It’s a great tune but, unfortunately, Africa is still presented as “a world of dread and fear” requiring salvation from the West to deliver it from misery, and bestow the gift of Christmas. The intention is good, the cash will help tackle Ebola, but the undertone, as several African artists have noted, is very patronising.
I visited Ethiopia in January not to see what Western aid was doing, but to see what Ethiopians, empowered by self- help groups, were achieving themselves.
I went with thirty-year old Band Aid images of African misery impressed on my mind, but came back with a very different vision of that beautiful country.
Band Aid sing “There is no peace and joy in Africa this Christmas. The only hope they’ll have is being alive”, but that’s not what I saw. Among those who live in poverty there was amazing hope and gratitude for life. The people were entrepreneurial and upbeat, compared with us blame-someone-else-probablythe-government Scots.
Material poverty does not equate to despair, sometimes quite the reverse.
Indeed, far from going to poor Africa with the notion that “we can spread a smile of joy”, I found that the joy was already there. It was the unforgettable smiles of their children that caused me to reflect on our widespread sadness and discontent.
Scotland has so much wealth, and yet smiles so little. We grumble, groan and complain, where in Ethiopia I saw neighbour caring for neighbour, education appreciated, family celebrated, work opportunity valued, and even in destitution the ability to find real peace and joy.
A relationship with Africa (indeed with the poor anywhere) needs to be two way. They have riches to bestow on us, lessons to teach us, questions to ask us, and hope to bring us.
During my brief trip Africans encouraged me, perhaps far more than I encouraged them.
The question “Do they know it’s Christmas time?” says it all. Given 500 million Africans are Christians, churches are booming, and faith, tested by adversity, is deep, the answer is a resounding “yes, of course, they do!”
Again, the song foolishly mistakes material poverty for spiritual deprivation. And the image of drunken office party-goers in Scotland singing out this rhetorical question karaokestyle involves ironies too obvious to list.
Africa knows the meaning of the meagre stable, poor shepherds, and Christ-mas hope, with a depth that few affluent westerners will ever grasp.
God bless Africa, and let Africa bless us.
As e celebrate Christmas at Stonelaw, our collections will be supporting Ethiopian self-help groups. But we must not just give, but also listen to African voices.
Those voices can speak hope into our culture, challenge our selfishness, individualism, and materialism, and perhaps even teach us the meaning of Christmas once again. Let Africa teach us to rejoice.
With warmest Christmas greetings. Alistair May, Stonelaw Parish Church.
Rev Alistair May on his visit to Ethiopia earlier this year