“This is Africa,” was the greeting my Emory colleague and I received upon our arrival to the Maputo International Airport. This common euphemism is one used by citizens and expatriates alike to describe the diversity of experiences one may encounter in a continent renowned for its rich complexities. For me, this journey to the motherland meant the end of a 30-year gestational period in which a dream conceived by curiosity and cultural longing would finally be born into reality. Finally, this Africa I had read about, studied about, learned about and taught about—I was now here. It’s by being here and experiencing Africa personally that I can really appreciate the value in my theological training.
In the field of biblical criticism one of the more popular methods of critiquing the Bible is to analyze it from three worldviews: a historical perspective, a literary perspective and an ideological (or situational) perspective. The historical view gives the reader/audience an understanding of what was happening at the time in which the text was written/depicted. The literary view helps us understand the particular nuances within the biblical text focusing on the placement of the texts and how they read. The ideological view helps us to understand not only what the text means and who wrote it, but allows for interpretations other than the original editor/writer’s to include the voice(s) of the reader.
I’ve found such tools to be useful when viewing God’s handiwork in this land called Africa. For much of my life I’ve studied this land through the historical and ideological lenses of anyone from Walt Disney to Cheikh Ante Diop, from ‘Classic Slave Narratives’ to Harlem Renaissance redactions, each of which carried their own views and skews of what Africa was. I spent a great deal of time interpreting how this continent’s rich history and heritage could be read culturally and even ontologically without investing the money to read (see) it literally. However, when using the literary perspective it helps me appreciate Africa as it is. When one literally assesses Africa for what it is, one might discover that the continent is composed of over fifty different countries. Within each of the countries there are dozens and even hundreds of ethnic/tribal affiliations. Within each of these groups there are dozens of religions and languages practiced and spoken by over a billion persons who each have a unique worldview of what Africa is best described by, “This is Africa.”
My “this is Africa” experience has landed me in the southeastern portion of the continent within the Inhambane province of a country named Mozambique. Since Mozambique was colonized by Portugal in the 1800s, it adopted Portuguese as its ‘official’ language. However the non-verbal, unofficial ‘tongues’ spoken by this country’s inhabitants can be comprehended universally in the sounds, smells and sights of this beautiful country. They can be comprehended when hearing the laughter of children playing capoeira on the beach, heard in the ‘mouths of babes’ giving thanks on the backs of their mothers, and heard in the synchronized songs of thousands of heavenly hosts soaring through the Mozambican skyline. They can be comprehended when smelling the marketplaces where fresh xima is being minced and prepared to serve with today’s catch of ‘Franco,’ all consumed with servings of coconut water. Most distinctly, they can be comprehended by seeing the mothers who carry the burden of a country’s past, present and future on their feet, heads and backs.
Her feet have often been the source of stability for an economy on the rebound after a fifteen-year civil war. Though her efforts may not ever be reflected in a GNP calculation, she is the unsung heroine of a country described as a ‘true success story.’ At the break of dawn, her feet carried her to fields of sugarcane, maize and corn, then to a two-mile dusty, sun-scorched path, then to a busy marketplace for purchasing and exchanging goods, then to another three-mile trek home to prepare food for her family.
She is not alone because in her head she carries the memories of ancestors who have walked these very trails, picked these very crops and even worked these very shops. On her head she carries with her the produce that when cooked makes every meal seem like a holiday. On her head she carries a pot that serves mutually as a container for beverage and storage for food. On her head she carries her traditions in a beautifully coordinated headdress that serves as protection from the heat, padding for her possessions, and promotion for her obvious fashion sense.
She is never alone because on her back she carries her destiny’s child. In the fields, in the market, on the streets, in the airport, wherever she goes, she carries the bundle that makes burdens seem like labors of love. On her back she carries a future that shines brighter than a summer’s day in the Serengeti. With so much purpose and possibility on her back there is no room for sadness and sorrow; on her back she carries Mozambique’s hope for a brighter tomorrow. Though at times it seems her work is too tough and at times it seems the food will not be enough, she sings because her child is happy and she sings because her child is free. For she knows that the sparrows have no lack; and if God watches out for them, then surely God has got her back (her future).
Who is this woman? One might ask. She can be seen walking the streets of Maxixe, Maputo and Mozambique. Her work in making a difference leads her across demographics of age to include her daughters at every stage in life. Her paths cross over community affiliations to include sisters in Sofala, Nampala and Gaza. Her cause transcends religious boundaries to do God’s work with Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and Curanuerroes (traditional healers) alike. Her arms are large enough to embrace sisters from every hue, color and shade, from every texture and type of hair grade. Some describe her theologically by ascribing to her Proverbs 31; others research her through anthropology and refer to her as ‘Lucy.’ Who is this woman? She is Mali, Malawi and Morocco; she is Egypt, Ethiopia and Eritrea; she is Cameroon, Congo and Côte d’Ivoire; she is Ghana, Guinea and Gambia, she is Senegal, South Africa and Sudan; SHE is Africa – the mother’s land, the place I once only knew intellectually, but now have come to know literally.