IN A remote part of the Lesotho highlands is an Anglican mission hospital. The road to Mantsonyane snakes through the Maluti Mountains, offering beautiful views and sheer drops into valleys below. Basotho men on horseback, wrapped in blankets, and people herding long-haired goats are often the only other traffic.
Surveying this remarkable scenery, I wrestled with troubling questions: what was the relationship between my feelings and the descriptions of these mountains by the colonial-era pioneers and missionaries who had, in so many ways, paved my way? How did my seemingly idiosyncratic experience reflect an intellectual and cultural inheritance? How did Christians today — especially those working in the mission and faith-based development sector — understand their colonial and post-colonial pasts?
There are plenty of lyrical accounts of Southern Africa by missionaries, travellers, and explorers (the categories were frequently blurred) during the 19th and early 20th centuries. During the mid-to-late 19th century, missionary and explorer writing was one of the most popular literary genres in Britain. Serialised in newspapers, abridged for children, and promoted in hugely popular speaking tours, these accounts captured imaginations across British society.
What all of these accounts shared, even when they reflected Africa in a positive light, was a profound sense of difference; and, as places were different, so were the people who inhabited them. “Africa grew dark,” Professor Patrick Brantlinger writes, “as Victorian missionaries, explorers, and scientists flooded it with light.”
Imperial historians have mapped much of this discourse, but we pay far less critical attention to the present day. There is a danger that, in the world of 21st-century mission, we regard colonialism as behind us and irrelevant to the ways in which we work today.
IN REALITY, many persistent and profoundly damaging stereotypes about Africa continue to sustain the ways in which many Western Christians, charities, mission agencies, and development NGOs imagine themselves. One of the most pervasive is an image of harmonious African communities, in which everyone knows everybody else; where “a person is a person through other people.”
While there are many places in this vast and diverse continent where identities are far more social and relational than those forged in the fires of Western individualism, the communities surrounding the hospital in Mantsonyane had much in common with communities in the UK.
In Britain, social isolation is, perhaps. the critical public-health issue of our time. This is not just a problem for those who live alone: “Western” capitalism encourages all of us to live apart, estranged from one another by the very things that we consume — houses, cars, and even the online personae that we inhabit. Yet the communities of Mantsonyane taught me that loneliness, separation, and alienation result from having too little, as well as having too much.
In Lesotho, a culture in which the self exists through other people has been eroded: by economic needs and patterns of migrant labour which send men to work in South African mines for 11 months of the year; by HIV, which has generated a climate of stigma and suspicion; and by widespread drinking and drug abuse by men who feel emasculated by their economic struggles and seek solace. In these communities, the Church has not always lived up to its promise to provide a healing and integrating presence.
During my visit, I learned that a powerful response has been pioneered, rooted in an extended listening process. Teams of people from the hospital, clinics, and churches have gone from door to door in the villages surrounding the hospital, to sit with villagers in their homes, hear their concerns, and learn how to respond better to their needs.
The most important discovery that emerged from these encounters was of a significant and yet unexpected need for connection and relationship — for someone to listen to people talk about their feelings and experiences: a witness. This practice is, in the words of Miriam, a woman who has found a new energy and vocation in it, the work of discipleship. It has met needs not only of the community, the listened to, but of the people who gave their time to listen. It has enabled them to reconnect with others, with themselves, and with God’s mission.
WITH Miriam, I visited a village about a day’s walk from the hospital. Having sought permission from the chief to enter the village, we visited the home of an elderly woman. Outside, a middle-aged man happened to be passing. He looked with interest at our strange grouping; so we invited him in.
In the course of the conversation, we learned of this man’s problems with his wife and their growing estrangement. The older women in the room gave him advice about how to approach his wife and understand her position. He listened, amazed to have found himself talking to strangers about his emotional life, and astonished at how much better he felt after expressing his feelings. He asked us to come again.
The elderly lady spoke of her own loneliness. Why, I asked, do you not visit your neighbours? “Because if I go to them, and they offer me a cup of tea, then what can I offer them when they come to my place? I have no cup of tea to offer.” For this reason, a woman whose children had moved to South Africa for work, and whose husband had died, sat alone at home.
This is the reality of life for many in an honour culture whose mechanisms for social transaction and exchange have been complicated by capitalist labour practices and expectations.
We often assume that the Church in other parts of the world is vibrant and actively attending to the needs of communities. We think that, while “Western” Christians are materially resourced, African Churches offer spirituality in abundance.
The Basuto and many other Africans live in a society where the power of the spiritual is taken for granted as being as omnipresent and active as anything that happens in the material world. But spirituality is not a “thing”; rather, it is a way of perceiving and approaching reality. The question for mission agencies in the 21st century is how we can have genuine encounters, and share our commonalities, when our vision remains clouded by Western stereotypes.
OVER the past few years, I have been trying to draw on all that we have learned in Lesotho to improve how churches and public-health partners work together in deprived parts of Leeds. The decline of the welfare state over years of austerity has leached the vitality out of communities that were already challenged by social and economic injustices.
Against this backdrop, churches, temples, and mosques are stepping in to fill growing gaps, and are doing much to transform the landscape in our communities. The relevance of the quiet, quotidian, and unremarkable labour of churches is both practical — for example, ministering to the homeless by offering food, shelter, care, and recognition — and spiritual, providing critical narratives of hope in times of crisis. Reactions to, and reporting on, the Grenfell Tower disaster (News, 15 June 2017) made much of the work of local Christian and Muslim groups. This is one of the faces of 21st-century mission.
For churches in Britain and Ireland wanting to engage more deeply in understanding and meeting the needs of the communities around them, expertise lies beyond these shores and with our global partners. By listening to each other, communities in the Lesotho highlands learned about common problems, shared responsibilities, and fellow feeling. This is especially needed when so many of the traditional ways by which people draw support or inspiration from one another — in Leeds no less than in Lesotho — are receding.
But, if we are to learn from our neighbours, we have first to rid ourselves of an inherited mode of thinking that sees the cultures of the global South either as different or as somehow “over there”. The challenges of disease, ageing, and social isolation are not unique to us. They are not “Western ills”. If we fail to ask how others are overcoming them, we will be the poorer for it.
Dr Jo Sadgrove is a research and learning adviser to USPG, and the project co-ordinator for the research network Keeping Faith in 2030: Religions and the Sustainable Development Goals, based at Leeds University.