Thursday, 22 July 2010

A question of hope

There are many reasons not to have hope. In the West, our political institutions are founded on a certain hopelessness. Life is “nasty, brutish and short”, as Hobbes said, and so we need a strong state to keep us from tearing each other apart.

350 years since Hobbes was writing, new economic opportunities have not given any new ray of hope. Increases in economic well-being have seen a mirrored rise in suicide, divorce, abortion, depression and euthanasia. Go to where people are best off materially and it is hard to find suspicions of a utopia just around the corner.

But people of faith do believe a utopia is just around the corner and this makes them strange.

Yesterday I took tea with two men of Nairobi whom I had met at the Holy Family Basilica. They showed me to a cafĂ©, asking me to keep my bag close as we paid the equivalent of 15p each for tea to a cashier behind an iron grill. They were interested in Europe and how things are there and I tried to explain it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.

“People are very wealthy in Europe but at the same time many are quite poor,” I tried to explain. “There aren’t many morals—a kind of spiritual poverty.”

I had met Patrick, one of the two companions, last year when he had approached me after Mass to ask for a job. Last week, over coffee between us two, he had opened to me his thoughts about the ups and downs this year had brought.

“You see, the problem is work. I have no job and I look around and see lots of people with lots of qualifications. Me, I have no qualifications, no education.”

Patrick was not born in Nairobi but came here like so many others to find new opportunities.

“Offices are looking for young people with education. I am not young so they are not interested in me.”

But Patrick had said there had been ups as well as downs so I ask him what the ups have been.

“The good thing is that I know Jesus Christ is looking after me. I have been praying, you know, praying for my salvation. I know Jesus is watching over me and that things can get better.”

I would normally dismiss this as cheap testimony, the sort of testimony you might get from a washing powder advert. But I can’t because the poverty around me is real and I know this is his burden on a daily basis. Really, he hopes in Christ.

“Even now,” Patrick concludes, “I am grateful to God for meeting with you here.”

These rumbles of lives filled with hope are difficult to avoid. Yesterday I entered the Basilica through the side entrance and was cornered by a girl of no more than 8 years old who displayed twice the sneakiness of any distributer of the London Evening Standard.

“Please sir, I would like to ask if you will sponsor me for Youth Empowerment.”

And inside, the church is never empty. A nun passes me a booklet with words of the rosary of divine mercy. She has highlighted the lines of response to make it easier for me. Going to confession I have to wait 30 minutes in the queue and at the end the priest tells me to ask the others to go to the other confessional because he has to start saying the Mass.

Faith is tied with hope. This is a problem for many who want Africa to develop. Faith is seen as a distraction to the pursuit of profit, blinding people from their economic situation.

But here one cannot help feeling that faith and hope are worthwhile. In fact, people of faith are the most in touch with the poverty that surrounds them. They know it and they breath it. They want to fight economically, not just for themselves—like a capitalist—but for everyone they know. They can think to their own welfare and others’ at the same time, because they have hope.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Article from the Daily Nation, Mon 19 July

The Daily Nation is one of the two of Kenya's leading intellectual newspaper. Below is an amusing article I'd like to share, produced in yesterday's paper:

Fatherhood opens eyes to innocence of children

A man took his daughter to kindergarten and when she returned home after her first day in school, he asked:
“Did you enjoy yourself?”
“Very much,” the girl replied.
“What was your favourite activity?” he asked, glad that her daughter was doing so well in school.
“Break-time,” the girl answered with a big smile.

But the same could not be said of the niece of a friend who had always been pestering his mother to be taken to school. Well, the day finally dawned and the boy was taken to school where he had the time of his life.
The following morning, his mother dutifully went to wake him up at around 6am.
“It is time to go to school,” she said. The boy could not believe his ears.
“Again?” he asked in disbelief.

Well, these are just some of the gems that I have been sharing with my friends in the recent past after I too joined the club of fatherhood. But the story that I still recall though it was told to me many years ago was of a sanctimonious father who was trying to demonstrate to his son just how much advantage the boy’s generation enjoyed compared to his father’s.
“In our time,” the father said, “we used to go to school without shoes.”
“Ah,” the boy answered after some thought. “That means you would walk all the way in socks?”

I am told that as a boy, my father had threatened to abandon my grandmother in the bushes by the road after she and I had a quarrel while travelling. According to the tale, we had just been stopped by the police when I asked my father whether he had brought along his gun when my grandmother pinched me for being “careless” with words.
And every time we came across a bush, I would joyfully ask: “Is this one good enough, daddy?”

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Why Africa is stronger than the pro-choice agenda

In Kenya, discussions buzz in anticipation of the referendum for the new constitution to be held on 4 August. Whilst most agree a constitution is needed, religious groups have rallied for a “no” vote in response to the apparent unrestricting access to abortion guaranteed therein.

There is a sweeping undercurrent in Western thought that associates progress with individual autonomy, and it is this school of thought that sees access to abortion and contraception as solutions to Africa’s challenges. Anthony Giddens, for example, believes the family to be a product of social dependency, a crutch no longer necessary in areas of the world with high GDP and vast opportunities for social mobility. Economic empowerment will see the triumph of the individual over family and religion.

Writing from Nairobi, one of the most buzzing capitals of Africa, I have the impression that this pathway to individualism will not be tread here in quite the same way, if it is tread at all.

Access to contraception and abortion are heralded as two proud traditions the West has to offer the world as central to development and emancipation. Western NGOs and corporate bodies invest heavily in advocating their strengths for ensuring the eradication of poverty and female dependency. But few Africans want them. Abortion and contraception have shown little prospect for helping the fight against AIDs and poverty, and so the whole endeavour seems like a playback of colonialism: you will succeed if you do things our way. Restrict your numbers and follow our values, we will see your lives made prosperous.

Two words capture the position of the West: morally bankrupt.

There is something here in Africa that trumps the incessant individualism found in Western Europe and North America on a daily basis. It is not something that cannot be found in the West, just something that is stronger over here.

In Africa there is more friendship, more community. This does not excite many policy-makers who see problems as problems of the bureaucratic connection of state to citizen, but it does excite me. The trajectories of the Western “sexual revolution” are as much about the loss of friendship and community as the gain of individualism.

In the West it is frowned upon, for example, to suggest that the proliferation of abortion in the UK—over 6 million since 1967—is a crisis of fatherhood. Fathers in UK are encouraged not to give a damn about abortion. To give it significance amongst fathers would be to put pressure on the decision-making autonomy of the mother.

In Africa, fatherhood is deep with meaning. To be a father is something to be proud of; it is a sign of your place in the community and a sign of your dedication. Whilst in Africa fatherhood has spiritual significance, men in the West are assumed to have little spiritual capacity altogether. In the West men are, ironically, assumed to be hormone-driven hunter-gatherers. Deplorably, this view of manhood is being told back to Africans through the provision of condoms as the only way of stemming the spread of HIV.

On the question of poverty there is a strong case for arguing that too much population growth is unhealthy. But it is important for policy-makers to understand that a call for responsible family life must still recognise such a thing as family life to exist.

The question of abortion, for example, is actually a question of what children are and what motherhood is: are they gifts or burdens? If motherhood and children are burdens, the policies of the West will work. Widespread provision of abortion and contraception will render women autonomous and fatherhood irrelevant, and a reduction in births will result. But if motherhood and children are gifts, the policies of the West will meet difficulty. Rhetoric for the sexual revolution will clash with communities who feel their values to be under threat. Communities will turn defensive and reject Western policy as interventionist. Western commentators will turn to consider the essential backwardness of Africans. Sound familiar?

If the Western traditions of contraception and abortion are to have any head-way here, they must break up family, community and friendship first.