Ian Poulton is in Shyogwe Diocese in Rwanda.
It is the first morning on African soil; the first full day in Shyogwe; the first full day of remembering I am only a visitor and cannot even begin to understand the reality of life for people here, and can never ever comprehend the searing pain of the memories of the people.
For generations, Europeans have come to this continent and imposed their ideas. The military and political imperialism of the past has been replaced by much more subtle forms of domination. There is the domination by the international financial institutions, still believing that Africa’s salvation is to be found in Western economic policies. But there are also the Western aid agencies, coming in with their Western, liberal, secular values, dismissing the African churches that do not embrace such ideals; as much an imperialism as soldiers marching up and down and waving flags.
Humility and listening are needed (and avoiding looking at the watch every five minutes). People doing things in different ways means just that, ‘different’, not better, not worse, just different. There is a beautiful passage in Alexander McCall-Smith’s The Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency that captures a sense of the cultural difference between the continents:
“She breakfasted quickly and then drove directly to the office. It was getting towards the end of winter, which meant that the temperature of the air was just right, and the sky was bright, pale blue, and cloudless. There was a slight smell of wood-smoke in the air, a smell that tugged at her heart because it reminded her of mornings around the fire in Mochudi. She would go back there, she thought, when she had worked long enough to retire. She would buy a house, or build one perhaps, and ask some of her cousins to live with her. They would grow melons on the lands and might even buy a small shop in the village; and every morning she could sit in front of her house and sniff at the wood-smoke and look forward to spending the day talking with her friends. How sorry she felt for white people, who couldn’t do any of this, and who were always dashing around and worrying themselves over things that were going to happen anyway. What use was it having all that money if you could never sit still or just watch your cattle eating grass? None, in her view; none at all, and yet they did not know it. Every so often you met a white person who understood, who realised how things really were; but these people were few and far between and the other white people often treated them with suspicion”.
Precious Ramotswe’s words are wise advice. To dash around and to worry, to attempt to pursue a European agenda, is to fail to listen to people who have a treasure trove of wisdom to share with someone who will sit and hear.