Eugene Cho

Africa is beautiful: The danger of how we frame the story of other nations and people.

Thank you for your prayers.

After about two weeks in Kenya and Tanzania, I’m back in Seattle. I spent most of my time in Kenya to assess ODW’s partnerships and projects in response to the worst drought the Horn of Africa (Kenya, Somalia, and Ethiopia) has encountered in the past 60 years. I have some both encouraging stories and difficult stories to share – as well as images – some of which I’ll share and some that’s best not to share.

But before I share some upcoming posts about things that discouraged me, encouraged me, and the rise of skepticism and cynicism in development, I wanted to share a post detailing how much I’ve enjoyed my two weeks in Africa, my first trip to East Africa, and my third visit to this beautiful continent.

In fact, this post may be the most important of the ones I share about my trip – even if it doesn’t directly engage the main purpose of my trip: to assess ODW’s Horn of Africa response.

The responsibility in story-telling.

It’s important because the last thing I want to do is perpetuate a false picture of how Africans or for that matter, people of all “developing” countries are perceived as helpless, hungry, needy, incapable, etc.

For some, the quintessential image of “Africa” is the image of a young African boy with the bloated stomach, snot running down his nose, eyes dazed, and flies peppered around his head. You’ve seen this image, haven’t you?

Are there those that are hungry, thirsty, and living in desperation? Unfortunately…yes.  But such can be said of those in our respective countries – even sadly and poignantly in the country I love and call home called America.

My point is that to reduce the tapestry, identity, narrative, history, and fabric of an entire continent (comprised of many different countries)  to one angle is irresponsible, dangerous, and simply…wrong. Even if that angle might be accurate, to convey that angle without the context of a larger story is dangerous.

Time and time again, I’ve been asked – passionately, politely, and at time, angrily – by my African friends and colleagues something to this extent:

Eugene, we know you run a development and humanitarian organization. Thank you for your work but as you share the stories of difficulties and pain, don’t forget to share the stories of beauty, hope, courage, and love. Please be responsible in your story-telling.

Please tell your western countries that the whole of Africa is not dangerous, war-mongers, child soldiers, starving, helpless, and desperate. Please tell your folks that while we appreciate love, prayers, and support, we are not in need of the “Western White Saviors” (or Asian Saviors for that matter).  We are proud. We are beautiful. We have a history; We have beautiful stories and songs. We are not perfect but we, too, are created in the wondrous image of God. 

Indeed.

It’s with that in mind that I share some pictures I took during my visit. Mediocre pictures that don’t do justice to the beautiful countries and to the beautiful people I had the privilege of meeting.

Some pictures from Kenya and Tanzania:

Picture above: An amazingly beautiful day as we traveled the not-so-often traveled nomadic roads near SE Kenya. We were hosted by the Islamic Foundation and enjoyed an incredible walk  through those fields. The word beautiful does not do justice to what I saw.

Picture below: I worshipped at St. Peter Anglican Church in Chamwino, Tanzania. I had the honor of preaching there that morning. There were five choirs that sang about 9 or 10 songs. Each was spirit-filled and wondrous. My favorite was this women’s choir. They soared – spiritually and literally.

The beautiful music of the Gogo people being shared at the 5th Annual Wagogo Music Festival in Tanzania.


As we drove around the most bumpiest and pot-holed roads I have ever encountered in my 42 years of life that made me combat the food I consumed in the mornings, there were some views that eased and erased any nausea I was experiencing. This was one of those views on one of those drives to a project site: Landscape. Sky. Clouds. Giraffes.

Perfect.

The food of Kenya. Delicious. I would thrive in these parts of the world because rice was served with nearly every meal. FTW. I don’t unfortunately have any food pictures from my visit to Tanzania because I was too busy eating. Goat never tasted so delicious.

This six-year-old girl managed several smiles. About 8-10 months ago, she and her family (including her 5 siblings) traveled (by foot and cart) nearly 200 miles to escape the worst drought that has hit this region in about 60 years.

The Wagogo Music Festival. Song. Dance. Prophetic lyrics. I’ll need to share more because I was stunned by the lyrics.


Sunset in Kenya.

Yes.


Somali Kenyan IDPs (internally displaced people). They left their homes. Everyone lost most of their livestock. But they maintained their commitment to their tribe, their neighbors, their families, and some of the most colorful and beautiful clothes I have seen.

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19 Responses

  1. Incredible, Eugene.

    And I’m encouraged by your commitment to tell Africa’s full story. Unfortunately, all Americans get is that one angle from the TV ads, meant to pluck (manipulate) heartstrings. They parade people around, the same way the humane society parades abused animals around, to heap guilt on the audience and giving little dignity to the people.

  2. KC says:

    Another thing we often forget: Africa isn’t homogenous as a continent (Asia isn’t, either). The cultural, climate, and political differences between, say, Nepal and Japan? Pretty big. The differences between Ghana and Uganda? Also pretty big, despite the letters in common. There are different countries, and different regions within countries, and each have different environmental/political situations going on.

    The sunsets are quite possibly all gorgeous, though.

  3. Bill C. says:

    Great stuff, Eugene. Reminds me of one of my favorite Ted Talks ever:

  4. Dan H. says:

    Thanks for sharing Eugene. Our community has been encouraged by this TED talk along the same lines as your post. It is a beautiful and complicated land filled with very dear brothers and sisters.

    http://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story.html along

  5. Carrie says:

    Beautiful Eugene! My African husband appreciates when non-Africans can see the beauty in the land and in the people and celebrate the many cultures and people grops in the vast continent despite the pain that also exists in many parts. Having visited a few countries in Africa I am also thankful you are sharing the beauty of Africa here! Thank you and I look forward to reading future blogs by you on your African experiences and learnings. Good stuff indeed!

  6. Emily says:

    Thanks for your insight, Eugene. This is an extremely important point for us as American Christians to understand — particularly those of us who want to be involved in social justice efforts.

    My husband and I recently wrote a post on this issue evaluating a case where a popular American “justice” movement co-opted the story of other people. Is that movement really doing justice?

    http://ethnicspace.wordpress.com/2012/06/03/konylonialism-2012-the-colonization-of-story/

  7. Ann says:

    This is excellent, Eugene. You reminded me of Chimamanda Adichie’s wonderful TED talk on “The Danger of a Single Story”.

  8. Adele Sakler says:

    i visited Kenya 25 years ago when i was senior in high school. i was part of a Catholic youth group and we raised money to go because we were invited to participate in a huge youth conference there. i SO found the Kenyans to be welcoming, beautiful, and happy people. Thanks for painting a much more HOLISTIC picture of this lovely nation.

  9. Eric says:

    I adore you and your writing, but am conflicted with the ease in which “Africa” is used as a singular entity while, at the same time, trying to argue against simplistic or reductionist thought. Discussing Africa as a monolith perpetuates the very thing you are arguing against, I think.

  10. I really appreciate your perspective. I hope that more and more people (in the church, especially) adopt this sort of grace and integrity, particularly in our approach to missions,

    Your post reminds me of this recent article in the Boston Review about media portrayal in [the continent of] Africa. A bit long, but its heart reads much like yours.

    http://www.bostonreview.net/BR37.4/jina_moore_africa_journalism_colonialism.php

    LaTricia

  11. Karen says:

    Yes. This is really a challenge sometimes, raising an African child with a healthy self-image while living in a culture that only remembers or knows the negatives associated with her heritage.

  12. Sybil says:

    I love this: “Please tell your western countries that the whole of Africa is not dangerous, war-mongers, child soldiers, starving, helpless, and desperate. Please tell your folks that while we appreciate love, prayers, and support, we are not in need of the “Western White Saviors” (or Asian Saviors for that matter). We are proud. We are beautiful. We have a history; We have beautiful stories and songs. We are not perfect but we, too, are created in the wondrous image of God.”

  13. […] to any other African nation’s story, history or experience. For further thoughts on this, read Pastor Eugene Cho’s blog (who also traveled with World Concern to Kenya and […]

  14. Nick says:

    Great post. Look forward to reading future posts on your other experiences while there.

  15. gcc says:

    This is a very beautiful and inspiring story. It teaches us we should always have an attitude of gratitude because we can always be in a worse situation. May God continue to bless this strong and courageous woman and her children.

  16. […] let me encourage you to please read a post I wrote entitled, “Africa is beautiful: The danger of how we frame the story of other people and nations.” I want to make sure that I don’t perpetuate this monolithic perspective where people […]

  17. Matt Brough says:

    Thanks for this post. I returned from a 2 week mission studt trip to Malawi and much of what you share here rings true. It has been a struggle to tell the full story. One thing that blew me away was the unbelievable competence and ingenuity of people on the ground faithfully serving their communities really eye opening to see that we in thr West and North are not necessarily the problem solvers Blessings in your ministry and and work with ODW and great post!

  18. […] one thing I’ve learned, personally, is how easy it is easy to reduce people into projects. Mutuality. Reciprocity. Dignity. These are critical because God never intended people to be […]

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One Day’s Wages

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Checking out Canada in case I need to move up North after the presidential election. Just saying, eh.

Downtown Toronto. Fascinating architecture. Amazed by the diversity of this city. We desperately want our children to not just be captivated by the beauty of creation...but more importantly, to the actual Creator of all that is good and beautiful.

Actually, we want and need this truth for our souls, too. What a privilege. This isn't possible without all those who give, pray, and support the work of @onedayswages. This week, I signed and mailed grants to three partner organizations totaling over $170,000. These grants will empower people by supporting maternal health care, refugee relief efforts, access to clean water, provide education, etc.

Sometimes, the brokenness of the world feel so overwhelming but let's keep running the race with endurance. Let's keep pursuing justice, mercy, and humility. Let's be faithful and may we be spurred on to keep working for God's Kingdom...on earth as it is in heaven.

Again, thank you so much for your support for @onedayswages! My wife, Minhee, and I stand on the shoulders of praying mothers. I'd like to take a moment to honor my mother-in-law. It's hard to put words together to embody her life but she is a very special, anointed person. I'm so blessed to have her as a mother in my life.

She was a devoted wife until she lost her husband to cancer, mother to three daughters, and later became a pastor. She became a follower of Christ as an adult and as such, led her her family to Christ. In her late 50s, she obeyed God's calling to go to seminary and be a leader in the church. She graduated #1 in her class and reminded us that it's never too late to follow a new dream or calling.

As she'll soon celebrate her 80th birthday, I'm especially grateful for the ways that she poured into and prayed over Minhee and her other children.  Even though she's officially retired, I'm inspired that the concept of retirement is not in her vocabulary.  She continues to serve the local church, evangelize and bear witness to Christ, and goes to the early morning prayer meeting at 5am everyday to pray for our family, our church, and for others. 
Jangmonim, we love and honor you. 어머니, 사랑합니다.

Someday, I hope that when my kids speak of Minhee and I...above all, they would say with integrity that their parents prayed for them and kept pointing them to Christ. On this Mother's Day, I want to take a few words to honor mother.

There’s a moment from a few years ago that will stick with me until the day I die. It’s regarding Sung Wha, my mother.

Minhee and I were at a point of transition, between working at an ethnic Korean church in the northern suburbs of Seattle called Lynnwood and launching Quest in urban Seattle. As I shared earlier, I was in desperate need of a job. I had a mortgage to pay. A pregnant wife. A kid at home. 
Then, praise God, after months without work, I finally landed a job.

My mom was in between jobs at this point in her life. She was in her late fifties, but she had such bad knees and degenerative hips that it was, and is, difficult for her to walk. My mom is like a human barometer—when a storm is coming and when it rains, her hips throb. Although my parents lived in San Francisco, she was visiting us in Seattle to encourage us in this difficult season.

As I prepared to go to work one early morning, I walked downstairs to put on my jacket and shoes, and forgot that my mother woke up early every morning to pray. In fact, she had been praying for months that I would find a job. “Eugene, where are you going?” she said when she saw me.

I hadn’t told my mother the news that I had just recently been hired for the janitorial gig at Barnes and Noble. I chose not to because I thought she and my father would be devastated. I didn’t want them to think that after laboring, sacrificing, and doing so much for us over all those years that their son had failed them.

But I couldn’t lie to her, so eventually I told my mom that I got a job and was going to work. “Great! What job? What are you doing?” “Um, I’m working at Barnes and Noble as their custodian,” I said finally.

Without asking another question, my mother got up from the dining table where she had been reading her Bible and praying. She slowly walked slowly toward me.

She approached me, then walked past me without saying a word, and I realized she was headed toward the closet. She opened the closet door, put on her jacket, turned around and said to me (in Korean), “Eugene, let’s go together. I will help you.” This is my mother. I love all the free amazing views in our Evergreen State. #RattlesnakeLedge

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