A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
“Today, Mr. David, I think you will find is a very special day for you. Please. Enjoy what we have prepared for you.”
I hate photography in Africa. It is extremely difficult. In Africa, there is rarely a decent cloud in the sky, and you can’t rely on pollution of smog or haze to diffuse the bright light of the sun. I, like most photographers, use the automatic features of my camera to take light readings along focus points in order to adjust the camera automatically. With the lighting conditions of Africa, especially the direct sunlight, photography becomes very difficult. If the meter takes a reading on a focus point in a shadow of the sun, then the camera opens the aperture and shutter speed and the picture becomes extremely washed out. If the meter takes a reading on a focus point in the direct sun, the camera closes the aperture and shutter speed and the picture becomes extremely dark.
This is further complicated by the fact that in Africa, I am mostly shooting black people… er… I think that came out wrong… I meant to write… that I am mostly taking pictures of black people. (O.K. That sounds better.) Their dark complexion is beautiful if you can open up the camera and let their skin tones come out, but when you do that, everything the background becomes over exposed and washed out. But if you adjust the camera so that the background light is properly adjusted, the dark skin of the African people absorb the light, and leaves the picture looking like shining white teeth and eyes emerging from the silhouette of a human being.
I hate photography in Africa. But even at that, today was one of my most successful photography shoots. It was successful because, for a brief while, I was able to find the light. If you have downloaded Google Earth onto your computer, you can view my pictures of St. Bernard’s parish by clicking here.
My God… Rome is burning… and all I can seem to talk about is the use of lighting techniques in digital photography. But maybe I’d rather talk about photography than the real issues I had to face today.
“I want you to know, that right now I am thirsty. We have had this wonderful gathering in your honor Mr. David, we have had wonderful food, and I do not want to end our time together, but I have to let you know that right now I am thirsty… and there is no water. We have drunk all that we have brought, and there is no more until the government turns the water back on. I want you to remember that about Zimbabwe.”
How can I forget? And the lights at that moment the electricity returns, and the florescent bulbs cast their green light against strong orange of the setting sun. At a parish this evening, the youth have gathered for the most intense sharing session I have had in Zimbabwe. They are brutally honest with me.
“We want freedom of speech. We want to be able to say what is on our mind without the fear of the police coming and taking us away.”
“We want freedom for our religious beliefs, that we could be Catholic and not fear that others will consider us traders to foreign colonist.”
“I want a country in which I can buy books for my children to go to school.”
“We want an economy that works so that we can have a job.”
It is funny. Everywhere I have gone, not a single individual has ever asked me for money, for a free handout, or for a free ride. Why then, do American Charities perpetuate the myth that your $100 check to give food to a starving African is really doing some good? People don’t want hand outs, they want a job. Food provides sustenance, but a job provides both sustenance and dignity. Sure, I have run into parishes or organizations who have asked me for financial support for specific projects, but I have not had a single person who wanted my charity, only my partnership.
“There is a saying in our culture that goes, ‘He who is harmonious with himself, is harmonious with the universe.’ I think we have seen that Mr. David is in harmony with himself, and seeking that we would be in harmony with each other. He has faced the fear of boarding a plane after September 11 to be with us. Other white men have come to exploit the Zimbabwe people and land, but he has come to be with us, as our brother.”
I guess I never realized how much the Zimbabwe culture really seeks harmony. I wrote about this two days ago. Harmony is built into the very architecture of the society. But after five days of listening to young people’s starving pain for justice, I realized something. Not one single person has ever spoken the name Mugabe to me.
They will blame him, and blame his government. They recognize that their president is a tyrant. They joke that there are two HIVs in Zimbabwe. The first affects one quarter of the adult population. It is called the Human Immunodeficiency Virus. The second one affects the government. It is called the Human Inflation Virus. The people of Zimbabwe will insinuate details so specific that it is clear that the only person to whom they could be referring is President Mugabe. But even at that, they will never, ever say his name. The Zimbabwean people call this harmony, I call it fear.
As the evening continues, I am extremely privileged to have groups of youth dance and sing in my honor. Every now and then in my life, I get a glimpse of what I believe heaven is going to look and sound like. I think a lot of Americans and Europeans believe that heaven is going to include a lot of fluffy white angels with harps. I think heaven is going to call to delight in the rich harmony of African people inviting the universe to sing with eminent ethereal radiance.
It is very humbling to have a feast laid out before you in your honor. At the end of the day, I return to the Marienhill Provinciate, where I have been staying this past week with the Marienhill fathers. I start to pack my bags, and I feel anything but harmonious. To be honest, I’m extremely frustrated. I don’t want to pack my bags. I want to throw them across the room. I compromise and punch them as I stuff my dirty laundry in the dirty backpack I’ve carried half way around the world. I’m going to leave these people, and they are going to stay. They are the ones who will have to live with the power cuts, the water shortages, and the fear of a tyrant’s rule. If civil war or genocide breaks out, their lives are the ones that will be lost, not mine. They are stuck with the hopelessness, while I go on to meet with the comfortable and complacent in meeting rooms and lecture halls across the world where I will try to convince them that their life is more than the brand and age of the single malt Scotch that they drink.
I open up a package from Inviolata. She has given me a wooden cross necklace. It was made in Zimbabwe. It has a circular parameter, a sign that this cross represents the Zimbabwean culture. It is a reminder to always seek harmony. It is hand made, by a Zimbabwean. Will that Zimbabwean live? Does anyone even care if he does or not?
Tonight, I had to explain something very difficult to a Zimbabwe young man who asked me a question. He asked why I thought that the State Department of the United States would actively discourage U.S. citizens from visiting Zimbabwe. Why would the United States have such a negative impression of country when there really are so many good people? Why does the United States ignore what is going on here?
I gave two reasons. The first, “Because Zimbabwe is so far away from the United States that it is hard to get good, clear information. We just don’t understand what is going on.” The second, (I held my breath for a second wondering if I would have the courage to say the truth.) “The second reason is because you are black. You also have no oil. Somehow my country’s policies have determined that makes you… unimportant.” The taste of my own dissatisfaction melts over my clenched jaw.
To me, there is a similarity between the difficulty I have with taking photography in Africa and the material I read and write about Zimbabwe. The polarization is so severe, that there is a tendency to focus on the deep shadows of the picture and overexpose the entire picture or do exactly the opposite and underexpose the entire picture. It usually happens when we run on automatic pilot, and fail to commit ourselves to understanding the subtle nuances of a beautiful people, who are cast in the midst of crisis. Be wary of such polarization.
I have never meant to communicate that Zimbabwe is so bad that people don’t laugh and smile. They do. I have shared a great number of wonderful human moments of laughter and joy around tables filled with plentiful food. I have also lamented with people whose greatest concern tonight will be how they will get enough money to get transport to work tomorrow. If they don’t solve the problem, they could lose their already tenuous job.
I hate photography in Africa, but despite my hatred, let me acknowledge that, for a few moments today, I found the light. I found the exact reflections of sunlight that enabled me to take the pictures I wanted to take. For those few moments everything was clear. Everything worked well.
The challenge for Zimbabwe, and for those of us who seek to be in solidarity with their plight, is to find the light. The polarization is so intense, it can be difficult to find balance. But I think, deep in the very heart of our faith, there is a light shining that unites me with the people of Zimbabwe and their dignity. I believe that everyone of us can choose to find that same light, and live in solidarity with the people of Zimbabwe.
“I am the light of the world.” Jesus tells us in the gospel of John.A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.