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July 22, 2008

The Last and Least in Africa

African_woman The next time I find myself grumbling about the rising price of gasoline (and everything else), I'm going to remember this article about what higher prices mean to women in Africa and I'm going to count my blessings instead. 

The article, written by Kevin Sullivan, is long and heartbreaking as he examines a day in the life of a typical African woman in Burkino Faso. Since I have made numerous trips to West Africa in the past few years, this woman's story conjures up the faces of many of the women I know who live in such dire conditions -- women who are slowly starving themselves because they can't afford enough food to feed their families, and because their culture demands that they feed their husbands and children first, even if that means they get little or nothing to eat. 

My missionary friends are all too familiar with similar situations, and they genuinely want to help. However, how to help is not always clear. For one thing, they are not rich enough to give money to everyone in need; for another, the danger of making "rice bowl" converts is ever present. They don't want people to become dependent on them, but on God. It becomes a balancing act, and the subject of much prayer for wisdom to know who to help and how much help to give.

A larger problem, however, is the direct result of Islam's polygamous culture. The men, as this article reveals, do little: they are slavishly served by their wives who -- quite frankly -- are easy to replace if they die. The idea that a man should "love his wife as Christ loved the Church" (sacrificially) is foreign to them. One missionary I know confronts men who are Muslim converts to Christianity about this attitude. When he's staying in the villages, he will get up early in the morning with the women to draw and carry the day's supply of water, start cook fires, prepare meals, etc. When the men object that it's not their way, Gene will tell them that they are now Christians who must reject aspects of their culture that are against God's Word. By word and deed, he shows them how to love their wives and children.

I hope that you will take the time to read this article, and that you will pray for the women in Africa. More than anything, pray that the liberating gospel of Jesus Christ will come and save them all.

(Image © The Washington Post)

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Mike Perry

I'd be even more impressed if this missionary would tell the local women, whatever their religion, to refuse to marry, particularly into these cruel polygamous marriages. Wrong is wrong and foolish is foolish. Better no husband than one that's a deadbeat. Evangelicalism needs to get over its lopsidedly personalized and subjective morality. Neglecting, exploiting or beating your wife isn't wrong just for Christians. It's wrong period.

I might add that the real issue isn't men doing women's work. A division a labor isn't that bad an idea. Men and women are often happier with a fair division of labor. It's whether the men are working at least as hard as their wives.

Drawing water could be replaced by safe, piped in water with the pipes and windmills installed by men. Gathering wood for fires could be replaced by something less labor intensive and environmentally destructive. These men should be using their heads as much as their muscles

And these men could fix things. Someone who worked in Mali with the Peace Corps told me that when outsiders put in a modern water supply, it didn't work for very long because when it broke no one fixed it.

Diane Singer


When a Muslim man who becomes a Christian ALREADY has four wives and numerous children, what would you have him do? Kick out the three wives (and their kids) that he likes the least? That would lead to their deaths since, in the larger culture, these women and children would be left with nothing. It's one thing to reveal a standard (one man / one wife) to a single man or woman who is a convert to Christianity; quite another to impose that standard when it would lead to the deaths of innocents. Yes, they need to adopt a biblical standard; but it may not be possible to do so immediately without creating unintended, but disastrous, consequences in the short term.

And, you're correct, there's nothing wrong with a fair division of labor. But, if you read the larger article, you would know that there's nothing fair about how it works. In a typical West African village, it's not unusual to see women and young children at work from before sunrise to well after dark while their men sit around under the shade trees and talk. That's the attitude the missionary I mentioned was trying to reverse: to help these men see that they needed to work harder to care for their wives and children, and to quit thinking of certain tasks as "women's work" when they should be viewed as "family work."

Finally, even in villages where there are wells, it's the women's job to gather the water they need. And if the well in their village goes dry, then they may have to walk several miles to another village, carrying heavy pots of water back on their heads (you can't imagine the neck and back pain that these women live with). Frankly, your solutions have little meaning to people who live on less than $1 a day, have little to no formal education, and who don't fix things that break because they've never been taught how to do it.


(I said I'd keep silent, but my bones are on fire.)

Genesis 24:10 Then the servant took ten of his master's camels and left, [...]
Genesis 24:19-20 After she had given him a drink, she said, "I'll draw water for your camels too, until they have finished drinking." So she quickly emptied her jar into the trough, ran back to the well to draw more water, and drew enough for all his camels.

Diane, I'm sitting here weeping, Rolley-like, thinking about neck and back pain, and (thanks to Ravi Zacharias) about just how much a thirsty camel drinks - let alone ten of them. But mostly I'm weeping because I'm thinking about how overwhelming personal sacrifice points to the goodness and faithfulness of God. I've been feeling crusty and grumpy and resentful lately, thinking of my sacrifices that go unmentioned here on Earth, but reading your words and pondering them - I've changed. I can't say it as profoundly as I mean it: Thank you.

Gina Dalfonzo

Good to hear from you, old friend, even if it's just a brief visit! Blessings to you.

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