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.
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.
He visited Western efforts that turned poor but struggling Africans into panhandlers, and left the efforts themselves dependent on constant fundraising: "The organizations bought cheap land rather than good farmland and then spent their money on good housing and good cars." As his fourfold vision-an AIDS orphanage that is "African, simple, pragmatic, and replicable"-took shape, he took out an $85,000 second mortgage, sold a boat and tools, and had $140,000 to put into an African start-up.
He traveled to South Africa repeatedly, scouting out communities for orphanages and looking into productive farms that, after a one-time purchase, would allow Agathos efforts to be self-sustaining. He saw the importance of building relationships in the villages where he would locate, and-as a person who had been away from Africa for nearly three decades-looked to some Westerners with more recent experience.
The person he chose to be the "village coordinator" for his pilot project in Loskop had his own wounds to heal. John David Borgman, a vigorous 63-year-old who wears a neat ponytail, grew up the son of a church elder in Connecticut and graduated from Wheaton in 1964. (His best-known classmate: Speaker of the House Denny Hastert.) Mr. Borgman joined the Marines, went to Vietnam in 1967, and flew 181 missions in a single-seat fighter that carried bombs, rockets, and machine guns.
Later he called in air strikes and gained a ground-level view of war as hell: "I was part of devastation and destruction. I felt like I was losing my soul." He lived in the United States for a while, then volunteered for 10 years in Tanzania while his wife (born in the Ivory Coast) taught school there. He adopted not only a different hemisphere but a different part of his name: "I grew up being called David, but the military called me John. When I came to Africa I let the Borgman part of the name drop off." He now goes by J.D.
Six years ago he purchased for $80,000 and moved to a beautiful 150-acre ranch just down the road from Loskop. One morning last month, as he drove milk from his eight goats to a woman who takes care of 25 children, he spoke of how "Africa's been good for me. It's helped me to let go of a critical spirit, a lot of pride-like mainstream Christianity." He criticizes "American individualism" and says, "Here, the community is important. The community is my family-that's what giving up my last name signified."
As a visionary CEO, Rob Smith also recognized that he needed someone to create order-a chief operating officer. Volunteering for the role for six months is Scott Brinkerhoff, 51, who graduated from Houghton College nearly three decades ago and spent the next 28 years teaching and coaching at a Christian school. He resigned last year. His first wife (and the mother of his two sons, both now involved in missionary and international development work) died 14 years ago. Like Mr. Smith and Mr. Borgman, Mr. Brinkerhoff was following Christ in working at Loskop and also trying anew to pioneer a vision for the church and himself.
Bold, sometimes-wounded healers in frontier conditions are playing a role in the Agathos plan to develop more homes for orphans that are culturally African. Mr. Smith noted that some programs try to Westernize children, but his goal is to have the children live as Zulus-with some Western improvements, since "a flush toilet is better than a pit toilet." He said his objective is not to instill Western culture but Christian culture, which includes a sense of law and a willingness to work.
That's an ambitious goal, and to move it along Mr. Smith is looking for income-generating businesses that can prevent the further growth of "a welfare mentality throughout Africa . . . people always looking for handouts from Europeans and Americans." He notes that a coffin-making company is likely to have lots of sales over the next 10 years. Children at the orphanage have chores that require effort but offer rewards: In the afternoon they put on rubber gloves to pick up garbage, with the incentive of being able to blow up those gloves into balloons when work is done.
Mr. Smith is also concerned about bicycle chains. He started out having two bikes held in common by the 32 children currently on site, but from now on will give them, and lesser toys, to particular children: Property unowned is soon property broken or lost, since no one has much personal stake in maintaining it. Loskop itself is providing further evidence of ownership's importance: A close-by, government-provided community center now has broken windows and is rarely used.
Agathos is fighting against both childhood irresponsibility and social shoulder-shrugging promoted by British colonialism, which brought some economic upgrades but a clear psychological downgrade; at this point helping many South Africans to move beyond dependency requires patience. When a bathroom door was off its hinges, Mr. Smith observed that he "could fix it in three minutes, but what good would that do? People have to learn to fix things themselves." He was patient and at the end of the day the door was fixed.
In the end, the Zulus themselves will also have to change some suicidal customs. Today, witch doctors sometimes spread AIDS by telling a sick man to sleep with a virgin and he'll be cured. Fathers typically charge potential bridegrooms 10 or 11 cattle for their virgin daughters, a price beyond the reach of some men, who then feel justified in promiscuity. (If a father did not charge such a price, it would indicate he considers his daughter to be a slut.)
Mr. Smith speaks of the need for a culturally adept alternative that would show the value of a bride-perhaps a mortgage system where the father would let his daughter marry a bridegroom who would agree to pay money each month for a set number of years. The influence of witch doctors (who within South African multiculturalism now have the same status as medical doctors, officially) needs to be fought by a Christian surge.
Will the Loskop project contribute to that? Agathos needs to handle several problems. Since South Africa does not allow orphanages as such, children live in what is called "cluster foster care," with each child officially under the authority not of Agathos but of a caretaker (often a grandmother of one of the children) hired by Agathos and paid South Africa's minimum wage of about $100 per month. The caretakers are the critical links in conveying a Christian understanding to the children, but finding strong Christians for those roles is not easy.
Another problem is that, unlike the Zambian and Namibian orphanages profiled (Read Part I and Part 2.), the Agathos project so far is relying on South African public schools rather than starting a school of its own. The public schools still have some Christian content, but it's spotty; also, children do not start studying English until the sixth grade.
The Agathos goal is to do everything inexpensively so the Loskop home and others down the road do not require constant transfusions of cash from America. But will Agathos' unique selling propositions-living cheaply, African-style; developing self-sustaining farm homes; putting Americans and Africans in direct contact on a "one church, one village" approach-resonate with U.S. volunteers and funders?
On that question, the jury is still out.