Glimmers of Hope, By Mark Burke
A Zambian Economist Review
I have always been intrigued as to why young Westerners leave behind their “wealthy habitation” to traverse around the globe in the name of the poor. We have seen it. From rioting on the streets of Doha to working in places as hostile as Eastern Congo. It is hard to resist the questions. What drives these young people? Is it some bizarre “quest of pity”? Is it religious humanism? Is it an inbred superiority to help “noble savages”? Is it failed hopes in their homeland? Is it lack of opportunities to serve the suffering poor in the west? It is these questions that drove me to pick up Mark Burke’s Glimmers of Hope. I wanted to understand some of the underlying motivations for their action. The other reason is linked to timing. In recent times we have seen a number of negative foreign commentaries by many young people visiting Zambia, culminating in the infamous A God in Zambia, where a mysterious visitor to Zambia offers a terrible indictment of our people. Glimmers of Hope provides an ideal cross check from a credible source.
Glimmers of Hope is a story of how a British school teacher left the comfort of London and relocated to Chassa Secondary School in Eastern Province for two years. Burke penned the book partly as a recollection of his memories, to go on record so to speak, and to reflect on the economic and social problems facing Zambia, as seen through the prism of his two year experience. Consequently, the book naturally oscillates between narrative and analytical accounts. Equally important is that this is Burke’s first outing as a self described “aspiring author”. What Burke lacks in writing experience however, he makes up through offering a fresh, honest and in-depth account of his Zambian experiences.
Burke is honest from the on-set that going to Zambia was not a long held dream. Rather, it was an outworking of a complex set of events that emerged from personal loneliness following a relationship breakdown with his girlfriend. Forced with the fracture, he turned to look for satisfaction elsewhere. There are many temples that house those who seek solace, from drugs and promiscuity to Avatarian pantheism, for Burke the sedative turned out to be Chassa secondary school, a school with long missionary history. What follows in the book are some interesting observations about our society that every Zambian would do well to ponder.
A major theme permeating Glimmers of Hope is an apparent culture of “begging”. From the moment Burke’s feet touched down he was confronted with the begging bowl. There was a general attitude among the people he came across that because he was European he had plenty of cash, even though he repeatedly made it clear he was merely a volunteer. The "lack of shame" in begging was particularly shocking. Indeed, where he felt compelled to give he often found that people would merely squander the money on non-productive and often addictive things. In one emotional chapter he laments: “The only niggling problem I had was that I was being increasing bothered for money, often several times a day by teachers, pupils and even random people in the community. It seemed “Ask and ye Shall Receive” was the most popular quote from the Bible here”. To many Zambians abroad, this is only too familiar. What is interesting is that what we as Zambians often consider as part of the "hand we have been dealt", outsiders may be better placed to point out that this is not a "normal" way to live as a society. Burke's point is that there's nothing inevitable or indeed acceptable about begging.
The surprising culprit in Burke's assessment is Zambia’s Christianity. For a long time many people have prided themselves that Zambia is a Christian nation. The above quote from Burke however tells a different story. Not only have Zambians have embraced a strange dependent form of Christianity, external reflections as penned by Burke also helps to point to a deeper crisis at the heart of Zambia’s Christianity. Throughout the book important questions are raised regarding the paradox of a supposedly God fearing nation gripped by quite sinful activities which perpetuate under-development. In one incident Burke recounts being begged by a church leader who wanted a beer: “ To be so shamelessly begged by a well dressed church goer [woman] was a surprise to me, and I should have reflected on it more and what it said about Christianity in Zambia” [page 20]. Similar incidents of this double standard are recounted in Glimmers of Hope ranging from rampant polygamy, tribalism, poor attitude towards HIV and AIDs and corruption. He right asks how consistent these things are with a “Christian Nation”.
Nothing perhaps demonstrates this negative culture than the various reflections offered on the docility of the Zambian people and the general tendency towards low expectations. As many Zambians have searched for answers on why the nation is so poor, a line of thinking has developed among largely diaspora Zambian intellectuals, that we are a people that wait for things to be done before we do it. In this line of argumentation, Zambians are generally very lazy people lacking the “protestant ethic for hard work” or often suffer humiliation from extreme poverty – a sort of self emptiness. Glimmers of Hope is not as pointed in this respect, but does offer similar frustrations. In a discussion on poor safety conditions on the road and the significant number of lives lost, Burke painfully concludes “the frustrating thing for me was to see Zambians accept this. [lives lost], as they did many avoidable tragedies, with a kind of fatalism as though it was inevitable. Yet there was nothing inevitable about it all. The drivers drover like lunatics and were frequently drunk”.
There’s much of truth in some these observations, especially with respect to the shabby Christianity that pervades much of Zambia. It is hard to speak of a “Christian nation” when much of the practical reality appear at odds with the true gospel. If Zambia really has embraced the true gospel, why is there so much corruption? Why are many of our people living on less than $1 a day when there are many resources around? While people in leadership enjoy lavish trips abroad and the best medical facilities we see that many of our people suffer daily from social injustice. The voices of the weak are suppressed and cries of mothers are never heard again thanks to the scourge of HIV and many other diseases ravaging our rural areas. The Christian message is that God holds us ultimately responsible for the welfare of our neighbours. The declaration of Zambia as a Christian nation, though having some intellectual basis remains morally at variance with reality.
A little more complicated are Burke's observations around begging. It is correct that begging is extremely rampant in Zambia. Poverty has destroyed our culture and turned respectable individuals into professional beggars. However, it is my view that the level of begging is not worse than that found in Europe. The type of begging is different in Europe, but the scale is probably the same. Many western countries, including Burke’s United Kingdom, are full of people on the welfare system (socialised begging). The difference is that welfare systems in western nations preserves the dignity of the poor by developing a system in which they are helped. If these people are not supported they would literally be on the streets. Burke appeared shocked by begging only because in London he gave the poor the handouts through the tax system.
When we turn to the analytical aspects, we find similar nuances largely absent. The observations around population country are perhaps emblematic of the general analytical deficiencies. In one chapter Burke adopts the western stereotype of poverty that characterises African poverty as essentially caused by over breeding: “A.G Zulu had produced a staggering 15 children and seemed damned proud of it. This of course produced tremendous problems when it came to paying secondary school fees. In the wider context of society the problems were obvious but Zambians would not accept that overpopulation caused poverty”. This is antiquated thinking which also confuses cause and effect. Whether European countries are rich because they had smaller families or have smaller families because they are rich is an empirical question. What is clear is that very few econometricians think causality runs in the direction suggested by Burke. More importantly, for Zambia the challenge is how to develop a population policy that is consistent with the development needs of Zambia. This must take into account the sparsely populated nature of the country and the abundant natural resources we have to foster long term sustainable economic growth. In my view given the geographical challenges a larger population should rightly be viewed as a critical resource and catalyst a in the quest for greater innovative capacity, technological advancement and socio-economic development. I certainly do not think it is an "economic bad" that needs to be "corrected".
In general, though I appreciated Burke's honesty, Glimmers of Hope sadly comes across as largely negative. There's more despair than hope. Indeed Burke’s only glimmer of hope is an HIV/Aids organisation that is seeking to break the taboo around the subject. It appears to have demonstrated the drive for self - help and willingness to make a difference, which Burke believes ultimately holds the key for changing Zambia. That may well be true, unfortunately this is neither here nor there because the positive message drowns in the veiled narrative. As bad as the Zambian predicament appears, it is inescapable that the real story is even more painful - that of a young man overcome with deep loneliness who unfortunately thought he would find comfort in the strangest of places - but in the end grows even more bitter by it. Nothing perhaps reflects this sadness than the paragraph towards the end : “in the end the bitterness that I would take with me was due to the realisation that no matter how long I stayed here, no matter what I did, I would always be viewed as an outsider because of the colour of my skin” (pg 279)”. It is hard to accept that Zambians are racist. Could this is simply be the classic case of a lonely young man who was unprepared for the challenges that faced him? Would a Burke visiting Zambia out of love for our people have had the same conclusions? Like many areas,unfortunately these too are questions not explored by Glimmers of Hope.
Update (March 17) : Author's Response
Mark Burke has helpfully responded to the review. Response below :
I want to thank you for a serious and thoughtful review of my book. I hope it provokes debate on development issues and otherwise, despite my relative inexperience in economics.
It is inevitable when penning a memoir that there will be some 'catharsis', and when i wrote this book I had a lot to get off my chest. I hope this does not detract from what were also positive experiences ( I will always have fond as well as mixed memories of Zambia )that may not have been penned because I saw them as less urgent than the challenges facing Zambia.
I was also interested as to what you think of the role of Aid agencies and what I would say is their complicity ( by neglect or other ) with much mismanagement in Zambia ?
Wednesday, 17 March 2010
Glimmers of Hope, By Mark Burke (A Review)
Glimmers of Hope, By Mark Burke