It turns out that a number of calls and emails did come in to the station today but we were unable to get to them. Among the emails, there is this two parter from from Jason Thibeault:
I have a two part question for Greg Laden. In conversations on your blog related to the topic prior to this show, you mentioned that there are secular missions to many of these areas, the purposes for which are to provide the services that the religious missions provide, only omitting the proselytizing. You said at the time that you didn’t know much about them — have you managed to find out more about any existing missions since then?
When I look up “secular mission” on Google, I find stuff about missions where the word “secular” is used for some reason or another, and I find myself. This is not good.
Perhaps the secular “mission” right now is the UN, and in some cases USAID (but if you want that to work, you’ve got to contact your representatives in congress and push for critical evaluation and positive reform) and various NGO’s that are not religious. I think we need to do more research on this, and also, to make things happen.
Also, the thought of setting up such a mission without the backing of a church or religious institution seems particularly daunting. How do you figure one might go about putting together such a mission, if not supported by a religion or university; for instance what would it involve with regard to raising funds and establishing contacts in the countries in question? I’m not suggesting I’m going to do it personally, but hypothetically, if someone like me wanted to, is it possible?
I think the thing to do is to work directly with existing semi-autonomous developing communities. These things exist. I can’t advise specifically regarding the Congo at this time, but in South Africa, I’ve worked with communities that have an internal structure, are fitted to the existing governmental system, and work with secular NGO’s. An outside entity could hook up with some existing partnership such as that and provide grant money for specific, defined projects (this school or that goat farming operation or this water supply program or whatever).
Whenever I sat at Joseph and Mary’s dinner table, Mary showed a great deal of interest in my work. In between her frequent forays away from the dining room table to get this or that food item, or to issue instructions to a servant, or whatever, she would sit at the table across from me and ask questions.
“So, have you found anything interesting?” which is a standard question to which the answer was always “no” … we do not want to give people the idea that they should head out into the bush with a shovel. “So, what to the Pygmies think of your research.” And so on.
I remember that during our second dinner, the fourth or fifth question was this:
Joseph and Mary, and Little Joe and Mary, and Grinker and I, sat around the table where most of the dinner had been laid out. Additional bits and pieces of the dinner would be brought out as needed shortly, but now it was time to pray.
So we held hands and bowed our heads, and Mary led a prayer to Jesus for the bounty we were about to receive and stuff, and we all said Amen and were about to dig in, when Mary interrupted with a tone of voice and a hand signal that made everyone stop with their forks in mid air. Continue reading Don’t be a Jew→
As you may have noticed, I have written a series of posts about missionaries in eastern Zaire in the 1980s and early 1990s, focusing on my own personal experiences. These seven posts represent only a small number of these experiences, but they are more or less representative. They are meant to underscore the down side of missionary activities in Central Africa. To some extent, the negatives you may see in these essays are part of the reason for missionary activity being illegal in many countries (although the reasons for those laws varies considerably). It is my opinion that missionary activity should never be allowed, but at the same time, missionaries can have a positive effect that would not likely happen in their absence.
Frankly, I think that the world of sceptics and non believers looks a bit asinine for not making much more of an effort to replace these positive effects in a secular way and to give the missionaries a run for their money.
One of the reasons that I’ve written these essays is because I was asked to address this issue by Mike Haubrich. Mike is the producer of Minnesota Atheist Talk Radio. The idea was that I would write a few blog posts on my experiences with missionaries, and then we would do an Atheist Talk Radio spot on the topic. As it turns out, this coming Sunday’s show will be the last Minnesota Atheist Talk Radio instalment. After this, the show will be off the air forever. So don’t miss the show! Mike is producing the upcoming show, and Stephanie Zvan will be conducting the interview.
One of the things that I have not sufficiently conveyed in these posts about missionaries is the broad misconception people … not just missionaries, but most people in The West … have about Africans and Africa and the nature of life there. The average American will see a photograph of a mud hut with a grass roof and a family positioned outside the hut staring into the camera and this average American will think, “Oh, those poor people” without any understanding of the fact that they could be looking at the happiest people they’ve ever seen living in relative comfort, with fulfilling lives. They are just not the lives that the average Westerner has determined, in their privileged, middle class, suburban mindset, to be ideal. But who cares what you think?
Or, you can look at the broadly smiling face of an African Child bursting with happiness, and think, “well, they fixed that one … he’s happy” and not have any idea that this is a kid who will die of malaria next month because the region of Africa he lives in has zero medical care because there is a war going on over access to the raw materials needed to make your cell phone. Or because he lives near a Christian mission with a medical facility but is not a Christian.
In other words, you have no clue, most likely. And not only do you have no clue, but most of the bad stuff happening to these people is your fault. And you’re probably never going to get a clue. In fact, you are going to spend your energy denying that this is all your fault instead of just doing something to undo what your civilization has done.
The reason you not likely to figure this out, and that you are most likely to keep doing the wrong this, is because the reality that you are willfully misunderstanding is actually quite complicated, but you’ve been trained by your culture and society to view Africa and Africans as rather monolithic and simple.
These posts on missionaries don’t help much in that regard. In these posts, the Africans themselves are not really featured, and though they are far from one dimensional (do look and compare the different individuals mentioned) since these posts are not directly about them, there is just not much there. But I do hope that in reading these seven essays that you will come to understand one thing: When the missionary is showing the slide show about the great work the missionaries are doing, whether you are seeing this in church or on the web or at the local community center or public school, and the missionary is asking you for your money to help do more, please do write a check.
As I’ve mentioned previously, the study site I worked in was beyond the Peace Corps Line. It was beyond the Blender Line. And it was beyond the Beer Line. Out here in this arguably very remote area, we were never short of remoteness. Every year the study site become more and more remote, as roads deteriorated, air strips grew over, bridges became more and more questionable. Over the previous decades there had been more of a missionary presence in this area, but the missionaries had withdrawn and now only passed occasionally down the ribbon of mud we laughingly referred to as the “road.”
It was a rare day that I was at the Ngodingodi research station at all … usually I was off in the forest with the Efe Pygmies, up the road excavating an archaeological site. It was also rare that Grinker, my cultural anthropologist colleague, was at the research station. He was spending most of his time in the villages learning language and waiting around for the other shoe to drop (he studied conflict, so on the average day … not much conflict).
A couple of “missionary” posts back, I intimated that we got to stay at the missionary stations while visiting various cities or en route between points in return for our work giving out medicine and such at our research camp. In truth, the arrangement was a bit more complex and subtle than this, and in fact, I think the arrangement and its nature changed over time. The various missionary entities that existed in the Ituri Forest and nearby cites that would be used as jumping off points were actually hospitable to us for three reasons. 1) Almost everybody is almost always hospitable to everybody else in this region. This is how things must be for anything to work. The only non-hospitable units are official governmental agencies of Zaire, or where they exist, embassies or consulates of the United States. 2) We did fill in a blank space on the map where essential medical services were not available to local people because the missions did not operate that far into the bush. Our research station was beyond the Blender Line and even beyond the Beer Line. 3) We paid. For the most part, mission stations had guest rooms and other facilities for use by passers by, but there was a charge (though very inexpensive) to cover costs. Flying on their planes cost as well. Continue reading Our Research Camp as a Mission Station→
Lately I’ve been reading the 19th and early 20th century traveler’s accounts of what is now known as the Western Rift Valley and the Ituri Forest, Congo. Some are written by the famous ‘explorers’ such as H.M. Stanley, others written by scientists on expeditions in the area, and still others by missionaries. Reading these accounts puts me in mind of my own experiences, as a scientist working in that same area, with the missionaries that live and work, or sometimes just visit, there.
I live in Minnesota and work in South Africa. That means that every time somebody I don’t know hears that I’ve been to South Africa more than once or am going there for an extended period, they say “Oh, is it mission work … my [cousin/aunt/uncle] is a missionary there.”
Thankfully, I have yet to meet a missionary in South Africa, but when I lived in the Congo, I often lived among them. And there are two kinds. The good ones (as far as I know they all speak only Italian and KiSwahili and are Catholics) and the evil ones (American, Australian, and British, mostly).