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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Collaboration.

col·lab·o·ra·tion
kəˌlabəˈrāSH(ə)n/
noun

the action of working with someone or a group of others  to produce or create something.

May we hold our logos, egos, and tribalism have their place. May we hold them loosely for they too shall pass. May we collaborate for the sake of the greater Kingdom of God ... which endures forever. As we honor Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., don't forget the God behind the man. The one true God who deposited this dream into MLK is still speaking to us today. Are we listening?

Be courageous. Be brave.

Being invited by the King Family to speak at the MLK worship service at Ebenezer Baptist Church in 2016 remains one of the most unexpected honors of my life. On the right is his daughter, Dr. Bernice King and his sister, Dr. Christine King Farris. Walking throughstreet markets in different parts of the world is the best. Soaking in the culture. Listening to the local language and music. Enjoying the amazing cuisine. Meeting new friends. Praying for the Gospel to penetrate. #ChiangRai Blessed be the local, indigenous leaders for it is they who live in the very communities they seek to love. For it is they who understand their context and culture...better than a Westerner ever will. For it is they who will continue to tenaciously pursue a better world with hope, justice and love when visitors like me leave.

Yes, blessed be the local, indigenous leaders. What an honor and privilege to celebrate with the on-the-ground local @thefreedomstory team to celebrate the recent opening of their Education and Resource Center for the local youth in Chiang Rai, Thailanf. This was made possible through a partnership and matching grant by @onedayswages and The Freedom Story.

While it was an honor to be there to cut the cord and say a few words, this is an example of collaboration. Much love to the Freedom Story team including their co-founders Tawee Donchai and @Rachel Goble, to their staff who live in the community, who understand their context and culture, and who tenaciously pursue a better world with hope, justice and love. And of course, much love to the students themselves for they each matter. Finally, to each person that donated to @onedayswages to make this grant possible.

May hundreds and even thousands of youth be impacted, encouraged, and mentored. May they capture a glimpse of God's love for them.

Photo: @benjaminedwards Part 2 on my wrestling with the complex issue of human trafficking. In part, documenting my trip to Thailand for @onedayswages...to listen, learn, and visit one of our partner orgs @thefreedomstory. More to come.

There's such painful and poignant irony in pursuing justice...unjustly. One way we do this is when we reduce people into projects...and thus, propagating the dangerous power dynamic of US as heroes and THEM as helpless and exclusively as victims. So dangerous.

Human trafficking is not just an issue. It’s ultimately, about people. Depending on the sources of statistics, there are anywhere from 29-40 million people in some form of forced labor and slavery, including sex trafficking.

And one thing I’ve learned, personally, is how easy it is easy to reduce people into projects which is why mutuality, reciprocity, and dignity are so vital. These are critical because God never intended people to be reduced into projects.

We forget this and we indirectly foster a culture and system of victimization or worse, the pornification of the poor or in this case, "the trafficked." And when you start dehumanizing the poor or trafficked, you have no genuine desire to build relationships with them. You believe or build stereotypes in broad strokes, singular, black and white narratives that have been told about them. You believe the lie that they have nothing to teach us and are incapable of contributing to the larger society.

Lord, break our hearts for the things that break your heart. Give us eyes to see others through your eyes. Give us humility so that we acknowledge our own need to learn and grow. (Photo via @thefreedomstory)

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