A peep into life in Africa, through the eyes of an African Reformed Baptist pastor.

Water, water, water, everywhere. What else do you expect? I am a Baptist, and I live in the land of the mighty Victoria Falls!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Adoption, Orphanages, and the African Extended Family System


“Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you...’ So Abram went, as the Lord had told him, and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother's son...” (Genesis 12:1-5).

I have just returned from the USA. One of the major changes that I have observed from my earliest days of visiting that nation (i.e. from the late 1990s) is just how many families there are excited about and actually adopting African children. Whereas this phenomenon is not new, it has certainly grown exponentially. What I found rather surprising, however, was the lack of knowledge and appreciation of the African extended family system. So, although I initially set up this blog in order to give my church a peep into the outside world, I thought of writing a blog to inform the West about what is common knowledge back home. Whereas to the Western mind, an orphan, having lost both father and mother, is destined to either be adopted or spend the rest of his or her childhood days in an orphanage, to an African mind, the child still has many fathers and mothers, and consequently many homes to live in. Let me explain. (I apologise in advance for the unusual length of this blog).

In Africa, south of the Sahara, we have a system that is foreign to the social life of people in the West. It is popularly known as the extended family system. It goes something like this. My biological father’s brothers are also my fathers and my biological mother’s sisters are also my mothers. If your mind has processed that, let me add a little more. The wives of my biological father’s brothers are my mothers and the husbands of my biological mother’s sisters are my fathers.

[Paragraph added later, due to a comment below, in order to illuminate by contrast what I've just said above] My father’s sisters are not my mothers, they are my aunts, and my mother’s brothers are not my fathers, but my uncles. Similarly, their children are not my brothers and sisters, they are my cousins. And when we come to the next generation, their children are not my children, but my nephews and nieces. They stand in a different relationship with me compared to the grandchildren of my father’s brothers and my mother’s sisters. Unless you understand it that way, you have not begun to understand the African extended family system.

Let us try a little mathematics. If my late dad had three brothers and my late mom had three sisters, and all of these are married and alive, then I have six fathers and six mothers still alive and well on the planet.

Often we speak in terms of ba tata mwaiche  (younger father) and ba tata mukalamba (older father) when referring to the younger and older brothers of our fathers and ba mayo mwaiche (younger mother) and ba mayo mukalamba (older mother) when referring to the younger and older sisters of our mothers. However, it is not uncommon, especially when one is talking to a foreigner from the West for us to simply say in English “my father” when in the strictest sense we are referring to an uncle. Hence, there is the often-told joke of an employee who gets leave from work to attend the funeral of his father and then asks for permission some six months later to attend yet another funeral of his father. The Western employer gets furious and says, “How dare you think you can cheat me. It was only six months ago when I gave you permission to go and bury your father. Do you think that I have already forgotten that? How many fathers have you got?” Well, of course, the employer is shocked out of his socks when the man actually begins to count them.

Let me go one step further. The extended family grows even bigger when one begins to count the number of siblings. Let us suppose that my dad and mom have three children, and each of my dad’s three brothers has three children and each of my mom’s sisters has three children (I am keeping to “three” to make the mathematics simpler). Then I have twenty brothers and sisters! If I were to take it even further and bring it to the level of the children of my siblings, then the mathematics spins out of control. It grows exponentially. If I had three children and each of my “brothers” and “sisters” had three children, then apart from my own biological children, I have another sixty children. Yes, sixty!

Okay that is enough about numbers and mathematics. Let us move on to the implications of all this. To us as Africans, this is more than just a change of words. It is not cut and paste. It is real. Although my biological children have a special place in my heart and home, these sixty children really have a sense of belonging to me. They feel they have a stake in my home. After all, I am their father and my wife is their mother. This is especially the case when their backs are against the wall—either due to poverty in the immediate family or due to the loss of a parent in death. I once introduced the daughter of my mother’s sister as a cousin to a friend of mine and almost paid for it dearly afterwards. She felt that I was disowning her or, at best, distancing myself from her—and she let me know it in the strongest terms. I tried to explain to her that the individual I was introducing her to was a close family friend and he knew very well that I only had two biological sisters. Her response was, “But he is an African. He should know you have more sisters than that.” And she was right.

The best way for a Western mind to understand this “sense of belonging” is by drawing a parallel between the state system and the extended family system. The state taxes the rich in order—among other things—to take care of the poor. The richer you are the more tax you pay. Thus an American who does not have a job EXPECTS the state to start putting money into his account to sustain him. They call it welfare. The aim is that, by the rich helping the poor, none of its citizens will be too poor to survive. Now, you have to remember that the state system is a very recent phenomenon in Africa. We are still struggling to come to terms with it. We lived in families—the nuclear, the extended, the clan, the tribe, etc. So, in the extended family, the wealthier nuclear families share their wealth with the poorer nuclear families, just the way in which in the state system the richer are taxed to support the poorer. Again, the aim is to ensure that those who are poor are not too poor to survive. They have richer “fathers” and “mothers” to turn to when their backs are against the wall.

This explains why our middle and higher income families are hardly ever nuclear families. In my church, there is hardly a home where you have parents with only their biological children. Partly due to the AIDS scourge many of us have lost siblings and so have taken in their children. After all, we are their fathers and their mothers. Apart from those who are in our homes, we are also supporting many others with school and college fees while they are living in lower income homes. In this way, the rich do not have too much and the poor do not have too little. A friend of mine once told me of a time when he worked as a CEO of a bank and a friend from the USA visited him. When the children started coming out of their bedrooms to greet the visitor, they just kept on coming. He had about twenty-four of them in his home on that occasion. (To manage all of them, he had put most of them in boarding school. However his visitor came when it was school holidays). When his visitor was told what I have just explained above, he called everyone back and took a picture of the “family” with twenty four children. He then went back to the USA and started supporting some of these “orphans” by paying for their school fees. By the time I was being told this story, most of them had finished school and college and were now supporting their younger siblings. He was grateful to his friend.

My mother died when I was nine years old. A year later, her immediate elder sister came and got my two sisters and me, and educated us until we went to university. We found eight siblings in that home and so, together, we were now eleven. At least we were in a home with “father” and “mother”. During school holidays, they would send us to visit our other “fathers” and “mothers”. We later learnt that some of them helped with our school fees. By the time we returned to dad’s home, during our university days, we were aware that we had many “fathers”, “mothers”, “brothers”, and “sisters”. We had been taken care of during the turbulent early teenage years in a way that a single parent would have never managed. So, I am a product of the African extended family system and I am now a benefactor of that system. There are accountants, engineers, hoteliers, lawyers, mechanics, etc, who have graduated from our home and from our domestic coffers. My greatest joy, however, has been to see some of these converted to Christ while in our home—and now living to God’s glory!

Our household has often been larger than this!
In my pastorate, I have baptised many individuals who have been brought up in this way in the homes of our church members. So, this story can be repeated over and over again in our church and across Africa. Like Abram, we have raised many Lots in our homes until they could live on their own. I recall a Western friend who came to challenge me about the problem of street kids in Lusaka. Looking at my largely middle class congregation, he urged me, saying, “If you could only urge each home to take in one street kid, you could sort out this problem once and for all!” My answer was swift and crisp, “We’ve already taken street kids off the streets. They make up half our households!”

The problem with coming to Africa and adopting one “orphan” from the extended family system is that your help is limited to one person only and not the rest of his family. The child changes his name and his family, and grows up in a context of the state system. His sense of connection with the wider family is lost and so even if he was to come and visit later in life, as was the case with Obama on his last famous visit to Kenya, his mind is already moulded by the state system and the extended family system is very foreign to him. When the many children of his poorer “siblings” (in the African extended family sense, which is exponentially higher than the Western concept) come to him to ask for help, he feels as if these Africans really love to beg. It reminds him of the many lazy drunkards back home in the USA who do nothing but wait for the cheque from the state each week or month. What he fails to realize is that in the extended family system we know one another. Hence, such exploitation hardly lasts. You give a guy a chance to better himself by helping him to get on his feet. Once it becomes clear he is just a lazy glutton wanting free food, you show him the door. Of course, human beings are fallen creatures everywhere and so they will exploit any of God’s gifts to mankind out of his most gracious common grace. The African extended family system is no exception.

Please do not get me wrong. I am not against adoption and orphanages, per se. My church ministers to two orphanages (they hate to be called orphanages) and is helping to start one, I sit on the board of one of them, and I regularly minister to a couple running yet another one. They have many advantages. For instance, a child that is adopted by a Christian family out of a non-Christian context is going to be loved and exposed to the gospel. Also, when a church-run orphanage takes a child from the streets and raises that child, there will be a similar exposure to the gospel. This exposure has led many who would otherwise have never been regularly and lovingly exposed to the gospel to see it in action. Due to this, many have been converted to Christ and, hence, live God-centred lives. Can anything be better that the salvation of a person’s soul? It is worth all the trouble in the world!

So, I think there is a place for both adoption and orphanages. However, knowing the extended family system suggests A DIFFERENT EMPHASIS in caring for African orphans. My Western friends should consider empowering homes where younger or older “fathers” and younger or older “mothers” are looking after children of their deceased siblings as a viable way to care for orphans. It may be totally foreign to the Western mind, but it is the most natural way for us as Africans to look after orphans. It is not either-or but both-and. (Hence, the title of this blog is not “Adoption, orphanages OR the African Extended Family system”). So, if you are able to adopt an African child, by all means do so. For that child, it is a dream come true—from the squalor to the States! But, while adoptions continue to grow exponentially in number and orphanages are opening up with support from the West, what are you doing to support what is more natural to us? One way of empowering such homes would be to help with scholarships that would enable these children to go to good (Christian) schools, colleges and universities (like the African Christian University), while being brought up in the context of the extended family system. That way, instead of only one child benefitting as he is adopted and taken away by a foreign family, his siblings—in the extended family sense—will also benefit from his education and new found Christian faith since he is still among them. So, without declaring a moratorium on adoptions and orphanages, supporting the extended family system in Africa should be emphasised more and will make the dollar go much, much further.

And, by the way, it is through the extended family system that we look after our aging parents too. We never send them to old people’s homes. In that sense, I am sure we are closer to Bible times. Paul urged Timothy, saying, “Honour widows who are truly widows. But if a widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show godliness to their own household and to make some return to their parents, for this is pleasing in the sight of God... But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever... If any believing woman has relatives who are widows, let her care for them. Let the church not be burdened, so that it may care for those who are really widows” (1 Timothy 5:3-4,8,16).

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Join the African Christian University’s 425 Campaign

“Each one repaired the section immediately across from his own house” (Nehemiah 3:28-29).

I have just returned from the USA on a mission to make known our major project of starting a Christian university here in Lusaka, Zambia, and to raise prayer and financial support for it through what we are calling, “The 425 Campaign”. It was eleven days spent mostly on the road with the Executive Director of ACU, Dr Ken Turnbull, and his wife Lisa, speaking in different locations every day. Our itinerary covered towns in Missouri, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. And it ended with a podcast interview for Tim Challies’ famous blog, Informing The Reforming. The Lord sustained us as we travelled. This was in answer to the prayers of God’s people and, we are sure, in fulfilment of the plan that God has for this university.
Dr Ken and Lisa Turnbull speaking at one of the meetings
For me, the one place we visited that confirmed our vision was the College of the Ozarks. They have a work study program that enables students to participate in the maintenance and income generating part of the college. This gives students work experience while they are studying and, of course, helps them pay for their studies. It also cuts on the cost of running the college because a lot of the work is being done by the students. We saw students watering the gardens, producing fruit cakes and sending them to clients, preparing flower bouquets, making stained glass products, working on the extension of their gym, etc. They even run a hotel, built right outside their campus! If young people who are studying for white collar jobs can learn to do what is culturally perceived as the lowest form of work (e.g. cleaning toilets), you will be producing servant leaders for society.
Students at the College of the Ozarks working in the student labour program
The establishment of a Christian university by the Reformed Baptist churches in Zambia seems to be a logical step when one looks at what the Lord has done among us. David Livingstone brought the Christian gospel into our neck of the woods over 150 years ago. Since then, various mission agencies have come and established the Christian faith across the whole nation so that by the start of the 21st century about 80% of Zambians call themselves Christians. Sadly, judging by the high levels of corruption, HIV and AIDS, crime, etc, the number of real Christians must still be very low.
Speaking to mission-minded students at another university about ACU
Three needs have become apparent if the Christian faith is to be strong in Zambia. The first is that of establishing strong churches across the country where biblical preaching is a regular diet. There is no substitute for good solid spiritual meals. The second is that of ensuring that there are evangelistic endeavours that spread the true gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, challenging even those who profess Christianity to see if they are truly in the faith. People need to get genuinely saved, or else we are pushing them into hell on religious wheelchairs. The third is that of helping those who are truly converted to see how their Christian faith ought to be translated into practice in all spheres of life—in their personal, domestic, community and national life. Christians must always be salt and light.
Preaching and presenting the vision of ACU at State Street
It will be readily admitted that, purely as an indigenous family of churches, the Reformed Baptists in Zambia are slowly and strategically covering the country. So far, we have planted churches in all the provincial capitals of Zambia, and almost all the major cities from Livingstone to the Copperbelt and from Lusaka to Chipata. A few more are scattered elsewhere. Every effort is being made through these churches (established in the last twenty years) to give good spiritual meals to God’s people, evangelise their immediate communities, and teach believers how to live out their faith.
Dr Ken Turnbull speaking to a couple interested in ACU
Realising the paucity of good educational facilities around us and also knowing how many of our government and privately run schools teach from an non-biblical humanistic framework, our churches have begun to establish Christian schools. So far, a number of our churches have primary schools on their premises. We are already beginning to seriously plan towards running secondary schools as well, so that those children who have passed through our hands and have been helped to see the world through biblical lenses can continue being taught this way right through to the end of their secondary education. 
Eagles Nest School (run by Kabwata Baptist Church) 2010 Grade Seven Class
Once this is in place, the next stage must be apparent; namely, the need for a college or university that also builds its entire curriculum around the Bible. This is not just for the sake of providing tertiary education in a country where the shortage of such institutions is abysmal, but it is primarily about ensuring that the next generation of young adults goes into God’s world as worshippers, seven days a week. What a difference that will make to our nation!
The ACU PowerPoint presentation with Chipita Sibale smiling at us!
It is this need that the establishing of the African Christian University will aim to answer. It will be a top quality university run as a joint venture by Reformed Baptist churches in Zambia. So far, boards have been established both in the USA and in Zambia, and in both countries the African Christian University has been registered. Early next year, we expect Dr Ken and Lisa Turnbull to come to Zambia and spearhead the development work on the ground until the university opens its doors to students in 2012. There will be a lot of work, for which everyone who believes in what we are doing should be much in prayer. Apart from praying, do consider joining the 425 campaign by enlisting as a regular contributor and also by commending it to others. I want to particularly appeal to Zambians at home and abroad to own this project by your prayers and financial giving. Together we can do it!
The ACU display with Kakonde Simbeye & Temwani Phiri smiling at us!
We often marvel at how Nehemiah managed to repair the wall around the city of Jerusalem in only 52 days, when previously all attempts had completely failed. The answer lay in his ability to harness the full potential of the people of God to participate in this mammoth project. Hence, we read, “Each one repaired the section immediately across from his own house.” By each one contributing in this small way, the entire wall was rebuilt in record time. In the same way, if 400 of us can contribute $25 dollars (K125,000) a month, this university will be up and running in no time. That is what the 425 campaign is all about. If we Zambians can reach even just 100 contributors, that will convince our Non-Zambian friends across the oceans that we are serious. So, let us join hands and do it!

Postscript: For details on how to join the 425 campaign, click here.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Self-appointed wedding photographers—what a menace!


“When you come to appear before me, who has required of you this trampling of my courts?” (Isaiah 1:12)

Conrad & Felistas on 2nd January 1988
Felistas and I got married in an era when photography was expensive business. You had to pay a studio for your film to be processed and printed before you could see your photographs. Everyone thought twice about pulling out their cameras to take shots at any event. Hence, many people left their cameras at home when they went for weddings.

Those days are long gone and the age of digital photography is now upon us. It costs nothing to take photos today because you simply download them on your computer and do with them whatsoever you please. Also, the prices of cameras have drastically reduced. Everyone and anyone can now own a camera—especially the point-and-shoot versions. Add to this the fact that even cell phones now have camera functionality, then you can well understand why digital photography is everyone’s business today. It is photography galore!

Sadly, what ought to be a blessing has become a curse—especially at weddings. When photography was expensive business, there would be one or at the most two individuals hanging around the couple saying their wedding vows, capturing every precious moment. Today, the “altar” is swarmed with so many camera men and women that those in the pews can hardly see the couple getting married. I mean, it is ridiculous! Even little boys and girls get cell phones from their parents and clog the front as they try their hand at amateur photography. Surely, this is not right!
Typical scenes today with the pulpit area swarmed by unofficial photographers

To begin with, everyone who has come for the wedding is entitled to see what is happening in front as the couple exchange their wedding vows and their rings. So, why should some people become “more equal than others” and obstruct other invitees from viewing the proceedings because they have taken on themselves a role no one has given them? Let everyone stay in the pews and enjoy the same privilege. It is only fair.

Having too many photographers also makes life difficult for the official photographer. There are very few positions for that perfect shot. And often the moment for the perfect shot passes very quickly. When everyone is clamouring for such positions at just the right moment you find that no one really gets that perfect shot, which is very unfair for the couple getting married. They have paid the official photographer a lot of money but they are not getting the quality of photos they are paying for simply because of the obstruction of those who have no business being in front in the first place. As one newly married couple complained, “At least if they sent you the photos they take, you would not mind. But you never see their photos!”

The perfect moment that must not be missed
Also, in photography, background matters. Hence, you find that decorators are paid handsome amounts to make the front of the wedding hall look beautiful. Sadly, when you have droves of photographers around the “altar” they destroy this beautiful background. They are rarely in suits and beautiful dresses, like the bridal party, but they appear on the photos—thus spoiling the beauty. Again, that is not fair. You may say that even the official photographers are rarely in suits. That’s true but remember they do not appear on their own photos because they stand behind their cameras!

Whereas I think it is impossible to prohibit the smuggling of cameras into the venues where the wedding ceremony is taking place, I think that we the invitees should respect the weddings of others and not go to the front—to the “altar” or pulpit area—unless we are part of the wedding procession. As God challenged the Israelites in Isaiah 1:12 to think hard about what they were going to do in the Temple (lest their going there becomes a curse instead of a blessing) we too need to give careful thought to what is required of us when we go for other people's weddings. If we want to take photos, let us not trample everywhere and spoil the event for others. Let us take photos from the pews. Instead of pushing one another for the perfect shot and thus obstructing others who have come for the wedding and frustrate even the official photographer, let us go early for the wedding ceremony and position ourselves in those pews that will give us the best vantage point when it comes to taking photos.
A perfect opportunity to take a photo--outside after the wedding
If you are late and the front pews are already taken up by others, there are three other chances which you cannot miss, even if you are seated towards the back. The first is at the start of the wedding as the bride is being brought in by her father, the second is at the end of the wedding when she is being taken out by her new husband, and the third is when the entire bridal party is lined up outside greeting friends and relatives before disappearing in their “just married” vehicles. For any unofficial photographer, surely that should be enough. After all, what you need is just a photo or two to prove that you were an eye-witness of the wonderful event!