Relevant to Africa?
But is this 'new view in theology' relevant to Africa, or is it only something to interest the well-heeled nations of the earth? Should impoverished people in Kenya, for example, be told that their meaning in life is to bring blessing to the trees or birds around them? Surely not! if they do not have the next meal for their families?
Is that retort a little too obvious? Does it rather too quickly close down any debate or consideration? The issue might be a little more subtle than that. So I asked Zakayo and Catherine Epus about it. Zakayo is Bishop of Katakwa Diocese of Kenya, a diocese on the Uganda border just south of Mount Elgon. He had earlier been a development coordinator and worker in that area. Katakwa is far from the cosmopolitan capital, Nairobi. The most obvious problems of the area, which outsiders would immediately see, include monetary-poverty, food-insecurity, HIV-AIDS, low opportunities for education, an unfulfilled youth, so it is just the kind of area for which the retort might be applicable.
In discussion over a couple of days, I was told several less-obvious things, such as:
- This year (2008) the climate patterns changed. Usually people - most of whom grow their own food - prepare the ground in January and February and then 'the long rains' come at the end of February and last until June, so the newly-sown or -planted crops grow well. This year, rains came in January, before people were ready, and then stopped, and no more rain came until April. Crop yield was less than half the usual.
- Business people want like cash crops. The only cash crop in the area is tobacco. Tobacco needs to be cured by heat. To create the fires needed, eucalyptus trees are grown. But eucalyptus is greedy of water and dries out the land around it. Now the watercourses that once flowed are dry.
- Tobacco farming requires money up front to install plant, buy tractors, seeds, fertilizers and sprays. What hard and dangerous work tobacco production is! - with the preparation of ground, care to avoid breathing poisons from the sprays, continuous weeding, picking, then staying awake 72 hours to carefully watch the curing fires lest they overheat the tobacco. Zakayo told me of one local person who 'invested' in it, but lost his money after two years of this hard work.
- Litter. Plastic bags everywhere. The place feels dirty. People want dignity. A dirty place saps people's morale and vitality. It also breeds rats and disease. Even the grounds of the hospital are full of litter.
- Katakwa diocese straddles the North-South road from Egypt to South Africa. There are many trucks going up and down that road. Women who have no food for their families, and for whom life lacks dignity, offer sex to the drivers. So they contract HIV-AIDS.
There are many less-obvious problems that those who live in the area experience, and which are in some ways more important even if not so in-your-face. From these we begin to see that environmental responsibility is not totally irrelevant to the more 'obvious' problems. But when I briefly explained these ideas and asked whether it might be relevant.
This is (some of) what Zakayo and Catherine said:
A: It the mandate to bless or shepherd the rest of creation in God's name relevant? In what way? If so, how might it be worked out in Kenya?
Z: Yes it is relevant. [Zak gave two ways]
1. Pollution by our living. For example, by removing all that creates pollution, or would spoil the living-environment of people.
Why are we lacking rain? Because we have no trees. If we protect trees, we protect the humans who live there, without asking others to fund us.
2. Pollution by industry. A factory produces acid smoke and fumes, so the corrugated steel roofs corrode. We need to talk about this [in the community]. Factory water outflow pollutes river. Need to gig ponds to collect the water before it enters the river.
C: I've never liked litter. I try to influence women: "Begin with ourselves: pick up litter as we go." There's lots of polythene bags lying around, and they do not break down. So people see the bishop's wife picking up bits when she goes to market, and wonder if she's mad - then when it's explained, they begin to do it themselves. The women meet in their homes and go out and pick litter. Also "Try to plant out a few trees and flowers."
Z: We encourage Christians to plant more trees. When an evangelist goes into an area we ask him to plant ten trees. We ask confirmation candidates to plant two trees each, and the church to plant ten. Indigenous species. Seedlings cost only 2 shillings (128 shillings per UK pound).
Women. Some homes have no latrines. So we operate a merry-go-round. When we go to a parish we help one family get a pit latrine.
C: We tell the women, "We want you to be the public health inspectors. Keep your homes clean." For example, we ensure women have racks on which to stack their washed dishes. Flowers. Governance begins with ourselves.
Z: A clean environment.
A: So what you're saying is that if we bless the rest of creation, it comes back to bless us?
Z: Yes. It might not be on a large scale. Start in one place. It's an error to think we must start at a large scale or need lots of money. We don't require lots of money.
C: Start small. [So this is something even the impoverished can contribute to.]
Z: Trees. We planted from our own tree nurseries. We as a family try to plant at least five trees each year [in addition to all the others we encourage]. We must lead by example.
C: Zak organised a group of people to go to the hospital to pick up litter; there's lot of litter there. He told them "Pick up what you think should not be there." They picked up the litter and slashed untidy growth, leaving it clean. When the hospital asked what they were doing, they replied "This is our Environment Action day, and we decided to use it to help you keep the hospital clean." This shamed the Public Health Technician, and now the hospital are doing it themselves.
What do we make of that? Here are a few points, some theological or theoretical, others practical:
- If we bless the rest of creation, then it will return blessing to us. And vice versa.
- So, in some places, it might be better to present the ideas in terms of this truth.
- Involve the women (homemakers) who keep the homes. It is in homemaking where the extent to which the rest of creation returns either blessing or ill-treatment is most directly and most sensitively experienced.
- The world of work, commerce and the 'public arena' is, by comparison, sheltered from this, so it is no wonder that those who inhabit that artificial world are less aware of, or concerned about, environmental problems.
- The people in Katakwa, a largely rural diocese, seem to understand care for the creation intuitively; even in the midst of apparent poverty, they are well able to take responsibility and take action and understand why we should do so.
- Begin where people are,
- But look deeper than their obvious problems.
- To do this, get people to talk about the issues, and see the non-obvious links (such as the factory fumes and the corroding roofs).
- Begin small.
- "Governance begins with ourselves." I myself should begin, not waiting for others to do it first; 'sacrifice yourself' by, for example, doing the thing others think dirty, or by risking ridicule, rather than protect your rights. Then explain, and some others will follow.
- Lead by example.
- Organise. Hit key targets first where it is especially important (such as cleanliness around a hospital).
- Much can be done "without asking others to fund us". We do NOT need to begin large, nor a lot of money.
- Those who have greater standing in society should be the first and most visible in environmental care - not the last and most reluctant. Those who have leadership should lead in representing God to the rest of creation.
- Should not those who represent God - 'God's people' - be the first and most visible in doing this kind of thing?
- I thank God for Bishop Zakayo and Mrs. Catherine Epus, of the Diocese of Katakwa, Kenya.
These pages present 'New View' theology. Comments, queries welcome.
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Created: 10 August 2008.