Wealth brings responsibility, and as by far the wealthiest people in Kwongland, we can hardly ignore the suffering around us. In this letter we look at the conundrum we face when as much as anything, suffering is the result of foolishness. Then, on the Flip Side we discuss briefly our answer to the conundrum, some unexpected fruits of the radio station, and the fact that our translation project is on ice for the time being.
It is a hard time of year in Kwongland. The field work is particularly difficult, food is scarce, and we have a steady stream of people at our door asking for help.
The irony is that this season of hunger comes around every year - at precisely the season when the rest of Chad, like America, is having its harvest festivals and enjoying the good times. And it is no fault of God’s either. As a matter of fact, in the 15 years that Mark has lived in Chageen, there has yet to be a catastrophic lack of rain such as struck sub-saharan Africa, including Kwongland, in the early 80’s. The Kwong suffer from a man-made famine which will continue until February when they harvest their cash crop, a special variety of millet. And when that day comes, they will have more food and money than they know what to do with (quite literally, but that’s another story).
So what gives? In a word, persistent foolishness on the part of the Kwong, exacerbated by administrative shortcomings on the part of our otherwise decent chief, Lubba. The main culprit is their fixation on that big harvest 4 months hence. For most of them, the thought of actually feeding themselves in the interim is a mere distraction - almost a nuisance for which they sow a few perfunctory seeds of a fast-growing species of sorghum in May (picture above), and then don’t worry too much, if, as frequently happens, it dies from a lack of rain early in the season. And of course, only a very select few - of whom we are proud to number some of our closest friends - actually manage their February harvest in such a way as to make it last all 12 months to the next harvest. For most, their harvest is history (i.e. converted into beer, etc.) after only 4 months (which is that other story).
One would expect that given enough years of being hungry, the people would learn better. But our chief - who in every other aspect is more respectable than most chiefs - discourages any such innovation. In a word, he is too nice. To actually constrain the will of anyone is beyond him. So, while every other chief for a hundred miles around orders that every goat, cow, horse and pig be tied up during the growing season, Lubba’s libertarian instincts leave Chageen as a veritable menagerie in which it is impossible to grow anything without hundreds of meters of fencing. A traveler passing though the villages of other tribes might never see the houses on either side of the road for all the sorghum growing around them, but in Chageen, there’s little more than weeds to show for the industriousness of the village. (That special variety of millet grows outside the village on a soggy, mosquito infested flood plain which is inhospitable to animals, sorghum, and humans.)
As by far the richest people in the area, we feel a responsibility before God to feed the hungry and care for the poor among whom we live. And as a result, apart from salaries, our biggest expenditure in the village is charity (it helps, of course, that there is virtually nothing else for us to spend money on). But showing compassion at this time of year stretches our good will to the limit. On the one hand, the whole point of mercy is that the beneficiary is undeserving. And we can think of not a few times in our own lives when we hoped for and got breaks we didn’t deserve. So it simply won’t do to just tell people to buck up. Hunger, especially among children, is terrible no matter the reason. On the other hand, more than a meter of rain has just fallen over the summer months, and good agricultural land is free for the having. There is no reason why any able bodied man or woman should be hungry. And we know that for every person who cries the loudest on our doorstep, there are twenty others who are stoically bearing their misery in silence.
The life of a missionary in Africa is replete with challenges - some solvable, and some, like this one, where all you can do is shake your head and hope for a better day when wiser counsel will prevail in the village. And in the meantime we try to show mercy to the foolish, tempered with wisdom
what do you do?
There are no hard and fast rules to responding to people in need, but our basic philosophy for helping them can be summarized as follows: 1) No-one goes away without an expression of sympathy for their plight, though in cases of exceptional stupidity they may have to put up with some wise counsel. 2) Almost everyone goes away with at least a little something - a couple quarts of grain, or a little bit of tea and sugar, or some fruit from our garden to brighten their day and keep them from feeling foolish for asking, even if we consider their request to be inappropriate. The main exception to this rule are repeaters. 3) The strong and healthy get mostly token help, while we try to make a real difference for the weak, sick, and old. Whenever possible, we give the strong some work to do. It dignifies them and discourages them from coming back too often.
Cattle rustling is a growth industry in Chageen. But as in any industry, there are the success stories, as well as cases of monumental failure. Bagulong Bamawa turned out to be a case of the latter. Stealing the ox from Mr. Dari was the easy part. The trouble is, that in the art of stealing, secrecy is everything. Ideally, your victim should not know, for instance, your name. So it was not a good sign when our radio station, the Voice of Chageen, announced that if anyone found Bagulong in the possession of a certain brown ox, would they please escort him and the ox to Chief Lubba at Chageen. Thousands of people heard the announcement, as did Bagulong -- and, unfortunately for him, the other men sitting around the fire with him in the little village of Dar at the westernmost extremity of the Voice of Chageen’s listening area. Now he sits in “jail” - which is to say by Chief Lubba’s fire - awaiting trial. The brown ox, it seems, was already sold by the time Bagulong’s budding career as a cattle rustler came to a premature end. We had lots of expectations for The Voice of Chageen, but being an affiliate of Crime Stoppers was not one of them.
- on again, off again
It’s not like we haven’t translated anything of the Bible during the last 6 years. Quite the contrary, were all the passages that we have translated laid out on book-sized pages in book-sized type it would probably amount to 150 pages - a bit less than half of the 350 pages of the Kingdom of God theology, the writing of which has occupied many of those years. So to say we’re going back to translation again isn’t strictly speaking true, unless you understand it as going back to translation in the traditional, stereotypical sense where you plow through a book of the Bible from beginning to end. This, we have done, translating the book of 1 Peter and half of Colossians this summer - before another apparent disaster brought the whole process to a grinding halt again. This time, our chief translator, Laurent, got it into his head that he needed a diploma of some kind (though it didn’t seem to matter which) and so off he waltzed to the town of Ba’illi 40 miles north of Chageen to study at the school for evangelists there (though he has never otherwise shown much interest in such a calling). As he isn’t our slave, nor is he an indentured servant, there wasn’t much we could do. Freely he came 12 years ago, and freely he went - leaving the translation effort dead in the water just as it was getting going again. Luke and Joseph are the two remaining guys of the translation committee - two out of an original 6. But neither are particularly gifted in translation. For the time being, we have plenty of work to keep us busy - including testing and checking 1 Peter and Colossians. But unless Laurent comes back to Chageen next year - something he has promised to do, but which, as these things go, it is not wise to count on - we are going to have some serious trouble seeing our dream of a Kwong translation come to fruition any time soon. You will notice, however, that we describe this as an “apparent” disaster. We make that qualification because we thought that Theodore’s departure would be a disaster too, but in the end, God meant it for good. Much good. We anticipate no less in Laurent’s case.
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