The Plight of East African Children and the Hope of the Gospel

Rev. John Barber, PhD | Contributor | Wednesday, May 30, 2012
The Plight of East African Children and the Hope of the Gospel

The Plight of East African Children and the Hope of the Gospel

My first trip to Kenya and Uganda to instruct pastors with little biblical education was stunning. Typically the word “stunning” takes into account the illuminating nature of experience — its wonderment. In this particular case, however, although I did learn and experience many wonderful things, my reference to being stunned is intended to convey a slightly different meaning.

Upon arriving home, I commented to a friend that my time spent in East Africa was like being in the 21st and the 15th centuries at the same time. Kampala, Uganda, especially, is the picture of a Bentley driving by a woman who is walking along a street with a large basket of bananas balanced perfectly on her head.

The whole situation is one of extreme polarities. The ultra-rich and the ultra-poor. Cutting edge technology and ancient tribal traditions. Breathtaking natural beauty and rampant social injustice. East Africa is suffering from cultural schizophrenia. Only very select parts of the regions have advanced economically, culturally, and socially, while the area’s infrastructure and the daily lives of most of the people have not. Perhaps some do not see this as a problem. I do.

But what is of special concern to me is the plight of East African youth. Before departing Entebbe airport in Kampala, Uganda to return home to the States, a friend handed me a copy of New Vision — a popular Ugandan newspaper. I read it from cover to cover on the flight. My curiosity with the paper was sparked the moment I read the lead article, titled “Moroto girls reject female genital mutilation.” That’s right. Female castration. The gruesome and vile practice is still alive and well in the Looro sub-county and in many other areas. About 600 girls bolted before the contemptible act could be performed on them. A spokesperson for the district, Mary Liiza, could only comment, “The girls had disobeyed their parents and instead went to school.” Incredible.

The basis for the rite extends back many years. But in more recent times witchcraft is the modus operandi. Yes, even witchcraft is a hard issue for most Westerners to mentally consolidate. We are used to thinking of witches as a metaphor for evil, or as those poor, misunderstood women of early Salem, Massachusetts, or as a theme in the Wizard of Oz and Harry Potter. Or perhaps we may think of the modern, politically correct version of witchcraft practiced by WICCA, which, although is not to be underestimated for its cultic connections, is really an organized vehicle for super-feminism.

In Africa, however, there is no question that witches are for real. They are walking examples of the very thing Paul has in mind when he warns us of “spiritual forces of wickedness” (Ephesians 6:12). Such forces are not the same as “flesh and blood.” But neither are they always inseparable from flesh and blood. Demonic forces can and do often occupy real people (see Mark 5:4, Acts 16:16). Thus, Peter can warn us of the devil who “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). In East Africa, the lion comes in many guises, usually as a manipulating witch or soothsayer.

The ploy goes like this. A witch, usually an elderly woman, convinces an unsuspecting family that it is best for their daughter to be mutilated and then married off quickly so that they can acquire wealth in the form of “bride price.” In the end, everyone makes out well — except the girl. The witch is paid handsomely; perhaps as many as three to five cows. And the family also gets a nice gift often in form of several pigs.

Reading further in the newspaper, I came across another article, this one called “7,000 kids rescued from labor.” According to Kampala authorities, 7,538 children in Acholi, Karamoja and Lango sub-regions have been rescued and returned to school. Responding to the problem, a politician thought it wise to call on “the government and donors to address the causes of child labor and also poverty, HIV/AIDS, conflict and domestic violence.” One can hear the political pandering in this statement, for the issue was at first child labor, not HIV/AIDS and a host of other issues. One gets the sense that this politician is really not concerned with gross child labor but with using the occasion as a stage to muster emotions on a host of issues and to make it look like he is the one to do something about it. So it goes in East African politics.

And don’t let the phrase “and donors” cited above escape your attention. The main way things get done in Kenya and Uganda is when someone greases the palm of a politician. This problem is not uncommon to our American system of politics but at least here it is done behind closed doors. In East Africa, a major newspaper can speak of the need of “donors” to wake politicians to the abuse of children under sever labor conditions without even questioning the graft-ridden policy.  

But the more immediate problem is this. How did over 7,000 children manage to escape notice for days and even weeks before someone decided to try to return them to their schools? Who’s watching the kids? While I’m happy that the children were returned to school where they belong, my hat is not off to the authorities who took an unreasonable period of time to rescue them.  

In addition to the terribly sad stories reported by New Vision are some equally sad facts about Uganda alone. Uganda is a land of orphans. These destitute children are the result of two main causes: brutal dictators who killed their parents and the loss of parents from the AIDS epidemic.

Over 20 years of rebel activity by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) has created a humanitarian upheaval in Northern Uganda that has displaced 1.7 million people who don’t have access to humanitarian aid. Especially hard hit are the children. A 2006 report issued by OXFAM estimated that 935,000 children were displaced from their homes due to nationwide violence. Many of the orphans live in one of the estimated 230 displaced persons’ camps that offer limited supplies. Many orphans simply wander the streets. Uganda also has the highest number of AIDS orphans in the world. Around 1 million people live with AIDS in Uganda and over 1 million children have lost one or both parents due to AIDS.

Now if you combine the articles I’ve referenced from New Vision, with these startling statistics, what do you notice? It’s all about children. This is what stood out to me after reading through the newspaper on the plane. Children. Children. Children. Maltreated, suffering, and neglected children.

There was even a short blurb in New Vision about a father who physically “tortured” his son for “a long time.” Now if you witnessed a child who showed signs of long-term abuse would it not be evident? Where were his neighbors? Teachers? Perhaps he was one of the over 7,000 kids sent into forced labor so no one noticed. Even while the police were investigating the incident the paper reported that the father of the child continued to beat him! Has no one in Kampala ever heard of the phrase “protective custody”?

After I refolded the newspaper and sat it in my lap, I spent some time contemplating what I had just read. While reflecting on the preponderance of articles about children, a story from the Old Testament came to mind that may shed some light on the suffering of these poor ones.

The story is about the widow and the miracle of oil. The Bible records,

Now a certain woman of the wives of the sons of the prophets cried out to Elisha, “Your servant my husband is dead, and you know that your servant feared the LORD; and the creditor has come to take my two children to be his slaves.” Elisha said to her, “What shall I do for you? Tell me, what do you have in the house?” And she said, “Your maidservant has nothing in the house except a jar of oil.” Then he said, “Go, borrow vessels at large for yourself from all your neighbors, even empty vessels; do not get a few.”And you shall go in and shut the door behind you and your sons, and pour out into all these vessels, and you shall set aside what is full.” So she went from him and shut the door behind her and her sons; they were bringing the vessels to her and she poured. When the vessels were full, she said to her son, “Bring me another vessel.” And he said to her, “There is not one vessel more.” And the oil stopped. Then she came and told the man of God. And he said, “Go, sell the oil and pay your debt, and you and your sons can live on the rest” (2 Kings 4:1-7).

According to the story, a widow was once married to a prophet who was part of a company of prophets led by Elisha. Either the deceased husband was not a very good financial manager or he simply fell on bad times prior to his death because he left his dear wife with a large debt. The immediacy of the situation is enhanced by the fact that the creditors have waited long enough for their money and are now coming for the widow’s children as payment.

Here is the thought that ran through my mind on the plane home. East Africa, for all of its revival of Christianity, remains a remarkably corrupt and spiritually barren place. Christianity is gaining momentum in that part of the world but it remains “a mile wide and an inch deep.” The gospel has yet to pierce the overall culture there. Could it be that the “creditors” have come for the children because the spiritual debts of the current generation in East Africa remain outstanding? The impoverishment of the woman forms part of the narrative history of Israel’s faithlessness and presents a snapshot in time of what can happen to a people who walk in darkness.

But the miracle of the oil also teaches us something significant about God’s grace, and of his promise to restore us and to provide for our needs when we turn back to him in faith. Note the extraordinary blessing of God recorded at the end of the story. The woman asked Elisha only for enough money to repay the debt incurred by her husband. But the income resulting from the sale of the oil not only paid off what was owed. It was sufficient for her and for her children to live on for many days to come!  

Let us work and pray toward the time when the people of East Africa experience true revival and deep reformation of their culture, such that the children there will also know the covenantal blessings that come from God’s rich storehouse of grace.

Dr. John Barber is pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. As a part-time missionary with Equipping Pastors International, he also teaches several times a year at Uzima Reformed College, Nairobi, Kenya, and provides pastoral education at conferences in various parts of East Africa.

Publication date: May 30, 2012