A Lament: The Wretched of the Earth
After returning from Kenya where Carla Boelkens, Linda Renner and I were finalizing plans for the African-made Global Bag Project bags (and where David Mains and our son-in-law, Doug Timberlake, were interviewing and filming stories with HIV/AIDS widows), I had a few days turnaround, then left one Sunday morning with 11 women for a 3-Day Retreat of Silence at St. Mary’s Monastery in Rock Island, IL.
As it always does, the peace of St. Mary’s began to seep into my soul. I have come to love the ambience of this working Benedictine monastery with its population of praying nuns. The next Monday morning during Lauds was the first time since returning to the States that I really relaxed with a quiet mind. The Psalms in that early Office were particularly poignant in light of Africa.
“My whole being will exclaim, ‘Who is like you, O LORD? You rescue the poor from those too strong for them, the poor and needy from those who rob them.’” (Psalm 35:10, NIV)
I could hardly not think about the poor we had met, about how governments in developing nations are predictably rapacious.
Through a personalized lament, the psalmist bemoans unjustice: “Ruthless witnesses come forward … they repay me evil for good … I bowed my head in grief … but when I stumbled, they gathered in glee…” (vv. 11-12, 14-15, NIV).
The seminal work The Wretched of the Earth, published in French in 1961 as Les damnés de la terre, the same year as the death of its Algerian author, Frantz Fanon, is an eloquently enraged anti-colonialist tract. The work had far-reaching impact. In 1966, the Black Panthers, Bobby Seale and Huey Newton, who founded the militant Black Nationalist Party in the States, read the book in jail after being arrested for “blocking the sidewalk.” In the early ‘70s, Steven Biko became part of the South African Students Association and began to circulate the ideas in this book to friends and comrades—writers, activists, community workers, actors and students. In a prison cell in the notorious H-Block of Belfast prison, sometime after 1973, Bobby Sands read The Wretched of the Earth, and it may have lit the embers of the incendiary spirit that flamed the IRA. Ali Shariati, a student during the Iranian Shiite revival of the 1960s and ‘70s, which led to the revolution by Ayatolla Khomeini, became a highly respected intellectual. He translated Fanon’s work into Persian and was responsible for hybridizing Fanon’s Marxist call for class struggle into the terminology of Islam: “Oppressors” and “oppressed” became the Koranic terms mostakbirnie (the arrogant) and mostadafine (the weakened or disinherited).
Juxtapose, if you will, Fanon’s lament against that of the psalmist: “Exploitation, tortures, raids, racism, collective liquidations … all make of the national an object in the hands of the occupying nation. This object man, without means of existing, without a raison d’être, is broken in the very depth of his substance. The desire to live, to continue, becomes more and more indecisive, more and more phantom-like.”
The Psalmist: “Like the ungodly they maliciously mocked; they gnashed their teeth at me. O LORD, how long will you look on? Rescue my life from their ravages, my precious life from these lions.” (35:16-17, NIV)
No matter diverging political positions, the lament of all sides begins with outraged compassion. Someone is getting wealthy on the backs of those impoverished people who are glad to find room in the hovels of the slums. Some cartel is getting wealthy from the venders who sell goods on the streets and in the markets with only small percentages left to feed their families. “Please buy,” said one of the pesky sellers to my husband. “Please, Sir, if you buy, it is better than I should beg.”
“O LORD, you have seen this; be not silent. Do not be far from me, O LORD. Awake, and rise to my defense! Contend for me, my God and Lord. … Do not let them think, ‘Aha, just what we wanted!’ or say, ‘We have swallowed him up.’” (Psalm 35:22-23, 25, NIV)
Although Fanon’s terminology is laden with religiosity, he draws a line: “The Church in the colonies is a white man’s Church, a foreigners’ Church. It does not call the colonized to the ways of God, but to the ways of the white man, to the ways of the master, the ways of the oppressor. And as we know, in this story many are called but few are chosen.”
Sitting in the quiet and peace provided by those Benedictine women who have taken vows of poverty, whose self-declared work is to conduct these offices of prayer five times a day for the sake of the world, I was deeply moved by thoughts of the people of Kenya and by thoughts of the poor of the earth. I remembered Fanon’s brilliant analysis of the psychology of the colonized. In Mombasa, on the East Coast of Africa, David and I took the ferry off Mombasa Island to bump our way for hours in a van to a seaside village to sail in an Arab dhow (a dingy and battered wooden boat that, indeed, had seen better days)—all this in order to sight dolphins. On the way out of the city, hundreds of day workers were catching the ferry, traveling into town, opposite from us, to try to find work. Remember: Some 70% of Kenyans are unemployed. Think of that in terms of daily desperation, in terms of being “broken in the depths of substance.”
Our guide remarked on a rising ex-patriot national group that is carving out business success for its class, “Kenyans don’t like them. They are making money, but they don’t pay good wages.”
That evening, our van inched in a lo-o-o-ng line of vehicles to load the ferries, one after another, back to Mombasa Island. East and west shorelines now reversed, I could see thousands of black people on the other side, thousands and thousand with not a white face among them, waiting to board a ferry to go home. And almost two-thirds have no work they can count on for income.
In the chancel of St. Mary’s I remembered that moving and compelling sight. I remembered the joy on Mary Nduta’s face when we visited her home and filmed her sewing the East African Kanga cloth bags that could possibly provide a sustainable income for her family (and, it appears, many other families). I remembered the children in Pipeland slums in the Eastlands section of Nairobi who got the giggles when I rolled my R’s in answering the ubiquitous question of children all over the world who have discovered an English-speaking visitor. “How are you?” they call, again and again. “I am fine,” we answer back. Then, being a little silly, I called out, “And how ar-r-r-r-r-r you?” For some reason, they thoughts this was tummy-doubling, side-stitchingly funny!
Why should children grow up with open sewer trenches and an endless carpet of wasted plastic bags crumpling and denigrating the land? (And I am aware of the treacheries that unintentionally await the do-gooders of this earth; we will not understand because our privilege blinds us. We will paternalize; we will create welfare dependencies. We will unintentionally exploit, naïvely insult. We have the power to break the spirit of the poor. It’s terrifying.)
That morning with my fellow retreatants and the Benedictine sisters, as the verses of the Psalms were chanted responsively; side A reading a verse softly, slowly, then pausing; side B responding quietly, softly, then pausing, I had time, I had quiet to remember Africa.
Every day at St. Mary’s, after the morning office, a priest comes to celebrate the Mass. Because we are Protestants and not baptized Catholics, the elements are not offered to us. But we are invited to come forward crossing our hands over our chests to receive a blessing instead. Last year, the priest had a blessing for me (I imagine it was one of several he rotated through on these occasions, but it impacted me deeply. Something about courage to do what I had been given to do). So I was at first disappointed to see another priest in attendance—then I noticed he was a black man, and the moment he spoke, I realized his accent was African.
What are the chances of that in Rock Island, Illinois?
How much does it take for God to get Karen Mains’ attention? Well, let’s see—a two-hour journey to a retreat far from the responsibilities of office and home. A praying community given to doing this work in the world. Regular attendance at those offices, Lauds and Noontime Prayers and Matins. The Word coming through the Psalms bringing remembrance of the poor. And a black priest, traveling all the way from Tanzania (next-door to Kenya) with a spoken accent I have heard on the tongues of a hundred friends and strangers. And what did I hear?
Now my dear child, please remember that the Global Bag Project is my project. Let me just remind you gently: This is my project on which you are working so hard. It is I who hears the cries of the famished, of the downtrodden, of the oppressed. Please listen to me say Thank you for doing my work in the world.
To say the least, this was a stunning moment. I didn’t need the blessing of the black priest, though; I had already received my blessing.
It seems to me during these economically difficult days when so many people are facing financial collapse that we need to be storing our funds, hoarding our resources—not for ourselves—but so that we can share everything we can, give away to those who have not, to those who are losing what they do have. God’s heart is for the poor.
This is not a time for luxury; it is a time for urgency. Can you sell your extra car and give away the proceeds? Can you hire those who are out of work for part-time help? Can you share your food with the hungry? Do away with the yoke of oppression? Can you satisfy the needs of the oppressed? Can you provide the homeless with shelter? Clothe the naked? God’s heart is for the poor.
My friend Gail MacDonald and I try to talk on the phone once a month. “I thought about you when I recently read the story of Cornelius from Acts. God tells him through an angel in a vision, ‘Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God.’”
At least for Karen Mains, it is time to be doing God’s work in the world. God’s heart is for the poor.
The first African-made
Kanga-cloth bags are on their way. Thirty (or maybe 50—a lot gets lost
in translation) have been finished. The first Global Bag Project seamstress, Mary Nduta, has trained another seamstress. We have three other seamstresses in the wings!
Listening Group Research Project
The fall/spring cycle of Listening Groups is ending, and I am beginning to receive research questionnaires back from Listening Group leaders.
I bid your prayers for:
time with Bethany Pledge, who has volunteered to act as research
assistant on this project. Both of our commitments are shifting since
we originally agreed to do this project!
Organizational Meeting With
"We need to be storing our funds, hoarding our resources—not for ourselves—but so that we can share everything we can, give away to those who have not, to those who are losing what they do have. God’s heart is for the poor."
Every Bag Has a Story:
Mary Nduta is Kenyan and lives with her husband and three children in Nairobi. An accomplished seamstress, Mary works as a house-cleaner three mornings a week. Her husband's health is not good.
She has been making bags for three years and is presently designing and making some of the bags for the Global Bag Project. She has been a part of the Global Bag Project from its inception in February 2008.
the income from her bags she is able to pay school fees for her
children. Her dream is to start her own business as a seamstress.