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Reimagining the phrase "This is Africa"

By Steven Edging, Jun 14, 2016

We had just pulled out of my gate and were driving up the hill from my house when it happened. I live on a small residential road here in Uganda, complete with about 10 speed humps, with walled compounds towering on each side of the road but with a few open plots. We saw a small white car approaching in the opposite lane. All of the sudden it darted in front of us turning right onto another road just to our left. The driver basically drove through the wrong lane to get onto the road.

I have seen this many times before but that didn’t stop me from questioning the driving skills of that other driver. Oh the frustration! (My wife can attest at how many times I digress into foaming about the issues on the road. But please don’t, honey. That might be a bit embarrassing.)

It was a Ugandan friend, Mike, who was driving. I was riding with him so he could drop me at my destination on the way to his. Upon hearing my grumblings about the driver’s actions, he said, “This is Africa.”

It is not the first time I have heard that phrase uttered. I have heard it from Ugandans, Africans, and expatriates alike. Wanting to know his take on the phrase, I asked him what it meant. He explained that people in Uganda do whatever they want and have their own way of doing things.

That’s just how it is
It might analogous to a northerner being in Tennessee, asking for tea and getting sweat tea by default. The waiter might reply, “This is the South.” Or hearing “Hon” from someone and asking them why they call everyone that, they might reply, “This is Baltimore.” Or going to Chicago and ordering pizza and getting some cheese, tomato, and vegetable filled monstrosity and asking where your pizza is, you hear, “This is Chicago.”

However, unlike these situations, “This is Africa” is decidedly a negative comment. I have heard this phrase in reference to many things such as inefficient ways of doing things, bribes, a leader’s abuse of power, and traffic craziness (of course) among other things. It is a recognition that something might not be right or the best but “This is Africa” and that is just how it is. It is a phrase that denotes the presence of something bad but it not surprising to find it here because, “This is Africa.” The phrase even has an abbreviation: “TIA.”

Everyone seems to recognize something is amiss but nothing can be done about it because “This is Africa.” I do not like the phrase though. As true as it might seem at times, it conveys a defeatist attitude. So I avoid it. But many don’t avoid it including a lot of Ugandans I know.

Africa reimagined
I want this slang to change. I want it to change meanings. I want Ugandans to say it often. However, I want it to be in response to positive things. No one says, “This is Africa” in response to a kind deed or loving response. But I want that to be the case.

Our mission is not self-help or even Africa-help. Our mission is about gospel-help. The gospel is the only thing that can change the actions and attitudes of Africans. The good news of Jesus Christ changes lives and cultures.

There once was a rich theological heritage Africa. For example, Tertullian, who coined the word “Trinity,” is from Africa. One of the biggest church leaders of all time, Augustine, is from Africa. Africa today needs a fresh dose of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The issues such as traffic chaos, bribes, and abuse of power find their cure only in the gospel. Take abuse of power. You cannot give away power or be truly self-sacrificial with power if you don’t know Jesus, who having all the power in the universe sacrificed His own life for others. Bribes meet their end when people know Jesus who was generous and giving. Traffic chaos will be lessened when people know Jesus who was obedient to the law and preached the law. These traits are respected in the West because of the large Christian influence for at least 1,500 years.

To be sure there are many wonderful things happening here. Just the other day I was driving and had to stop because of a one car jam. The small blue hatchback got its front right wheel stuck in a hole. A crowd had gathered to watch as about 10 or 15 guys helped to get the car out of the hole. Just as I was about to turn around and go another way, I saw the car lurch forward. They had gotten it out. This kind of thing, sadly, is not referred to as “This is Africa.”

My hope is that people see the gospel at work and the Spirit of God moving and they think it is supposed to happen because “This is Africa.” It might take some time, but my prayer is when people see sacrificial leadership, no bribes, or other gospel traits they will say, “This is Africa.”

Steven Edging is an MTW missionary serving in Uganda

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