We often see and hear about the ugly side of Africa.
Turn to your favorite news source, go to the international section, and under “Africa” you are most likely to see stories about Jacob Zuma dancing around in a loin cloth or Robert Mugabe declaring his willingness to have free and fair elections (so long as “free and fair” mean he is free to have the opposition arrested whether they think its fair or not).
News outlets give you the idea that the whole of Africa is an endless parade of war, corruption, famine, and AIDS when, in fact, nothing could be further from the truth.
Even up close Africa sometimes seems like a place seething with despair and tragedy, where beauty has all but vanished. Every time I drive through the shanty compounds, and see children hauling buckets of water on their heads and women bent over sweeping the dirt around their tiny mud-brick homes, I wonder if these people have ever seen anything truly beautiful in their lives. Their whole world seems blanketed in brokenness. It seems all they know, and all they have ever known, is a world of dirt and disrepair.
But these are the thoughts of an outsider.
It takes about five minutes with a Zambian to realize that they know beauty in ways we probably never will. Today while teaching a class on the second coming of Christ, we had taken our morning tea break, and as the students were getting their tea and slice of bread, they spontaneously broke into song about heaven.
They sang in vernacular, and at first I wasn’t sure what the song was about. But I knew it was a joyful song. One young pastor started it all. With a toothy grin, he just started singing as he was pouring his tea. Without hesitation, and without waiting for an invitation, the others immediately joined in.
I sat in rapt amazement as eight students suddenly became beacons of joy and seemed to comprehend something of heaven far beyond what I ever have. And my earlier question then and there turned on me, and I wondered If I had ever really known the meaning of true beauty. Because beauty was right there in front of me, and I had almost missed it.
It is true that in some ways Africa is a broken and troubled continent. But brokenness and trouble may not be the enemies we often think they are. For at no time do we put as much hope in heaven as when we are troubled and broken.
And, from watching my Zambian friends, I am increasingly convinced that the more we invest hope in the life to come, the more beauty we bring to the life we presently live.