Monday, June 11, 2012

Lessons from Londoners

Last Saturday, the volunteers were given the day off. So instead of resting, Jasmine, Emily, and I traveled to Mbereshi, a town six kilometers away, to explore the old London Missionary Society buildings that still stand there after 96 years. The LMS sent a woman named Mabel Shaw to this area in 1916. She started a girl’s school. The history and archeology nerd in me was thrilled to tiptoe carefully through the ramshackle buildings, which are still in surprisingly good shape. This was, perhaps, the strangest juxtaposition of all – this massive, grand, very English building, standing in the middle of the African bush.

The missionaries left half a century ago, although Mabel Shaw’s body was returned after her death a few decades later. Her tomb is outside the abandoned church building, fighting weeds and erosion. There are trees growing in the outhouse. Bats live in the rafters, termites have eaten through much of the floorboards, and the floor of the attic is too unstable to bear any weight. The tiles are sliding off of the roof and the chimney won’t be standing for much longer. The villagers have long since stripped the buildings of any thing of use, leaving behind only chalkboards built into the walls and a gigantic stone tub. Families have moved into some of the old school buildings and made their homes inside the tired walls.


But there is still some glass in some of the windows, and the doors that lead onto the second story porch are still painted a faded robin’s egg blue. The hinges on the shutters have not yet rusted over, and the pillars on the porch are still standing. The place is pretty awesome. 

That’s how I feel about Zambia. It’s tired, and worn out, and broken, but it’s still beautiful here. No matter how many beatings this country takes, it is still fighting to get back on its feet. Its people never give up, just like these old buildings.

Of course, the buildings could present a darker metaphor in that they also symbolize the negative impact the white man has had on Africa. Americans and Europeans have a bad habit of coming to Africa and trying to make it Western. Instead of living in huts alongside the Zambians, the LMS missionaries built a massive fortress. It would be difficult to think of a better way to isolate themselves from the people around them. Instead of adapting themselves to Africa, they tried to adapt Africa to themselves.

This kind of mentality is rampant throughout Africa, and it has subtle, dangerous implications. Many of the West’s “philanthropic” attempts to benefit Africa are actually veiled attempts to destroy cultures and ways of life that have been in place for centuries. This is certainly not a Christian attitude; I fully believe that much of Zambian culture is reconcilable with Christianity. The worship is just a little louder, the church floors a bit dustier, and wives bring nshima (the staple food in this area) to the potluck instead of green-bean casseroles.

Certainly, there are portions of the culture that are not reconcilable: the Zambian attitudes towards thievery and adultery, products of humanity’s sinful nature, are not in keeping with Christ’s teaching. The influence of juju (witchcraft) and superstition in Zambian culture is really powerful and very destructive.

But there are parts of Zambian culture that are also more Christ-like than my own culture. They understand generosity and hospitality better than we do. Their worship is open, unrestricted, and free. Family ties are strong here. Living in such a difficult place has made Zambians into a people who know how to endure, even in the face of despair. And they accept Christ’s love more willingly than much of the Western world.

That’s part of the beauty of Christ – that He transcends the invisible lines we’ve marked on our man-made maps and touches hearts all over the world. In fact, I might even argue that parts of Western culture are more toxic to one’s faith than elements of African culture. The list I could make here would be endless.

Ultimately, however, the West will never be able to transform Africa into anything other than what it is: an ancient land, full of history and pride and things the West simply doesn’t understand. The LMS buildings are a testament to this. I can come here and try to change Africa to look more like me, or I can change to look more like Africa. I certainly don’t have to make Jesus look like Africa; Africa already looks like Jesus.

I’m sure Mabel Shaw was a fantastic woman with a strong faith. I’m grateful for the really awesome old buildings to explore. But maybe – just maybe – there is a better way. 


  1. Congratulations on a well-produced and informative blog. Just a small correction: Mabel Shaw's ashes were brought back to Mbereshi, not her body, and the memorial you saw is at the small now-abandoned chapel of the old Girls' Boarding School, not the much larger Mbereshi Church which is still in use. Her real memorial though is the government-run Mabel Shaw Memorial Girls's Secondary School up the road, which opened in the sixties.
    Whatever the symbolism that may be read into these old buildings, what you can't tell is that they were in their heyday, for some lucky people, the happiest place on Earth, that's how I remember them.

  2. "Very English standing in the midst of African Bush??????.... Wow! What a way to describe Mbereshi Mission Station. While there has been neglect ever since the station was taken over by United Church of Zambia in 1972, I must disagree with some contents in your write up, which I find very offensive and lack genuinenes.

    You depict Zambians as thieves and adulterous people. What nonsense is this kind of writing. I would have rather have you write about the white collar theft found in the western world and much more porn that the adultery you write about.

    Yes, Zambians and Zambia may lack some of the western civilization amenities but that does not depict them as sinful in the manner you wrote.

    Yiu should have stuck to explore and learn about the good works of what Mable Shaw did and what Mbereshi Mission was all about tgat to insult the institution thus rendering your write up a dull and disparaging article that lost its meaning