Thursday, August 27, 2009

Music from the Congo

Though I've never had the patience to learn any instruments myself, I'm something of a music nut. I have to say I was floored by the wonderful sounds I found during my last visit to the North Kivu area. For example, one Sunday when I was returning from the town of Kiwanja, I noticed there were music bands playing in nearly every town we passed through on the way back to Goma. I presume that these humble gatherings of musicians were the only form of entertainment to be had, and seemed like people were enjoying it.

I've put together a compilation of photos and audio I recorded during the trip, which you can watch below:

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Christianity and Development Part 2: Development vs. Transformation

In my last post I alluded to the limitations when measuring the progress of a developing nation (or any nation) using GDP. The United States has one of the highest GDP per capita in the world, yet lags other developed nations in crucial measures such as life expectancy and infant mortality. In fact, a consensus has emerged in policy circles that GDP should be replaced - the only question is with what. In Bhutan, the government produces an optimistic yet enigmatic statistic called "gross national happiness". The UN, in a more humble attempt at measurement, created the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). These 8 goals aim to measure success against physical poverty not by tallying GDP, but by more closely monitoring what impacts an individual's daily life - education, water and sanitation, mother and child health, etc.

These new measurement techniques result from the seemingly obvious recognition that we judge success by what we measure. GDP growth in many developing countries masks the horrific income inequality that exists, and may even be growing along with GDP. The basket of statistics that are the MDGs are an improved method of determining our success in reducing physical poverty.

I use the term "physical poverty" deliberately, and in the same way that most would simply write "poverty." I do this because what we typically call poverty is only part of the story. There are people in all nations, whether "developing" or "developed" who suffer from many different forms of poverty; poverty of spirit, of community, of hope, and of meaning. Should we not address all forms of poverty, not just physical? What I am saying is that just as success is judged by what we measure, our goals will match the language we give them. Therefore, we need a new term for our goal, rather than "development" or "poverty alleviation". A term that more accurately reflects the movement of a people from desperation, isolation, dis-empowerment and physical poverty towards a life of security, hope, fulfillment, and joy.

The word "transformation" means the radical change from one state to another, and more accurately reflects the work Christ wants to do in each of us personally and in societies as a whole. When a community is transformed, it is not simply progressing towards looking like another Europe or Japan, but towards what God envisioned it to be. This vision includes much of what we call development - more education, healthier people, more business opportunities. But it includes so much more - a passion for justice, a love of peace, a desire for community and a longing for truth.

When we conceive of our goal as transformation rather than development, we become aware of the myriad ways in which poverty destroys communities and lives. But we also become aware of the richness of life possible when one seeks to be transformed into the fullness of God's creation.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Christianity and Development, Part 1

I've decided to do an occasional series of posts called "Christianity and Development", in which I'll discuss how Christian faith influences perceptions (or doesn't) of development, and how that plays out among missionaries and those in the secular development community.

As a Christian myself, I'm especially keen to address this topic. I think both communities have a lot to teach each other, but rarely take the time to do so. Unfortunately, there is a lot of parochialism amongst the NGO community, which leads to a lot of groups doing their own thing without attempting to learn from others.

I'd been considering a series like this for a while, but I've finally decided to write because of a conversation I had a few days ago with a Ugandan Christian. During our conversation, he made a comment that ran something like this:
a few years ago an American pastor spoke to our group and said, "the reason America has become so developed and powerful is that many years ago the people there made a decision to turn to God and be faithful to His word." Until Uganda makes the same decision, we will never be a successful country.
His point was that America's success was a direct result of a collective faithfulness to God. I wasn't sure how to respond to such a sentiment, so I tried to be nuanced. "America prides itself on being a place of diverse opinion and thought. So while there are many faithful Christians in our country, there are many people who do not follow Christ. And many of those people have been successful, along with Christians." My friend was less than convinced.

Inside however, I was a little upset. No matter what this pastor had intended, the perception he left behind was that America has been successful solely by being Christian. The reality of course is much more complex. I am afraid that this pastor left the impression that Ugandan Christians should be out converting everyone to Christ before attending to issues of development. Unfortunately, Uganda has been "converted" many times over yet has not achieved the same level of success as the United States (granted, "success" is a relative term. The Christian worldview would attest that measuring a nation's GNP vs. the US is a deeply flawed metric).

However, the values central to the Christian faith: honesty, love, faithfulness, and sacrifice play a crucial role in the development of a society. Corruption hinders most developing countries, and I think a transformational commitment to Christ (and these values) would eliminate this most basic of problems. But if Christian groups only pursue altar calls at the expense of "holistic transformation", poverty will continue. The gospel must not just be preached, it must be demonstrated. When we as Christians do work towards transforming lives - and that list is potentially endless - we show to non-Christians the work the Holy Spirit is doing in ourselves. And at the same time, we show that the work done in our lives is overflowing into their own lives. In saving us, God has also blessed others.

Only when we proclaim through words that Christ is Lord, while at the same time proving it through our work, will societies truly be lifted up. As James said,
What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such a faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing for his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead." James 2:14-17

Friday, August 14, 2009

Unintended Consequences

As part of her marathon tour of Africa, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently toured Goma to see for herself the devastation that has been wrought by years of conflict. It has been years since someone so high up in the US government has visited Congo - and not one has ever visited Goma. Sources say that her statements were well thought-out and more candid than typical for a politician. The centerpiece of her visit was to profile a new $17m aid package to address the conflict in eastern Congo. And not so surprisingly, this is where the problems started.

Any aid and attention to the situation is appreciated, but in a region as complicated as this, outside support needs to be carefully considered. Unfortunately the package announced by Clinton bears all the hallmarks of rushed planning. Firstly, the plan gives little to no money to indiginous NGO's - the onces that know best what the needs of the community are. Most of the money will go to the International Rescue Committee. And secondly, much of this money will be spent on the construction of a brand new fistula treatment center. That kind of assistance is greatly needed here, the problem is that such a facility already exists in Heal Africa. Instead of supporting and expanding current operations, the US will be starting over from scratch. What of the years of skills and experience possessed by the Heal Africa staff? This new facility will, at best, create competition where there should be cooperation. At worst, the greater resources of this new facility could very well canabalize the success of Heal Africa as talented individuals are lured away by higher salaries.

This situation reminds me of some fictional situations presented in the foreign service oral assessment, which I have attempted several times. The purpose of the scenarios is to judge one's critical thinking skills under pressure. This aid package, which threatens so much of what Heal Africa does, was announced at Heal Africa itself! Based on how genuinely sympathetic Clinton appeared during her trip, it seems that she was poorly informed about how her announcement would be perceived. This is a great example of the kind of situation the oral assessment would present; a shame then that it appears Ms. Clinton would not have passed this section of the exam.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Uptime, Sweet Uptime

Getting a reliable internet connection in east Africa is something of a challenge. Fiber is supposedly on the way, but it's been promised for years to no avail. Most institutions, including Heal Africa, rely on a satellite connection to access the internet. The speed is nothing to write home about (perhaps equivalent to an ISDN line), but it's a lot faster than the alternative phone line connection.

But even with a decent connection, reliability is still an issue. Occasionally the satellite will either stop broadcasting or the dish comes out of alignment. A more frequent problem though is simple electrical power - when it drops out, so does the modem that manages the internet connection. But satellite connections, as slow as they often are, offer an unexpected advantage - all the equipment needed to operate the connection resides within the building. And there isn't much needed - just a modem and a router. And so, with a large battery, a charge controller and an inverter, this equipment can be powered for several hours, keeping the connection alive.

In the past this might not have meant much - the computers using the connection wouldn't be on either, and the battery would drain too fast trying to power them. But nowadays with the prevalence of laptops, this isn't so much of an issue. With a live connection, laptop users can keep browsing for data even with no lights.

I had this surreal experience a few times during my last trip to Goma. I would sit in my hotel room with the nauseous kerosene lamp, even as I checked Facebook on my mobile phone. I couldn't power a TV, a phone, or a computer, and I could barely see. But I could still chat with all my friends 12,000 miles away.

But the new backup system at the hospital serves a much greater purpose. With a nearly guaranteed connection, researchers can keep in touch with advisers and find data. Doctors can keep up to date on procedures. Staff can continue to raise funds through foreign contacts, and project administrators can communicate with volunteers. Heal Africa can rely on this now, and in one respect at least, is no longer subject to the whims of the electrical grid.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Choirs of Kiwanja

About 80km north of Goma along North Kivu's main highway lies the town Kiwanja. The road north twists and turns through Virunga National Park, where the adventurous can find many of the "Big 5" game animals (in fact on the way south on the same road I came across a family of baboons). The road also passes through several small towns, which can be filled to the brim with people on market days.

A few weeks ago I traveled to Kiwanja to observe a Christian outreach event put on by my friend Bizi and two of his associates. The trio are members of a small organization called United Evangelism Group. The purpose of this group is to preach the unity of the church in light of the gospel - meaning that all Christians, whether Baptist, Catholic, 7th Day Adventist, Presbyterian, Pentacostal or whatever, are united in Christ. Preaching unity is something eastern Congo could use a little more of these days.

After passing by the UN airstrip, we turned east into town. On our way to the church, we passed the first truck full of Congolese soldiers I'd seen since arriving. I was amazed not because I saw soldiers, but that they were all traveling together; every other time I'd seen a soldier he'd be by himself, either walking on the road or hitching a ride on a moto. Somehow the army had actually gotten its act together and transported a group all at once.

As we pulled up to the church, the mob of children decended before I had even stopped the car. "Mzuuuuuungu!" echoed off the lips of the children and radiated outward from the vehicle in a frenzy. I tentively got out after my three friends had exited, to take away some of the attention from myself. But the kids couldn't get enough - clearly there hadn't been a mzungu here in a long time, apart from the UN soldiers. And probably not without good reason, as sixth months previously Kiwanja was a dangerous place.

That night Bizi put on a showing of "The Passion of the Christ", which drew a tremendous audience. It wouldn't be my first choice for a movie screening, but I was amazed by the number of people who showed up for the outdoor performance. And the day after the show, I got to see another performance at church: choir after choir of amazing, ecstatic and joyous music. Men, women and children got up in their finest clothes to perform for their audience. And the music was really good. It helped me forget I was sitting through a 6 hour church service!

That Sunday was the beginning of my love of Congolese music. On the way back, and during my few weeks in Goma, I kept the radio turned on to the tinny guitars of Congolese gospel music. Thankfully I recorded one the songs, which I've posted online and you can listen to here. Hope you like it!