I am a White African. I was born in Zambia 63 years ago and moved to Zimbabwe when I was four. My grandparents went from Pennsylvania to Zimbabwe in 1921, so my father also grew up there. I have lived in Zambia and Zimbabwe for 22 years of my life—including the first 15. At the core of my identity I am a White Zimbabwean, who now lives as an American and Canadian in Manitoba.
What does it mean to be a White African? At one level, it is simply to be human. What I say of myself all of us may be able to say. To be an African is to be human, like Asians and Europeans and Australasians and Americans. We are all sinners, and we are all created as God’s images in the world. At another level, this is my particular version of the human story.
1. To be a White African is to be broken.
Zimbabwe is a broken country today. The past five years have stabilized somewhat, but the first decade of this century saw inflation rise to several million percent a year—such numbers are almost meaningless: they mean that the price of anything would double every day. The present government is filled with corruption and violence. Politically and economically we are broken. I am a White Zimbabwean, which means also that I am a White Rhodesian. About 120 years ago White Settlers moved into Zimbabwe and took over the country. Over the next five years the indigenous people of Zimbabwe fought two wars to throw the settlers out; but the outcome was over 80 years of White rule.
When I was seven years old, I went to boarding school with the children of White commercial farmers in Rhodesia. The settlers had many good qualities, but they were also deeply racist. I imbibed that racism freely until I was 15 years old. To a great extent I have learned new ways of thinking, but I know that deep down all of us live with a personal story that shapes us in ways that we can’t even see. When I refer to the problems of the present, I know that I belong to the White Settler history that created the conditions for today. I grew up with people who assumed that Black people were children, and that they needed White people’s help to grow up. The problems of the present have roots in the past, and I am part of that past.
Zambia’s history is different, but the White contribution to its history is similar. The two countries were known as Northern and Southern Rhodesia, and the White minority ruled both countries. Northern Rhodesia received its independence in 1964 and took the name Zambia; Southern Rhodesia had to wait another 16 years for independence in 1980. Zambia is further down the road to economic and political health, but it has had its own share of problems from the colonial past. To be a White African is to be broken, to know that the evil I condemn has its roots in my own being.
2. To be a White African is to be proud of my country.
Zambia and Zimbabwe share many cultural themes with the rest of southern and south-central Africa. One of the best known of these themes is the concept of Ubuntu. Roughly translated Ubuntu means Humanness. A common proverb in Zimbabwe says, “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu”: roughly paraphrased as “a person becomes fully human only in and through community.” I need you to make me a real person. You need me to make you a real person. The individual is not the centre of society; people in community are the centre.
Some years ago our nine-year old son expressed a desire to move back to Zimbabwe, which we had left when he was five years old. I asked him, “What’s the difference between Zimbabwe and Indiana?” He replied, “Well, in Zimbabwe they treat people like people.” Wow! He nailed it.
In North America we live in isolation, and sometimes we help others. We can be very generous, but in the end we are a calculating culture. In Africa we live in community. When someone we know needs help, we don’t ask how we can help; we just help. I asked a friend how you know when to stop helping. He said, “You don’t ask. You just keep helping out, and when they refuse your help you know they no longer need it.”
I have a Zimbabwean friend in Winnipeg. More precisely, my parents and his parents were good friends, but that ties us together. His wife died a week and a half ago. Last week I went in to visit, while they make plans for the funeral. The difference between how we face death in Africa and in North America strikes me. In Africa, we face death together. When someone dies, you do not leave the bereaved person alone; we all grieve together. When the one who died is buried, we lower the casket into the grave and fill up the grave ourselves, each one taking turns. Here we leave the bereaved alone with their grief—we say, “They need their space.” And at the graveside we commit the body to the grave and leave, so that the professionals can lower the casket and fill in the grave.
Both North America and Africa have their strengths and their weaknesses. One strength of being an African is our emphasis on the person in community. Our orientation to the importance of person over the importance of task is a valuable lesson for task-oriented Western culture; just as the West’s preoccupation with procedures can help Africa overcome systemic corruption.
I could draw out other themes, but this is enough to say: To be a White African—to be an African—is to be proud of the people and place I call home.
3. To be a White African is to know that our real home is in Heaven.
A well-known song in Zimbabwe goes like this: “We are pilgrims on this earth. We are going to our home in Heaven. Even if our life on this earth is full of trouble, we are going to our home in Heaven.” One of the implications of this truth is that we can live by the standards of Heaven, we can live in God’s reign here and now on earth, because we know that Heaven is the ultimate reality, and the violence and oppression of this world is only temporary. This is a profound truth—that pilgrims of God walking through our earthly homes can live well regardless of the trouble around us.
You see, all of us from Africa are Africans—Black Africans indigenous to the continent; Asian Africans who came down the east coast; White Africans who came from the West; Lebanese Africans who came from the Middle East. We are what Johnny Clegg calls “Scatterlings of Africa”, gathered together on this continent and now scattered out across the earth to all the continents of the world. And scattered across the world we bear the gifts of Africa—especially the gift that we become truly human when we are bound together in community.
This is a reality that comes to fullness in the church, in the family of God, the body of Christ. That’s why I asked for Ephesians 2 to be read earlier—out of the two people of Zimbabwe (Black and White) God has made something new and united: the People of God. This is our reality on the most Christian continent in the world.
I think of the church that I come from in Zimbabwe. Our name in English is “Brethren in Christ”, taken from Paul’s greeting in Colossians 1: “To the faithful brethren in Christ in Colosse” (KJV). But in Ndebele this name takes on deeper meaning: Abazalwane bakaChristu”. Literally, “Brethren in Christ”, but this word “abazalwane” means more than just BIC. If I call someone umzalwane, I mean that this person who comes from the same womb as I do. Abazalwane: “people from the same womb”—in Christ.
You look at my skin and at the skin of a Black Zimbabwean, manifestly from different mothers. But we are from the same womb in Christ. We are truly brothers and sisters, bound together at the deepest most fundamental level possible—in Christ.
You see, I met Jesus in Zimbabwe in 1962, in a White Baptist Church in Bulawayo among people who loved the Lord but were racist to the core. I was baptized into the church in Bulawayo in 1964, in a Black BIC Church with 30 some other Black young people. In 1974 I grew greatly in the presence and filling of the Holy Spirit as I knelt with over 100 black brothers and sisters as we sang, “Woza Moya oyingcwele”: Come Holy Spirit. Four years later one of those black brothers (S. Ndlovu) stood beside me as one of the groomsmen at my wedding.
I became a pastor in Bulawayo in 1988 in a Black BIC Church with my brothers and sisters there. In 1992 we returned to the USA to stay, which meant that I was leaving home. It was the preaching of Shadrack Maloka, a Black South African, at our General Conference that helped me to lay aside my desire to stay in my Zimbabwean home, as we sang together words from the Lord’s Prayer, “Mayenziwe intando yakho”—Let your will be done in my life.
To be a White African is not the same experience for every White person from Africa. For me, it is to be broken, to be aware of great good in the people around me, and to be brought into the presence of God’s healing power that makes all of us one family, children from the same womb. It is really, then, simply to be human—because all of us in every country and culture are broken, aware of goodness, and needing God’s healing. I thank God for healing me and giving me himself through Africa.