Margaret’s Heart of Africa

DSCN2836We were staying at a nice tourist hotel in Arba Minch, Ethiopia near the Nechisar National Park that borders Lake Abaya in the great Rift Valley. High cinderblock walls topped with broken glass and concertina wire surrounded pleasant little duplex bungalows in which we stayed. It was a nice hotel. My room had a sit-down toilet in one corner and a large bucket beside a garden hose, which I could use to fill the bucket to flush the toilet. There was also a large dipper that I could use to ladle water from the bucket and pour over me in case I wanted to take a shower (and I did, because it was kind of hot). As I maneuvered the mosquito netting around my bed, I was pleased to catch the scent of pyrethroids that meant an added layer of protection from malaria-carrying mosquitos. Here people still die from diseases that for us no longer pose a problem—malaria, measles, typhoid, even polio, that we (until recently) had eradicated.

In the morning about 5am, out of a very loud, statisticy, speaker came the strains of a strange and (after I got over my initial annoyance of being awakened at such an hour) almost magical singing. It was coming from a nearby Ethiopian Church. It went on for nearly an hour, but I didn’t mind because it was so other. So foreign and different. I drank it up. I knew my chances to hear such again after we left in a couple of days would be slim.


After breakfest, we drove up to the cattle region in the hills west of Arba Minch. We were going to pour pesticides directly onto the cattle in hopes of saving their lives and the lives of the people that relied on them. The tsetse fly had popped into places in the nearby valleys normally free of the beast (they are very sensitive to temperature and humidity) but because of the warming of the continent (Americans have not had the dramatic effects Africa has seen with Climate Change until recently with the droughts in the west and the enough energy in the system to pull the polar vortex down into New England).

I was going up with an international team of observers, but the initiative was being run by Ethiopian veterinarians, entomologists, and other local scientists. It was a long drive on bad roads, but at last we reached the staging ground. People from miles around had come on foot driving their livestock before them in order to get their cattle treated. The parasite the fly carries is often called the poverty fly because it nukes human health and destroys livestock throughout a large swath of the African Continent.


Killing the livestock does not just mean the loss of fresh meat, it means the inability to grow crops because nearly all of the land in much of this area is cultivated with oxen used to provide the traction to till the soil. I saw not a single tractor in Ethiopia, and I saw hundreds (And I mean that literally) of people plowing with oxen.

The people gathered there with their livestock were delighted to get their cattle treated. It was vital to their economic and personal survival. A vastly different world than my friends shopping at Fresh Market for safely packaged and grown organic foods, and the other opportunities that western privilege affords.


There is a saying that I’ve heard from Senegal (where I work now) to Ethiopia, “Everything is hard in Africa,” and yet what strikes me is how people from all over Africa rise to that challenge and face that hardness. Take Ebola. It’s being beaten. It’s been beaten with good science, hard work, and people dedicated to making their world a better place with the best information they have. I contrast this with a fellow I know from our local gym, who was absolutely certain Ebola was going to become airborne and create a Walking Dead-level apocalypse. He bought hazmat suits, gas masks, and such to survive the coming Ebola breakout that had been fueled by entertainment news. “Just you wait.” He kept telling me. I waited, and what I saw was Africans beating back a plague that had sent some Americans into paroxysms of circle running and embracing superstitions over science in imaginary fears. (I find the anti-science movement so concerning because if it continues to spread one hundred years from now I expect to see African scientists coming to America to help us overcome the plagues and droughts we suffer because of our embrace of superstition).

We need to understand this African resilience. I’ve never seen a group of people that daily fight battles against such odds. We need to understand for our sakes, not theirs. We sometimes have a paternal, colonial attitude thinking they need us to pull them up to the point they can have Fresh Market produce in their stores. But this is wrong. They face challenges of history and climate that we have not, but they will solve those problems. Themselves. Watch and see. Africa will save Africa.

I remember once in Senegal I was traveling with veterinarian inspecting roadside stands selling meat. The son of one of the proprietors ran up to me and asked, in fairly good English (French and Wolof are the main languages of Senegal) if I was American (How in the heck, everywhere I go I get pegged as an American I’ll never know. No one ever thinks I’m a Brit or an Aussie or even a German—weird). After I confirmed that I was, he said with great pride, “I’m going to go to John Hopkins in America to study economics.” I was taken back. I looked at him and said, “I believe you.” I knew he faced a zillion obstacles that I could not even begin to imagine, yet he obviously had learned English and had a dream. And because I knew African spirit, I did believe him.
We need to embrace our African ancestry (and as we know from genetics we are all African) and cultivate the resilient heart of Africa. Which brings me to the real purpose of this post (which is more than a rant about the emergence of the North American embrace of superstition).

We need to learn more about Africa. We need to understand what is happening there, so we can appreciate their way of being in the world, especially in light of our Church in Africa, where it is growing exponentially. I have a nephew serving in Ghana. He is learning much that will change the way he sees the world. He will come out fresh and new. Africa changes you, and there is no going back to looking at the world the same way. His stories are amazing. We need more stories. Stories to help ground us in richer realities and might help save us from the evils that privilege has thrust upon us.

Enter Margaret Young. One of Mormonism’s greatest storytellers and writers (And BCC Alumnus). She uses fiction to teach us truths about ourselves. Her work on black pioneers has been game changing. She has turned her attention to Africa, and I expect the result to be amazing.
Screen Shot 2015-02-18 at 7.43.49 PM
The Book of Mormon Musical was offensive. Not because it made fun of the church. I make fun of the church. Those things we love are the best things to view with humor, wit, and jesting. I thought the Book of Mormon Musical was offensive because of the embarrassingly western stereotypes with which it dealt with the Africans.

So Margaret is making a film to correct that view. She has written a marvelous screenplay that engages with genuine African experiences, people, places, and events. She is not doing this to save the Africans; she is doing this for members of this strangely American saturated church in order to help us see Africa in a richer palette of colors. To thwart our paternal attitudes and expressions, and to break up stereotypes. She has started a kick-starter to help fund her film. It is a worthy cause. Reach deep. Heaven knows we need to understand Africa better. Margaret, the magnificent storyteller she is, is about to knock your colonial socks off.

P.S. One more rant. Can we please add drums to our worship services in Africa? Really.


  1. Drums in worship services: A Zambian friend of mine told me that some church members around Lusaka go elsewhere after their LDS services so that they can do their drums. “Drums are sacred to us,” he said. I love everything Steve does. Thank you for this! I love the idea of “embracing our African ancestors.” Not far from what Aime Mbuyi told me about the revolutionary leader changing Catholic Mass to a call for the ancestors to “mingle” with them. And not far from much of what we do in the temple.

  2. Talk of “castrating” tsetse flies reminds me of the old joke about the Jewish samurai circumcising a gnat.

  3. The idea of drums in African LDS Church services is a great one. Drums are a very important part of African society and they should be integrated into our services there. Lets also ditch the white shirts, ties, and dark pants. The latter has an air of neo-colonialism.

  4. I backed the film on kickstarter and love the script! This is going to be great.

  5. There was a ward in our stake in South Africa that refused a piano or an organ for years and years…they preferred acapella. They sounded wonderful!

    I know of other people who were offended by the racism in the book of Mormon musical.

    Go Margaret!

  6. Wow. Thank you Steve P. All this time I’ve pictured Africa as the place riddled with superstition, and we/us (Westerners) as the scientific juggernauts. “Evils of privilege” indeed – conceit & laziness.

    Margaret – thank you for doing this! Someone mentioned loving the script – is it available for reading?

  7. Rulon has read the script because he will be doing music for the film. Otherwise, I want the audience to come ready for surprises. :)

  8. Dang. I secretly love spoilers. :)

    Oh, about drums in worship. I heard a fascinating TEDtalk by Andrew Solomon on depression. He talked about how Western mental health workers rushed into Rwanda right after the genocide & tried to help the survivors. The Rwandans were baffled by our methods and said something like, “Your ‘experts’ didn’t put people out in the sunlight, or have them dance and be with other people. There was no music or drumming to get their blood flowing again. Instead you take people one at a time into these dingy little rooms with no windows and have them sit around for an hour and talk about bad things that have happened to them. We had to ask them to leave the country.”

  9. Love that comment, Jen K. As Steve said, “Africa will save Africa.”

%d bloggers like this: