A reflection on white people in Africa

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Kigali, Rwanda.

I am standing inside the Rwandan Genocide Memorial. In front of me are photos, telling the stories of genocides that have come before. Stories of Africa that have been long forgotten by the Western world.

Next to me is a young man, only a few years older than me. Rwanda runs through his veins and paints his skin a rich brown. He tells me he does not know whether he is Hutu or Tutsi, because his family is so afraid of the power the knowledge might hold, that the power of seeing difference could rekindle the hatred.

After the Belgians took present-day Rwanda from the Germans at the end of World War I, the previously unified people were divided when the Belgians preferred the Tutsis over the Hutus for having lighter skin. The Tutsis were given the power and weapons to rule. The Hutus overthrew the Tutsis in 1961, but the resentment and tensions that resulted would only continue to rise until they climaxed in 1994, wiping out approximately 800,000 people.

I look back to the wall. In front of me is a painting of the Herero and Nama Genocide. Taking place around 1905, the Germans overpowered the tribes in modern-day Namibia, coming into rule and making the native peoples slave to the desires of the Germans. Approximately 100,000 native people were killed, primarily from starvation and the poison Germans put in their wells.

I glance up at him. His face unreadable. “Europeans have brought a lot of pain to Africa,” I said slowly. “I wonder if Africa would be a less wounded place if we had never come.”

He ponders for a moment. “Even if Europeans had never come, sin would still exist in Africa.”

I nod, and we return to silence once more. But I still wonder, how can you not be furious about what we’ve done? How can you not resent me, coming here like a tourist to learn about the realities you cannot escape? How much blood has been poured out on this soil in the name of developing civilization?

We’ve killed millions of people to bring Western civilization to the new world, and we think we’ve done you a favor.

• • • • • • • • • •

Kampala, Uganda.

Kids walk up to us and drag a finger across our skin, looking to see if the white will wipe off. Some of the neighborhood children run up and hop in our arms unabashedly, while others hang back shyly. For some of the kids, we are the first time they have ever seen white people. Trash lines the streets, in sewers and at the bottom of ditches. Some of the kids do not own a pair of clothes that will cover their entire body.

I am embarrassed. Some of the people in our group are taking pictures of the kids, little strangers whose parents we do not know. This would be illegal in America, I think to myself. I am so haunted by this that I only take one picture, a little girl who hops on Logan’s back like a monkey and clings to him, grinning from ear to ear.

We leave an hour later, piling the 15 of us back into a van to bump down the dirt path back to the main road. I try to remind myself that some people must bear witness to the suffering of the world, that this is my calling, so we can work toward a world where people aren’t forced to live this way. It sounds hollow to my ears.

All I can hear is my heart, whispering poverty for one is a direct result of the abuse of power by someone else. And I know that we are the ones who should be found guilty for our crimes.

• • • • • • • • • •

Jinja, Uganda.

I am visiting my friend Erin. We sit on the porch swing, watching the kids run around the playground. She tells me that a high school group came earlier in the week as a part of their missions trip. Their trip consisted of four days touring Ugandan slums, and four days on a safari.

I know a girl in America who thought Africa was a country.

My lunch does flips in my stomach.

• • • • • • • • • •

Musanze, Rwanda.

I have been asked to give a sermon at a church. I agreed two weeks ago, but as I lay in bed the night before, my mind continues to hamster wheel. Who am I, an American university student, to tell them how to live well in Rwanda? Like I have it figured it out because I was born in America? My privilege tastes bitter in my mouth.

Earlier in the week, Jéan-Baptiste tells me that the Prosperity Gospel runs rampant through Rwanda. Most believe that God has blessed America because we call ourselves a Christian nation.

Every young Rwandan I meet tells me of their plans of coming to America. They ask me if it is easy to live here, and I swallow, not sure how to tell them that it will be so much harder for them than it ever was for me. That they will be forced to prove themselves in ways that I never had to for being American-born and white. I stumble over my words as I try to explain to my 26-year-old bus driver that few people in America will care that he is Rwandan, because he will be black first, African second, Rwandan last.

• • • • • • • • • •

If all I return with is thankfulness for what I have and to “never take what I have for granted”, I will have failed. I knew this before I left.

So instead, the questions I return laden with are much heavier ones: in a restored earth as God intended, what does distribution of wealth look like? How can I, one single individual, make steps toward bringing that vision to earth? What does it look like for me to steward my power well?

These are not questions I will find simple answers for. But I will have failed every person I met on my journey if I don’t try.

• • • • • • • • • •

I closed my sermon with a prayer, and when I finished I opened my eyes and scanned the room. In a moment of conviction, I put away the bullet points and spoke with every ounce of my being.

“I promise you that before I die, I will answer to all of you for how I chose to spend my wealth while I was here on earth.”

I promise that I try to do you justice.

I promise that I will try not to let you down, you who are the very least of these.

Whoever is last shall be first in the kingdom of heaven.

These are the promises I made in that little church in Musanze, Rwanda. These are the promises that I will spend the rest of my life trying to keep.

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One thought on “A reflection on white people in Africa

  1. “Sin would still exist in Africa.” Truer words were never spoken. Not to say the Europeans were ever so saintly as they presumed, but they *did* get their African slaves from African tribes. That brand of suffering long predated the white man’s arrival.

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