T.I.A.: This Is Africa – a review of Tom Davis’ “Scared”

May 22, 2011 — 1 Comment

    “I want the world to know I’m a human being,” Samson says. “Although I have a terrible disease, I still have feelings, I still have fears, and I’m still a child of God. It’s a very strange things when you’re sick and your entire community, people who have known you for years, treat you like a leper.”

    I nod, and my eyes focus on a handful of strange-looking spots spread out on his face. They look like boils.

    “I want you to take my picture. And under the picture, I want you to write, ‘The body of Christ is suffering.'” (from Scared, by Tom Davis, Kindle loc. 674)

Tom Davis’ Scared is a fictional account of his real experiences traveling in and through Africa. With sometimes brutal clarity the book weaves together the lives of Stuart, an award winning photo journalist on the verge of becoming a has-been, and Adanna, a young girl in Swaziland, struggling to live from day to day, destined to become a never-was.
Stuart arrives in Africa on assignment with the New York Times to capture the growing AIDS epidemic for a series of articles to be written by British expatriate journalist Gordon. Together Stuart and Gordon, in their search to tell the story of those displaced and orphaned by the AIDS plague, befriend Pastor Walter, a Swazi preacher-turned-caregiver whose generosity to those in his village often results in his own children wanting for food. Meanwhile Adanna, who lives in Pastor Walter’s village with her mother, who is dying of AIDS, and her two younger siblings, Precious and Abu, struggles from day to day to maintain hope, find food for her family, and survive repeated beatings and rapes at the hands of relatives and strangers alike.

Davis seems to effortlessly switch back and forth between the psyches of Adanna, whose life seems a living hell occasionally punctuated with great moments of hope and grace visited upon her by the “illuminated man,” and Stuart, who is struggling with demons of his own: a penchant to drink too often, a marriage that is on the brink of collapse, and a career that may have seen its peak already. The chapters alternate between the narratives of the two main characters, told in the first person. It is through the lips of his characters that Davis educates and challenges his readers.

Several times throughout the book different characters express their hope that their actions will make a difference in just one life. If that is all the difference that is made, then it is difference enough. It is clear that Davis believes in the power of the individual to effect lasting change. This repeated mantra of the power of the individual could stray into romanticism if not for Davis intentional injecting of big picture problems. He variously focuses on systemic corruption in government, appalling social mores, and greed among relief agencies as much larger problems that perpetuate a climate in which Adannas are all too common.

The book reaches a climax when a flash flood tears through Adanna and Pastor Walter’s village. As Stuart and Gordon stand by, bodies of women and children are being carried away in the torrent. Stuart risks his own life to dive into the raging river and save a small girl, while Tagoze loses his to save the child’s mother. When rescue crews finally arrive, they mill about on the shore, debating what to do:

     Even though I don’t understand them, I can tell the rescuers are confused. They’re firing questions and suggestions back and forth, and the villagers are joining in the discussion.

     “What are they saying?” Adanna is sitting next to me with her legs crossed.

     “A man in blue is saying, ‘How long do we wait before the rescue begins?’ And a villager is saying, ‘You have waited long enough, now go ahead.’ Then the man in blue says, ‘But wouldn’t it be better for the river to slow down first?’ And the man in the white shirt is saying, ‘No, that would mean we wait for days!’ He is angry.” (loc.1788)

I couldn’t help but think what a great metaphor the flood makes for the AIDS epidemic still sweeping through many African nations. It kills indiscriminately, taking innocent women and children away in its unrelenting current. Meanwhile would-be rescuers huddle on the banks of their opulance arguing about when to step in and do something. Too often we are those men in blue shirts. The flood rages while we debate the cause of the rain.

In the end, the reader is left feeling the same sense of tension that Davis himself must feel in his work with Children’s HopeChest. On the one hand is the enormous amount of need, injustice, and corruption. On the other hand is the impact that the compassion and generosity of one individual can have upon another. Many Christians focus on one to the expense of the other. I find that I have a tendency to get wrapped up in the former and often the overwhelming scope of the problem causes me to feel jaded and cynical about what little impact my actions could have. Others will focus so much on their ability to provide “a cup of cold water” to those in need that they do little to recognize, much less change, the systemic wrongs that slap that water out of the hands of the thirsty. Davis reminds us, through the words of Gordon, that we need to attend to both,

“I’m not saying there isn’t value in helping an individual child. It’s critically important. My point is that you have to juggle two realities–the big picture and the small one. If you lose sight of the big one, you might just miss opportunities to help in small ways.” (loc. 1411)

Living in a consumer-oriented culture, we don’t often look at the big picture. Our gaze is myopically narrow, rarely extending beyond our own bank accounts. As Christians of great means and great opportunity, we tend to read the Bible in a way that reinforces our self-centeredness. When struck by Christ’s command to Peter to feed his sheep, we quickly counter with Christ’s admonition to Judas that the poor will always be with us. We attempt to soften Christ’s teachings on wealth by appealing to them as metaphoric parable, not meant to be taken seriously, or contextualized history unsuited for direct application in the 21st century. We go to great lengths to reduce our discomfort in our devotionals. So what are we to do with passages that memorialize selling one’s goods to give to the poor? And what are we to do with books like Scared?

What is important here is tension, not balance. There are big picture battles to be fought and small picture lives to be saved. You cannot effectively address the one without the other. As I am finding in my life and in my research, so much the Christian life is about tension. Ours is not a quest for equilibrium but for dynamism. Shalom is the pursuit of relationships that are just, harmonious and enjoyable, in a word, dynamic. Davis’ book, like his life, is rooted in telling the stories of the pursuit of shalom, of lives that are truly dynamic, which begs the question, “What story is your life telling?”

Anderson Campbell

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  • Michael Ratliff

    Eddie, the big/small picture duality creates tremendous challenge for the church as a whole. It is a reflection of the individuality/community dichotomy where we often struggle in the church. A connectional denomination multiplies that challenge because there is the individual/congregational/regional/national/denominational characteristics of the dilemma. In truth, it is the challenge of ecumenism. How do we – The Church – utilize/mobilize the collective gifts and resources available to us to transform our world into a place of shalom? How do we balance freedom and initiative and individuality with the common good of all? Big Questions! And the essence of the Gospel, for it only in Christ that we will move from the myopic views of individualism to the kingdom view required to experience transformation transcending self-gratification all all levels where it exists to living in shalom where all have what they need and share what they have providing for a true actualization of God’s creation. Wow! Glimpses of glory are pretty awesome! #dmingml