The challenge of sponsoring African scholars
Surely as many times as I have traveled from the United States to Africa since 1996 I have seen the view from above the Sahara Desert, so why can I not remember it? Why is the memory stuck in my mind this time such that I want to capture it forever? Why did I doubt what I was seeing? Surely that’s clouds I speculated, or perhaps water? We’re flying fast so how could the Sahara keep going on and on and on? I know, Africa is big, really big; 52 countries I think. The sub-Saharan side is the only part I’ve ever seen. With my steady and fun companion Peggy we have visited repeatedly seven of these countries together since the late 1990s.
Since 2000, we have represented African Scholarship Exchange including southern, eastern and western Africa. I explain all this because for non-resident Westerners, we have combined lots and lots of stories, some getting bigger than life as the years go on, but seriously our reports are based on combined personal experience with those of our hosts and friends who care for us each place we go.
When new friend Francis sat with us on the ground picnic style at lunch during the Reformed Baptist Convention last week and told us he’d been married three times, we were both quite shocked. How can that be? You’re a pastor, we thought. He went on to explain, “Wife number one died from bleeding to death in the hospital where she was recovering from malaria but must have gotten dizzy and hit her head. No one was there to help her. They’d only been married 2 1/2 years. She left him with one baby to raise. So, he married again. Wife number two threw a blood clot after giving birth to his second child, leaving him with two children. Thankfully, Francis is happily married with two more children today, and this wife has embraced the first two as tenderly as the two she has birthed.
Why this story? I think it illustrates how vastly different the perspectives we bring to the table of discussion, when we visit the world of Africa and why we find it essential to partner with churches in carrying out this vision of providing partial tuition scholarships for advanced education in whatever countries in Africa God opens up.
So far we have helped people in 19 countries, and on this trip we met Namibians who asked, “Will you come help us? The emotional response to that is a resounding yes, but the rational answer is a bit more tempered. Faith for a Christian always looks to God while seeking wisdom and direction as to how we can do it.
Over and over in all the countries we have visited we’ve shared the “ASE metaphor,” the story of three cooking stones. The story goes like this: In order to feed those under their care, women use traditional cooking stones on which to rest the pot. The fire is maintained at the right temperature, the ingredients carefully selected to satisfy the needs and tastes of the people they feed, and the amount of time for cooking is carefully watched. So it is with ASE. The “cooking stones” are: 1. The church / actually for us this has to be the most important one in that Jesus said he was building His kingdom on the church - the other stones actually support the church, but that’s taking our picture way too literally; 2. The educational institution chosen by church and student; 3. ASE The pot is the student. All three “stones” carefully add ingredients into the pot, making sure that the “pot” stays on the fire the right amount of time, at the right temperature. In the end, the “meal” is ready. With this method, many, many more are fed than ASE and the church have financially invested in. This story resonates with the people, thus we repeat it to all who have never heard of the concepts ASE uses to do ministry.
In Kenya our strongest “cooking stones” are alumni who are staying connected. We even had on this trip two alumnae who traveled over seven hours to be with us. We’ve distributed alumni surveys among our former students as we seek information on how to improve what we do. We had excellent meetings with alumni, current students and prospective ones asked to attend by the university representative who thought them worthy of taking note of.
But in Zambia, the highlight of that part of the trip was visiting with our main church partner, Kabwata Baptist Church. The timing of our arrival was in the middle of the annual conference put on by the Reformed Baptist of Zambia. Over 1,500 were in attendance. What a privilege to hear excellent messages on relevant topics and be invited to address pastors and church leaders from all over that large country. The Q&A showed what insightful questions they had and how much they were grasping what we do. This approach requires much commitment from the church. They could probably find “easier money” with different agencies, but somehow it seems to energize them to feel so included and respected by ASE.
Relational ministry is “messy” as we can easily see by looking into our own families. But who among us doesn’t think families are worth the trouble? So it is by ASE either taking regular trips to Africa or inviting some of our alumni and students to visit us. Relationships, however, are not limited to those seeking help. Here’s an example. One day at the conference, Peggy and I were eating our lunch balanced on our lap while sitting under a large tent when a lady pulled up a chair to chat with us. “Mrs. Lumpa” she told us was her name. Because we were just Peggy and Val, we asked her if that was common to introduce yourself that way. She assured us it was. But as we talked, another lady joined our small circle. Mrs. Lumpa introduced us to her friend, Martha. “Martha?” we asked. “Why is she Martha, but you are Mrs. Lumpa?” She then told us her given name but her explanation of why she hadn’t earlier told us still escapes us. This interaction was full of laughter and warmth, and made it so much easier to feel a connection with Martha when several days later we saw her at church.
The Sahara Desert represents the opposite of our experience in Africa. It reveals sameness, heat, lack of much growth and an area creeping southward. What we found was lots of growth personally and a hope for more for the ministry in the future. “Our” Africa was green, cool and full of life. We have been enriched by having the opportunity of representing African Scholarship Exchange once again.
Val Vickery is co-founder of the African Scholarship Exchange in Jackson.