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Extreme games

Africa | Travel to Africa means dramatic change for many from America, but one group is pushing the back of the envelope even further: not only living in Africa, but living like poor Africans

Issue: "John Roberts: Bush's pick," July 30, 2005

Part three of a series by Marvin & Susan Olasky in Loskop, South Africa. Read Part I and Part 2.

When first lady Laura Bush two weeks ago visited three African countries, more Americans became conscious of how AIDS is ravaging the continent. In South Africa, for example, she learned that the country has more than 6 million officially HIV-positive people out of a population of 47 million, with the real figure probably much higher.

Since government-to-government aid has rarely been helpful, what Americans can do about the crisis is harder to gauge. The easier way is to send a contribution to some large organization and hope a chunk of it gets to the needy in a way that actually helps them. A harder way is to go to Africa and personally work with those in need.

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The hardest way of all may be to reject the tendency of some Western residents of Africa to lead luxurious lives by African standards-and, instead, to offer help while eating the same food and using the same outhouses as the Africans being helped. It's a way that makes Africa the newer frontier for some Americans not only by geography but by lifestyle.

Rob Smith, 47, born in South Africa but a U.S. resident for the past 30 years, advocates the hardest way. Last month he was heading back to Loskop, a small South African village south of Ladysmith. There, he and other volunteers from America are "sending a loud message," in Mr. Smith's words, "by living with our kids, eating with them, lining up for showers with them, not shoving to the front or having separate toilets." The kids in this instance are 32 boys and girls up to 18 who have been orphaned by AIDS.

While growing up Mr. Smith developed a jaundiced view of white efforts among blacks. He confirmed that in 2002 when he traveled to Africa and visited missionaries and Western-style orphanages. Here's his overgeneralization: "Western missionaries come with five kids and buy Plymouth Voyagers. Those are luxury cars here. The Africans see that and immediately have their hands out. Whites cut out some of the suspicion and difficulty if we live like our black neighbors."

The Loskop program began last September in a neighborhood called Injesuthi, which is Zulu for "the dog is satisfied." The site didn't use to satisfy anyone except the drunks who slept in shacks there, but the foundation Mr. Smith started, Agathos ("Into Africa," Dec. 25, 2004), last year took out a 30-year lease on the acreage for about $150 per month. Now the property boasts a kitchen/dining room building, a building with rooms for visitors, and a row of apartments-typically two rooms, six bunks-for caretakers and children.

The cement brick and woodframe-and-stucco buildings are bounded on one side by the Tugela River and on the other by a barbed wire fence with seven rusting cars (completely stripped) just beyond it. Temperatures from June through August-southern hemisphere winter-can dip below freezing at night, but there is no central heating and, in many rooms, no heat at all.

Some major Christian organizations discourage contact between volunteers/donors and African recipients, concluding that amateurs will gum up the works, but Agathos emphasizes contact and depends financially on Americans willing to pay a premium to do good as they have "an African experience." So how does God lead some people to become the Marines of ministry evangelism, purposefully living in hard conditions that they could easily avoid?

Rob Smith speaks bitterly about his personal African experience as a child: "You couldn't have a more miserable life than to be the son of a [legalistic] pastor." He passionately decries the combination of obeying small, man-made rules and dodging the larger problems that eventually destroyed his family: "I called to wish my parents a happy 30th anniversary, only to hear that they were getting divorced."

He called rather than visited because he had long before moved to Atlanta. He headed there at age 19 to escape home and to chase his girlfriend, whom he married on his 20th birthday; they now live in the Seattle area and are approaching their 28th anniversary. He attended a Bible college, worked as an accountant for seven years, and then became a builder, constructing 62 houses from 1986 through 1999.

Characteristically, he plunged into homebuilding by reading a book, then learning by doing. In 1999 he bought a custom furniture/woodworking company and lost his life's cash savings, $300,000, in a failed nursing home venture. In 2000 and 2001 he heard about Africa's growing AIDS crisis and decided it was time to go home.

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