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This week I am writing from Africa, and three events are swirling in my head.
I arrived in Kenya to learn about church bombings that seem coordinated and intended to take lives and wreak havoc. Half a world away, an act of nature leaves millions without power in the country I just left. South Sudan has large swaths of the country without power virtually all of the time.
What these situations have in common is the range of human good and bad and the effect of community. While I was working in Mississippi after Katrina, I saw people pull together in a way I could never imagine. People without power took out their grills and cooked for community members on the lawns of the few homes and churches that were not destroyed. People helped others put up tarps and run errands for others or watched neighborhood children.
A bad natural disaster brought out the best in people. Thousands and thousands of people volunteered for years after the storm. Religious organizations worked day and night to help people in the recovery. I have never been more proud to be part of this great country.
I expect that we are going to see a very different Fourth of July in those parts of the country without power. I think more neighbors will be having group lawn parties and helping each other until they have power again. It may not be the way many Americans planned their Independence Day, but it can be a real celebration as to who we are as a nation – people who care about others and are there in times of real crisis.
Although information is still coming out about the Kenya bombings, life is continuing here. People are fearful of what might come next because of the profound effect that bombings have on the security of their country. They worry it might have a lasting impact on tourism and the economy. This is not the first time this has happened. Kenya is a modern country, and bombings aimed at citizens in churches make for a fearful and worried populace. When people are worried about day-to-day safety, it’s hard to develop the potential of individuals and the country. It’s very difficult to move forward when you feel a basic insecurity.
It is that basic insecurity that struck me most about my most recent visit to the world’s newest country, South Sudan. After 22 years of war with what is now Sudan, there are still slaves that are being held in the Arab north. I work with an amazing group, Christian Solidarity International, that has singlehandedly helped free these people. This time was a bit different, though. We took along a child psychiatrist who talked to many of the children coming back to their home country after being freed. Many do not know where their parents are, or even whether they’re alive. Some saw their parents killed. All were traumatized.
We interviewed some of these children. One parentless child was brought with the larger group to the South. During the interview, this young girl told her story. She had no idea where her mother was and spent most of her nights tied up to a fence so she would not escape. The interviewer was impressed with her and decided to bring her to the village where Christian Solidarity International operates a clinic.
In just two days, this 7- or 8-year-old child moved from being terrified to singing songs with other children, as well as creatively making up songs together. She told the doctors what she wanted most was to go to school.
After seeing her, I wondered: How much potential is lost by not realizing the human potential of so many people?
In Kenya, it will take major effort to make people feel secure and comfortable in their own country.
The storms destroyed property and lives. But as we celebrate this Fourth of July, I’m hoping we can honor our mutual potential. I only hope Africa gets the help it needs to do the same.