Bulawayo, Zimbabwe This morning I had a serious conversation with several friends who care deeply for Zimbabwe. Each person in the group left a relatively comfortable life and intentionally moved to this country to help improve the lives of the people here. These friends are discouraged. They have become tired of dealing with obstacles at every turn. They told many stories that illustrate the reasons for their frustrations. For example, one man works to help some of the poorest people start micro-businesses.
This man shared story after story of how the businesses he is helping are encountering extraordinary problems. Like the farm that experienced widespread crop failure even after applying appropriate water and fertilizer. Finally, after eliminating every other possible problem, they tested the water that they use to irrigate. They discovered that the water in the well is salty. Generally, well water is clean, but in this case the water has a high salt content and most of the plants could not tolerate it.
This same man told another story about an emerging entrepreneur who was renting part of his home to students. This was a good strategy because it provided housing to the students and income for the entrepreneur. Unfortunately, the students ran out of money half way through the academic year which made the business unsustainable.
Another couple who sold their home and everything else in the United Kingdom to move here several years ago to establish businesses that would employ Zimbabweans have been informed that their residency visa will not be renewed. Even though they bought a house and are employing dozens of local people, they are no longer officially welcome here. This is heartbreaking for them and the people working in the businesses that they started at great personal cost.
After listening to these disappointing stories for an hour or so, I finally asked, “What is God doing in Zimbabwe? What can we learn from all this disappointment?”
The first response was from the man who is helping local entrepreneurs. He exclaimed, “This is a God-forsaken place!”
I was not content with that answer, but even as I asked more questions, I did not hear anything that convinced me that he was wrong. Could it be that God has removed his hand of blessing from Zimbabwe? I don’t believe so, but sometimes it certainly feels that way.
A beautiful tree in a Bulawayo suburb
Africa grows on you!
Of course, there are many problems and issues that are concerning in Africa, but there is more to Africa than what is commonly portrayed. This is my third trip to Zimbabwe in the past twelve months. I come here with the hope that I will be able to add something positive that will help the people overcome some of the problems and issues that hold them in bondage and poverty. I trust I am contributing, but I feel that I receive more than I give. Here are three reasons why I am optimistic about Africa.
First, Africa is naturally rich. Resources like minerals and land are plentiful. Unfortunately, much of Africa’s natural wealth is controlled by a few unscrupulous people who use it to oppress the majority. If corruption in the mining and farming industries was replaced with integrity, Africa would soon become an economic powerhouse.
Second, Africa is naturally beautiful. Most people know this. The amazing diversity of species, the expanses of undisturbed terrain, and the pleasant climate are unbeatable. Who wouldn’t want to live here?
Third, Africa’s people are wonderful! They are lovely inside and out. They value relationships. They are creative. They love to dance, sing, and laugh. They are industrious and sensitive to the rhythms of life. Most of my African friends have endured horrendous trauma, but they remain optimistic and delightful. They bring me much joy!
Africa is brimming with potential. I see it everywhere. There are hurdles that must be overcome and when they are, Africa will become the exciting place to be. I feel privileged to be here. Even though it is difficult to listen to so many sad stories and to see the ongoing effects of abusive power and corruption, I remain optimistic about Africa’s rise.
This reminder of an important African value dominates the wall in front of one of the escalators in the Johannesburg Airport.
African Proverb in Johannesburg Airport
Nancy teaches a lesson that brings home this same message in her workshops. She engages audience participation to tell about the farmer who wants to pull a large turnip in his garden. Unable to pull it himself, he enlists his wife. Still unable to pull the turnip, they enlist, one by one, their son, then their daughter, then the dog, then the cat. Still unable to pull up the turnip, they finally call in the mouse to help them. With the entire family working together and with a grand tug, the turnip comes up.
Here is a picture of all the characters working together:
“Farmer” Nancy gets help from her trainees to illustrate the story of the large turnip.
This is just one of the dozens of illustrations Nancy uses to communicate important truths as she teaches teachers. As you would expect, her workshops are very popular. She has stayed very busy teaching in a variety of settings since we arrived here in Zimbabwe a week ago. This week she is teaching the primary school teachers that are associated with an expanding church planting movement. She teaches for three hours each afternoon Monday through Thursday and then five hours on Saturday.
I travel to Bulawayo tomorrow, a couple days later than originally planned. I will lead workshops for a business there Thursday, Friday, and Monday. I also will lead workshops for two different groups of church leaders Saturday and Sunday afternoons.
We appreciate your prayers for us as we serve God and the wonderful Zimbabwean people! We are grateful that so far we have not been sick and we both passed through the jet-lag part of the trip relatively smoothly.
About 40 hours of travel. Spokane, Seattle, Dubai, Johannesburg, and finally Harare, Zimbabwe. My wife, Nancy, and I arrived here Tuesday evening. Except for its length, the trip went smoothly. Even our bags arrived on our flight. We hit the ground running with meetings and training events. Time feels like it is passing quickly and we are enjoying meeting many wonderful people.
This evening, after a busy day, our host took us to a local bazaar. It was fun to see all the local products and crafts. Nancy enjoyed bartering for a few gifts and I enjoyed chatting with some of the vendors.
I asked a craft vendor about the large bales of clothing in one of the stalls. With a tone of jealously in her voice she told me that the used clothing stall was the most profitable in the market. Even when business is bad in the rest of the market, the used clothing sells. I asked her where the clothing comes from. She says it is imported from Mozambique. She went on to say that the clothing originates in the USA and is brought as aid to Mozambique. (Due to sanctions against Zimbabwe, this country does not qualify for a lot of international aid.)
I wonder if the clothing donors in the US realize that their contributions could travel to Mozambique, get sold to a middle man who brings it to Zimbabwe, and then get resold to a vendor who runs the most popular stall in the bazaar?
Ironically, while I am here I am scheduled to consult with a couple garment industry businesses who are struggling to survive because their markets have dried up. It is nearly impossible for them to sell clothing in this country. There are too many imports that sell for less than their production costs. And, even though traditionally Zimbabwean manufacturers have been garment exporters, that changed when the country came under international sanctions.
In a round about way you could say that clothing donors in the US are harming the Zimbabwean garment industry and adding hardship to the lives of all the people who used to work in that industry. An unintended consequence of good intentions!