Dec 312008

Author’s note: This is, necessarily, full of some fairly broad generalisations, but it is going somewhere– the subject matter is really broad, and I’m interested in your thoughts– in the comments. I’ll happily admit when (rather than if) I’m wrong.

Without, hopefully, making strong generalizations, (Africa is, after all a continent comprised of 53 countries, larger in area than the USA and all of Western Europe combined, with over a thousand languages, spread over six distinct language groups-by contrast, the Indo-European languages span all of Europe, through half of Asia.), Africa is a land full of very spiritual people-you see it everywhere, from the surfaces of Mtatus (combi-taxis) and Boda-Bodas (100cc motorcycle taxis), to the ever-present music and dance, to the rise of evangelical “Born-again” Christianity and Mormonism.

President-elect Barack Obama
is, as you might imagine, enormous across Africa. Kenya took off the day after the election. Nigeria (with much less connection) took off three or four days. Uganda, less so, but there’s an Obama club in Kitintale, a shop in Makindye, and. People who speak only Luganda or KiSwahili here offer me a fist bump, chanting “Obama” as I walk to work.

(I’m one of the few Mzungus here who walks anywhere over 500m. Everyone else takes taxis…)

Aside from the obvious link with the neighbouring country and the African origon, there’s no apparent direct reason to support Obama. Additional aid is a possibility, but not a certainty, particularly in this global economic climate.

Which brings us to religion
As many of you know, while I’m interested in religion generally and historically, I’m not a particularly religious person; I used to describe myself as an atheist, but that seems almost like a religion to too many people– very anti-lots of things, and not really worth the energy. I’d rather do things with my energy. I don’t really think I’m much of anything, to be quite honest. However, my view of religion is changing after seeing it operate in Africa.

Religion and spirituality cut across much of daily life in Africa. Family and religion are the centres of people’s lives, and it shows, whether Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, or traditional/animist.

The Christian religions have adopted many of the traditional ceremonies– the Baganda wedding ceremony is now the “father’s giving-away” ceremony, for instance, and takes place a week or so before the Christian wedding.

There is strong take-up of Mormonism and Pentecostal or Evangelical Christianity (referred to locally as Born Again Christianity) in recent years, much of which is in the wake of the HIV/AIDS crisis. Mormonism’s strong sense of community aligns itself well with traditional community values– where, for instance, children are often adopted by locals or the extended family if something happens to the family. Islam also promotes strong community and family bonds.

The rise of the Born Again movements coincides both with the rise of the same movements in the United States as well as the coming to a head of the HIV/AIDS problems (including government’s finally recognising these as problems) and economic problems over the last twenty years.

…and its role in society
For many people, the coming of the church (or the church-based NGO) means the buliding of a community centre, or a kitchen, or mosquito nets, improved stoves, or an actual school.

One man that I met, Moses, is the head of a programme that has been building schools in Mbale for a decade. At the below school, when he arrived, “The mango tree was the headmaster’s office, the primary school was the Magnolia…”

A school built by a community, a community built heavily on religion.

Alcoholism is an enormous problem in much of Africa, whether it manifests in fathers drinking away their problems in cities while their children starve or “Evening Class”– where men gather at the end of the day and drink locally brewed beer made from Sorghum, Millet, or Cassava, sold in buckets, and drunk in the last light of the night until it runs out– typically resulting in falling-down-drunkness.

Alcohol is linked in many minds as equivalent to idleness, lack of development, crops failing, insufficient rain, malnutrition, and a whole host of other problems.

The puzzle of Sub Saharan Africa
Economists are pretty good, over the long-term, at figuring out what will happen. They’re often even better at figuring out what happened and why (especially when they were wrong in the first place). The Solow model would have most of Africa in better shape than it is.

Sub Saharan Africa, however, resists all of the Macroeconomic models. There are many issues that point to reasons for these problems– HIV/AIDS (and other disease), changing weather patterns, distorted effects of aid (often brought in in incomplete packages, so building less Capital Stock than expected), corruption, etc.

Sociologists point to arbitrary land barriers, the difficulty of integrating cultures (Tanzania, with its dozens of tribal groups) seems to have had an easier time than places like Nigeria or Uganda, which have a few distinct groups), corruption, etc.

African Ingenuity and entrepreneurialism
Africans as a whole are amazingly adaptable and ingenious. The uses of trash- plastic bottles and bags– for other purposes is something that people see here regularly. Much of this is driven by necessity. Anyone who’s seen a bush mechanic work knows how much he can do to fix a 30 year old Land Rover with only a ball peen hammer and a pair of pliers.

I passed a guy just yesterday who’d rigged up a grinding wheel to his bicycle, with a stand, so that he could be a mobile knife grinder.

A little loud, but it works…

…and if you can’t fix it, live with it
Also, if you absolutely can’t fix something, then you live with it in its broken state. This applies to being on time for (or even remembering) appointments as well as selling parts off of your broken down car.

Huge swaths of Africa live on used things– whether it’s shopping for used American clothes (with goodwill tags attached) at Owino Market or importing vehicles from Japan (who have to get rid of them at 100,000 km on the odometer), Africans make do with a lot of things, passing them down and down until they’re completely used up.

The role of hope and opportunity
At the risk of sounding a bit too pie-in-the-sky, I would suggest that hope and opportunity play important roles in development.

Religion provides hope. It may not work for everyone, but it works for some people– and for many, it’s the strength (or community pressure) they need to keep out of the bar and go home to their kids. Religion also provides a thought for future planning– important in a country with a life expectancy of 47. Many of the poorer people I’ve met here who are religious are looking at their children’s welfare, trying to get them through Secondary, their Highers, or University– at the very least, a step beyond where they went.

The critical things that religion provides are hope, community, and opportunity. The role of a direct link with God breaks down sociological and tribal barriers, while allowing pride of self to remain. All over Rwanda I see people from Kenya, Ethiopia, and other tribes working– whether for religious or secular NGOs, for the betterment of the country and region.

Opportunity is interlinked with hope. For many people, scraping out a living is the best they can do, and they find opportunity everwhere, whether it’s driving people around on a motorcycle, selling phone cards in traffic, or buying and selling whatever you can.

These guys spent all day to make about $2.50 for this wood. They said it wasn’t worth it, but they had to do something.

Business and government
If you’re a government minister, you’re in good shape. You have access to a car, driver, a house, and cash beyond the dreams of nearly anyone else in your country. There’s nowhere up to go, except to PM/President or head of the Army. There’s also no reason to leave office.

If you’re the President, it’s even worse. To step out of office is to step into relative poverty from Armani suits, limousines, and private jets.

Large businesses, in Uganda at least, are run by foreigners. The situation was the same in Mozambique during the revolution, and the economy was crippled when the management skills left. Zimbabwe, similarly, has a shortage of management skills.

The role of entrepreneurship and aid
There’s a growing trend thinking that aid is Africa’s problem. I personally don’t agree, although it has been (and in some cases continues to be) part of the problem. My colleague down here Arthur and I talked about the difference between MIT thinking and Local thinking. You have these MIT engineers who design some widget that will help the local people, without taking into consideration the habits and adjustment factors that need to change, without looking at the problem as a whole and finding a whole solution (which may be less effective on paper).

Aid workers must do sonmething beyond just coming to a country and hoping to find a solution. Throwing resources at a problem can often make things worse over the long run.

Tntrepreneurship will be critical to Africa’s development– growing businesses from the ground up, building management skills, and honing the skills that people have into thinking bigger about problems, approaching them in a structured way, and solving them for themselves. Businesses need to learn how to hold money, track what they’re doing, and market effectively.

My step now is to spend the next five months (one down! Five to go!) figuring out how to support that kind of work, how (and if) I can do it on a large scale, and how I can make lives better while doing it.

Postscript: Just as I was struggling to get this posted over sketchy Internet, one of our partners sent me this, which seems to support much of what I’m thinking…

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 Posted by at 03:42

  One Response to “Obama, Hope, Religion, and African “Can-do” creativity and spirit”

  1. I’m reminded of a story from Cole’s time in Thailand. Many people made their living picking through the garbage of those more prosperous then themselves, such that what made it to the dump was only the most “useless” items. People lived at the dump, raising pigs on whatever garbage could be fed to them. The entire system was threatened by the building of a huge recycling center – those living at the dump thought they’d simply be moving to wherever the new dump was to be.

    As for religion, it tends to be focused on people’s lives. This would naturally give it an edge on being “Local” rather than “MIT” focused. The postmodernist leaning of my psychology curriculum sometimes blinds me to the fact that the importance of other people’s perspectives is still not universally championed.

    I look forward to hearing more of how you choose to tackle these challenges in your work – and to learn if I can help at all from here.

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