For 10 years I have been going to East Africa, taking solar equipment to electrify homes and schools, orphanages, offices, hospitals, clinics, and whole villages in the rural hinterlands of Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda. I have 10 years of experience leading teams of American young people and African youth into the bush to install the equipment and to witness what a transformation electricity makes in the lives of people and the development of their communities.
On our first mission trip, we went to the verge of the impenetrable forest to install small solar units in two cinderblock houses the government had built for some resettled pygmies. These strange little people sang, “You came all the way from America to bring us the light. ‘Tukutendereza Jesu’.”
Over those years we have seen and done a lot. More than 2,000 installations have been subsidized by the charitable gifts of individuals and churches from all over America. It has been a collaboration of church, private enterprise, and government working together in local settings to make things happen and turn on the lights. With a commercial firm in Kampala, Solar Energy Uganda, we are partnering to build the first solar fabricating plant in East Africa.
But the most important fruit of these 10 years is the nearly 200 American kids, with a nearly equal number of Africans, who have caught a vision; who, in the words of our patron, First Lady Janet Museveni, have become true “internationalists.” They are future leaders in this emerging global civil society we are witnessing— political, economic, spiritual.
But I have seen some other things that trouble me, including the pressure of Islam. A large and beautiful new mosque dominating downtown Kampala has just been built with oil money from Libya. Sub-Saharan Africa is the target of expansive Islamization. We are finding that Chinese solar products are more economical for our installations than American-made products. It is as if we as a nation don’t care about Africa. The U.S. is losing influence to these other powers, economic and cultural. They have the vision to see that it is in Africa that the great culture wars of the 21st century are to be waged and won. We have got to get our heads out of the sand.
And for us as church? It is getting harder to raise the funds that could empower mission to respond to the great opportunity for service and development that is opened to us. Our outreach is complicated by the theological and ideological battles that are consuming imaginations and energies, and therefore our resources.
Conservative groups are uniting with African churches and building excellent relations of witness and support. But they are also tied up with building domestic ecclesiastical infrastructure.
The Episcopal Church has made a seminal commitment to the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals. It has a well-designed and costly promotional campaign, with conferences and high profile celebrity leaders committing TEC to underwrite this major project to rid the world of abject poverty within 15 years. All well and good, but I worry that it will be just another over-organized foreign aid bureaucracy, and very little help will ever filter down to my pygmy friends emerging from the impenetrable forest.
What the church must do is what the church does best. That is to transform the hearts of individual men and women and connect them with their African brothers and sisters who love the Lord Jesus and desire to do his will. Then pray the Holy Spirit will inspire them to build a genuine global civil society. That has been the mission of Solar Light for Africa these past 10 years. And, by God’s gracious providence, it will continue. Tukutendereza Jesu!
Tukutendereza Jesu: An East African expression of praise and thanks to God through Jesus.
Our guest columnist is the Rt. Rev. Alden M. Hathaway, Bishop of Pittsburgh, retired. He lives in Tallahassee, Fla.