A Trip to Mali

Well, I returned from a trip to Mali.  I’m journaling a bit un-chronologically, but I will speak about the trip itself momentarily.  But upon returning to Ouaga at somewhere around 11 at night I stepped off of the bus into a totally different bus station from the one I had departed from.  There are many stations around the city, and I guess they use different ones at different times.  There was one taxi driver outside who asked if I needed a ride.  I said I was going towards Zone du Bois, and asked the price.  He responded, 4000 CFA.  Before I came to Burkina, the pastor of my church at home, who lived in Mali for a number of years told me I would be seen as a walking checkbook.  I’ve experienced that sense in other countries before, but I think that in West Africa, that sentiment is especially prominent.  For all the friendliness and hospitality of Burkinabé, I must say that as a white person, I am an immediate target for getting ripped off.  And nowhere is this more obvious than with taxis.  During the day the real price of a taxi from my office downtown for a Burkinabé would likely be somewhere around 200 or 300 CFA.  At night taxis are a bit more expensive.  I would have paid 1000, but after some negotiation, he wouldn’t go lower than 2000.  So I decided to be stubborn.  It was the principle that bothered me.  I don’t like the idea of paying 3 times what an African would pay.  So, having no idea where I was, I asked what general direction Zone du Bois was and started to walk.  After walking for 15 minutes I started to regret not taking the taxi.  But it was about at that time that a guy on a moto stopped and asked where I was going.  I ended up hopping on the back and he drove me all the way home.  It was a sort of humbling evening.

Today, I returned to the soccer field (although ‘field’ is likely deceptive because there is no grass on it anywhere) outside of my apartment for the first time in a week and a half or so.  To my surprise, there was another white guy playing keeper for one team.  I greeted him as well as a few of the other guys who I had played with before.  One guy, whom I recognized, greeted me with an enthusiastic “Rogé!” as I shook his hand.  I couldn’t remember if his name was Jean Paul or Jean Patrique (I realized it was just Patrique), but later during the game I said to him, “Patrique, so what happened, after I left you guys found another blanc?” (Blanc is the term for a white guy—nothing derogatory, but perhaps the French equivalent of gringo).  He laughed and shook his head saying “ha ha, Rogé”.  He responded as if we had been friends forever, as if my comment was a classic Roger joke.  But I appreciated it; it made me feel as if, in some sense at least, I have a place here.  And I’ve realized, now towards the end of my stay, that I do have some sense of belonging in Burkina, and that thought is refreshing.

My trip to Mali was one of great welcoming.  I hopped aboard a bus in Ouaga headed for Bobo Dialoso (a city in Burkina on the way to Mali).  I felt slightly chilled from the air conditioning, which is something I certainly didn’t expect, and I had a two- person seat all to myself.  I felt a little uneasy driving past poor villages on my ivory tower of a bus, but I was thankful for the comfort.  I ended up changing buses in Bobo, and the second bus was a bit more what I had expected, but not too bad at all.  I somehow managed to cross the border without a visa—I gave the border guard a hard time about making me pay, given the fact that I had brought limited funds for food, etc, and I think that may have had something to do with it (I ended up having to buy a visa on my way out of the country anyway though, so my plan didn’t exactly work out).  But then finally, twelve hours after leaving Ouaga I arrived in Koutiala, Mali.  I found my way to the Protestant Mission base, an organization called YWAM.  Fortunately I had my own room ready for me, so after briefly watching some soccer with a guy named Dieudonné, I was off to bed.

I was shown tremendous hospitality in the next two days while I was shown around the neighboring school (and got a front row seat for performances by each grade), a mother and children’s hospital in Koutiala and a trade school a short distance away from the YWAM base.  I also watched with lament on my last night there as the US soccer team lost to Ghana, but fortunately I could lament in good company, since I watched the game with a group of other Americans.  While I wish my team could have pulled through, it was fun driving home and seeing the happy spirits of everyone who supported the only African team remaining in the World Cup.

In going to Mali, I was excited about the idea of seeing some more projects and efforts to serve the people there.  I didn’t want to go into it with an eye to analyze these Christian aid initiatives and contrast them with the non-Christian aid initiative I had been working with.  It is not as if YWAM’s reach of success is greater than Save the Children’s because they are a Christian organization.  But it was interesting to see simple ways that the Christian service projects attempted to identify themselves as Christian.  In the hospital there was a TV that played videos of Bible stories for children to watch.  At the trade school there was a Bible study every Wednesday.  Through examples like these, I was able to see some of the intentional ways that these projects or initiatives attempted to speak the gospel while trying to serve people’s physical needs.  Neither physical needs nor spiritual needs can be dispensed with, and neither can submit to the other.  Need in this world covers a range of physical and non-physical needs, and loving one’s neighbor involves presenting both the bread from heaven and the bread from the local bakery—each one at its appropriate time.

I can imagine that, just as I have experienced frustration in my brief work, any missionary must experience frustrations about his/her work.  I don’t think I can quite enter into that frustration or struggle, but I have struggled before, here and elsewhere, about how I can really get another person to see the truth of what I believe.  I have read a bit about the different religious consciousness that exists in Africa.  Missionary Leslie Newbigin states, “Neither at the beginning, nor at any subsequent time, is there or can there be a gospel that is not embodied in a culturally conditioned form of words.  The idea that one can or could at any time separate out by some process of distillation a pure gospel unadulterated by any cultural accretions is an illusion” (Foolishness of the Greeks, 4).  Douglas W. Waruta states in an essay entitled, “Who Is Jesus Christ for Africans Today,” “I contend that Africans have every right to formulate their own Christology, their own response to who Jesus is to them.  Such a response should reflect their consciousness as to who this Messiah really is.  I also contend that Africans understand Jesus Christ in the context of their own religious consciousness” (Faces of Jesus in Africa, ed. Robert J. Schreiter, 53).  As I ponder the question of what it means to speak with a Christian voice, insight from missionaries is helpful.

Undoubtedly, part of speaking the gospel to a any culture entails understanding that culture.  As Newbigin reminds us, it also involves understanding one’s own culture.  John S Mbiti gives a valuable survey of African religious thought in his book African Religions and Philosophy.  He makes note of the African conception of time, which is different from that of the West—the concept of distant future is largely absent from many African societies, which poses a problem for any sort of eschatology.  He states, “we have already pointed out that within traditional life, the individual is immersed in a religious participation which starts before birth and continues after death.  For him therefore, and for the larger community of which he is a part, to live is to be caught up in a religious drama” (15).  In describing an African conception of God, he states, “for most of their life, African peoples place God in the transcendental plane, making it seem as if He is remote from their daily affairs.  But they know that He is immanent, being manifested in natural objects and phenomena, and they can turn to Him in acts of worship, at any place and any time.  The distinction between these related attributes could be stated that, in theory God is transcendental but in practice He is immanent” (33).  It seems that there is inevitable tension between discerning what is unorthodox and incapable of meshing with the gospel, and what is a cultural nuance that, while different from a Western understanding of the gospel, can fit into a truthful understanding of the gospel.  One can see this tension played out in Byang H Kato’s criticisms of Mbiti—especially criticisms of universalistic tendencies.

Kato includes a quote from George Peters which I liked, “it (the Biblical Approach) accepts the absolute predicament of man in a realistic manner, acknowledging on the one hand man’s rebellion against God, his enmity with God and his flight from God, hiding himself under the fig leaves of man-constructed and designed religion and culture—man’s barricade against all that threatens him including God, ever seeking to perfect this covering and to control the power above and beyond him to the furtherance of his selfish ends.  On the other hand this approach takes account of the fact that man lives as a creature with an awareness that he is away from home, separated from true reality and life, with a ‘feeling of dependence upon the ultimate,’ with a guilt complex and a consciousness of deserved judgment.  Thus he seeks, gropes, longs to be restored to his rightful creature relationship and household membership, makes attempts to appease God, the gods, spirits, or powers to reconcile himself to or submit and control that which threatens him” (Kato, 44-45).

The theological debate on soteriology is a complex one, and one that I won’t address at length here.  I do feel a draw towards Mbiti’s statement that Kato quotes, “There is not a single soul, however, debased or even unrepentant, which can successfully ‘flee’ from the Spirit of God (Psa. 139:1-18).  God’s patient waiting for the soul’s repentance must in the end be surely more potent than the souls reluctance to repent and turn to Him… (2 Peter 3:9).  The harmony of the heavenly worship would be impaired if, out of the one hundred in the sheepfold, there is one soul which continues to languish in sheol of the ‘lake of fire’” (Kato quoting Mbiti, 87).  Yet I also feel the truth of F.F. Bruce’s statement that Kato quotes, “The doctrine of ultimate universal reconciliation is so obviously one that every Christian would wish to believe if he could, but the fact that many Christians find it impossible to accept suggests that it is beset with serious difficulties.  We know that God has pledged His word to bless and save all those who repent of their sin” (Kato, 88).  I also appreciate Kato’s distinction between animistic worship as an expression of man’s awareness of God, and animistic worship being worship of God in itself (114).  I agree with Kato that the latter is a dangerous theological position.

In the end I find Newbigin’s position most appealing which advises us as Christians to speak truly, but do so with humility, acknowledging that we are not God and we cannot see our neighbor’s heart, so we do not know where he’ll go when he dies.  But that question—as to where the neighbor will go after death—is not the right one to ask. “…the dialogue will not be about who is going to be saved.  It will be about the question, ‘What is the meaning and goal of this common human story in which we are all, Christians and others together, participants?’ ” (Gospel in a Pluralist Society, 182).   We must speak truly, pointing out with humility where the neighbor might be rebelling against God.  And we serve alongside that neighbor, actively pursuing justice and mercy, and attempting to worship God in word and deed, driven by a spirit of gratitude.