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'Agents of virtue'

"'Agents of virtue'" Continued...

Issue: "Weapons of mass hysteria," March 15, 2003

A: The road to underdevelopment is paved with good intentions. Computers for villages with no electricity, etc. The worst thing that aid does is destroy initiative and create a sense of entitlement.

Q: The UN, World Bank, and international relief and development agencies all spend billions of dollars, but seem to have created a culture of dependency. Your critique seems similar to that often made concerning the U.S. welfare system. Is that a fair analysis? What's the solution?

A: It is fair to try welfare or aid, but if in 40 years it has not made a difference and only creates a culture of dependency, perhaps try something else. I would distinguish between emergency aid (which is necessary) and aid schemes which are generally self-serving-"Let us build you an expensive road with American bulldozers, American supervisors, and an American company under contract."

Q: You traveled from the Muslim north through heavily Christianized countries like Malawi. Different religions, different worldviews. Do the differences show up in the treatment of women, attitudes toward life, work?

A: Not much difference. Women and children are treated like cheap labor in both Muslim and Christian countries in Africa; for example in Ethiopia, which has been Christian since about the year 333 a.d., and also got Muslims fairly early. I might add that there seems to be less race-consciousness in Islamic places.

Q: You don't much like Christian missionaries. Why?

A: Preaching that good hard-working innocent people are sinners, making them repent, making a virtue of suffering, promising better times in the afterlife-this sort of evangelism seems to me to subvert cultures, by making people despise themselves and their traditions.

Q: On the other hand, you seem to have met many Christians whom you admired. I'm thinking of Una Brownly, going home to Ulster on furlough, and the Drummond family in Zimbabwe. Maybe even the founders of your Malawi school? Have Christians done anything worthwhile in Africa?

A: A person is not good because he or she is a Christian or a Muslim. Goodness arises from a pure heart. Christians must see that it is arrogant to think that people must be "saved" by them. The people I met and liked in Africa, religious or not, had pure hearts and humility, a sense of joy, no anger.

Q: Sometimes your graphic descriptions seem at odds with your ideology. You fantasize and idealize about relaxed sexual mores. At the same time you describe African societies that have been decimated by the same thing. Couldn't Christians be right about the benefits of sex within marriage?

A: Fantasies are often at odds with the realities of life-that's why they are called fantasies. I agree that monogamy is desirable and even ideal. My prescription: Preach abstinence and monogamy but hand out condoms.

Q: You seem to think that Africans would be better off if they returned to their pagan roots. How so?

A: Why do you use this loaded word pagan? Pagan means no religion. But all African societies had gods and faith in them; a belief in an afterlife; a reverence for the dead. They were told that all this was wrong and that only Christ or Allah could save them. I think they were doing very well before. There are many people in the world who are managing quite well without missionaries.

Q: Your saddest experience?

A: Hearing that a government minister in Malawi had recently stolen the entire education budget of millions of dollars. And, with all respect, hearing a young woman tell me that she was heading for Mozambique and adding, "They're all sinners, you know."

Q: Scariest experience?

A: Being shot at by bandits in northern Kenya-but the positive side to this, and other scary experiences, was that I actually had something to write about in my book.

Q: Most joyful experience?

A: Getting to South Africa after months of travel and realizing that South Africa had been reborn as a multiracial country, with justice and freedom. It was not long ago that Nelson Mandela was vilified-by Dick Cheney, Margaret Thatcher, and many others who called him a "terrorist," "communist," and a criminal. Israel, Japan, Britain, and many other countries traded with the oppressive and racist South African government. South Africa would have been chaos without Mandela.

Q: Ever a moment when you thought, despite yourself, God made this place?

A: I don't know what or who made the universe. It would be presumptuous of me, and beyond my powers to say. Of course, I respect God-fearing people and I admire religious people who are able to listen to a different point of view.

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