Sunday, November 23, 2014

Do They Know It's Christmas?

Last Tuesday, my class at the Africa Theological Seminary presented their group papers.  One of the groups presented splendidly on how charity has hurt Africa and they articulated their position in a way that made this teacher heart proud.

That evening, I received a posting from my former colleague, Jeff Bloem, regarding the organization BandAid putting out a remix of an old song, Do They Know It's Christmas? to raise money for Ebola.  The leader for this movement, Bob Geldof, is someone that we discuss in class as an example of how NOT to do aid.  He is quoted as saying, "We have to do something, even if it doesn't work."  No, Bob.  We must use our head as much as our heart and do the right thing.  Sometimes helping hurts.  And if it hurts, it is not the right thing to do.

So wincing, I went to the website and saw the words of the song.  Sigh.  Fears were confirmed.

First of all, the title is demeaning.  Of course they know it's Christmas.  Liberia is a Christian country and all three countries hardest hit by Ebola have Christmas as a public holiday.  Secondly, they treat the continent of Africa as a country. It is a continent of 55 countries, 1000 ethnic groups, 2000 languages and dialects, and is geographically bigger than China, the US and Europe combined!  Third, the lyrics say of Africa “where nothing ever grows, no rain or rivers flow” and “where the only water flowing is the bitter sting of tears.” Wow.  So one billion people should just give up and wait for the aid to come.  Nothing ever grows.  Are you sure, Bob Geldof et al?  Never mind that Africa is the world's richest continent in terms of natural resources.  Never mind that the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zambia, and Zimbabwe have enough agricultural potential to feed the entire continent of Africa! Fourth, these lyrics:
There’s a world outside your window, and it’s a world of dread and fear
Where a kiss of love can kill you, and there’s death in every tear
And the Christmas bells that ring there are the clanging chimes of doom.
Death in every tear? The percentage of the population in Liberia with Ebola is 0.2% (Sierra Leone - 0.1%; Guinea - 0.02%).  I point this out not to undermine the seriousness of Ebola, but do they have to be so very dramatic and manipulative of the audience?  Can they use their brain in this?

There just doesn't seem to be much of an excuse for how insulting this is, especially in this day and age, where it only takes two seconds of a Google search to come up with a more correct view of Africa.  I was embarrassed in front of my students for how insulting "my people" are (and yes, all white people apparently are my people) and I had to apologize (again). I encouraged them to get angry and speak out - to let people know that this type of aid is not welcome.  We welcome those who want to come alongside those in need but to engage their heart and their head and not damage the image of one billion people in the process.

If you are friends with me on Facebook, you saw my rant about this already.  I have copied one of the responses to this song below, because in the midst of my anger, it made me laugh.  And it really is better to laugh, because very close behind the laughter is tears, brought on by outrage and the continued misrepresentation and mistreatment of so many - often in the name of Christianity and good intentions.

Having watched the video, I have a number of questions. For instance:

  1. Do Bob Geldof & Co. know that 87% of Liberians are Christian, as are substantial minorities in Guinea and Sierra Leone?
  2. If so, why does the song spend so much time asking if they "know it's Christmastime at all"?
  3. How many Africans need to learn about Christmas in order to cure Ebola?
  4. Can learning about other holidays also cure disease?
  5. Could knowing that it's Columbus Day cure malaria?
  6. How can you be so sure?
  7. Well have you run a randomized controlled trial on the anti-viral properties of holiday knowledge?
  8. Why are they singing "it's Christmastime" in early November?
  9. Is it possible that Bob Geldof & Co. are the ones who are having difficulty pinning down the existence and timing of Christmas?
  10. Did they get their calendar information from the same source that told them that there is "death in every tear" in West Africa?
  11. Shouldn't they know that there is death in, at most, a fraction of a percentage of all tears, once infection and survival rates are taken into account?
  12. Why didn't the song's writers feel an obligation to be more accurate in their lyrics?
  13. Because it's art? Really?
  14. Hahahahaha, no really why?
  15. Why did the song's producer respond to measured criticism from a Liberian academic by angrily asking if she wanted people to "sit back and do nothing?"
  16. Is he under the impression that the only available options for Ebola relief are "produce and market a stereotype-laden pop song that offends the people it's supposed to be helping" or "do nothing"?
  17. Is anyone else growing increasingly curious about where these guys get their information?
  18. Has anyone told them that Wikipedia is a thing?
  19. Or, you know, Oxfam?
  20. Speaking of which, where is the money from this campaign actually going?
  21. The Band Aid website just says "all proceeds from the Band Aid 30 competition will be donated to the intervention and prevention of the spread of Ebola"; doesn't that seem a little unspecific?
  22. Can't they tell us the actual charity?
  23. Could they give us a hint?
  24. Even if we promised to keep it a secret?
  25. Please?
What is sad is that it is one thing for these artists to be so ignorant and insulting about Africa.  But it's quite another to note that this song sold $1.7 million in the first four or five minutes.  Does that mean that so many people are really this ignorant?  Or maybe they just don't care but want to feel good about doing something?  Or maybe they want to care about Ebola but don't really care about the manner that the people dealing with Ebola are cared for?

"The important thing to remember is that compassion is not simply vehement expression of a point of view. The compassionate person has to consider the practical effects of what he is giving." (Theodore Dalrymple, Author Life at the Bottom)

If you want to help in the fight against Ebola and want to give to a ministry that uses its head and heart, consider giving to ICM.  Go to  

And now, because I believe every blog should have pictures, let me share with you a couple of pictures from yesterday.  I had the opportunity to preach at the East Africa Christian Reformed Church of Sande, which is close to Kitale, Kenya.  I think this is the first real CRC church that I have visited in Africa (the CRC in Liberia didn't really count since they only said they were CRC because the Reeds were CRC).  This church had a pastor who graduated from Calvin Seminary in 1984, they recited the Apostles Creed (in Swahili) and sang songs I knew (except in Swahili :) ).  It was great to be with them and we hope to engage them more on Church-based Business as Mission.  

A small, rural church who is passionate for Christ!
The leaders of four CRCs in Western Kenya.  The pastor of this particular CRC is to the right of me.  Two of the pastors in this picture have gone through the ToT for Church-based Business as Mission and we hope they will start training soon.
As a gift for preaching in the Luhya tradition, I am given a live chicken, bananas and a cabbage.  Poor thing had to stay tied in my car for a number of hours as I was busy all day, but he survived!